“Winning the prize wasn’t half as exciting as doing the work itself.”—Maria Goeppert-Mayer
Maria Goeppert-Mayer ( 1906 – 1972) was a German-born American theoretical physicist. Born into a family of academics, Maria’s goal was determined to become the seventh professor in her family. After many years working in the field, often unpaid, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for developing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. She was the second woman, after Marie Curie, to ever receive the award. Maria was often asked why girls needed to study science. Sometimes she answered with a counter question: “Do girls only have to learn how to read just to study cook books?”
“If painting is no longer needed, it seems a pity that some of us are born into the world with such a passion for line and color.”
Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) was an American painter and printmaker. Born into a privileged family, she spent parts of her childhood visiting Europe. At age 16, Mary enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but she was disappointed in the course offerings and the patronizing tone of the male instructors. She dropped out and moved to Paris, where she could study the works of old masters in the Louvre. On discovering the work of the artist, Edgar Degas, she said: “It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” She soon befriended Degas and began showing her work with the Impressionist Painters. Mary was the only American member of this circle of artists, and she became famous in Europe for her intimate portraits of mothers and children. She was not a mother herself, as she never married, preferring to forge a career for herself, but she was very close with her sister and brother and nieces and nephews, and often used them for models. She painted women as “subjects, not objects,” another idea that made her stand out in her time. When she returned to the States, though her own work was not well known, she Mary encouraged collectors and museums to buy the work of her friends and so introduced a taste for this style to America.
Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915) was the first American Indian woman to become a physician. She was also an active social reformer who worked to discourage drinking on the reservation where she worked as doctor. She was daughter of the chief of her Omaha tribe (both of her parents were of mixed race and wanted her children to live in both the white and Native American worlds. . When she was a child, she experience the poor living conditions and watched a Native American woman die because a white doctor refused to give her care. Susan did move between both worlds, and after her education in Philadelphia, she returned to work at a government boarding school, caring for both white and Native American patients. She strove to change health care for all patients, advocating for better hygiene to fight tuberculosis, a huge contagion at the time.
“Anyone who has spent any time in space will love it for the rest of their lives. I achieved my childhood dream of the sky.” — Valentina Tereshkova
Valentina Tereshkova (born in 1937) is a Russian cosmonaut. At the age of 26, she was the first woman and civilian to travel in space, completing 48 orbits of the Earth over three days. On her return, she was awarded the title: “Hero of the Soviet Union.” Despite the mission’s success, it would be 19 years before another Russian woman was sent into space…and another 30 years before an American woman would be allowed to go (Sally Ride.) Valentina, now a retired politician, has said many times that she still longs to return to space.
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” —Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964) was a marine biologist, ecologist, and writer, whose work focused on the interconnectedness of nature. Her most famous book, Silent Spring,
which she urgently worked to finish in the last years of her life, became a wake-up call to the American public about the dangers of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which were widely thought to be safe for humans and the greater environment. Although her book was met with fierce opposition by the chemical companies, it caused the government to research her claims and reverse national policy on pesticides, banning certain harmful chemicals. Her work inspired the beginnings of the The US Environmental Protection Agency, and Rachel Carson is remembered as an important scientific and social revolutionary, who helped preserve the environment for future generations.
Here is an excellent PBS documentary
on her life and legacy, if you would like to learn more.
“Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top; it is the willpower that is the most important. This willpower you cannot buy with money or be given by others—it rises from your heart.” — Junko Tabei
Junko Tabei (1939-2016) was a Japanese Mountaineer—the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest and the first woman to climb the highest peak on every continent (the Seven Summits.) Though she was considered a ‘weak child’ when she was young, she later formed her own club, the Ladies Climbing Club: Japan (LCC) in 1969, who’s slogan was: “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves.” She said she formed the club because of the way she was treated by the male climbers at the time, who accused her of climbing only to find a husband or refused to climb with her at all. It was with this club that she climbed Everest, managing to survive an avalanche that buried her and left her unconscious for a time. Later on, she focused her career on preserving mountain environments, disrupted by the waste left by climbing groups. She continued to climb throughout her life, leading ‘clean up’ climbs in Japan and the Himalayas. (Incidentally, she did meet her husband on a mountain climb—what a lovely surprise.)
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” —Anne Frank
Anne Frank (1929-1945) was a German-born Jewish diarist, who documented her teenaged thoughts whilst hiding from the Nazis during World War II. For two years, Anne and her family lived in a secret annex of an Amsterdam warehouse until they were eventually captured. Though she did not survive the war, her writings were published as The Diary of a Young Girl, which became one of the world’s most widely read books about the Holocaust. Anne’s indefatigable spirit and hope for humanity in the midst of terrible circumstances made her one of the most beloved and admired heroines in modern history.
Here is a great website to find out more about Anne, the Secret Annex, and the friends who helped hide the Frank family.
*Artist’s note: This painting was made with oil on board. It was a very emotional experience, looking so closely at her old photos, seeing the hope and purity of her gaze over and over. It’s wonderful that there are so many lovely photos of her. I aimed to capture some of that open-ness in her eyes.
“There were loyal women as well as men, in those days who did not fear the shell or the shot, who cared for the sick and dying.”—Susie King Taylor
Susie King Taylor (1848-1912 ), who was born into slavery, learned to read at secret schools as a child. Later she befriended two White youths, who illegally taught her what they had learned themselves. With her rag-tag education, she became the the first African American to openly teach former slaves in a Georgia school. She taught children in the day and adults at night. During the Civil War, she became the first African American nurse to serve in the Army. She travelled with an all Black troop with her soldier husband and tended to their wounds. When the solders were off duty, she taught them how to read and write. Susie Taylor was also the only African American woman to publish a memoir of the Civil War.