A number of years ago when I was still working as a mentor for education students at the University of Winnipeg I sat in on a high school chemistry lesson where a student of mine was introducing his grade nine class to some of the great chemists in history.
They were all men!
When I asked him if there weren’t any female chemists he might have mentioned he wasn’t sure where to find information about them.
That shouldn’t be a problem anymore because as I learned from watching a story on the CBS Sunday morning show in January a dedicated young scientist named Jess Wade has made it her personal mission to write 1,750 Wikipedia pages for female scientists who have made important contributions to their field but have been overlooked.
Jess is an award-winning 33-year-old British physicist who began writing articles for Wikipedia about female scientists in 2017. In an interview with the Washington Post she said, “not only are there not enough women in science, but we also aren’t doing enough to celebrate the ones we already have.”
Some of the women Jess has profiled are Dr Sarah Gilbert, an Oxford vaccinologist who helped develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and has had an honorary Barbie doll created in her likeness.
Jess has written about Kim Cobb an environmental scientist doing groundbreaking work on how climate change is affecting oceans
She created a Wikipedia entry for Ijeoma Uchegbu who is researching among other things how nanotechnology can be used to treat brain tumours.
A Canadian female scientist Jess has researched and written about is Ann Makosinski who invented the thermoelectric flashlight.
I learned from the CBS profile of Jess Wade that only about 20% of the biographies on Wikipedia are of women.
But………. a group of editorsand writersfrom around the world called Women in Red is working hard to change that by adding biographies of women who have made important contributions in many different fields throughout history.
When I was in grade two I attended Sir John Franklin School in Winnipeg. It was torn down in 1991 but I have distinct memories of my time there, my friends at the school, and my teacher Miss Ushey.
Since I have used Sir John Franklin School as a setting in my upcoming novel Sixties Girl, I started researching the explorer Sir John Franklin for whom the school was named when it opened its doors in 1921.
I wondered why you would name a school after a man who essentially failed at the most important mission he was asked to carry out – to find the Northwest Passage. He never did. All the men on his expedition died and the two ships he commanded for the trip both sank.
So why did he attain a heroic place in history that led educational authorities in Winnipeg to name a school after him? Good question.
Well, it turns out that the reputation and legacy of Sir John Franklin were protected and fiercely defended by his wife Jane, who some of her biographers insist, singlehandedly turned her husband from a failure into one of England’s noblest heroes.
Jane was a world traveller herself and used her money and influence and writing skills to make her husband and his doomed mission legendary…. even though John Franklin was anything but a dashing hero. According to one biographer Sir John was old and unfit and a bit of a thorn in the side of naval authorities when he set sail in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage and subsequently perished.
Jane financed five different missions to find her lost husband and these voyages made such a major contribution to the mapping of the Arctic that Jane was awarded a special medal by the Royal Geographical Society.
In 1854 explorer Dr John Rae, who was on one of the missions to look for the lost Franklin expedition found evidence the crew members had resorted to cannabilism before they died. He learned a great deal about the expedition from his contacts with local Inuit people.
Lady Jane Franklin worked tirelessly to shift the narrative so that this story was discredited. She enlisted the help of author Charles Dickens to have Dr Rae’s reputation sullied and have him ostracized from society.
Later evidence proved Rae was right about the Franklin crew’s cannibalismand also proved that Franklin and his crew had died because they were too arrogant to ask for help or communicate with the Inuit people who might have helped save their lives once their ships were stranded.
Jane would however brook no criticism of her husband. She was a lively and interesting writer who lionized Sir John in her work, naming him the discoverer of the Northwest Passage even though many explorers had found it before and it wouldn’t be till 1906 that Roald Amundsen would actually sail the entire passage.
Jane paid for a memorial for her husband in Westminster Abbey and a statue of him in Waterloo Place in Londonand it was due to her influence and lobbying that the Queen knighted her husband shortly after she married him.
While Sir John Franklin has been lauded in song and story in Canada and his name is affixed to all kinds of buildingsand geographical locations, interestingly a small island in British Columbia’s Fraser River is named after Jane Franklin and commemorates her stay in the nearby community of Yale in 1861 when at age 68 she was on one of her many life-long travel adventures.
Jane actually logged many more travel miles in her lifetime than her husband ever didand wrote about them in 200 interesting travel journals and 2000 letters to friends and family.
Researching this post led me to discover all kinds of interesting things about Jane Franklin too numerous to share here. I’d like to read some of the books and novels that have been written about her.
Jane Franklin was definitely a formidable female force. Her husband can thank her for the fact that many people nearly a 180 years after he died still recognize his name.
Perhaps the school I attended in grade two in Winnipeg should have been named after Jane Franklin instead of her husband.
In a new exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery called Headlines: The Art of the News there is a photographic portrait of Ella Cora Hind. Later she dropped the Ella from her name and came to be known as Cora Hind.
When I toured the Headlines exhibit with curator Riva Symko she told us Cora had been an agricultural reporter known for her uncanny way of correctly predicting wheat prices.
Cora often dressed in men’s pants, something quite shocking for a woman at the time, and tramped through Manitoba grain fields to collect information to write her agricultural stories for the paper.
Cora was born in 1861 in Ontario. Both her parents had died by the time she was five and so she and her two brothers went to live with their grandfather who taught Cora all about farming. Cora wanted to become a teacher but she failed the algebra part of her qualification exam. So together with her Aunt Alice, she decided to move to Winnipeg in 1882where they’d heard there might be employment opportunities.
Cora had always dreamed of becoming a journalist so when she arrived in Winnipeg she went to see William Luxton the editor of the Manitoba Free Press. He was a friend of one of Cora’s uncles and so welcomed her warmly to his office, but was shocked when she said she wanted to write for the paper. Luxton told Cora women didn’t write for newspapers. Being a reporter was rough work often involving interviewing less than-savoury people. It wasn’t for a woman.
Cora wasn’t deterred. She heard about a new office machine called a typewriter. She rented one, learned to type and got herself a job working for the lawyer Hugh John McDonald. But she was still interested in farming and grain growing and in 1898 started making crop predictions. Farmers came to trust her expertise and knowledge and she would submit articles about farming to the newspaper under the name E. Hind.
In 1901 the brand new editor of the Winnipeg Free Press John Dafoe, being a little more forward-thinking than Mr Luxton, hired her as an agricultural reporter.
Cora would go on to earn an international reputation as an agricultural journalist and her predictions about harvest yields soon were the accepted source for establishing the price of Canadian wheat. She became known as kind of an ‘oracle of wheat’ for her accurate crop predictions.
She was also famous for the way she strode through grain fields in riding breeches, high leather boots and a Stetson hat. She went across Canada inspecting farms. In 1924 she travelled more than 10,000 kilometres checking out crops.
Cora founded the Winnipeg branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club and helped form the Political Equality League with other Winnipeg suffragettes campaigning for women to get the right to vote in Manitoba which they did in 1916.
Cora Hind was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Manitoba in 1935.
When Cora died in 1942 they halted trading at the Winnipeg Grain Exchange for two minutes in her memory.
They worked for more than 20 years to earn the right to vote!! When I visited Quebec City I learned about an amazing trio who dedicated themselves to securing the right to vote for Quebec women. Canadian women earned the right to vote federally in 1918 but it wasn’t till 22 years later that women in Quebec attained the right to vote in provincial elections. Equal voting privileges for women became a reality because of the dedication of Thérèse Casgrain, Idola St. Jean and Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie.
Thérèse Casgrain led the League for Women’s Rights and hosted a Radio Canada program for women called Fémina. Idola St. Jean was a McGill professor who led the Canadian Alliance for Women’s Vote in Quebec. She wrote a bilingual column for the Montreal Herald. In 1933 she founded the magazine La Sphère féminine. Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie was on the Provincial Committee for Women’s Suffrage. She organized female workers and fought for the right for women to attend university. She wrote a book about women and the law.
These determined women and their organizations faced all kinds of adversaries. The clergy, politicians, journalists, and even most women in Quebec did not think women should be full-fledged citizens with the same legal rights as men. They believed a woman’s place was in the home raising a future generation of French- Canadians.
A statue on the grounds of the Quebec Legislature honors these determined women. They repeatedly organized marches in Quebec City to gain recognition for their cause. They sent King George V a petition signed by 10,000 Quebec women. Each year they managed to find a politician willing to sponsor a bill in the Quebec legislature granting women the right to vote. It took the introduction of fourteen such bills before one was successfully passedon April 18, 1940.
These three Quebec women fought long and hard for the right to vote. At a time when many states in our neighboring country are passing laws that will make it harder for some people to exercise their right to vote, we need to remember that within some of our own provinces here in Canada it wasn’t that long ago that the right to vote excluded half the population. Thérèse Casgrain, Idola St. Jean, andMarie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie remind us to appreciate our right to vote and never take it for granted.
Ladies in Black is a pure treat of a movie, completely engaging but not escapist fare by any means. I just watched it on Netflix and it truly took me into another world for a blissful couple of hours. Set in Sydney Australia in 1959 the show follows a group of women who work in the dress department of a huge store called Goode’s.
Each woman has her own story to tell and each provides a lovely arc of its own as its intertwines with the other stories. We meet Fay who is looking for a prince of a guy and can’t find him. There is Lisa, the young high school student who longs for a life different than the one of her good-hearted working-class parents. Her eyes are opened to a whole new world of culture and style by Magda a recent immigrant from Slovenia with a deadly fashion sense who sells the high- end dresses in the department. Finally there is Patty who is struggling to figure out why her young husband is so cold and distant .
The sets and costumes are spot on and the film transports you back fifty years with aplomb and perfection. Ladies in Black accurately depicts the attitudes towards women and sex and immigrants that were just beginning to change in the 60s.
I also really loved the film because it was shot in and around the Sydney area where we visited once for a couple of weeks. One scene takes place at Manley Beach where we rented a picturesque cottage and another in the Blue Mountainswhere we stayed at a cosy bed and breakfast.
If you are looking for a delightful evening of viewing I can highly recommend Ladies in Black. (No relation whatsoever to Men in Black) If you care about such things the film got an 88% positive rating on the Rotten Tomatoes site. I totally agreed with Australian film critic David Stratton who said about Ladies in Black “It brims with subtext and nuance and at the same time succeeds in being thoroughly enjoyable entertainment.”
I found Ladies in Black utterly charming and can highly recommend it.
I started following a group called The Female Lead on Twitter and I am so inspired by their regular posts that highlight what a different world we might have if women had been given equal rights throughout history and if women, instead of primarily men, were leading the world at this critical juncture. Some of the posts are quotes from women that help us see things in new ways.
Jacinda Arden the prime minister of New Zealand is being praised for her leadership during the current pandemic
I really rebel against this idea that politics has to be a place full of ego where you’re constantly focused on scoring hits against each one another. Yes, we need a robust democracy, but you can be strong, and you can be kind.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg- American Supreme Court Justice- photo public domain
When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough women on the Supreme Court and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’s been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.
The Female Lead doesn’t just have quotes, however. Sometimes they feature fabulous cartoons like this one by Lunar Baboon.
The Female Lead has also introduced me to lots of women I didn’t know about who have done and are doing incredible things. Like…………
Dr Gladys West- photo in the public domain
Dr Gladys West one of the lead inventors of GPS Technology. She is known for her contributions towards the mathematical modelling of the shape of the earth and……….
Althea Gibson – photo public domain
Althea Neale Gibson who in 1956 became the first Black person to win a Grand Slam tennis title!
I am finding that right now I need to make sure my Twitter feed and my other sources of social media are filled with positive, inspiring messages that give me hope. The Female Lead fills the bill nicely. My only criticism of the site is that I wish I’d see more Canadian women on its feed. Maybe I need to send them some suggestions or maybe I need to start a Female Lead twitter page focused on Canadian women myself.