We’re always hearing about how women’s achievements and contributions to the world we live in are not properly recognised, let alone rewarded. Most of us have few opportunities to address the imbalance of rewards. But we can perhaps help by celebrating women who have made a difference to our lives and our possibilities. Scientists, advocates and activists for justice, stateswomen, women of action and those quietly getting on with the day-to-day business of helping young women see and realise their potential. Some who are or have been in the limelight and others who should be. Here are five of a list millions long.
Emilie du Châtelet
You know who Isaac Newton was and you probably know about Gottfried Leibniz. Then how is it that you’ve probably never heard of Emilie du Châtelet, their contemporary mathematician and physicist?
The Marquise du Châtelet very much admired Isaac Newton and her translation into French of his 1687 Principia Mathematica still serves as the standard French version. She stood up to challenge the established wisdom of the time to argue for his hypothesis about the true shape of the Earth. But her fundamental transformation of our understanding of the nature of energy and its relationship to mass and velocity puts all else in the shade. By dropping a ball of lead from different heights into a bowl of soft mud and measuring how much mud was displaced each time, she defined the essential formula: e = ½ mv2, on which Einstein based his famous equation, which opened the way to much of the innovation that powered the industrial revolutions.
A true pioneer of science, she stood her ground in the face of heated debates provoked by her philosophical magnum opus, Institutions de Physique (Foundations of Physics), translated into several other languages within two years of its 1740 publication. She also participated in the famous Vis viva debate about the best way to measure the force of a body and how to think about conservation principles.
It is a comment on society’s attitudes toward women like her that the Marquise du Châtelet’s achievements as a pre-eminent natural philosopher and mathematician are less well known than her personal life.
Born into family of lesser French nobility under the reign of Louis XIV, Emilie acquired the title of marquise through her arranged marriage to the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet-Lomont. Her anglicised name is thus Lady Chatterley. Her enlightened father had encouraged her education in mathematics, literature and science and the Marquis continued to encourage her scientific and philosophical pursuits. He was equally permissive of her many love affairs, the most enduring and the best known of which was with Voltaire. Even here, her courage and wisdom shine, together with Frederick the Great of Prussia, who also admired her talent, she protected Voltaire against the ire of French salons generated by his progressive ideas. So, in addition to her contribution to science, we also have Emilie du Châtelet to thank for making possible much of Voltaire’s contribution to modern moral and political thought.
Voltaire is celebrated as one of the greatest writers of all time – and incidentally a lover of Emilie du Châtelet.
So, why do we not say that Emilie du Châtelet is one of the great scientists of her age and, incidentally, Voltaire’s lover?
“Do you really think that four women being judged by four men is not, in itself intolerable and fundamental injustice? … Would you, Messieurs, accept being judged by four women about what you do with your bodies?”
Emilie du Châtelet would have benefitted from the services of Gisèle Halimi, born three centuries later, in 1927. The Marquise died in 1749, when she was only 42, from complications following the birth of an unplanned child. Gisèle Halimi might have helped the world by saving one of its finest minds.
Perhaps Gisèle Halimi was destined to be an extraordinary woman, having been born into a Jewish-Berber family in Tunis in 1927. As a lawyer she worked for causes she believed in. Those included the Algerian National Liberation Front, most notably in 1960, the activist Djamila Boupacha, who had been raped and tortured by French soldiers and Basque individuals during the conflict there. She also chaired the Russell Tribunal, established by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, to investigate and evaluate American military actions in Vietnam.
Most consequential, though, was her defence of the mother and three other women accused of helping a 17 year old procure an illicit abortion after having been raped. Her speech to the court in that case is still held to be one, if not the most eloquent and passionate, of arguments ever presented to a court in France.
To drive home her point, in 1971, she enlisted 343 prominent women to declare that they too had had abortions. Simone de Beauvoir, Catherine Deneuve, Marguerite Duras, Jeanne Moreau, Françoise Sagan, Sonia Rykiel, Violette Leduc and, of course, Giselle herself are among those who stood up. The result, in 1974, was one of the most progressive contraception and abortion reforms of its time. Giselle served as a legislator in the French National Assembly from 1981 to 1984 and then as French legate to UNESCO.
Halimi was a pioneer, not only for women’s right to choose, but also in exposing the hypocrisy and double standards that still blight arguments about women’s reproductive choices.
“There’s a special place in Hell for women who do not help other women.”
Born into a family of liberal Czechoslovakian diplomats, Madeleine Albright harnessed her experience and connections to help breach ‘glass ceilings’, especially in politics; the role model she represents continues to encourage millions of women to fulfil their potential. But her contribution goes much further: her early experiences were in a family that was targeted by an autocratic government for its democratic views, Madeleine Albright knows what she is talking about when she warns us of encroaching autocracy, notably in her 2018 book: Fascism: A Warning.
With her family, Madeleine Albright twice fled persecution by totalitarian governments, first to London when she was one year old, to escape encroaching fascism following the 1938 Munich Agreement and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia by Adolf Hitler’s troops. Then, in 1948, to the United States, after the Communist Party took over the Czechoslovakian government. Hardly surprising then that The Prague Spring and the role in it of journalists was the subject of her 1975 doctoral thesis at Columbia University.
From there she worked as a journalist before being called on in 1972 to work with Senator Ed Muskie, initially fundraising and later as chief legislative assistant. But her real work was in the democracy movements in eastern Europe and women’s place in politics. She took charge of the women’s programme in global politics at Georgetown University in Washington DC and briefed presidential candidate Michael Dukakis on foreign policy during his 1988 bid. President Clinton later engaged her in the transition to his incoming administration of the National Security Council, before appointing her as US Ambassador to the UN and then in her better known role as the first woman to serve as Secretary of State.
Still teaching international relations at Georgetown University in Washington DC, Madeleine Albright continues to inspire women everywhere.
Actions speak louder than words.
Madeleine Albright was already well on her way to a successful career in foreign affairs when, in the early 1990s, Kristalina Georgieva began her career at the World Bank as an environmental economist for Europe and Central Asia. That would eventually lead her to become, in 2019, the first person from an emerging country to serve as Managing Director of the World Bank.
Originally from Bulgaria, Kristalina Georgieva, broke ground both as a woman from an emerging country, but also in her work in environmental protection policy when the environment was a distinctly uncool subject.
In a progression of roles at the World Bank and as an EU Commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva applied proven, evidence based techniques and objective analysis to improve the lives of the most vulnerable, advance global understanding of the EU’s role in humanitarian actions, hence promoting its global soft power. The list of her achievements is long. Among other things, she injected some much needed seriousness to humanitarian endeavours, first by tripling funding for the refugee crisis in Europe, then introducing cash based assistance to help the needy rather than, as with most donors, to sending food and materials that distort local economies and serve the interests of rich country providers more than those of the needy. Recognising the often overlooked plight of children caught up in emergencies, she spearheaded the creation of the ‘EU Children of Peace’ initiative to direct funding in that direction. Under the direction of Kristalina Georgieva, the EU lead the world’s response to the Haiti earthquake and repeated the trick in Pakistani floods and the Chilean earthquake. With the creation of the Disaster Risk Management Knowledge Centre and the European Response Coordination Centre, she readied the EU to take the lead in future emergencies. Pushing for operations that demand civil-military cooperation is typical of her pragmatism that prioritises effectiveness over convention. The European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps is another Georgieva initiative.
While doing all that, Georgieva not only set the target for women to occupy 50 percent of senior management positions at the World Bank by 2020, but achieved it ahead of time in October 2018.
Achieving results and improving collaboration within and between giant, unwieldy bureaucracies is beyond most who try – and many don’t even try. Yet these are Kristalina Georgieva’s hallmark. With her pragmatic, practical and effective solutions, she shows that results in gender equality, environmental action and humanitarian operations can actually be achieved.
“You will have your name on a brass plate!”
Marjorie Smith is one of millions of unsung women who, over generations, helped and encouraged young women to achieve their potential and continue to do so.
As headmistress of St George Girls’ High School in the 1960s, a state secondary school in a suburb of Sydney, Marjorie Smith seasoned strict discipline with her own brand of gentle humour, guile, tact, compassion and sheer force of character to expand the horizons of thousands of young women in her charge during her years of service. She cajoled parents to ditch their counterproductive ideas of women’s education possibilities and to accept their responsibility in fulfilling them and browbeat bureaucrats into funding girls’ education, as they did for boys. In demanding equally high standards of the teachers who worked under her, she fostered enduring bonds between teachers and students.
Each of us was to aspire to have our name on a brass plate, meaning that, despite our mostly working class origins, we should one day enter the professions, as lawyer, doctor, professor and she got the joke when we named our school newspaper The Brass Plate. After all, she also knew how to mock, in the subtlest way, and be imaginative and resourceful.
How many times did she listen to the banal problems of adolescent girls, give us good, sound advice and lend a practical hand wherever it would make a difference? Not only that, she taught us the invaluable lessons of understanding and forbearance of those less capable than we were.
Pragmatic, progressive and compassionate, Marjorie Smith made you want to aim high.
Featured image by Anna Shvets on Pexels. Images depicted in this article are via Creative Commons License. Image of Emilie du Châtelet is a photographic reproduction and is therefore also considered to be in the public domain in the United States. For more information follow this link.