Ada Lovelace Day!

Kage Baker would not have called herself a feminist. In fact, she wrinkled her nose in aristocratic distaste at many of the louder species of same, and preferred not to be associated with ’em. She felt that the attitude was unevolved and embarassingly partisan.

So what did she say when interrogated on the life of a freelance writer, an unmarried, no kids, professional aunt, a woman who kept her own house and habitually brought men home to her place instead of vice versa? Kage simply said she was a humanist.

“It’s a little like being a feminist,” she explained once to a fervid femfan demanding why Mendoza had male lovers as obnoxious as Edward, “but more mature, and encompassing all varieties of human beings.”

People who scolded her for her portraiture of the Ephesians got the same response. And people did scold her – she was always polite, although implacable in her stand on those over-zealous Goddess worshippers. She pointed out that if ladies wanted to be treated equally, then they had to let the arts cast them as villains now and then. Not slinky, sexy, couture-draped Dragon Ladies, either: but as nasty prim Puritan Republican types. Ogresses in grim grey suits. Bureaucrats.

Anything else, Kage said, demeaned the heroism of the women who became explorers, healers, good rulers, bad asses; bread winners and fighters and scientists. If you didn’t portray characters as complete human beings, you were a wretched writer. And that meant you couldn’t make all women saints or all men sinners. Because, said Kage, everybody is actually pretty much the same kind of idiot.

Or hero. And Kage revered the lady heroes of the world. Today was a holiday she always observed – Ada Lovelace Day. Ada Lovelace Day celebrates the achievements of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths – which are legion, and need to be closer to the tip of the tongue than they usually are. It hasn’t been easy going for most women in the sciences.

Ada Lovelace was actually Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, nee Byron. She was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron and Anne Milbanke, 11th Baroness Wentworth. She clearly inherited her father’s breadth of intellect, but neither his taste for sensuality nor his short attention span; the lady more or less invented computer programming, not only devising several programs intended for use with Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, but composing what is now known to be the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine. Happily, she left copious notes – which, with the eventual production of a machine that could actually use her programs, have since proved to work admirably.

Nor let us forget Sir William Herschel, Astronomer Royal of England and famous composer. Let us not forget him, because ‘s the lifeline to remembering  his sister Caroline, with whom he worked hand in glove – including in the composition of music. Caroline was said to be the better mathematician, and a better hand at polishing lenses for their home-made telescopes. They both earned pensions from the Crown; but Carolyn’s was only half the amount of  William’s.

Rosalind Franklin took the first X-ray difraction pictures of the helical structure of DNA, and mentioned (somewhat unwisely) to a pair of stymied lab mates that she thought the structure was actually turning out to be – how strange! – a double helix. (They thought it was a triple, but couldn’t make the model work.) Watson and Crick “borrowed” her photographic plates without her permission, and saw that she was correct. They promptly published and were  awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in 1962, along with Maurice Wilkins – Rosalind’s research partner. Watson has denigrated her work and research for years (and in fact still does, in his current dotage), describing her contemptuously as a lesbian and mocking her moods as due to “female problems”. Since the Nobel Committee will not award a medal posthumously, and Rosalind had died of cancer in 1958, she could never have been honoured with the Nobel accolade in any event – which has apparently never occurred to Watson.

And then there is the Magna Mater of modern science, Marie Skłodowska: Madame Curie. Working in France during one of its periods of lucidity, she was able to achieve acclaim and two Nobel Prizes;  her first was shared with her husband, Pierre, for their discoveries among the radioactive elements. Her second, in Chemistry, was awarded to her alone. (Oddly, Madame Curie’s  elder daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, also won a Nobel Prize, and shared that one with her husband.) Madame Curie is also the only woman to be entombed in the Pantheon in Paris.

Of course, she is said to be entombed in a lead coffin. And her notes, her microscope and other lab equipment – practically religious icons of modern science – must be examined behind lead-glass shields, with robotic gloves, for strictly limited times. This is because the notes, the lab gear and the bones of Marie Curie herself are virulently radioactive …

There are lots more, both dead and forgotten, and still alive and kicking. They get better press these days. Still, science is a hard, hard row to hoe for women. But they have never shirked the call or the challenge. Hence Ada Lovelace Day.

Praise them with great praise!

PS: One of Kage’s own grandmother’s, Kate (we recycle names a lot …) was the first woman in North Carolina to earn a PhD. But it was not awarded to her. Her adviser thought PhDs were inappropriate for women.

PPS: In college, my adviser pre-emptively changed my major from “pre-med” to “biology”, when I told him I was not interested in pediatrics or gynecology, but wanted to pursue emergency room medicine. He thought it was too traumatic for a woman.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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7 Responses to Ada Lovelace Day!

  1. According to Bill Bryson in A Short History of Practically Everything, even Curie’s cookbooks are radioactive. And unless you’re admitting to being 100 years older than you look, your college adviser was an utter dinosaur. Jeeze, what an idiot!

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    • Kate says:

      Yep, Madame Marie’s entire legacy glows in the dark. It’s amazing, and horrendous. She died of aplastic anemia, which means that the radioactivity essentially killed her blood marrow, and thus her capacity to make red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen. It must have been like suffocating slowly to death.

      Oh, I’m only 59, Maggie! And I was in college in 1971 through 1975 – more than long enough ago for female students to be shunted into “women’s topics” in a male-dominated field like medicine. And I was interested in the really ballsy areas, too – surgery and ER/Trauma work. I even applied to the armed forces, and found that they had NO program in place for a medical degree for a girl in 1971: though they’d have trained me as a nurse.

      Believe me, the 10 to 20 years after my college years brought more opportunities to women than the young ladies a generation or so behind me can even imagine. My advisor was a nice guy, just being realistic. He let me stay in biology – *his *department head wanted me to change to liberal arts …

      Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s more horrible. Kathleen kbco.wordpress.com

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      • PJ says:

        I also remember being “redirected” to more feminine areas of study in the 70s—though not for anything as ballsy. They were different times.

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      • Kate says:

        And I don’t miss them at all, PJ. I wouldn’t re-live my 20’s for all the tea in China. Or Humboldt County.

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  2. johnbrownson says:

    “….working in France during one of its periods of lucidity.” Now, THAT is some mighty fine bodkin work!

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  3. Kate says:

    Thanks, Buffalo. I do try.

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  4. Tom B. says:

    Another name: Sally Ride. She did *not* have an easy time of it at NASA, or at UCSD. The politics of science are such an embarrassment to the logical mind . . .
    And I agree with Buffalo, that phrase did surely sing out.

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