Tag Archives: feminism

The Only Women in the Room: Who Were They?

Laurie and Debbie say:

Immy Humes, author of the new book The Only Woman, summarizes her story for Smithsonian in “These Trailblazers Were the Only Women in the Room Where It Happened.

A huge percentage of the photographic record of Western culture is incredibly boring: endless large groups of formally dressed, formally arranged men facing the camera. Just look to class pictures from every imaginable school, association, company, office, club, court, government body and political movement (from the revolutionary to the regressive).

The overwhelming majority of these groups were all male—but it’s uncanny to see how many women snuck in, one at a time, to become the only woman in the room.

In the photo at the top of this blog, we see artist Hedda Sterne standing just above a group of painters many of whom are, as Humes puts it, “more famous than the photo itself—Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning among them.” The occasion was a protest against the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s unwillingness to support abstract, “advanced” art, but the advanced painters, according to Sterne, “were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.”

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Here we have Anna Searcy, the first woman to study at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. The caption names her “class secretary” but we now know that she graduated with her M.D.  She was an orphan whose college was paid for by a charity fund, and entered the medical program in her 30s.

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After the end of World War II, A.G. Stock, known to most as Dinah, is shown here acting as hostess to a  Pan-Africanist gathering. Stock, a lifelong committed anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist is described as the only white student who went to meetings of anti-colonialist South Asian students. Kwame Nkrumah, who founded the Pan-Africanist movement went on to be president of Ghana, is in the first seated row, at the far right.

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Angela Ramos, feminist, suffragist, is often described as the first Peruvian woman journalist. She used her articles to fight for the oppressed, particularly workers cheated by their bosses, victims of rigid vagrancy regulations, and people in prison. In this photo, we also see communist José Carlos Mariátegui, directly behind her, wearing glasses. Ramos was a champion of Mariátegui. Here, they are in a Peruvian factory town where the workers had recently won an eight-hour workday. They were attending the annual Fiesta de la Planta in the Peruvian factory town of Vitarte (now Ate-Vitarte), where laborers had recently won an eight-hour workday. Ramos’ nickname was sor presa (sister of the imprisoned).

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Here, Gloria Richardson, a local movement leader, is talking to men on the street in 1963, shortly after the governor of Maryland declared martial law, with the express intent of shutting down civil rights demonstrations. Then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy wanted Richardson and her comrades to vote on a “treaty” with their small Maryland town. Richardson’s reply: “A first-class citizen does not plead to the white power structure to give him something that the whites have no power to give or take away. Human rights are human rights, not white rights.” She later shut down Kennedy at the White House when he asked her “if she knew how to smile.”

In these photos, and the others in the Smithsonian article, Humes shows us both the history of women in men’s spaces, and also the ways that a lone woman in a photograph — or at a historic event — can be more than a token, or an ornament. These women are key movers and shakers in the actions of their time.

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Half the Neanderthals Were Female

first reconstruction of a Neanderthal created using evidence from fossil anatomy and ancient DNA
first reconstruction of a Neanderthal created using evidence from fossil anatomy and ancient DNA

Laurie and Debbie say:

Paleolithic archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes has a terrific longform essay, Sheanderthal, in Aeon. It will come as no surprise to any of us that Neanderthal women, like women and females in every species, have been undervalued and underexamined.

identifying X-chromosome frequency is one thing; what was the life of half the Neanderthal world that she represents – women – really like? … Most often discussed indirectly via theories of fertility as a potential reason for their disappearance by 40,000 years ago, Neanderthal women have been ‘protagonists’ only a few times in recent research.

Sykes is out to correct that oversight, and to use all of the physical and technical tools at the command of the contemporary archaeologist.  She starts with a history of the first Neanderthal skull, eventually identified as that of a woman, and goes on to explain why it’s difficult to identify sex from bones alone (so of course most bones and fragments have been assumed male). DNA testing has changed that picture. And Sykes, laudably, doesn’t assume that Neanderthal gender matched contemporary notions of Homo sapiens gender:

Those [individuals] identified through DNA include the Altai woman who lived in western Siberia around 90,000 years ago, another slightly later in time but relatively close by at Chagyrskaya cave, and the Vindija woman who died in what’s now Croatia much closer to the final few millennia of the Neanderthals.

Even where we’re lucky enough to have DNA samples, assumptions must still be made. Since prehistory lacks written texts, we can’t hear testimony on how Neanderthals categorised themselves. Therefore, archaeologists must draw on biological and anthropological understanding of sex and gender. While it’s highly likely that the majority of Neanderthals conformed genetically and visually to today’s sexual classification of male and female, in reality these aren’t neatly boxed because bodies are messy. For example, based on living people, around one in 2,000 Neanderthals might have been intersex.

She goes on to speculate about Neanderthal women’s physical appearance and social behavior, never for a moment letting us forget that this is speculation and guesswork, not confident knowledge:

Let’s begin at the start. Hold two crumple-faced newborn girls, one human, one Neanderthal, and you’d have to look closely to see differences. Both equally vulnerable, fitting the smallest-size onesies, their skin velvety-soft. The Neanderthal baby doesn’t yet have heavy brows and, lit by a hearth’s dull glow, her eyes are probably as slate-dark and limpid as any human newborn’s. But cradle her downy head, and it will feel slightly longer, with a bony nobble discernible above her neck….

As a fellow primate, she needs constant care and affection for proper development. Neanderthal infant brains appear to have started out around the same size though differently shaped, and followed a similar growth pattern to our own. She will hit roughly the same magical milestones as a human infant: looking intently at faces within the first month, probably smiling in some form by six weeks.

As she tries to imagine childhood and young adulthood, her speculations venture into primatology and anthropology: were Neanderthals like bonobos, chimpanzees, or later hunter-gatherers? How can we think about whether or not Neanderthal women were hunters, and how else did they spend their time?

One of the most convincing reasons to believe that Neanderthal women did experience life differently is the testimony of their own bodies. Research on limb bones suggests that, while their thighs were as strong relatively as men’s, their lower legs appear less intensively used. Sample sizes are small, however the impression is of different habits in moving around, with men perhaps scaling more rough terrain. Arms tell a similar story, with women’s lower arms getting more of a workout than their biceps. On top of this, while Neanderthal men apparently used their right and left arms differently (comparable to the asymmetry in professional tennis players), women’s arms were more symmetrically developed. Carrying heavy loads in both hands could cause this, just as we lug loaded travel or shopping bags. But pushing something up and down – or backwards and forwards – with both arms would also fit, which is particularly intriguing because one of the things we know that Neanderthals were doing an awful lot of is hide-working.

She walks us through what information we have to spark imagination about sexual encounters, about birth, about aging and grandparents, and finally about the end of the species.

In the decade since, recognised periods of contact now number at least four and perhaps seven or more, going back beyond 200,000 years ago. Most intriguingly, something of the dynamics is visible. In some earlier instances, Neanderthal women had the children of H sapiens men, but the later interbreeding after 60,000 years ago tells a different story. Nobody today has mitochondrial DNA like that in Neanderthals and, since it’s passed only maternally, this implies that interbreeding was more often between their men and our women.

It’s in these last hybrid babies that the female heritage of Neanderthals lives on. The DNA legacies of the mixed babies’ relations – half-sisters, half-aunts, half-grandmothers, and beyond – persisted through thousands of generations. Their billions of descendants are still here, walking Earth today.

The combination of superb science, careful sorting of fact from guesswork, and excellent writing is rare indeed. Read the whole article; you’ll spend some satisfying time thinking about the lives and possibilities of Neanderthal women.

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