Making History & Headlines: A Triumvirate of Revolutionary Women Refusing to Behave
-- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Well-behaved women —the kind who obey every rule and accept every societal norm—are never the kind who make headlines. As the close of Women’s History Month approaches, we celebrate the milestones made by three key women who have impacted both past and recent history by breaking the rules. Here are a few names you should know:
Rebel Yell: Emma Sulkowicz
Emma Sulkowicz is a name with which you may not be familiar, but the doors she opened for young women by her student activism will impact history for years to come.
Emma Sulkowicz gained national attention for dragging a mattress around Columbia University following the reporting of an on-campus rape.
As part of her senior year visual arts thesis at Columbia University, Sulkowicz created the Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) project, a work designed to show the weight carried by on-campus rape victims whose attackers campus leaders refuse to punish.
Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) project created by Emma Sulkowicz
To drive home the point of her classroom project, Sulkowicz walked around her New York City campus for the entire 2014-2015 school year, carrying on her back a 50-pound mattress like the one used in Columbia University dorms. The project grew out of Sulkowicz’s own experience of reporting an on-campus rape in 2012 by a fellow student. When she filed a complaint with Columbia, the school found the accused rapist “innocent,” after which Sulkowicz filed a complaint with the NYPD that was later withdrawn in part due to the dismissive attitude of officers at the precinct.
Unfortunately Sulkowicz’s case is not unique—numerous women have admitted to facing similar consequences when attempting to report on-campus rape. But the actions of students like Sulkowicz who encourage other rape survivors to come forward help expose lack of assistance for rape survivors and help push for positive change.
Rebel Heart: Katherine Johnson
In 2016, 20th Century Fox released a movie called Hidden Figures, a film depicting the real-life story of three African-American women who worked for NASA during the “Space Race” of the mid-20th century. One of these women was Katherine Johnson, an incredibly talented mathematician who challenged several societal norms in the workplace.
Katherine Johnson is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
During her time at NASA, Johnson became both the first woman and African-American to have her name on a NASA report and the first person to be specifically requested by an astronaut to perform flight calculations. Acclaimed astronaut John Glenn famously refused to fly unless the calculations were verified by Johnson.
A pioneer in the fields of trajectory, launch window, and emergency backup return path calculations, Johnson spearheaded computations for several NASA missions, including the Apollo 11 flight to the moon in 1969. Brilliant from a young age, she enrolled in high school at 10 years old and became at age fourteen the first African-American woman to enroll at West Virginia State University. There she excelled to such a degree in mathematics that her professors created special mathematics courses just for her.
After receiving her Bachelor's Degree in both Mathematics and French, Johnson began her career as a teacher but had dreams of becoming a research mathematician; she accomplished these dreams when she was hired in 1953 as a mathematician for NACA, which later became NASA, in their Guidance and Navigation department. Johnson worked for NASA for 35 years, first serving as a “computer” before becoming an aerospace technologist in 1958--a position she held until her retirement.
Throughout her lifetime, Johnson shattered several glass ceilings and triumphantly broke through many racial and gender-based boundaries in order to succeed in her career. She is an example to women and girls everywhere that there is, as Henry Ford once said, only one rule to remember: Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re right. Believe in your immense power to accomplish your dreams and you will do just that.
Sources: Wikipedia, NASA.gov
Rebel with a Cause: Shirin Ebadi
Shirin Ebadi may be a name rarely discussed in the United States, but to many around the world it's a moniker synonymous with the defense of human rights. In 2003, for her decades-long commitment to eradicating laws that suppress basic human rights and freedoms of expression in “Iran and far beyond," Ebadi became both the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi
"It is not religion that binds women,” notes Ebadi in her 2006 memoir Iran Awakening, “but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered. That belief, along with the conviction that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, has underpinned my work."
Despite the risks associated with speaking out against injustice in a country that does not champion women’s rights, Ebadi managed to achieve several positions of power, all of which she used to fight injustice. Ebadi first served as a judge in 1970, and later broke societal boundaries in 1975 by becoming the first female president of the Tehran city court.
Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when women were declared to be unfit to serve as judges, Ebadi was stripped of her judgeship and reduced to the position of “legal adviser.” Refusing to concede to these new demands, Ebadi protested her new appointment by showing up to work every day, announcing that she was a rightful judge and refusing to do any work. When women won back the right to practice law in 1992, Ebadi opened her own law practice and focused on cases that violated human rights, particularly the rights of women and children.
She fought several high-profile cases that other Iranian lawyers steadfastly avoided, including the defense of two liberals, defined by the Intelligence Ministry as “rogue elements,” who were stabbed to death in 1998. Her continued activism eventually resulted in a total ban on Ebadi practicing law in Iran and confiscation of her Nobel medal by the government. This included a demand that she pay hefty taxes on the Nobel Prize 1.4-million dollar-winnings.
Ebadi left Iran for good in 2009 after receiving numerous death threats and being informed of the arrest and beating of her husband. Despite all of this, Ebadi continues to fight for human rights, standing as a shining example that no matter what setbacks we may face in life, our persistence can truly change the world.
Sources: BBC, Independent, writer's report published in Arcadia University Scholarworks
Still Misbehaving: Goals for 21st Century Women
The stories of Sulkowicz, Johnson, and Ebadi share one common theme: Fight for what is right and you will be on the right side of history. Each of these women have lead different lives, faced different struggles and been oppressed for different reasons; but by breaking down gender-based societal barriers they changed the course of women’s history. Let these living legacies remind us that we, too, can shatter glass ceilings.
As Ayn Rand says: “Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.”