Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Patricia Schroeder, Congresswoman

Patricia Schroeder represented Colorado in the US House of Representatives from 1973 to 1997, where she championed the rights of women and families and drove through the Family and Medical Leave Act.

"Patriotism and courage are not exclusively male traits... Women were a major force against slavery, for expanded political rights, for good government, and for governmental involvement with the poor and dispossessed." ~ Patricia Schroeder

Patricia Schroeder was born into a military family in Portland, Oregon on July 30th, 1940. Her mother was a teacher and her father was an aviation insurance salesman, and they moved frequently between military towns for the span of her childhood.

Raised in Texas, Ohio, and Iowa, Patricia was an outgoing child who, upon arriving in a new town, would go out to the sidewalk in front of her house an line up her toys for the neighborhood kids to play with, in an effort to make new friends.

She exhibited an independent spirit from an early age. She learned to fly, attaining her private pilot's license when she was 15, and operating her own flying service as a means to put herself through college. For her undergraduate, Patricia attended the University of Minnesota, where she majored in philosophy, history, and political science, graduating in 1961.

The "Nightmare" of Harvard

Enjoying her life as a busy and self-driven student, Patricia didn't think much about gender until attending Harvard Law School, which she described as "a nightmare." She was one of 15 women in a class of over 500, and the dean of the school told the women outright that he did not want them there; that he had admitted 15 extra men to the college that year as he could not bear to think of these women taking any spot away from a man.

On the first day of the semester when Patricia went into the classroom and sat down, the men on either side stood up to move, announcing that they had never in their academic careers sat next to a woman, and they didn't plan on starting that day.

Patricia described the experience as follows:

"I had gone to undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, which was wonderful. I could rent airplanes through the ROTC program, I worked for an insurance agency in Minneapolis, I made so much money I was able to buy a convertible and go to school too, because I was adjusting losses, and flying around, and working in the student government, and doing all these things, and I got to Harvard, and I was like, someone just put a bell jar over my head. How do I breathe in this place? So I found it a very different environment.

"We had one professor who didn't want women. And so he would call Ladies' Days. And there were only like five women in our class, and he would put us up on stage, and anybody could ask us questions, and do anything they wanted. And I would just think, this is really discriminatory, this is really outrageous. But - he's also grading you, and he's your professor. So you kinda have to suck it up, smile, and do your thing. Because I figured well, I'm here, and I'm going to get out of here with a degree, one way or another."

Patricia graduated with her law degree in 1964, then moved to Denver and started a family with her husband James Schroeder, whom she had met at law school - Jim was a previous pilot as well, having flown with the military, and the two hit it off with that in common.

Congressional bid

In Denver Patricia worked for as a field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board for two years then opened up her own private practice, taught law, and volunteered as council for the local Planned Parenthood.

In 1972 at the encouragement of her husband, Patricia ran for congressional office. The district was predominantly Democratic but conservative, and encompassed most of the city of Denver. The couple felt it was a long shot and were running without the support of the Democratic National Committee or the state Democratic Party.

When she announced, the headline said "Denver Housewife Announces for Congress."

Asked to explain the motivation behind her congressional bid, Schroeder replied, “Among other things, the need for honesty in government. It’s an issue that women can speak best to—and more should be given the chance.”

Then she added "Men run (for office) and no-one questions what they want. Women run and everyone says well, what do they want? And you say, human priorities. You know, that's all I want."

As Patricia put it, "No-one would have anything to do with me - except the local people in Denver, and that's all I needed." Her anti-war, woman's rights message appealed to the voters, and she became the first woman elected to Congress in Colorado. The average donation to her campaign had been $7.50.

A Politician and a Mother

When she went to Congress to get sworn in, she said "Everyone was trying to swear in Jim (her husband). They didn't realize I was the one getting sworn in."

From History, Art, and Archives of the US House of Representatives:
"Claiming her seat in Congress proved thornier than the campaign. One of only 14 women in the House of Representatives, Schroeder confronted a male–dominated institution that frowned not only on her feminist agenda but on her mere presence. She likened the atmosphere there to that of “an over–aged frat house.” One male colleague remarked, “This is about Chivas Regal, thousand–dollar bills, Lear jets and beautiful women. Why are you here?”
At 32 years of age, Patricia was the second-youngest woman ever elected to Congress - fellow Harvard Law School student Elizabeth Holtzman was that youngest, at 31. With a 6-year old and a 2-year old child, Patricia received much attention from the media for not only being a woman in Congress, but for being a mother as well.

Not that Patricia tried to hide that fact from anyone. She was known for carrying diapers in her bag along with her legal briefs, and keeping crayons in her desk. She faced frequent criticism for her choices. “One of the problems with being a working mother, whether you’re a Congresswoman or a stenographer or whatever, is that everybody feels perfectly free to come and tell you what they think: ‘I think what you’re doing to your children is terrible.’ ‘I think you should be home.’ They don’t do that to men.”

She went on, "I often felt like I was triggering some gut reaction in men, and I didn't know what it was. I would get on planes, or something, and there would be someone with a finger in my face, saying 'what are you up to now? Why don't you talk to your husband?"

Her most famous quote was a snappy retort to a question she frequently fielded, that of how she managed to be both a mother and a member of Congress. "I have a brain, I have a uterus, and they both  work."

Armed Services Committee

Aware that the House Armed Services Committee (like most) was all-male, Patricia sought and earned a seat on the Committee because "When men talk about defense, they always claim to be protecting women and children, but they never ask the women and children what they think.”

Patricia set out to identify and curb defense appropriations that at that time made up 40% of the national budget, and represented a minority viewpoint in this regard. Infuriated to have a 32-year old mother on his committee, Chairman F. Edward Hebert slighted Patricia as frequently as possible, including not allowing an extra chair at the table when the group met for the first time for an organizational meeting.

Patricia was instead forced to share a chair with another member of the Committee, Ron Dellums, a black Democrat from California, as Hebert declared that "women and blacks were worth only half of one regular Member."

In the face of such hostility Dellums and Patricia did what both had learned to do from experience - draw themselves up, smile, and act completely unruffled. As Dellums told it, they shared the chair like it was "the most normal thing in the world," not showing that they were bothered. At the next meeting there was an extra chair at the table, and in 1975 Patricia and her Democratic colleagues ousted Herbert as Committee leader, as part of congressional reform efforts to reduce the power of long-standing committee members.

As a representative of the committee, Patricia was a driving force in the 1970s and 80s in pulling back on Cold War expenditures, and was a major advocate for Arms Control. In 1985 she crafted the Military Family Act to improve the benefits, health care, and living conditions for military personnel, and later spearheaded demands for military reform after two sexual harassment scandals revealed an abuse of female recruits.

Women's Rights and Reforms

Unsurprisingly, Patricia's area of specialty was women's rights and services for the family, where she played a critical role in getting major acts passed through Congress. As she put it, "I decided I had to take up women and family issues because no-one else did it."

In 1977, Patricia co-founded the Congressional Women's Caucus, which she co-chaired for ten years. In 1987 she helped pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, mandating that employers could not fire women employees because they were pregnant, or deny them disability or medical benefits."

One of the bills Patricia worked very hard on was the Family Medical Leave Bill, which proposed guaranteeing men and women 12 weeks of job-protected leave for a personal or family member health crisis or a new child.

While it was important to Patricia that the bill covered both men and women, she received opposition behind closed doors from male associates in Congress who refused to back the bill until she "took men out of it," because they feared "my wife will make me babysit" while she went to work.

Comments Patricia, "They just couldn't imagine having a wife working outside the home. It took nine years to get that damn thing through, and even then, it was watered down, but we did keep men in it." She paused, then added, "We really need to not condemn people for having a family."

Presidential Campaign

In 1987 Patricia chaired the presidential campaign of Senator Gary Hart before it came to light that he had engaged in marital infidelities, which enraged Patricia. For a brief time she sought the Democratic nomination for President, but in September 1987 she felt forced to issue a statement announcing her withdrawal, citing two reasons: first, that she had not yet "figured out" how to run a campaign that kept her in touch with the people she was serving and did not serve to isolate her from them in a way she felt was typical of political campaigns and damaging; and second, due to the circumstances of her announcing her bid, she had simply started too late in the race to contend.

Patricia felt that she might have had a chance at the 1988 Presidency if our voting system relied on one person, one vote, but the way our system is set up, with a primary voting process and a secondary voting process and involving delegates, she did not see how it was possible at that late stage to win the necessary number of delegates.

In her speech announcing her withdrawal from the race Patricia was overwhelmed at one point and cried, a sight that is not uncommon in politics and certainly not exclusive to women (as numerous men including Ronald Reagan have welled up while in office), but she was damned for it in the media, despite the fact that she regained control of her emotions quickly and completed the press conference, fielding questions with her usual candor.

March on the Senate

Another remarkable event that Patricia Schroeder lent her weight to was the 1991 March of the Senate. On October 8th, as the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee prepared to vote on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court without considering the sexual harassment charge leveled at him by Anita Hill, Patricia and six other women Democratic members of the House marched over to the Senate in a display of protest, demanding justice and that the vote be delayed until Anita was given a fair chance to speak.

Congresswomen march on the Senate
October 8th, 1991 
Senators from both parties had been previously dismissive of Anita's charges, but the House bowed to the women representatives and agreed to delay the vote.

As Patricia recalled, "Chairman Biden grudgingly put her on the witness list but not in prime time. He also rejected the other women who stepped forward as witnesses. It was painful to watch the Democratic Senators on the Judiciary committee — those cowardly lions — quiver and quake. They were pitiful, and no help at all."

Anita Hill did get a chance to speak and be heard, but despite the hearings, on October 15th by a vote of 52-48, the Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas as the court's 106th justice.


Patricia retired from Congress in 1997, after serving 24 years. She taught at Princeton University for a short time following, and in 1997 was appointed President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers.

Reflecting on the work done by her generation of women, Patricia comments that they accomplished a lot, but "not everything." They fought for a woman's right to work, but after that she feels the issue became the woman with two full-time jobs, trying to juggle everything, with people encouraging her on, saying 'you got this. You're powerful," while the basic infrastructure to support that woman who was not in place.

Patricia sees that as the challenge of the next generation - continuing to build programs and support for working mothers and families so it doesn't feel so prohibitive to be working while raising a family.


Patricia has been inducted to the National Women's Hall of Fame, and was honored with a Foremother Award from the National Research Center for Mothers and Families in 2006 for her lifetime of contributions.


"Freedom isn't something you give to people as a wrapped up package. It's something each generation has to continue to monitor and work on all across the board."

"Never frown at you enemies. Smile - it scares the hell out of them."

"It's so important to have women in Congress, because people don't think about the family issues, and the work issues, and the quality of life issues for families, they just don't. We're talking about a very elite group. Now, almost all of them are multi-millionaires. That wasn't really true when I went, but... my last year, a young man came and sat down next to me and said 'Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?' and I said 'No, not at all.' And he said 'what do  you do with your salary?' And I said 'well, we have children in college,' and he said 'Oh, I didn't know you were one of those.' And he said 'I'm thinking of putting it into a flower fund, so I can buy flowers for people when it's their birthday, and for funerals.' And I said 'Oh!' So they are so out of touch with what's really going on. And we are seeing it more and more. What they do now is they get a flannel shirt, and they get a pickup, and everybody thinks oh, they are really like us, but they should follow them home. And they'll know differently."


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Octavia E. Butler, Writer

Octavia E. Butler was the first black woman to gain popularity and critical acclaim as a science-fiction writer. In a genre dominated by white men, she brought complex themes of gender and race and created divergent series of novels that attracted new readers, many of whom were African-American and female. 

"A science fiction writer has the freedom to do absolutely anything. The limits are the imagination of the writer." ~ Octavia Butler

Octavia Estelle Butler was born in Pasadena, California, on June 22nd, 1947. Her father Laurice was a shoe-shiner, and died when she was still an infant. Octavia was an only child, though her mother, Octavia M. Butler, had been pregnant four other times, each time losing the baby before it could come to term.

Octavia learned about her family through stories of her mother and grandmother. They lived in a neighborhood that was racially diverse but uniformly poor, and each month it was a struggle to make ends meet. Octavia's mother was a maid, an occupation that gave Octavia early insight into issues of race and class in America.

In an interview with Black Scholar, Octavia recalled days when she was still very small and her mother had to take her to work with her, as there was no-one available to watch her at home. "I used to see her going to back doors, being talked about while she was standing right there, and basically being treated like a non-person."

Octavia knew this treatment was a continuation of the treatment her race had received for centuries, just under a different guise. This understanding made her feel separated from her peers, especially white friends whom she saw blaming their parents' generation for modern problems.

Her realization of the bigger history was one of the inspirations for the novel Kindred, about a modern black woman who travels back in time to the South in the early 1800s and meets her ancestors first-hand.

Octavia was writing from an early age, as young as ten. She was a shy girl and self-described daydreamer who struggled in school, and she turned to writing to help cope with the loneliness and boredom.

She recalls that she was 12 when she saw "a bad science fiction movie" (it was Devil Girl From Mars), and "decided that I could write a better story than that. And I turned off the TV and proceeded to try, and I've been writing science fiction ever since."

The story Octavia began that day would form the basis for her first published novel.


Octavia attended Pasadena City College and won a short-story contest in the first semester. After completing a 2-year Associate's degree in 1968, she applied to California State University at Los Angeles. As she would later tell Lisa See of Publishers Weekly, there she took "everything but nursing classes - I'm a bit dyslexic and worried about killing people."

The programs that Octavia credited with leading to her success as a science fiction writer were both writers' workshops outside of university: The Open Door Program of the Screen Writers' Guild, and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop.

The latter was in Pennsylvania and considered a "boot camp" for the genre, and had been suggested to her by the distinguished science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, whose class she had attended at the Open Door Program. Ellison was supportive of Octavia's work and saw her potential. In 1970 he published one of her stories in an anthology.

At the Clarion Workshop, Octavia really felt at home among the other science fiction writers. She noted that they were all somewhat awkward and introverted, but "we seemed to get along with each other." After the workshop she took on a series of jobs that paid the bills, but didn't really offer much further. She went to her job every day and got up at 2AM to write.

The First in a Series

Initially Octavia worked on short stories, but by the end of 1974 she had decided to write a novel. The result was Patternmaster, which she finished quite quickly and sent to Doubleday for review. An editor at Doubleday liked the story, but would only publish it if Octavia made some major revisions, which she did. By 1976 Patternmaster was being sold in bookstores.

Octavia followed Patternmaster with a sequel while Doubleday was still reviewing her first. The sequel was titled Mind of my Mind (1977), and followed the saga into the next generation. The third book in the series was Survivor, published in 1978.

This series focuses on a telepathic people known as "Patternists" and their dominance over the mute, non-telepathic masses and mutants called "Clayarks." The telepaths are trying to create a superhuman race. Each book comments on class structure, the dominance of brawn over brain, and the role of women in society.

Octavia's lead characters were like nothing science-fiction had ever seen, described by Vibe's Carol Cooper as "assertive black homegirls with attitude." What some found enticing, however, is exactly what made publisher Doubleday apprehensive: the books brought in female and African-American audiences, groups that had never exactly flocked to the genre before. Despite their concerns, the books were very successful.

A New Kind of Book

Motivated to continue writing fiction with consideration to the perspectives and experiences of black people and women, Octavia wrote Kindred, which was published in 1979. As the novel deals with going back to confront and save previous generations, writing the novel helped Octavia deal with some unresolved feelings over how her mother had been treated in her job.

"If my mother hadn't put up with those humiliations, I wouldn't have eaten very well or lived very comfortably," she reflected later to Publishers Weekly. "So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people had to live through in order to survive."

The book is recognized as a classic today but when she first wrote it, Octavia struggled to find the literary category into which it fit. She sent it to a number of different publishers, but they could not classify it as science fiction because "there's absolutely no science in it."

Octavia describes it as "the kind of fantasy that nobody had really thought of as fantasy because after all, it doesn't fall into the sword and sorcery or pseudo-medieval fantasy that everyone expects with lots of magic being practiced." Doubleday eventually published it in 1979, classified as fiction.

The novel was met with considerable praise, and soon became the standard text in high schools and colleges across the nation. "Probably no contemporary African-American novelist has so successfully exercised the imagination of her readers with acute representations of familial and historical relations as has Octavia Butler," gushed Ashraf H. A. Rushdy in College English, "and nowhere more so than in Kindred."

Recognition and Awards

Following the success of Kindred, Octavia wrote two more books in the Patternmaster series: Wild Seed in 1980, and Clay's Ark in 1984. By this time Octavia was receiving more serious recognition from her peers, and in 1984 she won a Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Society for her short story "Speech Sounds" - along with the Nebula, the Hugo is considered one of science fiction's highest award.

The following year, Octavia wrote Bloodchild, a novel examining the issues of power surrounding childbirth, and the book won the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Awards. Another novel called The Evening and the Morning and the Night was nominated for a 1987 Nebula award as well.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Octavia constructed a new series, the Xenogenesis Trilogy, which began in 1987. This series revolves around the near destruction of humankind by extra-terrestrials, and as the extra-terrestrials observe the humans, they notice that society is hierarchical, which causes it to be prejudiced, and have class structure and conflict. The extra-terrestrials consider that mankind will eventually destroy itself, with no help from them.

Literary Metamorphosis

For her next work Octavia consciously sought a new direction, a story that focused on a woman who started a religion, but she felt that "everything I wrote was garbage." Through perseverance and experimenting with poetry, she produced Parable of the Sower, a story about a half-black, half-Latina protagonist who escapes society's middle class to start a new community beyond its walls.

Shortly after the book's publication, Octavia received one of the highest honors of her career, the Catherine T. McArthur Foundation Fellowship Award. Also referred to as a "genius grant," the award is given to the best and brightest African Americans in their field, with the purpose of allowing them to continue their work for the next five years without the worry of financial backing.

Octavia received the fellowship in 1995, and was presented with an award of $295,000 to be paid out over five years.

With the money, Octavia committed to continuing to write new and genre-breaking science fiction to introduce more black and female readers to the category, and to write about issues that commented on social issues. She composed Parable of the Talents as a sequel to Parable of the Sower, and the book was critically acclaimed.

In 1995 a compilation of Octavia's essays were published, providing not only a collection of her previous work but also insights into her habits around writing, and her experiences overcoming racism and poverty to attain her goals.

She was very forthcoming in her essays, as well as in her interviews. "I don't write utopian science fiction because I don't believe that imperfect humans can form a perfect society," she told Black Scholar. "Nobody is perfect,"

She also explained what she was trying to accomplish in the Parable books, where she explored story-lines around nation and community building without some of the more fantastical elements that science-fiction writers typically depend on. As stated to Vibe, "Part of what I wanted to do in the new book was to begin a new society that might actually get somewhere, even though nobody has any special abilities, no aliens intervene, and no supernatural beings intervene. The people just have to do it themselves."

Later Years

While Octavia had always called the science-fiction genre "potentially the freest genre in existence," she had trouble finding a topic that satisfied her when composing her next novel.

For her last book, Octavia would describe her writing not as a "save the world" novel, but instead a "chance to play." In 2005 she published Fledgling, a story about a middle-aged woman who discovers that she is a vampire. Never one to miss the opportunity to explore social issues, the text explores the meaning of human identity and the extent of society's damning rejection of anyone seen as different.

Fledgling was seen by critics and fans as a new beginning for Octavia, and critics praised it as "a literary gem." Seattle Times writer Nisi Shawl found only one complaint about the book: "that it ends."

Sadly, what seemed like a new beginning for Octavia was cut short when she fell in her Seattle home and died quite suddenly on February 24th, 2006. She was 58 years old, and her death shocked her fans and the community. To honor her legacy, the Carl Brandon Society set up an Octavia E. Butler Scholarship Fund to help others follow in her footsteps.
How she was described by others

Terri Sutton of LA Weekly listed Octavia as being "among science fiction's most thoughtful writers," while the Washington Post declared she was "one of the finest voices in fiction, period."

Vibe magazine's Carol Cooper declared that what Gibson "does for young, disaffected white fans of high tech and low life, Octavia Estelle Butler does for people of color. She gives us a future."

What was different about Octavia's work was that she put issues of race and gender at the foreground in a genre that previously did not deal with them at all. As described by Vibe's Carol Cooper, "In the '70s, Butler's work exploded into this ideological vacuum like an incipient solar system."

In her eulogy of Octavia, Leslie Howle of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame stated, "She stands alone for what she did. She was a beacon."

While being embraced worldwide, Octavia's books provided a particularly familiar tone for black readers who enjoyed science fiction, but never quite felt it was meant for them. Octavia's themes of black culture and history resonated, as did the examination of how the past, present, and future are related and enmeshed.

Octavia left us with dozens of books that sold over a million copies, and were translated into 10 different languages.

Octavia's Manifesto

After Octavia's death, a manifesto of sorts was found on one of the pages of her notebook, found at her house. The page contained a series of affirmation and goals which a touching not only for their positivity and liveliness, but for their reach - not only is Octavia concerned with meeting the goals she sets for herself, but with helping others meet their goals.

The manifesto can be viewed here, and states the following:
I shall be a bestselling writer. After Imago, each of my books will be on the bestseller lists of LAT, NYT, PW, WP, etc. My novels will go onto the above lists whether publishers push them hard or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I ever win another award or not. 
This is my life. I write bestselling novels. My novels go onto the bestseller lists on or shortly after publication. My novels each travel up to the top of the bestseller lists and they reach the top and they stay on top for months (at least two). Each of my novels does this. 
So be it! I will find the way to do this. See to it! So be it! See to it! 
My books will be read by millions of people!
I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood
I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer’s workshops
I will help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons
I will help poor black youngsters go to college
I will get the best of health care for my mother and myself
I will hire a car whenever I want or need to.
I will travel whenever and wherever in the world that I choose 
My books will be read by millions of people!
So be it! See to it!

"I'm black, I'm solitary, I've always been an outsider."


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Stephanie Kwolek, Chemist and Inventor

Stephanie Kwolek was a chemist working at DuPont when she was assigned to discovering the next high-technology material. She invented Kevlar, a lightweight material five times stronger than steel. 

"All sorts of things can happen when you are open to new ideas and playing around with things."~ Stephanie Kwolek

Stephanie Kwolek was born in 1923 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. Her father John was a scientist, and her mother Nellie was a seamstress. Stephanie spent many hours with her father exploring the woods and fields near their home and filling scrapbooks with her observations, though he would die prematurely when Stephanie was only 10.

From her mother, Stephanie gained a love of sewing and fabric construction, and at one point she even considered a job as a designer."I did not start out to be a chemist. As a child, I thought I might be a fashion designer. I spent an awful lot of time drawing various types of clothing and sewing."

Sewing provided a creative outlet for Stephanie and she learned the satisfaction of crafting something with her own hands, though her mother warned her that she would starve if she were a designer, as she was such a perfectionist. Stephanie pursued teaching for a while, then decided on medicine and chemistry as fields of study.


Stephanie's work in high school earned her a scholarship to study biology in college, and she enrolled in Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon, in 1942. She was frequently invited to present her research work and papers, which she found flattering and encouraging. She subsequently switched to chemistry, and in 1946 she graduated with a BA degree.

After graduation, she applied to DuPont to work as a chemist, and was interviewed by research director W. Hale Church, who had invented the process to make cellophane waterproof.

At the end of the interview, Church told her she would be hearing back from them in two weeks, letter him know if she got the job, but she asked if he could get back to her sooner. She had another offer she had to make a decision on, she explained.

Church called his secretary into the room and dictated an offer letter for Stephanie right then and there, in her presence. She always believed her assertiveness paid off for her in that instance, nudging the decision in her favor.

Working at Dupont

At Dupont, Stephanie joined a team of chemists called the Pioneering Research Laboratory. Dupont had recently invented the world's first synthetic fiber, nylon, and the research Stephanie was engaged in was so fascinating that within a few years she had given up her idea of going to medical school, she was just enjoying what she was doing so much.

In 1965, the American government and industries feared a gasoline shortage. In their exploration of ways to improve fuel economy, DuPont challenged their chemists to come up with the next high-performance fiber to take the place of steel wire in tires, because lighter tires would mean better fuel economy.

The research involved preparing samples, synthesizing polyamides of high molecular weight, dissolving them in solvents, and spinning the solution into fibers. Stephanie was working with long-chain polymers that were very difficult to dissolve, but she found the right solvent.

What that left her with was a "very thin solution, very watery." It was opalescent and "peculiar, not the typical polymer solution." Exploring this solution further, Stephanie had a breakthrough when she discovered that under the right conditions, large numbers of the molecules of the long-chain, rod-like polyamides would line up in parallel, forming liquid crystalline solutions that could be spun into oriented fibers of very high strength and stiffness.

To transform the polymer solution to a fiber took a process called spinning. The liquid would be poured into a spinneret, which would force the liquid through tiny holes to create strands, then spins them in a method that is similar to how cotton candy is made.

Stephanie knew they were looking for a new material and was not put off by the fact that the liquid she was working with looked different, but the operator of the spinneret was. What Stephanie took to be an opalescent feature of the liquid, the spinneret operator took to be particles.

"This solution is too thin; it’s too watery," she recalled him saying, "Furthermore, it has particles in it, and it’s gonna plug up my equipment.”

Stephanie persevered, however. "I filtered this solution, and I knew there were no particles in it, and he still refused to spin it. So I think eventually after a few days — he had a guilty conscience or something — and he came and said he would spin that thing. We spun it, and it spun beautifully."

"It was very strong and very stiff-unlike anything we had made before. I knew that I had made a discovery. I didn't shout "Eureka!" but I was very excited, as was the whole laboratory excited, and management was excited, because we were looking for something new. Something different. And this was it."

Looking back on it later, Stephanie recalled: “I knew the direction in which to go, but I will tell you this: I never expected to get the properties I did the first time I spun it.”

She describes the discovery as “a case of serendipity,” but the liquid might never have been spun if she had not pushed the equipment operator to do it. He simply was not looking for a liquid that had that kind of appearance, and Stephanie was.

Uses of Kevlar

Today Kevlar is used in hundreds of household and industrial applications. Valued for being lightweight and incredibly strong (five times stronger than steel), it is best known for its use in ballistics and stab-resistant body armor, and is credited with saving the lives of thousands of people around the world.

In Iraq in 2009, soldiers utilized Kevlar helmets and vests instead of their standard steel helmets because the Kevlar stopped the shrapnel more effectively, up to 40% better. Today's ground troops and journalists must wear helmets and vests lined with Kevlar to protect their vital organs.

Besides body armor, it can be found in over two hundred applications, ranging from fiber optic cables to vehicles and tires (the original application it was created for), to city roads.

Recognition and retirement

While receiving professional acclaim, Stephanie never profited directly from the invention of Kevlar, as she had signed over the patent royalties to Dupont. She led the team in polymer research until her retirement in 1986, and obtained 17 individual patents for work she did alone, and another 9 patents for work with teams.

After retiring, Stephanie tutored high school students in Chemistry, focusing particularly on young women with an interest in the sciences, and serving as a mentor. In 1994 she was induced to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, where she was only the forth woman, of 113 members.

In 1996 Stephanie received the National Medal of Technology, and in 1997 the Perkin Medal, both rarely awarded to women. She was also induced in the National Women's Hall of Fame, and the Plastics Hall of Fame.

Another way Stephanie is well known in the classroom is through her paper, "The Nylon Rope Trick," published in 1959. This paper describes how to demonstrate condensation polymerization in a beaker at atmospheric pressure and room temperature, and has become a popular and common demonstration in classrooms nationwide.

She died on June 18th, 2014, in Wilmington, DE. She was 90 years old.

Even when she knew they were on to something completely different, Stephanie did not foresee all these applications. "I guess that's just the life of an inventor, what people do with your ideas takes you totally by surprise."


"I seem to see things that other people do not see."

"I don’t think there’s anything like saving someone’s life to bring you satisfaction and happiness.”

  • Stephanie L. Kwolek, Chemical Heritage Foundation,, 2016.
  • Stephanie Kwolek (b. 1923), American Chemical Society,, 2016.
  • Stephanie Kwolek, the Great Idea Finder,, 2016.
  • Stephanie Kwolek: A Great Woman in Sewing, Whipstitch editor,, 2016.
  • Stephanie Kwolek: Film Transcript. Chemical Heritage Foundation,, 2016.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Katherine G. Johnson, NASA Mathematician

Katherine Johnson was a mathematician for NASA that calculated the trajectory of every space flight in the 1960s. One of hundreds of women "computers," she was the only one to rise from the ranks and work with the engineering team on the Space Task Force. 

"I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed... anything that could be counted, I did." ~ Katherine G. Johnson

Katherine was born in 1918 in White Sulpher Springs, West Virginia. For as long as she can remember, her love of numbers and counting was inherent, and she was impatient to follow in her siblings' footsteps and get her turn to go to school.

Katherine was always close to her father, and credits him with teaching her that she was equal to everyone else. "My dad taught us 'you are as good as anybody in this town, but you're no better.' I don't have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I'm as good as anybody, but no better."

Katherine's father Joshua worked as a farmer in White Sulphur Springs, a town that offered education for black children up to the eighth grade. To continue his family's education, Joshua drove them 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where his wife could get a job as a domestic helper and the children could attend high school and college while he continued to work in White Sulpher Springs.

When Katherine began school she was advanced enough to start in the second grade, and when she was 10 years old she started high school. Katherine had strong mentors and teachers throughout high school and graduated when she was 15, then entered West Virginia State College.

In college, Katherine had two years to declare a major and was torn between three subjects: English, French, and Math. When a female teacher teased that "If you don't show up for my class, I'll come find you," Katherine allowed her professor's friendly nudge to guide her decision: she followed her first love and inclination, and pursued mathematics.

Her aptitude in mathematics were noticed by another teacher, Dr. William W. Schiefflin Claytor, who encouraged Katherine to pursue research mathematics. He advised her on which classes to take to prepare for that industry, and created a class in analytical geometry of space just for her.

At 18 years old, Katherine graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and French.

Finding Employment

She had dreams of being a research mathematician after graduating, but the only opportunities available were as a teacher, so that's the job she took. It was during a vacation from teaching in 1952 that she heard that Langley Memorial Research Library was looking for "black women computers."

Langley needed human "computers" to crunch the numbers, as no such technology yet existed. Computations included wind tunnel resistance, rocket trajectories, and safe re-entry angles. The project was run by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), a predecessor to NASA, and employed hundreds of women, both white and black.

But why were they specifically looking for women?

Appeal for women workers

The effort by Langley to employ more women workers started in 1941 when the US entered WWII. The American work force was short on men due to the war effort, and the US government implored women to pitch in and fill the gaps left by the men, even launching a "Rosie the Riveter" campaign for their recruitment.

Women responded by flowing into the work force in higher numbers than ever, and between 1940 and 1945 the female percentage of the US workforce increased from 27 to 37%.

In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt also signed an order for government agencies hire more African-American workers, having been made aware of the discrimination still faced by black workers in America, who faced fewer jobs and lower pay.

In 1943, Langley began hiring black women with college educations and backgrounds in chemistry and math. While offering higher pay than could be found by educated women elsewhere, such as in teaching or nursing, the facilities at the research lab were segregated.


Black women working at the Hampton, VA facility used separate washrooms, worked in a separate facility, and had to sit at the colored table in the cafeteria. Even after a few years, the white unmarried women were given housing in well-furnished dorms, while black unmarried women had to find lodging in town, which was sometimes scarce.

The facility itself was located on a former plantation, with the black "computers" working a mile away from the white "computers," in a building with no restroom.

Katherine did not hear of the job until the 1950s, and was accepted to the program in 1953.

Working at NACA

Katherine was initially put into the same computer pool as the other women, but she distinguished herself by asking incessant questions, as she tells it. She wasn't satisfied with just doing the work, she wanted to know how and why they were doing it - this was something that no-one else had ever questioned.

Katherine at NACA
When told that women did not participate in the briefings at NACA or attend meetings, she asked if there was a law against it. She was told there was not, so she began to attend the briefings.

NACA was just developing its work in space, and Katherine's command of geometry set her apart yet again as she perceived space to be a series of plane surfaces.

"We wrote our own textbook, because there was no other text about space," she says. "We just started from what we knew. We had to go back to geometry and figure all of this stuff out. Inasmuch as I was in at the beginning, I was one of those lucky people."

The team relied on her more and more, until she was not working in the room with the other computers, but working with the engineers, and eventually leading the team. The men relied on her for the answers.

“The women did what they were told to do,” Katherine explained. “They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.”

Within five years Katherine became the only non-white, non-male member of the Space Task Force, focused on getting an American astronaut into space as soon as possible. That happened for the first time in 1961, when Alan Shepard was launched into space on a 15 minute sub-orbital flight.

Katherine calculated the trajectory for Shepherd's capsule during that flight.

"The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point," she said. "Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start. I said, 'Let me do it. You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I'll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.' That was my forte."

When John Glenn went into space in 1962, becoming the first American to orbit the earth and the fifth person in space, he specifically asked that Katherine double-check his trajectory.

Glenn's flight involved more complicated computations and more variables, including the rotation of the Earth and the moon's orbit. By this time NACA had become NASA, and they were using actual computers, and not the human kind.

Johnson remembers that they could do "much more, much faster" on a computer. Still, they called her over after the computer calculations had been made to make sure the trajectory was correct. Johnson did the calculations herself, and agreed they were correct. Glenn's flight was successful.

Katherine worked on a number of other missions for NASA, including the trajectory of Apollo 11 in 1969 for the first moon landing. She was away at a sorority meeting in the Pocono Mountains when Neil Armstrong was actually landing on the moon, but she gathered with others around a small television to watch man's first steps.

She recalls that there was some exclamation over it, but not much: "It all seemed routine to people by then." Still, she felt a bit of nervousness inside, knowing she had done the calculations for his flight. "I had done the calculations and knew they were correct," said Johnson. "But just like driving (to Hampton in traffic) from Williamsburg this morning, anything could happen. I didn't want anything to happen and it didn't."

Retirement and recognition

Katherine worked with NASA until 1986, then retired with 33 years of service. She was the recipient of many awards, including the NASA Lunar Orbiter Award and three NASA Special Achievement awards. The National Technical Association named her Mathematician of the Year in 1997, and she was honored with various degrees from colleges and universities.

When the State University of New York honored Katherine with an honorary Doctor of Law degree, she was informed at the last minute that she was not only an honoree, but also the keynote speaker - so she rose to speak with the audience about her distinguished career and experiences, in what she would refer to as a "chat" with the audience.

Katherine would be informed after the ceremony by a relative of a graduate that her informal speech had given her the motivation to return the following fall, to complete her degree.

Today, Katherine encourages students to pursue STEM careers. "We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics. Everything is physics and math.”

In 2011, Katherine was honored by the dedication of the Katherine G. Johnson Science Technology Institute at Alpha Academy in Fayetteville, NC, and in 2015, President Barack Obama presented Katherine with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to the space program.

After all of her accomplishments and awards, Katherine was asked if she still loved mathematics. "Oh, yes," she responded. "And things have to be parallel. I see a picture right now that’s not parallel, so I’m going to go straighten it. Things must be in order."

  • Katherine Johnson: The Girl Who Loved to Count. Yvette Smith, November 24th, 2015, NASA,, November 24th, 2015.
  • She was a Computer when Computers Wore Skirts, Jim Hodges, NASA History,, August 26th, 2008.
  • Katherine Johnson: A Lifetime of STEM. Heather S. Deiss/NASA Educational Technology Services,, November 6th, 2013.
  • The Black Female Mathematicians Who Sent Astronauts to Space, Mental Floss,, March 10, 2016.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Hertha Ayrton: Inventor, Mathematician, Electrical Engineer

Hertha Ayrton was an award-winning engineer, mathematician, inventor, and physicist who befuddled the Royal Society of England by making discoveries in the field of electrical engineering and physical sciences despite being a woman. 

“An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.” ~ Hertha Ayrton

Hertha was born Phoebe Sarah Marks in Portsea, Portsmouth, on April 28, 1854. The third of eight children, Sarah's father was a watchmaker and jeweller who immigrated from Poland and struggled to earn enough for his family to eat. When he passed away in 1861, the family was left in great debt. Sarah's mother, Alice Marks, supported her children with needlepoint until they were old enough to get work themselves.

Being of formidable character and of the mind that women needed to gain more education than men as life would likely give them higher hurdles, Alice Marks sent Hertha to London to be educated at a school run by her sister and his husband. Having noted her daughter's intellect, Alice was not the type to keep her child at home due to financial circumstances, if it could be avoided.

Life in London

As a teenager Sarah adopted the name Hertha, after the heroine of a novel by Swedish feminist writer Frederika Bremer. While at the school she made a name for herself as a scholar and a fighter for justice, once going on a hunger strike for two days after being wrongfully accused of a misdemeanor.

She learned math, French, music, and Latin, and by the age of 16 was working as a live-in governess in London so she could send her earnings home to her mother and siblings. Though pleased to earn money, Hertha still yearned for an education, and after being introduced to Barbara Lee Smith Bodichon, one of the co-founders of the Girton College at Cambridge University, the first university college for women in England, Hertha submitted an application.

Bodichon was supportive of Hertha, so much that she organized and paid for mathematics lessons and arranged a loan so Hertha could attend the school. Once admitted, Hertha became known for her mental agility and aptitude. She had an inventor's mind, and developed two instruments while still a student: a device for recording pulses, and a line divider, used for dividing lines into equal parts. She also began a math club with fellow student Charlotte Scott, the purpose of which was to "find problems for the club to solve, and discuss any mathematics question that may arise."

Women were not awarded degrees at Cambridge until 1948, so when Hertha passed her final exams in 1880 she was awarded a certificate. Though known to be brilliant and described by one fellow student as "always the most striking figure among the students," she did not do as well as expected in her final exams, and was awarded Third Class (First Class would have been graduating with distinction).

She wrote with regret to Madame Bodichon afterwards, expressing her sorrow at having failed so badly: "I think it is very hard on you after all you have done for me, that I should do no better. It is not for want of work, nor even entirely of brains, but rather a want of memory and still more presence of mind in the exam. room. So I have turned out a failure."


For several years after school Hertha worked as a mathematics tutor, then in 1884 submitted a patent for the line-divider she had invented in school. The device was unveiled at the Exhibition of Women's Industries, and was adopted by artists and architects alike. It was Hertha's first major invention.

While attending classes at the Finsbury Technical College to further her studies, Hertha met Professor William Ayrton. William was an electrical engineer and the two presumably hit it off, because they were married in 1885. For some time after they got married Hertha dedicated herself to domestic responsibilities, though she did take some time out to deliver a series of lectures for women on electricity in 1888.

When Barbara Bodichon died in 1891 she left Hertha some money, however, and Hertha was able to hire a housekeeper and devote more time to scientific research - hence, Hertha's benefactor in her college years was once again her benefactor, this time after she had gone.

Electric Arc

With her time Hertha dedicated herself to the study of the electric arc. Since 1807 electric arcs had been used for illumination, created by placing two carbon rods very near to each other so that a brilliant arc was formed as the electricity jumped the gap. Arc lighting was bright but inconsistent and unsteady, and the light would flicker and hiss.

Used in street lights and the projection of movies, arc lighting was supposed to enhance a scene but instead could distract. Scientists such as William Aryon sought to make the light more steady and quiet, but his work on the arc was destroyed when a maid used his scientific papers to light a fire one cold evening.

Hertha took over the work and William turned to another project, being supportive of his wife's work and prudently understanding that if they collaborated, he would be the one to get the credit. Through experimentation and investigation, Hertha discovered the reason for the hissing, the changes in appearance of the arc, how to shorten the arc, and the relationship between the voltage drop across the arc, the arc's length, and the current.

In 1896 and 1897 she published twelve papers in The Electrician that laid out her findings, and described how to eliminate the hissing sound from arc lighting and significantly control its flickering.


Hertha's work was met with great astonishment, mostly regarding her gender and the fact that she seemed unafraid to work with electricity. There had been many investigations of the electric arc since its invention, but no-one had yet been able to explain the process and how certain results were attained in such a way as Hertha.

Hertha presented a paper at the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) in 1899, the first ever read by a woman. She was also the first woman to attain IEE membership and be awarded a prize. At London's International Conference of Women, Hertha presided over the physical sciences section.

Members of the Royal Society in England, however, had deep reservations about her admittance. They would accept her work, but not her as a member, so in 1901 when the Society accepted Hertha's paper entitled "The Mechanism of the Electric Arc," it was presented by a male member, as Hertha's gender was not allowed.

By 1902 Hertha had received a nomination to join the Royal Society, but in case she forgot who was in charge the group consulted a lawyer, who reminded her. The lawyer's decision was that Hertha's gender made her ineligible for nomination, as a married woman had no legal standing separate from her husband.

Their formal decree was as follows: "We are of the opinion that married women are not eligible as Fellows of the Royal Society. Whether the Charters admit of the election of unmarried women appears to us to be very doubtful."

Hertha, for her part, thought that was all complete nonsense and told a journalist exactly this. "The idea of 'women and science' is entirely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist or she is not; in any case she should be given opportunities, and her work should be studied from the scientific, not sex, point of view."

In 1902 Hertha published The Electric Arc, a 450-page book the became the standard on arc lighting almost immediately. It would take the Royal Society two more years to allow Hertha to come and present one of her papers by herself, and in 1906 she was awarded the society's Hughes Medal for "the original discovery in the physical sciences, particularly as applied to the generation, storage, and use of energy."

Alas, she was still not made a member due to her gender, and she never would be.

Suffrage Supporter

No stranger to sexism or poverty, it is perhaps unexpected that Hertha was a staunch supporter of a woman's right to vote. She joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907 and became one of their largest contributors.

Hunger strikers like Emmeline Pankhurst were taken in by Hertha for recuperation, and in 1911 she refused to participate in the census in an act of protest. Instead of providing information, on the census form she scrawled, "How can I answer all these questions if I have not the intelligence to choose between two candidates for parliament? I will not supply these particulars until I have my rights as a citizen. Votes for Women. Hertha Ayerton."

Hertha was also friends with Marie Curie, and would defend Marie's work with vehemence in the press, pointing out instances when her friend's work was mistakenly attributed to her husband, Pierre Curie.

Ripple Movement

While walking on a beach in 1901 Hertha had looked at the ripples on the sand and across the water and began theorizing about their formation. She came to understand that they were caused by the oscillation of wind and of water, and it was this phenomenon that she described in her paper to the Royal Society in 1904, entitled "The Origin and Growth of Ripple Marks."

From that paper:
“To anyone who, for the first time, sees a great stretch of sandy shore covered with innumerable ridges and furrows, as if combed with a giant comb, a dozen questions must immediately present themselves. How do these ripples form? Are they made and wiped out with every tide, or do they take a long time to grow, and last for many tides? What is the relation between the ripple and the waves to which they owe their existence? And a host of others too numerous to mention.”
While these may seem like simple observations, 1901 was the first time anyone had considered the ripple phenomenon from a scientific point of view, or could explain it.

The Ayrton Fan

Hertha did not put her theories about the flow of air and ripple movement into practice until the First World War, which saw a new and deadly weapon being used at Ypres in 1915. Chlorine and mustard gas were two of the chemicals used, the latter of which caused terrible blisters and ate away at the skin.

With her ideas about the oscillation of air, Hertha created fans with flappers to push the poisonous gases out of the trenches. The War Office was quick to dismiss her invention, partially confused by the name of the device: how could a "fan," a flimsy contraption that a woman carried, possibly help their men at the front?

It wasn't until Hertha took the story to the press and performed a demonstration that they acquiesced, issuing over 104,000 of the Ayrton Fans to soldiers in the trenches.

Following the war Hertha continued in this line of research, this time devising methods to clear mines and sewers of noxious gases. She remained committed to women's suffrage movement and her inventions. By the time of her death on August 26th, 1923, she had patented 26 devices.

  • Hertha Marks Ayrton. Biographies of Women Mathematicians, Agnes Scott College,, 2016
  • Hertha Ayrton. Pam Hirsch, Jewish Women's Archive,, 2016.
  • Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - and the World. Rachel Swaby, Broadway books, 2015.
  • Hertha Marks Ayrton. Eric Gregerson, Encyclop√¶dia Britannica Online,, 2016.
  • Archives Biographies: Hertha Ayrton, The Institution of Engineering and Technology,, 2016. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Temple Grandin: Animal Scientist, Author, and Autism Educator

Temple Grandin is an animal scientist, author, and renowned lecturer who credits her autism as granting her with a way to view the world that others cannot. With this view she has invented systems that transformed the way the cattle industry handles livestock. 

Temple Grandin was born on August 29th, 1947 in Boston, Massachusetts. From an early age Temple displayed the signs of autism; screaming, rocking, humming, and not speaking. She was diagnosed at age two, and did not start speaking until she was 3-1/2.

Autism was not well understood in the 1950s. It was considered a form of brain damage, potentially requiring institutionalization. Doctors put the blame on Temple's mother, Eustacia Grandin, indicating Temple's condition was due to Eustacia not being affectionate enough.

Temple's mother sought the best care and treatment for her, including extensive speech therapy. Temple could understand speech but screamed because she did not know how else to communicate, though she could get her words out if placed in a "slight stress situation."

Temple's therapist knew how to push just far enough to get Temple to speak; push too far and Temple would start having a tantrum, don't push far enough, and no progress would be made. Speech therapy helped Temple develop socially by drawing her out of isolation and reshaping her communicative skills.

The squeeze machine

Temple also faced challenges due to stimulation overload; her senses were oversensitive to loud noise and touch, so much that a slight touch or loud noise would cause physical pain. She withdrew from sources of noise and physical contact, finding the overstimulation unbearable.

To regulate her anxiety and overcome the stimulation of touch, Temple dreamed of creating a "squeeze machine" that she could lie in, and control the amount of pressure being applied to her body. From the age of five she had recognized the soothing effect of controlled heavy pressure; while she could not tolerate light touch, a firm touch or pressure had a calming effect and could help reduce what she called "nerve attacks."

Like many children with autism and other sensory processing disorders, Temple found herself seeking out ways to create that feeling. Some children bury themselves under heavy blankets to achieve that feeling of pressure; in Temple's case, she would crawl under the couch cushions, and have her sister sit on them.

During adolescence Temple's daily anxiety increased to the point where she was having panic and anxiety attacks. While she was still in high school she invented her own squeeze machine, consisting of two padded boards that were laid next to each other, forming an upright V-shape. When Temple laid along the boards, facing down, she could use a lever to squeeze the sides of the V together, applying pressure to her whole body.

With this machine Temple managed her anxiety attacks and taught herself to be less sensitive to touch. It would also be a precursor to the kind of work Temple would get into after her school career, as she took her self-soothing principles and applied them to soothing animals.

Learning interaction

Temple's mother made her get a job and learn social skills while she was still young, forcing her to learn responsibility and how to function "in the real world." Temple got a job cleaning horse stalls, a job that afforded not only the chance to practice her social interactions, but let her be close to her beloved animals.

On the value of being forced to socialize: "When I was 8 years old, my mother made me be a party hostess - shake hands, take coats. In the 1950s, social skills were taught in a much more rigid way so kids who were mildly autistic were forced to learn them. It hurts the autistic much more than it does the normal kids to not have these skills formally taught."

Looking back on high school, Temple recalled the challenges, calling herself a "goof-around" who was not interested in school. "High school was a disaster. I got kicked out of a large girls' school because I threw a book at a girl after she teased me. And I was sent away to a special boarding school for emotionally disturbed children."

There was no real understanding or support for autistic children. Temple got in trouble frequently and was teased by some teachers and classmates, but eventually thrived by finding mentors and pursuing subjects she was interested in.

She enjoyed horseback riding, and model rocket club, and electronics. A science teacher that recognized her abilities took her under his wing and showed her how to build upon her strengths, like her talent for thinking visually.

With the support of her mother and mentors like her elementary science teacher, Temple did not have an easy path but she was able to navigate the educational system as an autistic person, teaching those around her about her condition and what she was capable of, and learning about it herself.

College Years

Despite having the support of her mentors, interacting with peers and teachers in the classroom setting was challenging, and Temple was teased for some of her behaviors. Again, Temple focused on the things she was good at, like art and finite math.

Like many autistic people, Temple is a photo-realistic visual thinker, whereby understanding comes from being able to see and work through a concept in images. This style of thinking would lead Temple to conceptualize the series of inventions she developed later, but would leave her unable to perform such skills as basic algebra.

With dedicated study and the support of her mother and mentors, Temple completed a degree in psychology at Franklin Pierce College (1970). Having grown up around animals and following her love of horses and cattle, she then embarked on a master's degree in animal science at the Arizona State University.

Temple with livestock. Photo by Rosalie Winard
A connection with animals

With her strength for thinking visually and her extreme sensitivity to light and sound, Temple was in a unique position to understand how animals see the world. Her understanding of their experience was first demonstrated when she visited feed yards in the 1970s, and observed as the cows would walk up the chutes to get their vaccinations.

Some animals would just walk right up to get their shots, while others would refuse to move along the chutes. To find out why this was, Temple got inside the chutes and took a look at what the animals were seeing.

As discussed in a 2006 interview with NPR, Temple says "And people thought that was just kind of crazy." What she found however was that the animals were afraid of several visual cues, and that if you removed them, then then animals would be much calmer.

As Temple tells it, "...they were afraid of shadows. They were afraid of the reflection off a bumper of a truck. They were afraid of seeing people up ahead." But when these cues were removed, the animals would walk straight up the chute.

Yet "In the beginning when I first started doing that, people just couldn't even see why I was doing it."

Temple's work on restraint devices for calf and beef slaughter plants let her see how poor the existing chutes in feedlots were. Through observation and study, Temple determined that even under ideal conditions, cattle could become bruised or injured by going through a conventional squeeze chute. When cattle was more calm the animals would walk through the system more readily, resulting in decreased panic, injuries, pain, and trauma. By changing the design, Temple hoped to introduce a system that would making the handling of the animals easier and the entire process more humane.

As noted on her website for Colorado State University, the Department of Animal Sciences:
Quiet handling of cattle will reduce stress and injuries in squeeze chutes. Excited animals are more difficult to handle. It takes up to 30 minutes for an excited animal to calm down. To keep animals calm in a restraint device they must be calm when they enter it. Cattle should walk into a squeeze chute and walk out of it. Feedlot operators have found that calm handling of cattle in squeeze chutes will enable cattle to go back on feed more quickly.
Though unconventional (and occasionally rejected outright, due to the fact that she was both autistic and a woman), Temple's ability to design systems that were more humane was recognized for its value. As animals that are traumatized will tend to have a lower weight and tougher meat, it was not just (or even) for efficiency and ethical reasons that feedlot owners wanted animal handling methods that would avoid many of the issues of traditional systems - it was also for the better product they yielded.

From 1975 to 2000 Temple worked in the field of animal science and attained a master's degree (1975) and doctorate (1990). Throughout her studies, Temple continued to study and work with animals on feedlots, observing the systems used to handle and even slaughter them.

Original Hand Drawing of Curved Livestock Handling Facility by Temple Grandin
Duel Half-Circle closed pen, designed by Temple Grandin
A system Temple designed at an American meat handling plant
By 2000 Temple had worked as a consultant for all of the leaders in the industry. The most widely used device is the center-track restraining system, that focuses on behavioral principles and reducing outside stimulus rather than the use of force. She designed, introduced, and improved so many restraint and handling systems that it is estimated that when cattle in North American goes to a meat processing facility, half of them are handled in systems she designed.

Besides the US and Canada, Temple also designed livestock handling facilities in New Zealand and Europe, and introduced an objective scoring system to assess the handling of cattle at large plants. Her papers, lectures, and inventions addressing the efficiently and humane handling of animals at meat handling plants transformed the industry and reduced the pain of millions of animals.

Advocate and Educator for Autism

Outside of her profession as an animal behavioral scientist, Temple became a natural advocate and educator about the autistic spectrum. The squeeze machine that she invented as a teenage was adopted by occupational therapists and psychologists and used with hyperactive and autistic children, as well as those with ADHD and learning disabilities. The primary purpose of the machine is to calm and to teach the user to adapt to the stimulation of touch, reducing hyper-awareness.

In an article for the Journal of Child and Adolescent Pharmacology, Temple described how the squeeze machine taught her to become less sensitive to touch.
At age 18, I constructed the squeeze machine to help calm down the anxiety and panic attacks. Using the machine for 15 minutes would reduce my anxiety for up to 45-60 minutes. The relaxing effect was maximized if the machine was used twice a day. Gradually, my tolerance of being held by the squeeze machine grew. Knowing that I could initiate the pressure, and stop it if the stimulation became too intense, helped me to reduce the over-sensitivity of my 'nervous system.'
Using the machine enabled me to learn to tolerate being touched by another person. By age 25, I was able to relax in the machine without pulling away from it. It also made me feel less aggressive and less tense. Soon I noted a change in our cat's reaction to me. The cat, who used to run away from me now would stay with me, because I had learned to caress him with a gentler touch. I had to be comforted myself before I could give comfort to the cat.
Temple became a prominent author and speaker on the subject of autism, publishing her experiences in a series of books. For many it was the first time they had an inside view as to what it was like to experience autism. Though every case will vary, Temple's description of her world as one filled with pain and overstimulation shattered the myth many had of autism as a silent world that could not be penetrated. Moreover, her ability to learn and adapt her system to the outside world and become a highly successful animal scientist proved that a diagnosis of autism was not the death sentence to achievement many took it to be.

Not that she was the first person with autism to accomplish such feats, Temple was quick to point out. There are many individuals with autism around us to varying degrees, and they have been productive and valued members of society. Based on descriptions of their development and behaviors, Albert Einstein was autistic, along with Mozart and Steve Jobs, Temple believes. What is important is focusing on the strengths of a child, and not getting too wrapped up in a label.

Says Temple, "One of the problems today is for a kid to get any special services in school, they have to have a label. The problem with autism is you've got a spectrum that goes from Einstein down to someone with no language. Steve Jobs was probably mildly on the autistic spectrum. Basically, you've probably known people who were geeky and socially awkward but very smart. When does geeks and nerds become autism? That's a gray area. Half the people in Silicon Valley probably have autism."

While the increased identification and diagnosis of autism over the last few decades can be viewed as a positive (in that it helps parents and educators better understand a child's behaviors), it can also be something of a trap, if the label leads to expectations for the child that are too low.

As parental expectations can greatly shape the momentum of a child's therapy and progress, Temple encourages caregivers to challenge autistic children, teaching them social skills and encouraging them to get jobs in the community so they can practice those skills. She advises that children should be "nudged outside of their comfort zone, given responsibilities and tasks - not allowed to become recluses playing video games by themselves all day."

Temple in 2014 giving a speech at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
Photo by Melanie Rieders
Far from seeing autism as a handicap, Temple views it as a gift, and encourages others to consider it as such. Given that the skills of the autistic are unique to their condition, they should be "brought to the table and nurtured," not only for their benefit, but also for society's.

Temple notes that if a cure for autism were found, she would choose to stay the way she is. "I like the really logical way that I think. I'm totally logical. In fact, it kind of blows my mind how irrational human beings are," she said. "If you totally got rid of autism, you'd have nobody to fix your computer in the future."

Dr. Grandin presently works as a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. She also speaks around the world on both autism and cattle handling.

  • Temple Gradin, PhD. Temple Grandin's Official Autism Website,, 2016
  • Temple Grandin: Autism is an Ability, not a Handicap. Erica Grossman, Amy Poehler's Smart Girls,, December 4th, 2015
  • Biography: Temple Gradin, Ph.D. Dr. Temple Gradin's webpage,, 2016
  • Restraint of Livestock, Dr. Temple Grandin, Dr. Temple Grandin's website,, March 2000
  • A Conversation with Temple Grandin, Talk of the Nation, NPR,, January 20th, 2006,

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Athlete

Babe Didrikson Zaharias was one of the most talented female athletes of all time in America, with a swagger to match. An Olympic athlete in 1932 in track and field, she went on to dominate in the LPGA, which she co-founded. 

"It's not enough to just swing at the ball. You've got to loosen your girdle and really let her fly." ~ Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Mildred Ella Didrickson was born on June 26th, 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas. Her parents Hannah and Ole were immigrants from Norway, and Babe was the sixth of seven children. Her mother was a former skier and skater, and her father worked as a ship's carpenter.

In 1914 when Babe was only four a hurricane hit Port Arthur, killing 275 people and devastating the area. Babe's family moved inland to Beaumont, Texas, and tried settling once again. They did not have much money and Babe began working part-time jobs while she was still at school, earning a penny for every penny-sack she sewed.

Babe began playing baseball with the boys in the neighborhood. She became known for her ability to hit a home run and claims to have acquired the nickname "Babe" after the great Babe Ruth, though one theory holds that the nickname came from her mother, who called her "bebe" since she was a toddler. She learned to run by racing streetcars, wore her hair short, and wore boys' clothes.

In her autobiography, This Life I've Led, she wrote, "I played with boys rather than girls. I preferred baseball, football, foot-racing and jumping with the boys, to hop-scotch and jacks and dolls, which were about the only things girls did." She made it no secret that her goal was to be "the greatest athlete that ever lived."  Her father encouraged her ambition, and made her a barbell out of a broomstick and two heavy flatirons.

Babe attended Beaumont High School but did not get good grades, and did barely enough to remain eligible to play sports. She played baseball and basketball, and was so skilled at the latter that the team never lost a game during Babe's run. She was the highest-scoring player every year that she played, and
caught the attention of Melvorne J. McMcombs, the manager of the Golden Cyclones, a women's basketball team in Dallas.

The Golden Cyclones were sponsored by the Employers Casualty Company, which not only funded the team but promoted the idea that athletes were better workers. In 1929 Babe left high school without finishing it to work for the company as a secretary, but also to play on the company's numerous athletic teams, including their basketball, baseball, diving, tennis, and track and field.

Dominance in Sports

Babe quickly became a star with the Golden Cyclones. The basketball team won the national championships in 1930, 1931, 1932, and Babe was the star All-American forward all three years. She often scored thirty or more points, and she practiced non-stop in softball, and track and field as well.

While she was naturally talented and zealous, it was Babe's hard work that pushed her even further out in front, into a league of her own. In The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Susan Cayleff described Babe at that time as follows: "We don't see a young athlete striving solely for steady improvement or personal bests. We see a woman with a consuming hunger attacking - and determined to conquer - world records."

A one-woman force

It was the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Track and Field Tournament where Babe put on one of her most impressive displays of athleticism. The meet was a chance to qualify for the 1932 Olympics, and on July 16th, 1932, Babe shocked everyone in the stadium by doing not only that, but by showing up at the team event as the only representative for Employers Casualty Insurance Company.

Facing teams composed of 12, 15, even 22 other women, Babe ran onto the field by herself when introduced, waving her arms vigorously. The crowd, for its part, gasped in surprise at the emergence of this one-woman track team. They had not seen anything yet.

The tournament lasted three hours on a swelteringly hot day in Evanston, IL, and Babe ran from event to event with barely enough time to catch her breath. She competed in eight of ten events, winning gold medals in five, and tying for gold in a sixth. She set world records in four events.

By the end of the three hours, Babe had scored 30 points for her team, winning the championship and 8 points in front of the second-place team, the Illinois Athletic Club, which had brought 22 athletes. She also qualified for the Olympics in five events.

As Arthur Daley would write in the New York Times about her performance, "Implausible is the adjective that best befits the Babe." Some describe this as the single most astonishing act by any athlete, man or woman, in track and field history.

1932 Olympics

At the Olympics, Babe was a favorite to win, though she was only allowed to complete in three of the five events she qualified in - a unique rule for women, as they were considered too weak to compete in more than three.
Babe at the Olympics, 1932
Babe broke four world records in her performances in the javelin, 80-meters hurdles (where she broke the record twice), and in the high jump. She was disqualified in the latter for going over the bar headfirst instead of leading with her feet, an odd call by the judges at the last minute, as she had been jumping that way for the entire meet and had not been corrected regarding it.

In those Olympic Games, Babe was the only person to break a world record in his or her events. Other athletes, including many males, broke Olympic records, but she was the lone athlete that set new marks for the world. The press at the games called her the "Iron Woman," the "Amazing Amazon," and "Whatta Gal Didrickson."

On the Greens

Babe took up golf in the early 1930s and showed a real talent for it, shocking no-one. To get even better, she would stay on the greens for over ten hours a day, playing until her hands were sore and bloody.

By 1932 she had played 11 games, and was driving the ball 260 yards from the first tee. She entered her first tournament in 1934 and won the qualifying round. One year later, she was making $15,000 a year from endorsements and golf matches.

Bragging and Backlash

Babe's talent was undeniable, but neither was her braggadocio. From the very start of her competitive career she was often resented by her opponents and even spectators for what they considered a boastful or immodest attitude.

It was true, Babe liked to let everyone know she was the best, and she was. As she announced once upon arriving at a tournament: "The Babe is hear. Who's coming in second?"

Even years later, this would seem to itch the sides of certain sportswriters, for instance ESPN's Larry Schwartz, who in 1991 described her thusly: "She frequently acted like a self-centered prima donna, a boastful person who constantly sought attention. Although she became somewhat less arrogant over the years, she still remained flamboyant and cocky - and often overbearing."

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, another dominant Olympic track and field athlete, saw it differently. In the 1990s she said in an interview with Schwartz, "It wasn't that she was cocky or aggressive. She was actually speaking the truth [that she was the greatest]. And some people probably didn't like it at that time because it was coming from a woman."

Her attitude wasn't the only thing people and the press complained about; it was also Babe's appearance. Her refusal to fit into the traditional mold of what is female seemed to infuriate some individuals, who called her a freak, an aberration, and "a living put down to all things feminine."

Babe voiced her opinion of such matters in the press, telling reporters how she really felt about feminine wear; she "did not wear girdles, bras, and the like because she was no 'sissy.'"

Joe Williams, a reporter for the New York World Telegram famously responded, "It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring."

Others took it even further, demanding to know if she was a man, a woman, or an "it." It was not unusual for Babe to be intercepted in the changing room by another female athlete who demanded to know her gender. In magazines, writer Paul Gallico called her a "muscle moll" in Vanity Fair, stated she was neither male or female, and spoke of her dismissively, labeling her a lesbian who had failed at being a woman.

For all the rage she sparked in others, Babe continued to make money from her sponsorships, appearances, and by winning tournaments; something that probably only increased the ire of her critics, as now she was not only a woman who was beating everyone athletically, but was supporting herself financially - something few women in that time did. From her contract with Employer's Casualty alone, she made three times what the average man made, and six times what the average woman did.

Reluctantly Feminine

Over time, the constant criticism and pressure to look more female wore away at Babe, and she began changing her behavior. She wore clothing that was more frilly and delicate, and told the press she was looking for a husband. She even went so far as to announce that perhaps women's participation in sports should be limited, and that women should "get toughened up by playing boys' games, but don't get tough."

These uncharacteristic comments were construed by those who understood her history as Babe's effort to fall in line. As noted by her biographer, "Babe's successful ascension to femininity is [falsely] hailed as an applaudable accomplishment, not the tumultuous, contrived, and limiting self-molding that it really was the toll taken on self-esteem, individuality, and difference is ignored."

On the flip side of that, there were still writers who saw her physically for exactly what she was, nothing more, nothing less - such as sportswriter Grantland Rice, who wrote, "She is beyond all belief until you finally see her perform. Then you finally understand that you are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen."

George Zaharias

Babe continued playing golf through the 1930s and made some money with the House of David baseball team, among which she was the only woman. Through exhibition games she accomplished such feats as striking out Joe DiMaggio with three fast pitches, and earned several thousand dollars a month, a considerable amount of money during the Great Depression.

In 1938 she met George Zaharias, and the couple struck up a relationship that seemed based not on romance, but on a mutual understanding. As described by Babe's biographer Cayleff, "Zaharias's exaggerated manliness, she wrote, "contrasted favorably with Babe's attempted womanliness. They were working-class sports entertainers who reflected mainstream sensibilities: individualism, the will to succeed, and materialism. The two performers had found each other."

They married on December 23rd, 1938. George acted as Babe's manager and the two travelled widely on the golf circuit until 1950, which Babe giving golf exhibitions to raise money for war bonds during WWII.


In 1950, Babe and thirteen other women, all famed golfers, co-founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association. They gathered corporate sponsors and held professional tournaments, offering large cash prizes to the winners. Babe became the league's star player, winning money from the tournaments and attracting others to compete, as the availability of a cash prize for women was publicized.

Babe was the driving force behind the LPGA and the reason it was able to keep going in its first few years. A tactic Babe would use would be to call a promoter, negotiate an exhibition appearance for herself, then say "...and I'll bring along a few of the girls."

Some of the earliest LPGA events were born from the PR-savvy Babe; the athlete so frequently criticized for being too aggressive or blowing her own horn was doing it now on behalf of the young LPGA.

Health in decline

In 1950 Babe and her husband George bought a country club in Tampa and moved into the clubhouse there. They did not see each other much and travelled frequently, and when Babe met the talented golfer Betty Dodd that same year the two bonded quickly and would soon be inseparable.

Betty would move into the clubhouse with Babe and her husband, and some sources describe the partnership between Babe and Betty as one of primary partners; two who shared a deep emotional bond.

There was no lack of love on either side of the relationship, that much was certain - as Betty would describe after Babe passed away, "I had such admiration for this fabulous person. I never wanted to be away from her even when she was dying of cancer. I loved her. I would've done anything for her."

By the end of 1952, Babe was feeling exhausted. Less than six months later she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Betty Dodd became her full-time caregiver and she underwent surgery to have the cancer removed.

Six months after surgery she returned to competitive golf, tying for the championship at the U.S Women's Open. Later that year, she established the Babe Zaharias Fund to benefit cancer treatment centers and clinics.

In 1955 the cancer returned, and on a trip to visit friends in Fort Worth, Texas, she asked her friends one night to drive her to the Colonial Country Club. Once there, she went for a walk on the dark greens, bending down to touch the ground and kiss the grass. "I just wanted to see a golf course one more time," she told them.

Babe died on September 27th, 1956 at the age of 45. She is buried in Beaumont, Texas.


"If you win through bad sportsmanship, that's no real victory." ~ Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Patty Burg, on Babe: "When I come in second to her I feel as though I have won. It's kind of like the Yankees. They're the champs and you want them to win."

  • Babe Didrikson Zaharias's Legacy Fades, Don Van Natta Jr, The New York Times,, June 25th, 2011
  • Amelia to Zora: 26 Women Who Changed the World, Cynthia Chin Lee, Charlesbridge Publishing, 2005
  • Didrikson was a Woman Ahead of Her Time, Larry Schwartz, ESPN,, 2016
  • Top 10 Athletes Turned Golfers, Real Clear Sports Editors,, May 17, 2013
  • Babe Didrickson Zaharias, Kelly Winters, The Gale Group,, 2004