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For numerous and varied excuses, the achievements of women are lost to history. However, we’ve found two that deserve their day in the sun. Fair’s fair.
Throughout history, countless women have had their achievements ignored, overshadowed, forgotten or purposely hidden. Consider Australia’s Louisa Lawson. Writer Ingeborg van Teeseling tells us she was Australia’s first female newspaper owner and editor, an advocate for women’s equality and suffrage, a political activist, even an inventor, yet she is primarily remembered as the mother of Henry Lawson. That’s pretty unbalanced.
And it’s only in relatively recent years that people have come to learn something about English chemist Rosalind Franklin, whose groundbreaking work with DNA made it possible for Watson and Crick to determine its double helix structure, which won them the Nobel Prize. Her massive contribution to science has at last been acknowledged.
Other women garnered some renown during their lives but are now, sadly, largely forgotten. We’re trying to remedy that situation with our brief look at two rather exceptional women.
In 1828, the Royal Astronomical Association did something it had never done before, something unprecedented, something that wouldn’t happen again for another 168 years. It awarded the prestigious Gold Medal to a woman. Caroline Hershel was 78 years old at the time; this acknowledgment had been a long time coming.
The name William Herschel is very familiar to anyone with even a vague interest in astronomy. The discoverer of the planet Uranus was the official astronomer to Britain’s George III. His assistant was his sister Caroline (1750-1848). She recorded her brother’s observations and helped him develop the powerful telescopes they used to examine the night skies. Together they compiled what they called the “New General Catalogue (NGC)”, listing over 2,500 stars, nebulae and other celestial objects.
Caroline herself was a keen observer and alone she discovered some 14 or 15 new nebulae. She independently also discovered NGC205, also known as Messier 110, a companion galaxy to the Andromeda galaxy. In 1786 she became the first woman to discover a comet and her own astronomical skills were recognised by the king who gave her an official post, making her the first woman ever to be paid for her scientific work.
Over her life, she discovered eight comets, most of which had never even been observed before. Some of these comets bear her name. The lunar crater C Herschel is also named for her.
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When William died in 1822, Caroline left Britain, returning to her native Germany, but she continued her astronomical observations, cataloguing and classifying nebulae and other celestial bodies. Her work was so significant that in 1835, the Royal Astronomical Association saw fit to give her honorary membership of their society; and in 1846 when she was 95, the king of Prussia presented her with his Gold Medal for Science to mark her lifelong work and stellar achievements in her chosen profession.
Caroline Herschel was a remarkable woman who more than held her own against her male astronomical contemporaries. She broke through the barriers, not allowing her gender to restrict her intellectual pursuits. That’s quite something for the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. She continued working right up to her death at the age of 97.
Elizebeth Smith Friedman
In a new book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, author Jason Fagone tells the extraordinary story of a young American woman whose background in English literature – Shakespeare in particular – was responsible for her becoming a pioneer in cryptology, thwarting smugglers, frustrating gangster activity and ultimately cracking Nazi codes during World War II. Along with her husband cryptanalyst William Friedman, she also set the groundwork for what became America’s National Security Agency (NSA). Probably the thing that won’t surprise most of us today is that many of her incredible achievements were covered up by the FBI, who took the credit for some of her wartime work. English cryptanalyst Alan Turing is famous, but not Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980). Hopefully this is about to change.
In 1916, Elizebeth Smith was engaged to help a wealthy eccentric businessman prove his contention that Francis Bacon actually wrote Shakespeare’s works. He believed secret codes were to be found in the plays to support this, and it was here that Elizebeth began her work as a codebreaker, figuring out how to solve encrypted communications. As a rather satisfying sidebar, she later wrote a book about the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy, proving – many say definitively – that Bacon had nothing whatsoever to do with the plays.
In 1921, Elizebeth and William began working for the US military, first in the War Department then with the Navy, before moving over to Customs. It was here Elizebeth excelled. Drug runners and smugglers of contraband alcohol (this was the Prohibition era) used encoded messages to relay their plans but she cracked the codes, no matter how convoluted they were. Her mind was deeply analytical, she had a knack for solving the most labyrinthine puzzles; it got so she could almost intuit some communiqués. She even decoded messages written in Mandarin. Today all decryption work is done using computer technology. There were no computers in Elizebeth’s day. She, like other cryptanalysts, did all this decoding using paper and pencils.
When World War II began, the US Coast Guard was intercepting messages that turned out to be from Nazi spies communicating with other spies based in South America and Mexico. Elizebeth’s work moved from catching smugglers to catching spies. One large network based in Argentina was of particular concern to the FBI, which was tasked with demolishing Nazi spy networks. Fagone reveals that Elizebeth’s work was critical to their efforts; she passed on messages and also gave them the skills to decode encrypted messages. Without her, it’s reasonable to assume that the networks may not have been destroyed before war’s end. The FBI, however, never publicly acknowledged her contribution to the American war effort.
It’s not the first time a woman’s accomplishments have been swept under the carpet, but we can take comfort in the fact that both Elizebeth and her husband have a special place in the National Security Agency’s National Cryptologic Museum’s Hall of Honour. Elizebeth Friedman was an amazing woman by any definition.
Late in her life (she died at the age of 88), Elizebeth Friedman commented:
“Many times I’ve been asked as to how my authority, that is the direction and superior status of a woman as instructor, teacher, mentor, and slave driver, even to commissioned and non-commissioned officers, by these men was accepted. I must declare with all truth that with one exception, all of the men young or older who have worked for me and under me and with me, have been true colleagues and have never been obstructionists in any way.”
That speaks volumes about her.
These women were unstoppable and deserve to be more widely known. It’s not just about girl power, it’s about acknowledging the truth. That’s only fair, don’t you think?