52 Weeks of Women – March
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 Georgiana Cavendish, Rachel Carson, Ukok Ice Maiden, and Cecilia Payne. 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 public figure and as a back-room political oganiser, Georgina Cavendish’s spirited and astute relationships gave her a level of influence even higher than one of her legendary hats. Born into a well-connected noble family in 1757, Georgiana was raised in a loving home, where she was well educated in a broad range of topics, and exposed to a wide sphere of acquaintances. At the age of 8, when her father rose to become Earl Spencer, she was named Lady Georgiana Spencer, making her the great-great-great-grand-aunt of Princess Diana.
At 17, she married the William, the Duke of Devonshire, but it was not to be a happy marriage as the Duke was emotionally reserved, and involved in romantic relationships with other women. In fact, one Elizabeth Foster moved in to the house with Georgiana and William, where they were commonly believed to exist in a love triangle, and Georgiana was tasked with raising the illegitimate daughter of one of William’s previous mistresses.
In her time, she was hailed as a trendsetter and took pride in wearing the most modern and extravagant of clothing, which the public followed avidly. Her larger-than-life personality was accompanied by a fondness for wine and other substances, and an addiction to gambling, which saw her leave behind debts of almost 4 milllion pounds in modern terms.
In societal terms, she held a lot more influence than her rather dour husband, and she used that influence and her upbringing towards the unladylike pursuit of politics. She was a staunch Whig supporter, and held countless parties which became meetings so that supporters such as the Prince of Wales and Charles Grey could discuss politics. During the 1784 general election – in a time when women were denied the vote – she walked the streets of London to meet face-to-face with the people and secure their votes, which ultimately led to the success of Fox and Lord Hood. Unfortunately, her activism met with much ridicule and public attack, (she was accused of trading votes for monetary gain and sexual favours), and she retired from the political field after that.
If you’re interested in this politically savvy and influential woman, you can read more about her here:
Rachel Carson was a marine biologist and nature writer, born in Pennsylvania, and was a published writer by the age of 10 (she wrote pieces for children’s magazines). After graduating as a Master of zoology from Johns Hopkins University, she was the second woman ever to be employed by the US Bureau of Fisheries, thanks to outscoring all other applicants on the civil service exam. During her 15 years employment there, she wrote many brochures and public materials, eventually being appointed Editor in Chief of all publications by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
She wrote several books, all focused on the beauty of nature, which won her a National Book Award, a national science writing prize, and the Guggenheim grant. Then, in 1962, she published Silent Spring, which became an instant best-seller. In this book, Rachel presented a “view of nature compromised by synthetic pesticides, especially DDT”, and in doing so, was the first author to publicly speak out against the dangers of chemical pesticides.
Rachel wrote about how pesticides enter ecological food chains, and how they accumulate to eventually form a huge potential risk to animals and humans. Until this point, DDT had been hailed as a miracle solution to the malaria problem, and was widely sprayed and used around homes. Rachel lobbied to have policies put in place which would protect human health and the environment, and with the support of President John F. Kennedy, pesticides became of public interest.
Although her work garnered massive backlash from chemical companies and some of government, because of it, DDT was ultimately banned in the U.S., and the Environmental Protection Agency was conceived. Rachel Carson was the catalyst for the global environmental movement.
Rachel died of breast cancer in 1964, and has been posthumously awarded by the National Audubon Society & American Geographic Society, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Unlike many other mummified bodies found from a similar era, Ukok was buried alone and the items buried with her indicated that she was revered by her peers, possibly as a shaman or healer. Whilst Pazyryks were typically buried with one horse, Ukok had three in her burial mound, and archeologists also found Chinese silks, gold-plated jewelry, an unusual Chinese mirror, and coriander seeds, which were known to be included in ‘royal mounds’.
Scientists have performed many tests on Ukok’s body, and found that she not only suffered from osteomyelitis but also that although only in her 20s, she was in the late stages of breast cancer when she died from injuries sustained by a fall. They have determined that she would have been using opioids and cannabis for pain management, and it is thought that her altered mental state whilst under the influence could have been what caused her to be seen as a shaman.
This discovery has shed significant light on anthropology’s understanding of the status of classes of women from 5th century BC Sibera, however the conundrum presented by Ukok’s continued absence from her burial mound cannot be overlooked. The indigenous people of Siberia believe Ukok’s importance meant that upon her burial, she became a guardian between the worlds of the living and the dead. Since her removal, they believe the gateway has remained open, opening them up to floods and earthquakes, and have petitioned for many years to have her returned to her burial site.
When initial scientific investigations are completed, not without moral concerns in and of themselves, the question we have is what, then, makes it acceptable for these historians and scientists to keep Ukok removed from her homeland – where she holds legitimate historical, cultural and spiritual significance – and keep her on display in public museums, simply because she piques the Western world’s curiosity?
Both of these articles from the Siberian Times offer much information about how the story of Ukok’s fate since her discovery in 1993:
English-born astronomer, Cecilia Helena Payne, made the startling discovery that the sun is predominantly made of hydrogen, but like so many female scientists, she received no recognition for her work at the time.
Aged 25 in 1925, Cecilia moved to the United States after receiving the Pickering Fellowship to study astronomy at Harvard. Once there, she used knowledge of quantum physics and atomic structure which she learnt directly from Niels Bohr, 1922 Nobel Prize winner in physics, as well as a new theory on ionization by Indian physicist Meg Nad Saha of Calcutta to study the composition and density of stars.
In her thesis, she wrote about her discovery that hydrogen and helium appeared to be, without doubt, the most prevalent elements in stars, which was significantly different to scientific thought at the time. She was, however, deterred from publishing this discovery by eminent authority on stellar composition, Henry Norris Russell, as the calculations she presented were so unexpected. Over the next 4 years, Russell continued researching the same topic, and found that in fact she was correct, but rather than acknowledging her work, he published the findings as his own, and received all the public acclaim for the groundbreaking discovery.
Cecilia continued working and studying at Harvard, but it wasn’t until she was 38 that she was granted the title of ‘astronomer’. She wrote many books and lectured countless students (she once shocked her supervisors by giving a lecture while 5 months pregnant!), including many who went on to make a name for themselves in the field (Helen Sawyer Hogg, Frank Drake and Paul W. Hodge to name a few), but her courses weren’t listed in the Harvard course list until 1945, and it took until 1956 before she was appointed title of Professor.
She was later appointed full Professor at Harvard’s Academy of Arts and Sciences, which had never been held by a woman before, and she was made Chairman of the Department of Astronomy. Her career marked a turning point for Harvard: prior to her time there, women were largely believed to “lack the physical capability to understand scientific concepts”, but her acceptance into the academic world saw women enter the mainstream of science, for which we are thankful.