52 Weeks of Women – November
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 Lisa Meitner, Artemisia Gentileschi, The Warrior Priestesses of Pokrovka and Hannah Szenes. 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.
Born in 1878 in Austria, Lisa Meitner was third of eight children fathered by one of Vienna’s first Jewish lawyers. She was interested in education and research from an early age and is said to have kept a notebook under her pillow to record her daily observations when she was only 8 years old. Her interests lay in maths and science, but at the turn of the century, women were not allowed to engage in higher education, particularly not in these fields. However, with the support of her parents, Lisa was an able to study with a private tutor, and she focused on the study of physics which she proved to be highly proficient in.
She went on to attend university and was the second woman in Vienna to gain a doctorate degree in physics. After she finished her degree, Lisa’s father funded her further studies and she was able to attend lectures by famous physicist Max Planck. Until then, Planck had never permitted women to attend his lectures, but within a year, Lisa impressed him so much that he hired her as his assistant. It was while working underneath Planck that she became colleagues and friends with well-known chemist, Otto Hahn. They would work together for the next 30 years, using their combined knowledge of physics and chemistry to work on the topic of radioactivity. Throughout their studies they achieved many great things, including the discovery of the element protactinium.
In 1938 Germany annexed Austria during World War One, and even though Lisa had converted to Christianity 1907, she had to emigrate. After some moving around, she settled in Stockholm, but found working at the University there challenging, as she had very little financial or collegial support. It was because of this that Lisa met secretly with Hahn in 1938 to continue their experiments on radioactivity. It was during these studies that they discovered the concept of nuclear fission. Lisa published the discovery in the Nature International Journal of Science in 1939, and her paper prompted Albert Einstein to write a warning letter to President Roosevelt about the dangers of nuclear energy. Ironically, this led to the Manhattan project.
Hahn was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry 1944 for his discovery of nuclear fission. Lisa, however, was ignored. This exclusion may have been because of her gender, but it could also have been because it is historically difficult to award Nobel Prizes when discoveries have interdisciplinary foundations. Lisa’s exclusion has been described as “a mistake”, however it has never been formally acknowledged by the Nobel Prize authorities.
The slight was partly rectified when Lisa joined Hahn and Fritz Strassman to be awarded the Enrico Fermi Award: the most prestigious science and technological honour that can be awarded by the president of the United States.
Lisa has been described as the most significant woman scientist of the 20th century, and it is undoubtable that without her work on radioactivity, our understanding and ability to harness atomic energy would not be so far advanced as it is today.
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in 1593 to renowned painter Orazio Gentileschi. Her mother died when Artemisia was 12, after which her father raised her and trained her in painting. He introduced her to contemporary artists including the famous Caravaggio. The influence of Caravaggio’s mastery of light and dark can be seen in her painting style.
By the time Artemisia was in her late teens, her father described her work as ‘unparalleled by peers’, and at age 17, she painted a famous depiction of the Biblical story ‘Susanna and The Elders’ in 1610. The story comes from the Old Testament, and tells of a young woman being sexually accosted by two elders. In the story, Susanna is charged and sentenced to death for licentiousness, but at the last moment her attackers are found to be guilty and they themselves are instead charged. The story had been painted by many artists before Artemisia, however hers was the first to depict Susanna as unwelcoming and upset by the advances of the two older men.
It almost seems as if this painting work as a precursor of what was to come, because two years later Artemisia was raped by one of her father’s fellow painters, Agostino Tassi. He claims that she had lured him with her sexual wiles, but her father Orazio didn’t believe it and brought a legal case against Tassi. What followed was a very public and controversial trial during which Artemisia was questioned and even tortured, but the outcome was that Tassi was charged with rape and sentenced to serve time in prison. The transcripts of this trial can still be found today (link below).
After the trial, Artemisia married, bore a daughter and continued to paint. She painted biblical stories from the Old Testament, and almost always depicted women as the lead character. She show them as possessing strength, anger and power. As she became known for her excellent painting style and approach, Artemisia was inducted into the Academy of Arts and Design: she was the first woman ever to be accepted, and it shaped her career. It meant that she could travel alone, buy supplies, and even sign a contract without a man’s permission. When she separated from her husband years later she was still able to continue painting because of this.
As her fame grew, she obtained contracts for work from the famous House of Medici, and Charles I. Interestingly – if not surprisingly – even though she experienced fame, letters she wrote show evidence that she still had to fight for equal pay and respect. In modern day, Artemisia’s paintings of women are used as feminist icons because of their inherent rage, power, and refusal to bow down to societal norms. You can view some of her paintings in the links below.
Historically the term ‘Amazon’ was used by Greeks and Romans to describe women and tribes who fought with and against men. Traditionally they were also described as being very large. However it wasn’t until early to mid 1990s the archaeological evidence of such women existed. The discovery of 108 nomad burial mounds or ‘kurgans’ near the Kazakhstan and Russian border town of Pokrovka showed evidence that women most definitely lived as warriors in that region from 6BC to 1 A.D.
Female skeletons were found with arrows, swords and daggers, indicating that they indeed fought as warriors the same way as the men of the tribe did. Several female skeletons were also found with stone alters and bronze mirrors used for healing ceremonies: they were believed to be the skeletons of priestesses.
Nomads of the era relied on the herds of animals for milk, meat, furs and leather, and as such it was hugely important to protect them. This is supposed to be the reason behind the gender equality in the tribal warriors; they needed all the help they could get to protect their livestock, so it appears to have been accepted that women could fulfil the role of protector as well as men.
Fertility was important highly respected in the early nomadic tribes, as childbirth and child-rearing amongst nomads had a lower success rate than in sedentary tribes of the same era. As such, priestesses were revered because of their ability to perform fertility rituals, and they were therefore respected members of the tribe. Somewhat taller than their contemporaries, the skeletons of the Pokrovkan women are estimated to have been 5‘6“ to 5‘9“ lending weight to the theory of the towering Amazon. The interesting finds in the Pokrovkan kurgans make it obvious again that inequality between the sexes is more of a modern construct than an evolutionarily historical truth.
Born into and assimilated Jewish family in Hungary at the beginning of the 1920s, Hannah grew up knowing what it was to live with the hatred of anti-Semitic feeling. Through her teenage years this prompted Hannah to become involved in the Zionist movement. She learnt Hebrew in preparation to emigrate to Palestine which she did aged 18 in 1939. There, she studied at the Agricultural School for girls before joining a kibbutz.
It was while living and working at the kibbutz that Hannah became increasingly concerned for the fate of European Jews being persecuted by Nazis during the Second World War. She thought particularly of those in her homeland of Hungary. So when she was approached by Jewish Agency officials in 1943 to volunteer with British fighting units, she accepted readily.
Hannah trained as a parachutist and was dropped in Yugoslavia in 1944 with a group of other volunteers. Their mission was to enter Hungary, then locate and assist Jewish people facing deportation to Auschwitz.. However within hours of stepping onto Hungarian soil Hannah was captured, and as she had a wireless transmitter on her person, she was kept prisoner.
Although she was tortured over three months, Hannah never betrayed any details of her mission; not even when her captors arrested and tortured her mother too. Eventually she was convicted as a spy and sentenced to death by firing squad, but even then, she held firm. On the day of her execution, she refused a blindfold and instead stared bravely at her murderers before they shot her.
Hannah’s mother survived, and it is through her that Hannah’s diaries, poems and letters became published. Her writings painted a clear picture of a young woman firmly dedicated to her people, and with an overwhelming desire to protect their safety. Her poem ‘Towards Ceasaria’ (also known as ‘My God, My God’) is her most famous work, and it exemplifies the idealism and commitment she felt to her calling. It has been set in song, and performed by many singers over the years. Hannah’s body was relocated after the war and reinterred in Jerusalem at the military cemetery.