I’ve had A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf for a number of year now and although I had every intention of reading it, somehow time slipped through my fingers and it lay unopened on my shelf until the Women Unbound challenge thrust it into the spotlight. I’m not the first to admit that Woolf scares me a little. And I haven’t attempted to read any of her fiction yet, although I have To the Lighthouse and The Waves on my shelves. You can probably tell I didn’t do a literature degree! This was the first book that came to mind when I began the challenge a year ago and I was determined to read it before the close. And I can bang my head against the wall because I wish I hadn’t dithered so and just opened the d*mned book and started earlier because it surprised me at how easy Woolf’s prose was to read. Really. But there’s a lot in there. So just to warn you, this is going to be a REALLY LONG post, but I hope you read it:)

Woolf’s most famous words were:

a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction

Or to paraphrase, in order to write, a woman will need a room of her own and £500 a year (which is what Woolf’s aunt left her upon her death). I calculated what this meant in modern currency and it gave a sum of approx. £16,500. And I’m assuming that is without having the need to work. I suppose I could live on that amount alone and if I didn’t have to work, I may even be able to write. And to have a room which can be locked from the inside would indeed be bliss. You can shut out the world and all the chores you are required to do and just get some head space. I did, however, blink in surprise when she said if she had to choose between the vote or money, she would take financial freedom (married women over 30 were given the vote in 1919). And she urges all women to get out their, find work and become financially independent.

What really warmed me to Woolf is how funny she is. She doesn’t write like some pontificating grande dame who looks down upon the unenlightened and tells you how to think. Her prose is engaging and what shocked me was how relevant her arguments are even today. Men may bang on about how tiresome the same old arguments are, but frankly, they can go on banging on about it because unless things change, the plight of women will remain the same. I kept nodding at each page because I agreed with Woolf and because she manages to articulate the anger and bewilderment that many of us experience including myself. I really didn’t expect to keep on agreeing with every word she said because they are relevant today.

One of the things that struck me in the past when I first began thinking about feminism and women’s place in society is that behind each oppressive act was an anger towards women that I simply could not understand. Why would you need to keep a women in her place, tied to the bed and kitchen? Why weren’t women allowed to work? Why weren’t they allowed an education? And why weren’t they given the opportunity to make their own choices? Why is it that women had to conform to rules made by men which didn’t apply to themselves? The hypocrisy alone makes me boil with rage.

My bewilderment may sound naïve, but I was brought up in a household where I never had to question these things. I, and most of my friends, grew up thinking it was our right to have an education and a job and not to think that marriage was the endpoint to our upbringing and that motherhood was the sole reason for our existence. And I still believe that, although I have no quarrels with marriage (provided I get to choose my own husband) or children (I love babies and it’s good to have family around you when you grow old). Our fathers never had to exert control over our families because they made decisions together with our mothers. I’m not against men and I certainly don’t hate them. I rather like most of the men in my life and I feel women need men as much as men need women.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf discusses precisely this anger that many male writers were unable to hide in their rantings against women. And the only conclusion she can rationally come up with is that women have the power to shrink a man’s ego, an unforgiveable sin. It’s interesting because in many a discussion I’ve had with friends, we always end up saying that it is because men fear women that they feel the need to oppress them. But I don’t understand this fear either. But Woolf explains,

Possibly they were not ‘angry’ at all; often, indeed, they were admiring, devoted, expemplary in the relations of private life. Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price.

Does it explain my astonishment of the other day when Z, most human, most modest of men, taking up some book by Rebecca West and reading a passage in it, exclaimed, ‘The arrant feminist! She says that men are snobs!’ The exclamation to me so surprising – for why was Miss West an arrant feminist for making a possibly true if uncomplimentary statement about the other sex? – was not merely a cry of wounded vanity; it was a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself. Women served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticsm. for if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrink, his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilizing native, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquest, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?

This may be a simplistic argument, and rather tongue-in-cheek, but you get the drift.

In the introduction, Hermione Lee says A Room of One’s Own is about education, exclusion and writing. Woolf tackles all three subjects and shows how intertwined and inseparable they are. Published in 1928, A Room of One’s Ownwas originally a lecture titled Women and Fiction. Going back through literary history, Woolf shows us why there is no female equivalent of Shakespeare, how circumstances would have prevented say, for example, Shakespeare’s sister (if he had one) from accomplishing the same even if she had the gift. (On an aside, I’m really happy coming across the term Shakespeare’s sister here as lots of connections and quotes fall into place:))

Woolf also spends a large part of the essay discussing Austen and the Brontës, comparing the way they created their work: Austen hiding as she wrote and Charlotte Brontë rebelling against her lot in life. It seems as though Charlotte’s anger and rebellion, although creating an interesting and real character in Jane Eyre is also the cause of it’s failure as a novel compared to Pride & Prejudice. Interesting, no? But why is this? Woolf goes on to explain,

But how all this be affected by the sex of the novelist, I wondered, looking at Jane Eyre and the others. Would the fact of her sex in any way interfere with the integrity of a woman novelist – that integrity which I take to be the backbone of the writer? Now in the passages I quoted form Jane Eyre, it is clear that anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Brontë the novelist. She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience – she had been made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings when she wanted to wander free over the world. Her imagination swerved from indignation and we feel it swerve. But there were many more influences than anger tugging at her imagination and deflecting it from its path. The portrait of Rochester is drawn in the dark. We feel the influence of fear in it; just as we constantly feel an acidity which is the result of oppression, a buried suffering smouldering beneath her passion, a rancour which contracts those books, splendid as they are, with a spasm of pain.

Here Woolf is referring to her earlier theory that if you are a woman and weighed down by poverty, it is almost impossible to write not only because of the lack of finance and space, but because of the feeling of bitterness that will pervade you.

She continues,

And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to ficton. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists. … One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism;… She was admitting that she was ‘only a woman’, or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man’. She met that criticism as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. it does not matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself. Down comes her book upon our heads. There was a flaw in the centre of it. … She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others.

But how impossible it must have been for them not to budge either to the right or to the left. What genius, what integrity it must have required in face of all that criticsm, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Brontë. … They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue – write this, think that. They alone were deaf to that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that the voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too-consicentious governess, adjuring them … to be refined

However much she admires Charlotte Brontë, you can’t but get the feeling that there is too much raw passion and anger in her writing that somehow jarrs with Woolf. And regarding the importance of men’s fiction over women’s, don’t you get a sense of déjà vu re: Franzengate?

But then she contradicts herself with this:

The very first sentence that I would write here, I said, crossing over to the writing-table and taking up the page headed Women and Fiction, is that it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice and cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death.

Hmm. So I’m a little confused now. It’s as though in order to be a writer, you must keep your own voice but not write like a woman. What does that mean? Anyone?

I could go on and on and probably end up quoting the whole book, so I’ll stop here. But I highly recommend you read this book. It’s a great introduction to issues that are still relevant today and will give you an idea of the complexity and inherent misogyny in our society. And she highlights the struggles faced by women writers who not only have to write spectacularly but outside the constraints of being a woman.

There have been some criticism of A Room of One’s Own where Woolf is accused of not being angry enough and having too soft a tone. It certainly isn’t a vitriolic diatribe against men, but I feel it brings out all the issues women should think about, sinks its hook into our minds and lets these ideas ferment and grow. This I think is the first step in thinking independently about our place in society and the choices we make.

I’m trying to finish Three Guineas, its sequel (about education, exclusion and war) which is also in the edition I have, but I don’t think I’ll have enough days to finish reading, thinking and writing about it in time for the challenge. But I will of course discuss it with you as I’m on a roll!

This completes my Women Unbound challenge. Yahay!

So, I’m sure a lot of you out there have read A Room of One’s Own. What did you think? Did you agree with Woolf? Did I misunderstand her? Did I put too many quotations in this post???

BBAW: Unexpected treasures

15 September, 2010

Book blogs are wonderful sources of books and there are many titles I have come across that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Today’s topic for BBAW is a book or genre that we wouldn’t have tried without our interest being piqued by another blog. As I’ve been reading books for many, many years, I’ve found that certain genres work for me and others not so much although I’m pretty open to trying. I normally read books that are mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, especially those set in the medieval or interwar years and contemporary literary fiction plus a few classics and non-fiction thrown in.

Although I’m interested in women’s fiction, I haven’t really read many books in that genre (although I’m a bit ambivalent to the term ‘women’s fiction’ as a genre as it seems to denote something separate from normal fiction which I take issue with), it was only through the book blogging world that I came across the books published by Persephone Books. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the green-spined Virago Modern Classics but Persephone Books was something new for me (even though they’ve been around for 10 years. It’s a wonderful publishing house that has re-discovered neglected works by female authors, what some would term ‘domestic fiction’ that chronicles the lives of women in a domestic setting. Persephone Reading Week is hosted in May by Paperback Reader and The B Files.

So far I’ve only completed one book Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The War time stories of Mollie Panter-Downes for this year’s Persephone Reading Week but am in the middle of Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 which I’m enjoying very slowly. Beauman is the founder of Persephone Books and A Very Great Profession is a treasure trove of titles which isn’t very healthy for my TBR pile. I would recommend anyone interested in the social history of the early twentieth century and the interwar years to give it a try.

I also came across the Women Unbound Challenge co-hosted by Aarti of Booklust, Care of Care’s Online Book Club and Eva of A Striped Armchair. All three have wonderfully well thought out blogs where they really get to grips with lots of interesting issues raised by the books they read and I recommend that you check them all out. The challenge really made me think about issues that women face and the state of feminism in the 21st century. It also made me finally take up the books that I’ve been meaning to read for years but never actually got around to, both fiction and non-fiction, such as To Live and to Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938 edited by Yukiko Tanaka and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

So although I’ve still got some way to go before completing the challenge, I’d say that both the Women Unbound Challenge and the Persephone Reading Week have made me focus a lot more on issues of feminism and the role of women in literature.

And I just have to sneak in The Samurai by Shusaku Endo which I really enjoyed and was impressed with despite me thinking it would be a rather dry and difficult read. Endo’s most famous book Silence delighted many bloggers participating in Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge and also by Tanabata who blogs at In Spring It Is The Dawn and although I didn’t manage to get my hands on it, I found The Samurai instead. Most of the Japanese books I read are contemporary or set in the early 20th century but Endo’s book about a 17th century samurai struggling with his heritage and the encroachment of Christianity is historical fiction at its best: passionate, thoughtful and full of soul.

These are just a handful of books I’ve discovered which have enriched my reading experience. What about you?

It’s taken me ages to finish this, not because it was difficult or boring, but simply because I was also reading a handful of other books. I’m not sure whether it’s better to just stick with one book at a time or not. In the end you can only concentrate on the book in hand. But I’ve finished it and I want more! The title is taken from a quotation attributed to Hayashi Fumiko

‘to eat and to write are the two reasons for living’

To Live and to Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers, 1913-1938 edited by Tanaka Yukiko, is a brilliant collection of biographical essays and short stories featuring nine Japanese women writers of the early 20th century. Even though most of the stories were published between 1913 and 1938, I was struck by how immediate the struggles and conflicts the women characters face. The historical setting and material descriptions place the stories in a different era but the realisations and the self-awareness are things which women today still experience. Reading the stories made me ponder deeply about what I myself want to do with my life. And these stories, so varied and unique, left a deep impression on me long after I finished them.

I didn’t sympathise or like all the heroines, and I certainly didn’t warm to the men they fell in love with, but each story and struggle was dynamic and heartbreaking, most happening internally. I was struck time and again by the searingly honest portrayal of the women’s inner struggles as they tried to juggle family life, financial security, love and their work. Their methods in obtaining money and work may not be acceptable to some, but when poverty grinds you down, you can only do what needs to be done to survive. The resilience and the strength portrayed by these characters, who at the same time hurt and were hurt by the people around them, was humbling.

Because of the period in history in which most of these stories were written, there is a strong emphasis on Communism and the harsh experiences these activists underwent at the hand of the authorities. What was also interesting to note was how the women were also let down by the Communist party which they joined in the belief that it would provide equality between men and women but which in reality only mirrored the social structure in wider society. Tanaka Yukiko, who edited this volume, does an admirable job in placing these novelists within their historical and literary context, and her essays shed a light upon their work as a whole. What was interesting was how autobiographical most of the fictional work were in how they mirrored the struggles of the characters and authors.

Although I had only heard of a few of these novelists, mainly Uno Chiyo and Hayashi Fumiko, I finished the volume deeply impressed and wanting to read more stories by all the writers: Tamura Toshiko, Miyamoto Yuriko, Hirabayashi Taiko, Hayashi Fumiko, Nakamoto Takako, Nogami Yaeko, Sata Ineko, Uno Chiyo and Okamoto Kanoko. An interesting aside is that many of these writers wrote for a literary magazine titled Seitō (or ‘bluestocking’). Many were well-read in Japanese and Western literature and were aware of the political and social changes occurring outside Japan.

Tanaka Yukiko has edited a couple of other anthologies which I would love to read: Women Writers of Meiji and Taisho Japan: Their Lives, Works and Critical Reception 1868-1926 and This Kind of Woman: Ten Stories by Japanese Women Writers 1960-1976 edited together with Elizabeth Hanson and Mona Nagai.

I read this for the Women Unbound Challenge.

Uno Chiyo © Minato City 2006

I had grand plans for this year’s Persephone Reading Week hosted by Claire and Verity but only managed to finish one book, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes which was a delightful volume of short stories. I tried hard to finish A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 by Nicola Beauman but I’m still only half-way and couldn’t quite finish this weekend. No matter, I can now read it slowly and not feel rushed (but when did I ever read fast?) It’s a brilliant study of women’s literature which Beauman has resurrected with Persephone Books and there is ample discussion and quotations taken from the books which illustrate the evolution of interwar literature, mainly from a woman’s perspective. And who better than Beauman to do this, as she is probably the most knowledgeable of writers when it comes to this subject. For lovers of the interwar period and women’s fiction, A Very Great Profession will put a huge dent in your wallet and increase your TBR pile enormously. What I also find fascinating, and at the same time a little sad, is that the plight of many women do not seem all that different from the current situation (there have been huge changes, but you would be surprised at how many of the sentiments I have come across in my life I find in the literature dating back to the 1920s and 30s. Shocking, I know.)

Anyway, speaking of fascinating things, the first UK Book Bloggers’ Meet-up happened this Saturday. We all met in the Persephone Bookshop on Lamb’s Conduit Street before heading across to The Lamb for some sustenance both liquid and bookish. It was really wonderful to meet so many of you that I’ve become friends with since I started blogging. A big thank you to Simon from stuck in a book for organising this special event.

And of course, I will leave you with some books I got on the day:

Black Venus by Angela Carter which I won from Claire of Paperback Reader
26a by Diana Evans which I got for the bloggers’ book swap on Saturday from Polly of Novel Insights

And of course some Persephones:

Every Eye by Isobel English
A Woman’s Place 1910-1975 by Ruth Adam
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer

And I’ve had my first plagiarism alert thanks to a kind reader. Someone called ‘Megan’ has ‘borrowed’ this review and posted it on a book review site word. for. word. Not impressed. Why would you do this? How difficult is it to write your own review? As you can tell, it pissed me off a little. The review site has corrected the error and taken her off the list. Naturally.

I know, I know, so many of you lovely participants of the Persephone Reading Week hosted by Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at The B Files must have already read this book, but I always seem to lag behind in the trend stakes. But it’s my first Persephone (although I did purchase it in September last year) and I’m excited! Emerging from a seriously crap week as we said farewell to our beautiful and funny dog Puccini who passed away after 11 wonderful years leaving us all heartbroken, I had all these reading plans for the Bank Holiday which went down the drain. But I’d promised myself I’d read at least one Persephone this week and I chose Good Evening, Mrs. Craven purely because it was a collection of short stories (and I am a lover of all stories short) and it was a slimmish book.

I started reading it yesterday and you know what? Slowly, the pain unknotted itself and by the time I was halfway through I was feeling warm again. I didn’t really expect this reaction because I knew the stories chronicled the lives of women left behind during WWII. But Mollie Panter-Downes‘ stories were warm, funny and bittersweet; showcasing feelings we’ve all had albeit in situations we’ve only heard about through stories and TV. Some stories touched me more than others, but I liked that they varied in length and were snapshots of everyday scenes and people, some familiar and some not so.

The stories that touched me the most were Fin de Siècle, Good Evening, Mrs.Craven, Goodbye, My Love, Combined Operation and It’s The Reaction. I admire Panter-Downes for the way she can flesh out a character with only a few words. They weren’t cardboard cutouts, but real, breathing, quiet and enduring, just like people we know. And some of the stories reminded me strongly of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch (I will one day stop going on about this book, promise.) The everyday niggles, the irritating habits people have which magnify uncontrollably in close quarters made me laugh out loud. And the cameraderie people experienced during the Blitz, neighbours talking to one another and getting glimpses into lives which otherwise they could only imagine, which slowly died away once it was over felt so much sadder and reminded me that the human condition is the same everywhere and in whichever era you live.

This was a beautiful book, and the Persephone edition is so lovely to handle, I’m definitely going to check out Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. This was a definite hit for me. And it surprised me to learn that Panter-Downes (who was British) worked for the The New Yorker for over fifty years but was relatively unknown in the UK.

And talking about Persephone’s, I only realised when I looked at the title page that this book was first published in 1999! I didn’t even realise Persephone Books had been around for so long, especially since I used to hang around that area as a student. Mind you, I used to live just down the road from Charles Dickens’ house and only managed to visit it last year (after which I dragged my parents to the Persephone Bookshop which left them very impressed.) My mother has made it her habit to swipe all my Persephone bookmarks when she’s in town. Can’t blame her when they’re so beautiful.

So now, the question is, what should I read next: Someone at a Distrance by Dorothy Whipple, Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton or A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman? I find myself leaning a little towards the third title.

Affinity by Sarah Waters

17 April, 2010

I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, since I finished The Night Watch last year (which I loved, loved, loved), and had heard many nice things about it, and I finally did! And since I also wanted to watch the TV adaptation, I thought I’d post a joint review similar to that posted by su[shu] for Murakami Haruki’s Tony Takitani.

Unlike the majority of Sarah Waters’ fans, I fell in love with her writing starting with The Little Stranger followed by The Night Watch. I had previously read Fingersmith when it was first published in 2002 and don’t recall it having any serious impact on me. But it looks as though Fingersmith seems to be everyone’s favourite book, so I’ve got a copy on standby for a re-read in the near future.

There is something magical about Waters’ prose. It starts out quietly, silently and slowly draws you in, deeper and wanting more. That was how I felt when reading Affinity. The Night Watch had such an impact on me that I thought somehow I may have been spoilt and not find Affinity as enjoyable. Certainly the style was different, and so was the setting and plot. But Affinity had such atmosphere and, like the main character Margaret, I was completely taken in.

The story begins with Margaret Prior, a spinster in her late twenties, who is recovering from her beloved father’s death. To occupy herself, she has volunteered to go and spend some time talking to and helping the female inmates of Millbank Prison. Here she meets women outside her social circle and discovers Selina Dawes, a spiritual medium who is serving five years for causing harm to a young girl and, indirectly, the death of her patron. Margaret is fascinated by Selina who insists that it was Peter Quick, her spirit conduit who was to blame. In the stifling atmosphere of Millbank Prison, Margaret finds herself drawn to the beautiful girl and soon experiences strange occurrences that can only be attibuted to the work of spirits. Can this be real? And will she be able to save Selina?

Although Waters’ writing is wonderful, I found the book to be rather slow at the beginning. It is only after finishing the book that I realised what a genius Sarah Waters is. The plot is constructed in such a clever way that you are Margaret, and you fall in love, you start to believe in the spirits Selina sees and then you realise suddenly what has really been happening. It all slots into place and you are left reeling, wondering why you never saw what was plainly there in front of your eyes.

Really, you have to read this book. And please read it before you watch the TV adaptation. Because although the adaptation was good, it just isn’t as good as the book.

I thought the casting of Anna Madeley and Zoe Tapper as the two main characters in the TV adaptation was brilliant. The script was written by Andrew Davies who also wrote the scripts for Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth) and Bleak House, both of which I loved. But somehow, you lose something in the translation and I found it a little wanting. As so often happens, I noticed a couple of changes which I felt may have been necessary for the adaptation but changed the meaning of the story a little. However, the cinematography was beautiful and I think it captured the spirit of the book.

It was interesting to watch the DVD straight after reading the book to compare them, but maybe it might have been better if I had let a couple of weeks dampen my enthusiasm for the book so that I could have given the DVD a chance. What do you think?

I’m not here today

15 April, 2010

but I am here guest-posting on Aarti’s blog Booklust for her series With Reverent Hands which highlights books that may not normally be in the spotlight.

Aarti is one of the hosts (together with Care and Eva) of the incredible Women Unbound Challenge where we get to explore through books what it means to be a woman living in the 21st century and what we can learn from those who have struggled to find a place in this world before us. I really enjoy reading Aarti’s posts which always give me a lot to think about. So check it out!

Currently I’m in the middle of To Live and To Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938 edited by Yukiko Tanaka which I’m reading for the Women Unbound Challenge which is a collection of biographies and short stories by Japanese women in the early 20th century. It’s proving to be a very thought-provoking and inspiring read.

Women who like science 2

25 March, 2010

Here is an interesting article about Hypatia of Alexandria, a renowned teacher of mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. I’m looking forward to watching Agora starring Rachel Weisz about the life of this great 5th century thinker (if it’s ever released in the UK).

Women who like science

24 March, 2010

Nymeth who blogs at things mean a lot has pointed out that today, March 24th, is Ada Lovelace Day where we celebrate women in science, as did Kirsty from Other Stories who has a great post here.

I spent my student years studying science and later the history of science but was unaware of this day. How lovely that there is such a day, and one especially dedicated not just to someone who is Byron’s daughter (Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron) but also a pioneer scientist in her own right. It also saddens me that we still need to highlight the achievements of women in science, but coming from a science background and seeing my peers struggling to achieve equality in the workplace is a humbling experience. Saying that, I opted out of academia when perhaps I should have soldiered on for the greater good, but my muse called and I couldn’t refuse.

At school we saw a film about the search for DNA in a biology class and I was simultaneously impressed and saddened by Rosalind Franklin. I still feel that Franklin was cheated out of the Nobel Prize shared by James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. But you can read about Rosalind Franklin in Nymeth’s post, so I will highlight three women whose lives and contributions interest me greatly. It’s not just the incredible scientific discoveries and achievements they have made but also the way they managed their lives while keeping true to their scientific vocation which inspires me.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was a British and later American astrophysicist who studied for a short while under Arthur Stanley Eddington at Cambridge (before degrees were awarded to women) and later made the discovery that the sun was made up mainly of hydrogen. She was the first woman to get a PhD from Harvard (Radcliffe College) and later became the first female Professor of Astronomy and Head of Department. You can read about her in her autobiography Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943- ) is a British astrophysicist whose pivotal role in the discovery of pulsars netted her supervisor Anthony Hewish the Nobel Prize (shared with Martin Ryle). As in the case of Franklin, I feel strongly that she should have shared the prize with Hewish and Ryle. However, Bell Burnell continued her pursuit of science, taught at many distinguished universities and is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford. She is one of my heroes.

Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749) was an eminent mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and Voltaire’s lover. She is best known for her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French. You can read about her in David Bodanis’ Passionate Minds: The Great Love Affair of the Englightenment.

And finally, just to round off this post on a positive note, let’s not forget Marie Curie who won the Nobel Prize twice: in Physics for her work on radioactivity together with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel and in Chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium. And her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with her husband Frédéric for the discovery of artificial radiation. Incredible.