Reflections on International Women’s Day

It has been 99 years since the first Women’s Day was observed in February, 1909. In 1975 the United Nations proclaimed March 8 as Women’s Day. Today women in Spain are on strike, banging pots and telling men to fix their own dinners. Women in the Ukraine are holding signs that say, “We are Wonder Women.” In France the daily newspaper Libération is charging women the usual 2 euros, but men must pay 2.5 euros to highlight the disparity between men’s and women’s pay.

In 1909, about 15,000 women marched in New York for the right to vote, for better pay and for a shorter workday. Women earned the right to vote the next year, and their pay and workdays have improved since that time. However, women, who are about half the workforce and earn more college and graduate degrees than men, still only earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. For women of color, the situation is even worse. If the amount paid to women improves at its current rate, white women will reach parity with men by 2059. Black women would have to wait until 2124 and Hispanic women until 2233.

That is the discouraging news, but there is encouraging news as well. I only have to look at the amazing women in my own family to know that we are making progress.

This is my sister Stephanie, who served as a nurse in Vietnam, and then ran her own business.

 

 

This is my niece Sharmel, who endeavored to provide food to developing countries, and now works in the State Department.

 

 

 

These are my granddaughters, ice skating when they were 19 and 20 years old. Almost a decade later, Joanna (on the left) is completing her Ph.D. and is a fantastic mother. Elizabeth (in the center) just opened her own restaurant in Los Angeles, and Phoebe (on the right) works in publishing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. All are accomplished women.

As I sit here in my purple shirt, one of the suffragists’ colors, I do seethe a bit at how much progress we still need to make, but I bask in the knowledge that so many women today have come so far.

 

Sylvia Trent-Adams – First Nurse Surgeon General

        Sylvia Trent-Adams is a nurse, and the first non-physician to serve as Surgeon General of the United States (assuming the one veterinarian who held the position is counted as a physician). The position of Surgeon General was created in 1871 under President Grant’s administration, and the first five physicians to serve as Surgeons General were or had been soldiers. All Surgeons General hold the rank of Vice Admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (one of the seven U.S. uniformed services). Since the creation of the post, thirty-one people have served as Surgeons General, but twelve of them filled the position only as Acting Surgeons General. Four with the “Acting” title served 18 months or longer.

Five women have served at Surgeon General. Antonia Novello, a Hispanic, was the First Woman Surgeon General, appointed by George H.W. Bush in 1990. In 1993 Bill Clinton appointed Jocelyn Elders, who focused on AIDS. She was fired by the President after sixteen months and replaced by another woman, Audrey F. Manley, who was never given the full title even though she served for 3½ years. Manley had been the First African-American Woman appointed as chief resident at Cook County Children’s Hospital and the First African-American Woman to reach the rank of Assistant Surgeon General. Barack Obama appointed Regina Benjamin to the post in 2009, and she was confirmed.

Donald Trump has now appointed Sylvia Trent-Adams, although only in an Acting position as of now. Trent-Adams is not the only nurse to serve. In fairness, Richard Carmona, Surgeon General from 2002-2006, was a nurse, but also a physician (and had been a police officer and public health administrator as well). Trent-Adams does hold the distinction of being the first and only Surgeon General who spent her entire career in nursing. She had previously been a nurse officer in the U.S. Army and then served in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Bringing not only the perspective of a woman, but the added insights from nursing to the position, might shift its focus to children and family. One can hope!

Sutematsu Yamakawa Oyama – First Japanese Woman to Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-1-19-01-pm        Sutematsu Yamakawa Oyama was the first Japanese woman to earn a bachelor’s degree. Her remarkable feat occurred in the late 1800’s at Vassar College. Sutematsu was part of a Japanese experiment that is engagingly recounted in Daughters of the Samurai by Janice P. Nimura.

After Admiral Perry’s show of force in Japan’s Edo Bay, as the era of the samurai is ending, five young girls are selected to come to the United States. Their mission is to learn American culture and return to Japan to help the isolated Japanese kingdom progress to a culture that will have credibility in the “civilized” world.

Three of the girls, Sutematsu among them, remain in the United States for ten years. What they learn is to be curious, well-bred, and independent. What Japan wants is women who can teach other Japanese women to be “cultured,” but only as intelligent partners for their husbands and role models for their children. Japanese men do not see women as independent of the family. All three of the girls struggle with the conflict between their acculturation into American ideas and the reality of Japanese culture.

In Japan the three take different paths. One, Ume Tsuda, remains unmarried, an unusual situation in Japanese culture and eventually establishes a school where English is taught as she wishes, rather than as the Japanese culture had dictated. Another, Shige Nagai Uriu, teaches the music she learned in America, marrying and struggling to balance her work life with her career.

Sutematsu marries well, to a man who becomes general of the Imperial Japanese Army. At first it appears that, in spite of the fact that she does not read or write Japanese well, she has succumbed to Japanese culture and is filling her designated role in Japanese society. However, Sutematsu quietly goes about acculturating Japanese women to Western ways, teaching them about philanthropy and public service. She also raises funds for her friend’s English school and assures that the Empress knows of their success.

Daughters of the Samurai is beautifully written. The author pulls you into the scenes with her meticulous descriptions. She uses letters written by the girls and their correspondents, but never makes the reader feel as if she is merely quoting; the quotations flow naturally from her storytelling. I highly recommend this book.

Carla Hayden – First Woman Librarian of Congress

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-5-17-51-pmTo be the head of an institution that’s associated with knowledge and reading and scholarship when slaves were forbidden to learn how to read on punishment of losing limbs, that’s kind of something.” [Carla Hayden]

In the United States 83% of librarians are women, but a woman has never served as Librarian of Congress—until now! Carla Hayden, sworn in on September 14, is the First Woman to head the Library of Congress. She is not only the first woman, but also the first African-American and, surprisingly, the first professional librarian to hold this position.

You might have heard her name before. She was Baltimore’s chief librarian during the 2015 riots in Baltimore and she chose to keep libraries open so that people would have a safe place to go. Young men from the community stood outside the library to secure its safety while buildings across the street went up in flames.

The particulars of her background and appointment seem to me to hold many similarities with the appointments of other women. Perhaps it was accidental, but it seems likely that women must meet different standards than men, even today.

  1. Carla Hayden has full credentials for the position. – Among the fourteen Librarians of Congress there have been politicians, businessmen, authors, poets and lawyers. Hayden, however, is credentialed in her field. Not only is she a librarian, but she was President of the American Library Association. I’m sure it didn’t hurt her application to Congress that Fortune magazine ranked her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders earlier this year.
  2. She had done the job before. – Research shows that men are often hired for their potential, but women are more likely to be hired if they have already held the same position elsewhere. Hayden ran a failing library system in Baltimore with 22 branches. She upgraded the technological capacity of the libraries and opened the first new library in Baltimore in 35 years.
  3. She knows how to clean up messes. – I have said for years that women make great managers because their domestic duties give them practice at multi-tasking. Women also have learned to straighten up other people’s messes. The Library of Congress is struggling, a lumbering beast being drug into the technological age. Hayden is determined to see that records are digitized and accessible to all.
  4. She knows the job from the bottom up. – It is not unusual for men to either start near the top or work their way up the ladder quickly. Too many of them don’t know how to perform the simpler tasks of their professions. Hayden began as a children’s librarian and this focus makes her committed to assuring that children and teachers can use the Library of Congress to teach the wonders of our nation’s history.
  5. The appointment of a woman gave the organization an excuse to change the rules. – Amazingly, in over two centuries there have been only fourteen Librarians of Congress because the position was held for life. The law has changed with Hayden’s appointment: she will serve for only ten years.

I will be so surprised if Hayden does not do a bang-up job. She has all the credentials; she’s done the job before; she can clean up messes; and she understands that the Library of Congress is not just for Congress and the powerbrokers. Her tenure should lead to a vital, community organization–provided the guys get out of her way.

Navy Honors Grace Hopper

GRACE HOPPERThere has never been a building at any of the major military academies named after a woman—until now! The First Woman to have this honor is Grace Hopper whose name will grace the U.S. Naval Academy’s new cyber facility. Grace Hopper was a pioneer in computer programming and a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral.

Hopper holds the title of First Woman in several other instances as well:

–She was the First Woman director at Ecker-Mauchly Computer Corporation where she worked on compiler-based programming languages for UNIVAC. Back in the days before many others realized that someday we would all have computers, Grace Hopper was working to make computers accessible.

–She was the first recipient (not just woman) of the (catch the name) Science Man-of-the-Year award presented by the Data Processing Management Association in 1969.

–She was named a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society in 1973. Not only was she the First Woman in the world to receive this honor, she was also the first person from the United States who was recognized.

Prior to the Naval Academy’s decision to name a building for her, Grace Hopper also had a guided missile destroyer christened in her name. I can’t help but wonder is she wasn’t a guided missile herself, aimed directly at destroying stereotypes about women.

(For more information about Grace Hopper, read my earlier blog from 2013)