C’mon, We’ve Been at This Forever! (132 Years, to Be Exact)

November 15, 2013

On Monday, the New York Times published an article about an exhibit, “Honoring Female Pioneers in Science,” now on display at the Grolier Club in New York City. It’s awesome that the newspaper is acknowledging such an important topic. It’s also heartening that the article appeared on the Times’ Most Popular web page this week. If AAUW’s founders were alive today, no doubt they would be thrilled about women in science making national news! Then again, perhaps AAUW members of yore would not be surprised to see some of the same women they supported featured in the Times. After all, AAUW has been recognizing and supporting women in science since our inception in 1881.

Did you know AAUW fellowships, grants, and awards were behind almost half of the 32 women featured in that article? Let’s take a moment to highlight some of them, many of whom have already graced the pages of our blog.

Chien-Shiung Wu gives her AAUW Achievement Award acceptance speech, 1959.

Chien-Shiung Wu

Realizing that this Chinese physicist was overlooked for the Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking work in overturning a then-widely accepted “law” of physics, AAUW first wrote about the injustice and then recognized her in 1959 with our highest honor, the Achievement Award.

Marie Curie

Marie Curie

AAUW members contributed toward the purchase of a gram of radium for Curie in 1920. More importantly, after Curie’s death, brilliant AAUW minds worked through the legal system to ensure that the remaining funds were used for their original purpose, thereby creating the Marie Curie Fellowship for a woman studying physics, chemistry, or radiology.

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A black-and-white portrait of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

The Times author writes about Payne-Gaposchkin’s mentor, Harlow Shapley, who took her under his wing. For sure, Shapley was a great contributor to the astronomer’s success. But please don’t omit AAUW, who first granted Payne-Gaposchkin the 1924–25 Rose Sidgwick Fellowship, then gave her the Achievement Award in 1957. Payne-Gaposchkin also contributed to numerous AAUW conventions.

Albert Einstein alongside his letter to AAUW

Lise Meitner and Marietta Blau

How could we forget these two Austrian physicists who were unable to continue their work due to the Nazi occupation during World War II. Forced to flee Austria, both women appealed to AAUW’s war relief fund (via their peer Albert Einstein) for assistance with finding positions in the field to continue their research.

Florence Sabin, who was honored with the Florence R. Sabin American Fellowship

Florence Sabin

Sabin was an AAUW member who in 1928 was honored by the AAUW Rocky Mountain Region (now AAUW of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) with an endowment in her name. Sabin, whose likeness is carved into the Pioneers in Progress artwork on display here at the national office, was a medical doctor who revolutionized public health laws with her research on tuberculosis.

McClintock ON GW

Barbara McClintock

McClintock received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1983 for her groundbreaking work in genetics with the discovery of “jumping genes.” She was previously recognized by AAUW for those same discoveries not one or two years prior… but 36 years before, in 1947!

Shall I continue? (Yes, there are more AAUW connections with this exhibit.) I am sure you get the picture. But I can’t end this blog without noting the Times nod to the role of mentors in these women’s careers. Despite enormous obstacles and prejudices, the scientists in the Grolier exhibit all excelled in their fields. But given the social climate at the time, they had to have support just to stick around, let alone succeed. AAUW filled that need — and has been for almost 132 years, since long before the women we supported could make front-page news.

By:   |   November 15, 2013