Collage: Eleanor Shakespeare

WOMEN WE LOVE

Tell a remarkable woman’s story and you can inspire a whole generation of girls

From creating Wikipedia entries for female scientists to rethinking the literary canon, women are on a mission. Marisa Bate salutes them

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By Marisa Bate on

Have you heard of Jess Wade? I hadn’t, until a newspaper article revealed that the British academic (a postdoctoral researcher in the field of plastic electronics at Imperial College London’s Blackett Laboratory, to be exact) had written over 270 Wikipedia entries in the past year about brilliant women in STEM.

And I’m pretty sure I hadn’t heard of any of those women, either, but now, thanks to Wade, I can read about them. Or, more importantly, a young woman with a gift for the sciences searching to know she’s not alone, can; she might fall down a Wiki-hole and discover the women who are making us healthier or giving us a better understanding of the universe, and they might spur her on to pursue a passion, even if it’s mostly boys in her A-level class. And those women might have remained a total mystery, lost in history, if Wade hadn’t set herself a target of one entry a day, telling the world that these women exist, carving them out a small but sturdy place in history.  

It’s an admirable effort, for sure. And Wade herself is full of infectious energy: “I kind of realised we can only really change things from the inside,” she told The Guardian. “Wikipedia is a really great way to engage people in this mission because the more you read about these sensational women, the more you get so motivated and inspired by their personal stories.”

I love her use of the word “mission”. Because it sounds adventurous and exciting, and because that’s what it is, really. If we want to change how women are remembered, if indeed they are remembered at all, or if we want to encourage young girls by showing them the footsteps in which they could follow, we have to treat it like a mission. And that mission can be executed in all manner of ways.

 

If we want to encourage young girls by showing them the footsteps in which they could follow, we have to treat it like a mission. And that mission can be executed in all manner of ways

I was thrilled to read about the Rewriting the Cannon course hosted by gal-dem, Liberty and powerhouse publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, which will focus on writers of colour of the past. I love going into the children’s department of any book shop and seeing the Rebel Girls books on the wall. I know the impact they have on my friends’ daughters and nieces. Six-year old Little M has a framed picture of Emmeline Pankhurst on her wall, thanks to hearing about the story of the suffragettes from the new crop of books sharing the lives of remarkable women aimed at children. The mission here seems to be working.

It’s almost clichéd to talk about the importance of women’s stories, but that won’t stop me trying. Watching the women who are running for office first time in the US, getting ready for the November midterms, makes me eyes water. Take Jahana Hayes. The former US National Teacher of the Year was brought up by her grandmother because her mother struggled with addiction. At 17, she became a mother. And now, she’s running for Congress. Or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old who had a second job in a bar before winning a Democratic primary earlier this year. Because that’s the other thing about women’s stories: when you do finally hear them, they are often nothing short of remarkable. Asking a woman what she’s done in a day can be impressive enough. Ask a woman what’s she been through to get there, and I’m pretty sure she can take your breath away.

The efforts of Wade, however, shouldn’t just result in Wikipedia entries. When I saw what she was doing, I thought, what on earth am I doing? You might not have time to write a Wikipedia entry every day, but I wonder what your equivalent is. Wade has another trick up her sleeve. She’s bought over 60 copies of Angela Saini’s Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong and handed them out to friends, colleagues and even strangers. Where there is a will, there's a way.

Just last week, Barack Obama said that men had been really getting on his nerves lately. I took his point. There’s a deluge of men who seem to be making things difficult for women, much like they always have. Our mission therefore, is to help women rock the boat in whichever way we can. Perhaps it is by telling the next generation of girls they, too, can be scientists, by showing how much great work women scientists are currently doing; perhaps it by rewriting writers of colour into the literary consciousness; perhaps it’s working-class women running for Congress. But whatever it is, it’s sure as hell doing something.

Most people have marched more since 2017 than they have in their lifetime. But that’s not the only thing we can be doing. Find the story of a woman that makes your eyes water and pass it on to someone else. We have to start somewhere, and we’re all in this mission together.

@marisajbate

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Collage: Eleanor Shakespeare
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