A Little Credit, Please

by Cathy Haustein, Ph.D.

Physicist Lise Meitner is pictured in 1906, shortly after becoming the University of Vienna’s second woman to obtain a doctoral degree in physics. Meitner helped lead the team of scientists who discovered nuclear fission and was the first woman to become full professor of physics in Germany.

Female heroes haven’t received their due in the record of history.

Take Lise Meitner (1878–1968) for example — the mother of nuclear power. Meitner was denied a Nobel Prize because her lab partner of thirty years didn’t acknowledge her contribution to the discovery of fission.

Or what about Wangari Mathaai? She won a Nobel Prize and founded the Greenbelt Movement while her husband divorced her for being too ambitious.

I wrote about Meitner, Mathaai and others for Sheroes of History, a U.K.-based blog featuring amazing women from past decades.

Most of the women I write about have been scientists. Life didn’t go smoothly for the Sheroes. Meitner said that being a woman was “almost half a crime.” Conservationist Frances Hamerstrom— a former model — was criticized for dressing too casually when she studied prairie chickens! Unbelievably, some scientists tried to discredit Rachel Carson’s work simply because she was an unmarried woman.

When I began my Ph.D. at The University of Iowa, women were only allowed to be teaching assistants for all-female chemistry lab sections. I successfully petitioned to be allowed to teach an analytical chemistry lab which had male and female students — although, believe it or not, the girlfriend of a male student complained because having a female scientist as a teacher was just too sexy. I am grateful my department chair, Dr. Leo Davis, was a black man committed to equality for all graduate students, and the complaint wasn’t taken seriously.

Now, when I look back to inspirational women from the past, one of my favorite Sheroes isn’t a scientist at all, but an actress with the stage name Dora Jordan. Jordan was once the most famous comedian in the U.K. and received a lifetime contract of protection — the closest a commoner could get to a marriage — from the prince who would become King William. They had ten children together, and all the while she worked the stage to provide for them and fix up the dilapidated lodge William had been given by King George III. After twenty years, William broke the contract, married a princess and became king. Jordan was exiled to France, and the palace — particularly under Victoria and Albert — tried to wipe her name from history. However, Jordan was so beloved by the public because of her humor and donations to women’s education that it couldn’t be done. In 1972, Queen Elizabeth allowed a statue of her — commissioned by William in 1832 — to be placed in Buckingham Palace.

Jordan’s life makes for fascinating research — her biographies are filled with questions about what exactly happened to her at the end of her life, and you can still find abundant fan gear although she died 200 years ago. Digging up information about her was like looking for a trace component in a chemical mixture. I became such a fan that I bought her 1785 Theater Royal Handbook — and found a drawing of Jordan that even her most recent biographer hadn’t seen before.

(Left: Dora Jordan is pictured as Hippolyta for her role in “She Would and She Would Not.” Dressing as a man allowed women to appear on stage showing their legs. Adding a ribbon indicated to the audience that the player was cross-dressing.)

Some of these women eventually did receive recognition for their work. Meitner, who didn’t win the Nobel, eventually earned a greater honor. Element 109, discovered in 1982, was named Meitnerium — at least on the periodic table, she got the credit she deserved.

Rachel Carson is controversial to this day, but the American Chemical Society has championed her. They’ve even declared her book Silent Spring a National Historic Chemical Landmark. It’s no coincidence that thanks to this progressive view from one of science’s most prestigious organizations, I’ve developed a lab manual of green labs to replace the old labs done for so many years in analytical chemistry.

Which women from history have inspired you? We owe much to these Sheroes — and many others whose stories have been overlooked and forgotten. Join me and write to sheroesofhistory@gmail.com to submit your own Shero story!

Cathy Haustein is professor of chemistry at Central College and author of two novels that combine science, female protagonists and humor.

At Central College, curiosity is encouraged and exploration expected. This post is intended to stimulate vigorous, open inquiry, and opinions expressed belong to the author.