Happy International Women’s Day!

Today, March 8, is celebrated as International Women’s Day across the world. As with many other holidays, it has evolved over time in its meaning and means of celebration. Initially, the day had a political purpose promoting the rights of women, particularly working women, demanding suffrage, and celebrating accomplishments. This is still true in many countries, although in some places the focus is simply an occasion to express love and appreciation of the women in our lives.

Maasai women rally for International Women's Day in Tanzania in 2013, by Thomson Safaris (source)

Maasai women rally for International Women’s Day in Tanzania in 2013, by Thomson Safaris (source)

The earliest observance was in the United States on 28 February 1909 in remembrance of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union strike of 1908. The next year, at a women’s conference in Denmark, a proposal for an International Woman’s Day was put forth and agreed upon. Although no official date was decided at the time, on 19 March 1911 over a million people demonstrated across Europe promoting equal rights and suffrage for women.

The date for International Women’s Day wasn’t uniformly fixed as March 8 until 1914. That year in Germany, the marches were focused on women’s suffrage, which they finally won in 1918. This poster urges women to join the fight. It’s English translation is as follows: “Give Us Women’s Suffrage. Women’s Day, March 8, 1914. Until now, prejudice and reactionary attitudes have denied full civic rights to women, who as workers, mothers, and citizens wholly fulfill their duty, who must pay their taxes to the state as well as the municipality. Fighting for this natural human right must be the firm, unwavering intention of every woman, every female worker. In this, no pause for rest, no respite is allowed. Come all, you women and girls, to the 9th public women’s assembly on Sunday, March 8, 1914, at 3pm.”

International Women's Day poster from Germany 8 March 1914 (source)

International Women’s Day poster from Germany 8 March 1914 (source)

In 1917, International Women’ Day demonstrations were particularly effective in Russia. Held on the last Sunday in February (March 8 on the Gregorian calendar) women marched in St. Petersburg calling for an end to food shortages, czarism, and World War I. The slogan was “Bread and Peace” and touched off the February Revolution. Although it lasted less than a week, it resulted in the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and paved the way for the October Revolution later in the year.

In many countries, particularly in the east, the day is an official holiday including time off from work. In others women receive flowers and gifts similar to Mother’s Day. In 1975, the United Nations began sponsoring the day, and since 1996, they have proposed a theme for each year. This year, 2015, the UN theme is “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity. Picture it!”, highlighting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995.

Afghan girls sing at a celebration of International Women's Day in 2002 (source)

Afghan girls sing at a celebration of International Women’s Day in 2002 (source)

The overall theme for 2015 for International Women’s Day is “Make it Happen” – for greater awareness of women’s equality, for more women in senior leadership roles, for fairer recognition of women in sport, for equal recognition of women in the arts, for growth of women owned businesses, for increased financial independence of women, and for more women in science, engineering, and technology. You can follow on twitter @womensday and use the hashtag #MakeItHappen to join in the discussion.

Commemorating International Women's Day in Cameroon, 2006

Commemorating International Women’s Day in Cameroon, 2006 (source)

What are your plans? Will you join in the celebration? Let us know in the comments.

 

Harriet Boyd Hawes – On the Dig at Kavousi

The throne at Knossos was discovered while Boyd was visiting.

The throne at Knossos was discovered while Boyd was visiting before she began her search for a site.

In 1965, the journal Archaeology published two articles from the memoirs and letters of Harriet Boyd Hawes. The materials were provided by her daughter, Mrs. Mary N. Allsebrook, who also wrote a biography of her mother. I enjoyed reading them and I thought I’d share a little with you about Harriet’s first excavation at Kavousi. Links to both articles are below.

Background

Crete had been under Ottoman rule since the seventeenth century, but there were a number of uprisings in the late 19th century. In August 1898, hundreds of Cretan Greeks were massacred along with the British Consul and 17 British soldiers. As a result, Turkish forces were expelled from the island and an autonomous Cretan State was established under the protection of an international force with Prince George of Greece as the High Commissioner.

This change in the political landscape opened the door for archaeologists and “England, Italy and France applied for sites on which to excavate.” The American school at Athens that Harriet attended had all of its funds tied up in excavations at Corinth, so Harriet “believing that Americans ought, if possible, to have a share in the exploration of Crete,” decided to use what money was left from her fellowship and explore.

Crete is a beautiful island with many mountains. Source Tango7174, Wikimedia Commons.

Crete is a beautiful island with many mountains. Source Tango7174, Wikimedia Commons.

Arriving on Crete

On April 10, 1900, Harriet set sail with a Miss Patten of Boston who wanted to study plant life, their foreman Aristides Pappadias and his mother. They were “much tossed about” in a dingy little boat before they spied the walls of the fort guarding the harbor of Candia. Their luggage was tossed on another boat and Harriet says, “I was lifted and swung from steamer to boat by a huge Soudanese, black as Egypt’s darkness, who seemed to enjoy immensely the exercise of his strength. It must have been a funny site – the boat plunging up and down, for the waves were high, and I wriggling in the big black man’s arms, in mid air.”

They were met by a man from Arthur Evans staff and made welcome at the British School house and the excavation at Knossos. They soon rented a little house of their own for $4/month where their lives were simple. They had “a table, two chairs, our two cot-beds, a few cupboards and boxes – plates etc. enough to serve with very frequent washing.” Aristides did the shopping and Manna, his mother, did the cooking and housekeeping.

Finding Their Site

Game table found at the chief's house at Kavousi. (source)

Game table found at the chief’s house at Kavousi. (source)

When they set out to explore, they had no roads to follow, only mule tracks. Manna stayed behind in charge of the house, and Harriet, Jean (I assume this is Miss Patten) and Aristides took off on their mules with a guide. They encountered numerous villages which had suffered during the conflicts which ended just a couple of years before. They encountered “villages, many of which we found utterly ruined, about an equal number of Mohammedan villages burned by Christians, and of Christian villages burned by Mohammedans.”

Although Harriet had visited many excavation sites in Greece, she was unsure of her ability to see and select her own site. She talked to the locals, asking about items they had found in the fields, but said that “it is not easy to discriminate between worthless gossip and valuable evidence.”

Aristides was evidently an impressive man , dressed in traditional Greek clothes associated with patriotic heroes. He rode ahead of the ladies and ordered coffee, treating others and laying the groundwork. When the ladies arrived it was assumed that they were very important since they accompanied someone like Aristides. Soon people began to bring them items that they had found and offer to show them the locations.

Everywhere they went they were treated exceptionally well. It was Holy Week, but they were offered wonderful food even though most people were eating sparsely for Lent. They were also offered shelter every night. Harriet thought there were three main reasons for the hospitality: 1) the Cretans were hospitable people, 2) the village they excavated at would benefit financially, and 3) the fact that ladies could travel without fear was evidence that the land was safe again.

An example of pithoi found on Crete, ca. 675 BCE, Louvre Museum. Image: Jastrow, PD, Wikimedia Commons

An example of pithoi found on Crete, ca. 675 BCE, Louvre Museum. Image: Jastrow, PD, Wikimedia Commons

They couldn’t dig without official authorization, so they had to make their selection based on what they found above ground, but were surprised how much there was to choose from. But Kavousi had been recommended by Arthur Evans, so they wanted to wait until they had seen it.

When they reached Kavousi, the people welcomed them warmly and as usual began to show them pieces they had found. Harriet saw several locations where she believed tombs existed, but she made up her mind when an “old, old man” brought her “three fine early bronzes.” At the site where he found them, she found a “small acropolis and many early walls” and what she thought would be a temple.

Harriet made up her mind to excavate at Kavousi and wasted no time obtaining permission. They “made sixty miles from Kavousi in two days – quite fast for mules and wooden saddles.” She submitted her petition at Herakleion and waited. She wrote home, “I hope within five days to have permission to excavate ‘in the neighborhood of Kavousi and Episcope,’ and within ten days I hope to be at work with thirty men.”

On the dig

Harriet and Miss Patten rented a small house to live in and for their headquarters at Kavousi. It had a wooden gate that led into a courtyard surrounded by “storerooms, stables and kitchen.” The room where they slept was reached from the roof of one of the storerooms and was one of only two rooms in the village with a wooden floor. They placed tables and chairs on one of the roofs where they had a spectacular view. They were pleased with the available food: sheep’s milk, eggs, bread, lamb, chicken, artichokes and beans, with olive oil and spices. Canned food was used only for lunch at the site.

On the first day after they were settled, Aristides asked the men of the village who wanted to dig to come to the courtyard. Harriet was familiar with the language because of her nursing activities during the war, so together they chose ten men who became “Firsts.” These men took on supervisory roles as more workers were added and nine of them stayed with Harriet throughout all of her excavations on Crete.

Men who worked at Kavousi on the excavation. Most worked with Boyd for the rest of her digs on Crete.

Men who worked at Kavousi on the excavation. Most worked with Boyd for the rest of her digs on Crete (from “Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete”).

At times the digging was boring and seemed unfruitful, but finally an exciting find was made on the Kastro, a 2000 foot peak. They transferred the workmen and “daily made the difficult ascent on mules as far as the Ridge, an hour’s climb, whence we reached the top by a hand and foot scramble.” There they excavated what Harriet called the “home of a Highland Chief of Homer’s time.”

Another exciting find occurred near the end of the season when she allowed two boys to dig at a place that didn’t seem promising at all. She gave them permission because she didn’t want to discourage their enthusiasm, but when they yelled “Lady, Lady” she knew they had found something exciting. It turned out to be a bee-hive tomb that was undisturbed from 3000 years earlier. In this tomb they found skeletons, vases, a large pithos and many small metal objects.

Girls were hired to wash pottery at the site (source).

Girls were hired to wash pottery at the site (from “Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete”).

Overall, Harriet was very pleased and so were the villagers. “They would have much to discuss through the winter, much to tell passing travelers, and could claim for Kavousi an importance it had never before enjoyed among the villages of Eastern Crete.”

Although the digging was over for the season, Harriet’s work wasn’t done. She headed back to Candia where she spent time writing her report to the American School at Athens and cataloging her finds. Harriet’s excavation at Kavousi was the first on Crete led by an American and she undertook it purely on her own initiative. The next time she returned it would be to excavate for the American Exploration Society of Philadelphia.

Read more about Harriet Boyd Hawes – Archaeologist

Resources
American Journal of Archaeology: Excavations at Kavousi, Crete, in 1900  by Harriet A. Boyd

These two articles are behind a subscription wall at JSTOR. However, you can register free and read three articles every fourteen days and her writing is delightful.
Archaeology: Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes
Archaeology: Part II Memoirs of a Pioneer Excavator in Crete by Harriet Boyd Hawes

Clara Lemlich – A Lifetime of Organizing

Clara Lemlich in 1910

Clara Lemlich in 1910

I first heard of Clara Lemlich on the American Experience special “Triangle Fire” about the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911.  Prior to the fire, in the fall of 1909, garment workers in New York City went out on  a massive strike referred to as the Uprising of 20.000.  Clara Lemlich’s words prompted the final decision to strike.

Clara Lemlich was born in Gorodok, Ukraine on March 28, 1886. Her family was Jewish and primarily spoke Yiddish, but against her parent’s wishes Clara learned to read Russian and devoured as many books as she could get. She did sewing and wrote letters for illiterate neighbors in order to raise money for books. It was during this time that a neighbor introduced her to revolutionary literature and she became a socialist.

In 1903, after the Russian Orthodox celebration of Easter, a riot began against the Jews in Kishinev the capital of the Bessarabia province of the Russian Empire (now the capital of Moldova.) The pogrom continued without intervention of the police or military until the third day resulting in approximately 50 deaths, 600 wounded, and 700 houses and businesses looted and destroyed. After this pogrom and a second one in 1905, tens of thousands of Jews left the Russian Empire for the west. The Lemlich family was among them.

The pogram in 1903 captured the attention of the world. Theodore Roosevelt telling the tsar to stop oppressing the Jews.

The pogram in 1903 captured the attention of the world. Theodore Roosevelt telling the tsar to stop oppressing the Jews.

Clara immigrated with her family in 1903 to New York City and quickly found work in the garment industry. The conditions in the factories were terrible with low pay, long hours, lack of advancement, and often humiliating treatment from supervisors. The introduction of the sewing machine, rather than making the work easier, served to increase the required output for each day. Workers were often subcontracted and paid even less than those hired directly. Lemlich along with others rebelled against these conditions and joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. She quickly became a leader, organizing strikes and even returning to the picket line after being injured.

On November 22, 1909, a mass meeting was held at Cooper Union to rally support for striking workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and the Leiserson Company. (Clara had been arrested 17 times while picketing outside the Leiserson factory, been beaten, and left bloody on the sidewalk with broken ribs in September.) Leaders in the labor movement and socialist movement spoke for a couple of hours and Clara grew impatient. Finally, she asked to be heard and was raised to the platform. I’ve read a couple of different versions of what Clara said that night. It could be because she spoke in Yiddish and the differences are in the translation, but basically she said that she was tired of talk. She had listened patiently to generalities, but they were there to make a decision, so she moved that they make the decision to strike. The crowd responded and voted for a general strike beginning the next day. Approximately 20,000 workers went out on strike the next day. It lasted until February 10, 1910, with union contracts at most shops. Sadly, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory held out and refused to make changes or allow the Union into their shop. Then on March 25, 1911, it became the site of a fire that took the lives of 146 people, mostly women and girls.

The fire department arrived quickly, but their ladders didn't reach to the floors where the workers were trapped.

The fire department arrived quickly, but their ladders didn’t reach to the floors where the workers were trapped.

After the Uprising, Lemlich was blacklisted from the garment industry and at odds with the more conservative leadership in the Union. She then took up the cause of women’s suffrage. She believed that suffrage was necessary to improve working women’s lives. Everyone around them in the workplace, the bosses, foremen, inspectors, and owners, were almost all men and they had a vote, but the working women had no vote. The primary suffrage organization, The National American Woman Suffrage Association, was oriented toward middle and upper class women, so she founded the Wage Earners League as a working woman’s alternative. The Wage Earners League, an alternative to the NAWSA was however, dependent on non-working class women for support. It soon passed out of existence and Clara continued her work for suffrage through the Women’s Trade Union League.

Her life took a different direction when Clara married Joe Shavelson in 1913. They moved to a working-class neighborhood and eventually to Brighten Beach. Clara had 3 children, Irving Charles Velson, Martha Shavelson Schaffer and Rita Shavelson Margules and didn’t return to work full-time for the next 30 years. She didn’t give up organizing however. While she devoted herself to raising her family she joined with other Jewish housewives to protest high prices and fight evictions through rent strikes. With Kate Gitlow, she organized the United Council of Working Class Housewives for this purpose and to raise money for relief for strikers.

Striking Garment Workers

Striking Garment Workers

During this time Clara had become a member of the Communist Party, from which she launched the United Council of Working Class Women. This organization was very successful for a time with over 50 branches in NYC and branches in Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit. Although the Council recruited among Communist Party members, it didn’t identify with the Party or press members to join. It eventually was renamed the Progressive Women’s Councils which prompted the Party to withdraw support. Nevertheless in the early 1950s, the PWC was forced to shut down because of Communist Party affiliations.

Clara finally retired from garment work in 1954 and had to fight to get a pension. Over the following years, she was involved in various activities through the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs, which she helped to found. She protested nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, and campaigned for ratification of the UN Convention on Genocide and Civil Rights reform.

After her second husband, Abe Goldman, died in 1967, Clara moved to California to be near her children. She moved into the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles, and even there she organized. She convinced the management to join with the United Farm Worker’s boycott of grapes and lettuce, and organized the workers at the Home. I think it’s safe to say that Clara Lemlich agitated and organized as long as she was physically able. She died on July 25, 1982 at the age of 96

Clara Lemlich 2

Resources
“One Woman Who Changed the Rules”, Dwyer, Jim (March 22, 2011) New York Times  (From this article you can click through to see a series of articles published about the Triangle Fire.)
Clara Lemlich” – Wikipedia
The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire – Cornell University website
“Remembering the Waistmakers General Strike, 1909″ (pdf)
The Labor Wars by Sidney Lens
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Nellie Taft, Eliza Scidmore, and Japanese Cherry Trees

386px-Washington_C_D.C._Tidal_Basin_cherry_treesHelen Herron Taft, Nellie, was the most well-traveled First Lady that the United States had seen when she entered the White House with her husband President William Howard Taft in 1909. She had seen more of the world than most Presidents much less First Ladies. So after settling in to the routines at the White House and hosting her first few events, Nellie was bored. For so many years, her husband and his career had been her purpose and now that her ultimate goal had been achieved, she needed a project.

Nellie had heard of plans to beautify the city during the time she was a Cabinet wife. She loved the idea and decided to look for a place that she could develop. She had in mind something like Luneta Park in Manila, her favorite place in the Philippines. Luneta Park was a large open space with two bandstands at opposite ends of the park overlooking the bay. Concerts were held there and it was frequented by people of all races and classes. She wanted to do something similar for the people of Washington, so at the beginning of April she went driving alone and found the perfect place along the Tidal Basin with a “road” leading to it that people had begun to race their cars on. She imagined the “Speedway” as it was called lined with beautiful Japanese Cherry trees leading down to the bandstand.

The original idea of planting cherry trees in the nation’s capitol belongs to Eliza Scidmore, an author whose brother, George Hawthorne Scidmore, was a diplomat in the Far East. Her brother’s career allowed Eliza the opportunity to travel that many women didn’t have during the 19th century. She published numerous books based on her travels and joined the National Geographic Society in 1890. She became a regular correspondent and later the Society’s first female trustee.

Eliza_Ruhamah_Scidmore

Eliza Scidmore

On Eliza’s return from the Far East in 1885, she proposed the idea of the cherry trees to Washington officials, but there was little interest at the time. Her proposal was to the US Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds. After the first rejection, she continued to propose the idea to each new Superintendent over the next 24 years.

Around 1906, another person became interested in the trees. Dr. David Fairchild, an official at the US Department of Agriculture, imported close to 100 trees to plant on his property to test their hardiness for the region. They did very well and in 1908 he gave trees to each District of Columbia school to plant for Arbor Day. During his speech he expressed a wish that the Tidal Basin could be transformed into a “Field of Cherries.”

Eliza Scidmore was in the audience that day and decided to try to raise the money herself to plant the trees. Either as a courtesy, or because she knew a First Lady could get things done, she sent a note to Nellie Taft to tell her about her plans for a field of cherry trees. This was just what Nellie was looking for and she quickly responded.

April 7, 1909

Thank you very much for your suggestion about the cherry trees. I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees, but I thought perhaps it would be best to make an avenue of them, extending down to the turn in the road, as the other part is still too rough to do any planting. Of course, they could not reflect in the water, but the effect would be very lovely of the long avenue. Let me know what you think about this.

Sincerely yours,
Helen H. Taft

First Lady Helen Taft

First Lady Helen Taft

Never shy about taking charge, Nellie took it upon herself. As soon as the First Lady made the request, the Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, Colonel Spencer Cosby, initiated the purchase of the first Japanese Cherry trees. Around the same time, Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist, was visiting Washington with the Japanese consul, Mr. Midzuno. The good doctor asked if Nellie would accept a gift of another 2000 trees, given in the name of the City of Tokyo and she accepted them.

Unfortunately, the 95 trees ordered by the Superintendent of Grounds turned out to be the wrong variety, but the worst blow was to come. The next January when the 2000 trees arrived from Japan it was discovered that they were diseased. Infested with insects and nematodes, they had to be burned to protect American growers.

Because of the nature of the gift, President Taft had to give approval for the destruction of the trees and the State Department expressed regret to the Japanese Ambassador. They understood the problem, in fact the mayor of Tokyo, Mr. Yukio Ozaki, suggested that another gift be sent. The Tokyo City Counsel approved the donation of 3020 more trees and the scions to be grafted were taken from the famous collection along the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, a suburb of Tokyo.

The Mayor of Tokyo Mr. Yukio Ozaki and his wife Viscountess Chinda

The Mayor of Tokyo Mr. Yukio Ozaki and his wife

After grafting and preparing the trees, on March 27, 1912, Washington DC’s first Cherry Tree celebration was held when First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted two cherry trees on the banks of the Tidal Basin. These original trees still stand with a plaque located near by to commemorate the occasion.

Over the next seven years the Cherry trees were planted around the Tidal Basin and in East Potomac Park. Over the next two decades, the first official Cherry Blossom Festival was held, a pageant was started, and they came to symbolize something important to the citizens of Washington. In 1938, a group of women chained themselves to some of the trees to prevent their destruction for the building of the Jefferson Memorial. A compromise was reached and the trees were moved and more were planted to frame the memorial.

Cherry Blossom Grove on the National Mall

Cherry Blossom Grove on the National Mall

The trees have continued to connect the Japanese and American people. During WWII, a few were vandalized and the trees were referred to as Oriental Cherry trees instead of Japanese Cherry trees. But after the war Japan’s trees needed help. The trees along the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, where the Washington stock originally came from, were badly damaged during the war. The city of Washington DC was able to give new stock to the city of Tokyo to replace the very trees from which they had come.

In 1965, there was another First Lady who would be known for her beautification projects. The Japanese Government gave another gift of 3,800 trees and Lady Bird Johnson with Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi, wife of Japan’s Ambassador, reenacted the original planting ceremony of 1912.

Lady Bird Johnson planting a cherry tree in 1965

Lady Bird Johnson planting a cherry tree in 1965

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is held for two weeks each year beginning on the last Saturday of March.

Resources
Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
History of the Cherry Trees

Barbara McClintock – Nobel Prize Delayed

Barbara McClintock c. 1983

Barbara McClintock c. 1983

By the 1920s in the United States, many women were going to college. In fact the percentage of women attending universities would decline and not rise to the same level again until the late 1970s. Thirty to forty percent of graduate students in the 1920s were women and 12 to 15 percent of science and engineering PhDs were women, but getting a graduate degree and getting a job were two different things. Most of these women ended up teaching in women’s colleges. Coeducational universities, government, and industry jobs were reserved for men, so for a woman such as Barbara McClintock who wanted to do scientific research the going was difficult.

At the time little was known about genes and their role in heredity. Some scientists didn’t even accept the ideas of Gregor Mendel (remember smooth and wrinkled, green and yellow peas from high school.) By the time McClintock received her PhD in 1927, she had already done ground breaking work in genetics and gathered around her a group of men who wanted to work with her. Most of them already had their degrees, but recognized in her a kind of insight into the cell that others didn’t have. George Beadle once complained to the department chair at Cornell, Rollin A. Emerson, that McClintock interpreted his data more quickly than he did. Emerson responded that he (Beadle) should be glad that someone could explain it. In spite of this recognition, she was an instructor not a professor and would spend years in low paying jobs.

Barbara McClintock was born in 1902, the third daughter of Dr. Thomas Henry McClintock and Sara Handy McClintock. Thomas was a homeopathic physician and Sara had been raised in affluence until she defied her parents to marry Thomas. Barbara’s parents had wanted a boy and her mother seemed to feel that it was somehow her fault that her first three children were girls. This created a distance between her and Barbara that would last a lifetime. Her mother also may have had difficulty understanding a daughter who wasn’t interested in “girly things.” In spite of the fact that the longed for boy was born two years later, Barbara’s father raised her as a boy. She took to it well, loved athletics and nature, and had little patience with the way other girls wanted to play. There must have been early indications of her strong will. When she was four months old, her parents changed her name from Eleanor to Barbara, because Eleanor was too “sweet” a name for their baby girl.

McClintock_family_1907

From left to right: Mignon, Tom, Barbara and Marjorie McClintock (source)

Barbara never felt mistreated by her mother, but she wasn’t supported either. The tension between them and the stress of raising four young children prompted her mother to frequently send Barbara to stay with an aunt and uncle. This uncle sold fish from the back of a wagon and Barbara loved to go with him. He taught her to understand mechanical things and to love nature.

Although Sara gave in to Thomas when he indulged Barbara and told a neighbor to mind her own business when she wanted to teach her “womanly” things, she drew the line at letting her daughters pursue higher education. She had talked Barbara’s oldest sister out of accepting a full scholarship to Vassar, believing that too much education would make her less likely to find a husband. When Barbara graduated from high school, her father was serving in the army in Europe and Sara put her foot down. Unable to go to college, Barbara got a job in an employment agency and studied incessantly at the library in the evenings and on weekends. Fortunately, when Thomas returned from the war, he immediately let Barbara enroll at Cornell in the agriculture department where tuition was free.

McClintock_family

From left to right: Mignon, Tom, Barbara, Marjorie and Sara at the piano (source)

Barbara thrived at Cornell. She was thoroughly modern, bobbing her hair, smoking cigarettes, wearing pants even when she wasn’t in the field, and even playing banjo with a jazz group. She was small and slender with a big laugh and a good sense of humor. Later Barbara would be seen as something of a loner, but many things and relationships just fell by the wayside because of her intense involvement with her work. She always had a few good friends and good relationships with her family. In spite of pressure from her mother and her steady beau, she made a decision not to marry knowing that she had a dominant personality and a drive to work.

After receiving her degree in 1923, Barbara continued as a graduate. For her research Barbara worked with the maize plant and identified its 10 chromosomes and matched them with visible traits. She created a type of map locating the areas that determined whether or not a plant would have purple, waxy kernels for example. Most of her fellow students and colleagues didn’t understand the massive amounts of data, microscope work, and probability analysis she had done. Fortunately, similar work had been done on the fruit fly by Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia University and one of his former students, Marcus Rhoades, came to Cornell as a professor. Rhoades took on the task of explaining Barbara’s work. Both Rhoades and Morgan would be supporters of McClintock throughout her career.

After graduating at Cornell, Barbara stayed on as an instructor for a few years at a level far below her colleagues, in order to continue her research. When she was unable to find a job as a professor, Barbara moved from one research grant to another over the next few years developing a reputation as one of the best in the world in maize genetics, but never being welcomed as a professor. At Cal Tech, she was not allowed in the faculty club and only Linus Pauling welcomed her into his lab. In spite of this, Barbara loved the work and was thrilled to finally be offered a job at the University of Missouri as an assistant professor working with Lewis Stadler in 1936.

Barbara McClintock with George P. Redei in 1978 (source)

Barbara McClintock with George P. Redei in 1978 (source)

The environment at Missouri was very conventional and the culture shock went both ways. Eventually, the administration came to see Barbara as a troublemaker. In 1941, she asked the dean if she would ever be promoted to a permanent position. He told her that if Stadler ever left, she would probably be fired. It was the last straw and Barbara took a “leave of absence” and told him she wouldn’t be back. After so many years of trying to get a job commensurate with her experience and expertise, she gave up. But she still cared about her corn and her research.

In desperation, Barbara contacted Marcus Rhoades and asked where he planted his corn. He told her Cold Spring Harbor, a research center established in 1890 for evolution research. She managed to get an invitation to plant her corn for the summer, then a temporary position, then finally support through the Carnegie Foundation for a permanent position. It was perfect. She could focus solely on her research without worrying about teaching or the politics of the administration.

Although Barbara’s work had already been incorporated into textbooks and would appear in books such as Great Experiments in Biology (Gabriel and Fogel) and Classic Papers in Genetics (ed. James A. Peters), Cold Spring Harbor is where she did the work that finally earned her the Nobel Prize. In 1929, working with a graduate student, Harriet Creighton, they had proved that genes were carried on chromosomes and that the exchange of chromosomal parts created variety in the species. Barbara also had seen evidence that genes could move on a chromosome and between chromosomes, but she needed proof. After six years of research at Cold Spring Harbor, she had her proof. Genes didn’t have to have a fixed position. She also discovered an activator gene, one that could turn another gene on and off, and a gene that could cause the activator gene to move, causing another gene to turn off. Today this is called genetic transposition and the moving gene is sometimes called a “jumping” gene.

McClintock in Mexico in 1959

McClintock in Mexico in 1959

Barbara’s research was unfortunately 15 – 20 year before its time. Many in the scientific community ignored her or thought she was crazy. In the genetics community, no one thought she was crazy, but her research was hard to follow and understand. Many scientists still held to the belief that the structure of chromosomes was stable and fixed. Frustrated she finally quit publishing in 1953. She never quit collecting date and began to see evidence of transposition in other species. Barbara even took a couple of years to go to Latin America to train cytologists and to study indigenous maize varieties and the geographic distribution of specific chromosomes.

Finally in the 1960s and 70s the scientific community began to catch up with McClintock. James Shapiro and others found transposable elements in bacteria and other species. People began flocking to Barbara’s door to learn from her and the awards began to come. Then in 1983, she heard the announcement on the radio that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and that the Nobel committee called her discovery “one of two great discoveries of our time in genetics.” (The other was the discovery of the structure of DNA.) The Prize was unshared and praised throughout the scientific community. The recognition was long awaited.

Barbara continued her work schedule, reading voraciously in many different areas, and continuing her exercise routine. As she approached 90 years old, she even slowed down to an 8-9 hour work day. After finally being recognized for her great contributions, Barbara McClintock died of natural causes at her home on Sept. 2, 1992.

Resources
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

Read about other Famous Women in Math and Science