This week in our Because of Her: Seal Celebrates Women series, we bring you activists, scientists, writers, and an esteemed mathematician. Whether in arts, politics, or in STEM fields, women are making their mark on the world and deserve recognition for their work–not just during Women’s History Month, but every day.
“It would be nearly impossible to exaggerate the impact Patricia Goldman-Rakic has had on the understanding of the human mind, and on the development of the field of neuroscience.” (Source: Vassar College Encyclopedia.)
After earning her bachelor’s degree in neurobiology and her doctorate in developmental Psychology, Dr. Goldman-Rakic was offered a fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health and began studying the frontal and prefrontal cortices of the brain. At the time, the neuroscience community believed that these parts of the brain, responsible for intelligence, personality, memory processing, and behavior, were too complex to be ever be fully understood, and were therefore outside the realm of scientific duty. Undaunted, Dr. Goldman-Rakic went on to map the prefrontal cortex, describing its circuitry and its relationship to working memory, an unprecedented feat that underlies the study of most neurological disorders today.
She then turned her attention to the frontal cortex, becoming the leading mind in neocortical studies. Her work completely changed the field of neuroscience. According to Vassar, “Everything that is done today regarding comprehension of brain functioning is a result of Goldman-Rakic’s revolutionary and tireless efforts.” Her further work on neurotransmitter systems and the dopamine system in particular has led to a deeper understanding and treatment of conditions like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, ADD, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s, and dementia.
Dr. Goldman-Rakic was elected to the National Academy of the Arts and Sciences and to the Institute of Medicine. She was a prolific writer and researcher, a mentor of other women scientists, and has been greatly honored for her groundbreaking work. Although she was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 66, Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic’s place as the preeminent neuroscientist—not female neuroscientist, but neuroscientist—of our time is assured.
Anna Mae Aquash
The story of Anna Mae Aquash is one of tragedy, but also of fierce and unwavering activism.
Born into the Mi’kmaq First Nation people in 1945, Anna Mae Pictou grew up in poverty. She moved to Boston after her first marriage and became involved with other First Nations people from Canada, including members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who were organizing to combat police brutality at the time. Through them, she became a teacher with the TRIBES program to teach young American Indians about their history. She participated in a wide variety of direct actions, such as the Thanksgiving Day occupation of the Mayflower II in 1970, and the Trail of Broken Treaties march to Washington, DC, where protestors occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs to present their demands regarding treaty issues. She also helped to create the Boston Indian Council (now the North American Indian Center of Boston).
In 1973 Anna married Nogeeshik Aquash and traveled to South Dakota to join AIM activists and Oglala Lakota to support what became the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee. Afterwards she stayed in Minneapolis, continuing to fight for native education, health, and safety from police brutality alongside other AIM supporters and Ojibwe activists. She was arrested twice in 1975, which led to suspicions within AIM that she was a government informant. This was not an unfounded fear, as AIM and other anti-racist organizations such as the Black Panthers had previously been infiltrated and sabotaged by the FBI.
Aquash disappeared December 1975, and her body was found two months later, presumably dead of exposure. Eight days after her burial she was exhumed by request of AIM and her family, and a second autopsy found she had been executed. Although two men were indicted for her murder, mystery continues to surround the tragic circumstances of her death.
Aquash was buried in her homeland of Nova Scotia, and was honored with the appropriate Mi’kmaq ceremonies celebrating the work and life of an activist of her caliber. Family and supporters have held anniversary ceremonies celebrating her ever since.
Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson
The Stonewall Riot is an iconic moment in LGBT history, where queer people came together to defend one of the few safe spaces they had at the time, and a tipping point in visibility and momentum for the modern queer rights movement. What people often forget is that this moment and movement was started and supported by two fierce trans women of color: Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera.
Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was a drag queen, sex worker, and gay liberation activist. She was the first to start fighting back when the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn, shouting “I got my civil rights!” and throwing a shot glass at the mirror, known later as “the ‘shot glass’ heard round the world.” Sylvia Rivera, a drag queen and trans woman of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, also participated in the riot.
In the 1970s, Johnson and Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). The group was based in New York City and sheltered, fed, and worked with homeless drag queens and transgender women of color, especially queer youth. Johnson and Rivera were a visible presence at gay liberation marches, pride parades, and other radical actions. Johnson was an organizer and marshal with ACT UP, and is depicted (without credit) in Andy Warhol’s photography.
Tragically, Johnson was found dead in the Hudson River after the 1992 Pride March. Police refused to investigate, and ruled the death a suicide despite protests from her friends and direct evidence to the contrary. Although her case was recently re-opened and ruled a probably homicide, it remains unsolved. Johnson’s death devastated Rivera, but after an attempted suicide in 1995, Rivera rededicated herself to her activism. She continued marching in Pride parades around the world, giving extensive interviews on the movement, and speaking about the necessity of unity among transgender and gender-nonconforming people in order to preserve the historic legacy of trans women in sparking the queer rights movement, despite many attempts at erasure by mainstream queer rights groups.
Rivera resurrected STAR (updated to stand for Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries) to be an active political group, lobbying for the New York City Transgender Rights Bill and for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.
Rivera and Johnson were both tireless fighters for trans rights, but their work was deeply intersectional with issues of poverty, racism, and transmisogyny (a word that had not even been coined at the time of Johnson’s death). Although many mainstream LGBT groups and current media (such as the recent movie Stonewall) have ignored their contributions to intersectional struggles and queer rights, they are not forgotten, and their legacy lives on.
Check out the YouTube video Pay It No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson or this amazing interview of Sylvia Rivera by Leslie Feinberg to learn more about these two groundbreaking activists.
“I felt that I had to write. Even if I had never been published, I knew that I would go on writing, enjoying it and experiencing the challenge.” –Gwendolyn Brooks
One of the few modern poets to be celebrated within her lifetime, Gwendolyn Brooks was a brilliant poet and activist. She won a fellowship with the Guggenheim and the Academy of Arts & Letters, and became the first black person to ever win a Pulitzer Prize by the age of 32. She was named Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968, and became the Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress in 1985.
Gwendolyn Brooks grew up in Chicago, and the black culture of Chicago was a formative influence on her future work. She began writing poetry at an early age, publishing poems frequently in a local newspaper by the time she was seventeen. She attended a leading white high school in Chicago, which gave her a deep perspective on the racial dynamics of her city. After working for the NAACP, she began writing poetry that focused on the black urban experience. She wrote frequently about the poverty and discrimination she witnessed around her (and especially the often tragic results of anti-black racism and toxic masculinity), and passionately about the sometimes-violent struggle for racial equality.
Her later works especially mirrored the times with “an intense awareness of the problems of color and justice.” Interested in nurturing black literature, she left her major publisher Harper & Row in favor of fledgling black publishing companies; consequently her later works received less acclaim, as she felt critics “did not wish to encourage Black publishers.” She was particularly criticized for her book Riot, where the anger present in her poems about rebellion and civil rights was called “celebrating violence.” Her poems have once more become particularly relevant as the United States becomes increasingly aware of institutional racism and violence.
Click here for a list of some of her most famous poems, and find below one that encapsulates her determination to keep on fighting for what was right.
“Speech to the Young : Speech to the Progress-Toward”
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
“even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.
The first woman to ever win the Fields Medal, the most prestigious honor in mathematics, Maryam Mirzakhani has always had an affinity for mathematics.
Born in Tehran, Maryam became interested in math in high school, and began to be known internationally after winning gold medals at both the 1994 and 1995 International Math Olympiads, finishing with a perfect score in the second competition. She moved to the US to pursue her doctorate at Harvard University under Fields Medal recipient Curtis McMullen, and went on to be a Clay Mathematics Institute Research Fellow and a professor of mathematics at Stanford University.
“The novelty of her approach made it a real tour de force,” said Steven Kerckhoff, one of Dr. Mirzakhani’s collaborators at Stanford. Her approach is unique because she draws from several techniques and mathematical arenas, pulling together disparate pieces in a new way that has allowed her to break through into new frontiers of mathematics, such as low dimensional topology.
Dr. Mirzakhani’s work delves into pure mathematics, investigating abstract concepts that might have no immediate or clear application. Her research is driven by a curiosity to understand the basic mathematical structures of the universe. The work that earned her the Fields medal, which was concerned with the symmetry of curved surfaces in geometry and dynamical systems, may have an impact on the theories of how the universe came to exist, and also have secondary applications in engineering, the study of prime numbers, and cryptography.
“I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Mirzakhani has stated in regards to being awarded the Fields Medal. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”
Willyce Kim was a poet, feminist, writer, photographer, and trailblazer. Born in Honolulu in 1946, Kim was the first openly lesbian Asian American poet to be published in the US.
Growing up in California and Hawaii, Kim knew she was a lesbian from an early age, and describes herself as a tomboy. She won a writing contest at school at the age of nine, and went on to study English Literature at Lone Mountain College. Kim is the author of three books of poetry: Curtains of Light, Eating Artichokes, and Under the Rolling Sky, and two novels: Dancer Dawkins and the California Kid and its sequel Dead Heat.
In the 1970’s she worked for the Women’s Press Collective in Oakland, CA, helping to forge the west coast’s lesbian feminist movement and culture, along with other Asian American lesbian writers like Kitty Tsui and Merle Woo. Kim was particularly influential as a writer, connecting the struggles she felt as a lesbian with the issues she faced as an Asian American. Kim believed in and worked hard for the visibility of both communities, and her work deeply reflects the feminist belief that “the personal is political.”
Kim’s work, as well as most work with explicitly queer themes, was published in zines or by small feminist presses that no longer exist, much of Kim’s poetry is difficult to find. Below is one of her poems from Eating Artichokes. In a time where people were only just beginning to hear queer voices, her work speaks for itself.
“Some Thoughts for the Common Woman’s Poet”
I’ve heard you
crush the noise
in a room.
I’ve heard you
as every ear
as my eyes
a room fill
from the raw
as every hand should cup
the living juice
of your words,
as my head
has been turned
let every woman’s head
turn and rise
turn and rise,
the lines of fire
the flames burning
from your god-damn
The first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the “Genius Grant,” Octavia E. Butler is one of the best-known and most beloved sci-fi writers.
Tall for her age and shy as a child, Butler buried herself in books despite some slight dyslexia. She grew up in the racially integrated community of Pasadena, California, but became well acquainted with racism and white supremacy by accompanying her mother to her cleaning work and seeing how her mother was treated by her various employers. This experience would be the foundation of one of her best-loved novels, Kindred.
Butler was fascinated by science fiction from an early age, but became frustrated with the genre’s problematic and formulaic portrayal of ethnicity and class, and its lack of worthy representation for women and people of color.
Despite struggles in her early career, and with the friendship and mentorship of famous science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, Butler went on to publish a dozen novels and many short stories, winning multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards. Her books include the Patternist series, the Xenogenesis series, the Earthseed series, and two stand-alone novels, Kindred and Fledgling.
Often associated with the genre Afrofuturism due to her focus on African American identity and experience through a sci-fi lens, Butler’s work harshly critiques modern hierarchies such as racism, sexism, classism and “all the other ‘isms’ that cause so much suffering in the world,” and feature mixed and alternative communities. Her protagonists in particular demonstrate survival as a kind of heroism, enduring violence and disenfranchisement any way they can, and embracing radical change as a solution to violent hierarchies.
Butler resisted being seen as a genre author despite writing primarily science fiction, and her stories have fans from a huge variety of backgrounds and experiences. She claimed to have three highly loyal audiences: black readers, science fiction fans, and feminists. There is a scholarship in her name that enables writers of color to attend the very writers workshop that launched her career.
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