52 Weeks of Women – June
52 Weeks of women is a weekly series of posts allowing us to rediscover the important role that women have played in history. To find out a little more about what we are doing or why visit Introducing 52 Weeks of Women.
To continue our series, this month we bring you Rita Levi-Montalcini, Madam CJ Walker, Empress Theodora, Lillian Gilbreth and the Warrior Priestesses of Pokrovka. We hope that each post will prompt you to read more, and if you do we’d love you to share what you find out! Likewise, if you know of any women who you think should be included in our series, let us know.
As a child, Rita was inspired by Swedish Nobel laureate, Selma Lagerlof, and wanted to become a writer and philosopher. However as she neared the end of her teenage education, she realized her passion lay in the sciences, which was not an area in which women were commonly welcome at that time.
She said in her later years, “It was a very patriarchal society, and I simply resented, from early childhood, that women were reared in such a way that everything was decided by the man”. It was ironic, therefore, that she had to ask permission from her father to be allowed to study for a profession at university rather than follow the traditional Victorian era course for a woman, which was to marry and bear children. Thankfully, he begrudgingly agreed, and she enrolled in the Turin School of Medicine.
Rita studied under eminent scientist, Guiseppi Levi, and focused her work on histology, the study of microscopic structures in tissues. She became particularly interested in the development of nerve cells in chick embryos after reading a paper by Vicktor Hamburger, and worked on this until she left the university in 1939. Due to the rise in public anti-Semitism since Moussolini’s dictatorship began, Rita feared for the safety of her peers at the university, so she left the institution, but didn’t cease her studies, eventually coming to the conclusion that Hamburger’s theory about nerve growth and specialization was incorrect.
After a short period in Belgium, she returned to Turin and constructed a laboratory in her bedroom where she continued her research, but due to heavy bombing, her family was forced to relocate to the country, where again, she set up a research lab and continued working. Eventually, after the German invasion of Italy, Rita and her family went into hiding in Florence, but she never stopped her work.
At the end of the war, Rita was approached by Hamburger, who wanted to see whose theory was correct by having her repeat her experiments on chick embryos. She planned to visit him in America for only a few months, but ended up staying there to work for over 30 years. During that time, she collaborated with biochemist Stanley Cohen to determine that the growth of nerve cells is determined by Nerve Growth Factor, for which the two scientists were awarded a Nobel prize in 1986. This finding has had implications into studies on nerve regeneration, Alzheimer’s, delayed wound healing, and tumor diseases.
Rita went on to become full Professor, and in time, the director of the institute of cell biology at the National Council of Research in Rome. Until her death in 2012, she lectured and worked with students at her research center, because she believed “The only way to help is to give young people a chance for the future”.
Born free into a family of slaves in 1867, Sarah Breedlove was orphaned at six, married at 14, and a widowed mother by 20. She went on, however, to become “the first black woman millionaire in America”.
As a young widow and mother, Sarah faced the kind of hardships you would expect in the early years of emancipated America, yet she worked as hard a laundress so that she might provide an education for her daughter – no mean feat, given that she was earning just one dollar a day.
She began working for the haircare entrepreneur Annie Malone in 1904, and it was in her role as a commission agent that she began to formulate her business plan. During this era, it was common for black women to experience scalp and hair troubles as a result of them lye-based soaps used to wash hair and clothes. Poor diet, illness, and infrequent bathing (most Americans had only outdoor plumbing at this time) were probably also contributing factors.
Sarah began to develop her own haircare technique, tailored specifically for black women. It involved special shampoos, pomade creams, and the use of hot irons in the hair.
After marrying Charles Walker in 1906 ,she adopted the French inspired name of Madam CJ Walker, and marketed herself as an independent hairdresser and purveyor of cosmetic creams. Madam CJ sold her wares door-to-door, which helped build confidence in her brand, and it wasn’t long before she and her husband were travelling around America to expand the business.
They opened a beauty parlour and college where they trained other black women to become experts in “the Walker System”, which she claimed should help promote hair growth and scalp condition in African-American women.
By 1917 the Walker company claimed to have trained nearly 20,000 women, giving them education and employment, helping them budget, build their own businesses, and become financially independent. The Walker philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness” sought to promote an advance in the status of black women in America.
Madam Walker understood the power and importance of advertising, and her products were labelled not only with her name, but images of her face, and she advertised all of her products extensively in the black press. She also understood the importance of support and encouragement; establishing clubs amongst her sales agents which gathered together in what is believed to be the first conference of women entrepreneurs to discuss business. As a clear indication of how important she felt it was for women to have independence and equality, it is stipulated in the Walker company charter that the company president must be a woman.
Madame Walker was also incredibly philanthropic, donating funds and support to charities and groups such as the National Association of Coloured Women’s Club; the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund; orphanages and charitable institutions; and she assisted in the establishment of a YMCA in the Indianapolis black community. Her will directed that two thirds of the future net profits from her estate would be donated to charity.
Madame CJ Walker died of kidney failure at 51, and at the time she was considered the wealthiest African-American woman in America. She has left behind a legacy of empowered black business women, and there are various awards and scholarships established established and named in her honour.
Read more about this fascinating powerful black woman here:
As a young girl in California of the 1870s, Lillian Moller was incredibly shy, and as a result she was homeschooled until she was nine. Then, after finding her stride at school, she took off in the academic world. She went to college, despite her father is hesitance, and she studied towards a Bachelor of Arts with the view of becoming a teacher.
She was the first female to be invited to deliver the commencement speech once she graduated in 1900. She went on to gain her Masters, and then began her PhD with a minor in psychology.
She took a break from her doctorate to visit Europe, and on the way she met Frank Gilbreath, a wealthy construction company owner. They fell in love, and in 1904 they were married.
Frank Gilbreth had a huge interest in workplace efficiency. He asked Lillian to change her major to psychology so that she might help him in his studies. She completed her doctorate, and published her thesis on the psychology of management – all whilst having and raising her first four children. It was this thesis that has seen her named by many as the pioneer of Organisational Psychology.
In 17 years, Frank and Lillian had 12 children whom they used to test out their theories of workplace efficiency. Frank sold his construction company hand again consulting with other larger firms to help them develop the best ways to run their businesses. The two of them worked together to find the best and most efficient way for work to be done. Lillian looked at the psychology of motivation, and Frank focused on the technical aspects of time and motion studies.
At 42, Lillian became a widowed mother, and although it was difficult at first, she resumed consulting from her home (so that she might be able to watch over her children while working) in order to train managers with the scientific management techniques she and her husband had devised. Essentially, she was running an MBA school from her front living room!
Demand for her skills and teaching group, with companies like Macy’s calling on her to help them better run their business, and she soon began teaching at University where she earned her professorship in 1935. She was in fact the first female professor at Purdue’s Engineering School.
Macy’s weren’t her biggest customer either; during the Great Depression, President Hoover asked her to address the issue of unemployment and they launched the “share the work” program. She was asked to help in converting factories over to the war effort in World War Two; and she worked with General Electric to design kitchen and appliance layouts. The sink-stove-bench layout we are so familiar with in kitchens these days was her idea, as was the pedal bin and the shelves in our fridge doors!
Lillian Gilbreth has been named the “Mother of Modern Management”, a “genius in the art of living”; her work was the forerunner to ergonomics; she introduced the concept of good lighting and breaks, and suggestion boxes in workplaces;and without her we wouldn’t have the understanding and appreciation of workplace psychological well-being that we do today.
Read more about this incredible woman here:
Theodora was born in 497AD in Syria, to parents who worked in the famous Hippodrome, amongst the gladiators and chariot riders. Her father was a bear trainer, and her mother a dancer and actress, and Theodora and her siblings had much exposure to the vibrant life within the entertainment complex.
Upon the death of her father, the family would have become destitute if Theodora and her sisters were not sent to dance and act in the Hippodrome. In those times, the term ‘actress’ was more often than not synonymous with ‘prostitute’, and there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that Theodora rather enjoyed her profession. Her most well-known public act was to disrobe to the legal limit, then have geese peck barley grains from her near-naked body.
After a brief affair at the age of 16 however, Theodora converted religion and changed profession to become a wool spinner. It was in this role that she became the lover of Justinian, a man twice her age, and second in line for the role of Emperor after Justin I. Marriage to actresses was illegal – probably because of their association with prostitution – but Justinian fought to have the laws changed, and in 525 Theodora became his wife. Shortly after, both Justin I and Justinian’s father died, making him Emperor, and Theodora Empress.
Theodora’s most significant impact on the Empire came during the Nika revolt and riots in 532. Rival political factions rioted at the Hippodrome, set fire to many public buildings, and set out to depose Justinian. He grew fearful, and was about to flee when Theodora gave a stirring speech about the greatness of dying as a ruler compared with the shame of living as a coward. This gave Justinian the courage to fight the rioters, and after killing 30,000 people, he emerged victorious.
After this, Theodora was given equal power over the Empire, and she made many wonderful and incredible changes to both the city and the society. She oversaw the construction of aqueducts, bridges, and over 25 churches including the magnificent Hagia Sofia. She passed laws prohibiting forced prostitution, granted women more rights in divorce and custody cases, set up safe homes for prostitutes, established laws allowing women to own and inherit property, and she introduced the death penalty for rape cases.
Because of the grass-roots feminism of this rags-to-riches empress, the status of Byzantine women was raised far above that of women in Europe and the Middle East, and a precedent for equality between the sexes was set.
Read more about her life here: