Women’s History Month: Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Confession: I have a semi-obsession with today’s featured woman.

Rosalind Franklin was born in London in 1920. By the age of 15, she knew she wanted to be a scientist. Her father, however, wanted her to be a social worker.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

She entered Newnham College in 1938. By 1945, she had earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge University.

In 1951 she began working as a research associate at John Randall’s lab at King’s College. There she met Maurice Wilkins, both of whom were assigned to work on separate DNA projects. Wilkins, perhaps unsurprisingly, assumed Franklin was a technical assistant and not a peer. Franklin, being a woman, was shut out of certain opportunities…

“Only males were allowed in the university dining rooms, and after hours Franklin’s colleagues went to men-only pubs.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Between 1951 and 1953, Franklin, with the help of a student, Raymond Gosling, “was able to get two sets of high-resolution photos of crystallized DNA fibers. She used two different fibers of DNA, one more highly hydrated than the other. From this she deduced the basic dimensions of DNA strands, and that the phosphates were on the outside of what was probably a helical structure.”

“She presented her data at a lecture in King’s College at which James Watson was in attendance. In his book The Double Helix, Watson admitted to not paying attention at Franklin’s talk and not being able to fully describe the lecture and the results to Francis Crick. Watson and Crick were at the Cavendish Laboratory and had been working on solving the DNA structure. Franklin did not know Watson and Crick as well as Wilkins did and never truly collaborated with them.”

“It was Wilkins who showed Watson and Crick the X-ray data Franklin obtained. The data confirmed the 3-D structure that Watson and Crick had theorized for DNA. In 1953, both Wilkins and Franklin published papers on their X-ray data in the same Nature issue with Watson and Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA.”

In 1956, Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. While undergoing treatment she continued to work, publishing 13 papers throughout 1956 and 57.

She died in April, 1958.

In 1962, Crick, Watson and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the double helix model of DNA.

Rosalind Franklin: The Badass Scientist whose research was responsible for the discovery of the DNA model.

Rosalind Franklin: The woman whose name you most likely never learned.

Read more about Franklin here.

Happy Women’s History Month.


So, why am I obsessed with the colossal shafting of Rosalind Franklin? Franklin represents to me all the hurdles that women did (and do) face in fields that are dominated by men. Shut out from networking and the casual sharing of information over dinners and clubs, in backrooms and labs, she STILL managed to produce results.

Current books which do mention Franklin talk about her abrasive attitude and difficulty to work with–traits thrown at groundbreaking women all the time. Imagine working, as the only woman, in an isolated environment, without access to the same information, and essentially being told to smile more.

Imagine what she could have done had she had access to the same information, the same level of academic involvement and confidence in her career, the same networks and assumptions.

Imagine indeed.



The Magic Quilt of Expat Life

I’ve been an expat for nearly ten years. Blimey, that’s a long time; long enough to start using the word blimey in a non-ironic way, even. Nearly ten years overseas means I have said more than my fair share of goodbyes. I’ve gone to a lot of leaving lunches, farewell festivities, and tally-ho teas. I’ve drunk kegs full of coffee, ingested numerous kilos of cake and watched the resulting kilos materialize on my ass. I’ve given speeches, listened to speeches, presented gifts, bought gifts, assembled slide shows, written songs.

I’ve done it all.

It never gets any easier, not really. I almost always cry.

Not big, gulping sobs, though sometimes it has come close. But that sort of crying when you can feel it coming down the track: the tight throat, the sting behind your eyes, the stuffed up nose. It bears down upon you like a freight train and there’s little you can do to get out of the way in time. A whistle of warning, someone choking on a word, and that’s all she wrote, folks.

A room full of weepy women.

I wrote a post a long time ago about the importance of not crying during these things. Five years later I’ve changed my mind.

Cry, cry, cry.

Cry a river if you need to. It’s good for the soul. More people should cry. And more often.

Newsflash: Women cry. We cry when we’re happy. When we’re sad. When we are frustrated or overwhelmed or raging like a menopausal witch (No? Just me?). We cry over car commercials and Christmas commercials, during movies and reading books. We cry when someone else’s kid’s feelings get hurt. We cry at the very idea of something happening to someone we know. We cry when we meet our family at the airport, when they leave, when we fight with our partners, when our kids say something hurtful. We cry as we watch our kids walk across a graduation stage, when someone else’s baby is born, when things go awry.

We cry.

So, when you get a room full of women in a room, women who’ve spent a few years getting to know one another, giving each other rides and acting as emergency contacts, getting to know each other’s kids and families, seeing each other through difficulties and partners working in other countries, clinging together for dear life on this life boat of friendship in a foreign land–when you get a room full of women like that together and someone gets choked up? You almost always end up with a room full of weepy women.

These ritual goodbyes and all the emotions they evoke is a kind of exquisite torture. It’s incredibly poignant to hear stories and reminiscences, to look at years worth of pictures, to see the evolution of expat friendships play out in celluloid. It’s like watching a time-lapse of a child growing up.

I’ve been tasked with putting together a few of these slide shows. When I do, I always include a montage of people who have already said goodbye, though it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to remember whose paths have crisscrossed after this many years, whose lives have become entangled with whose. But I do it so that those folks, the ones we’ve already said goodbye to, remain a part of the whole. A panel that when stitched together with all of the others makes a quilt of a certain time and place.

It’s one of those magic quilts that keeps on growing.

Saying goodbye is hard. We should cry. And laugh. And rejoice and give thanks and feel sad. This is the reality of our life. Sometimes it can seem like the life of an expat is glamorous vacations and non-stop parties, but the edges of a life lived outside the borders of your own country can be rough. It’s just that no one takes photos of all those tears, those rooms full of weepy women, and posts them up on Facebook.

But maybe we should.

As a storyteller, it’s an incredible privilege to hear the stories that belong to others. As a human being, and a friend, it’s humbling when I get to be a part of that story. A panel on someone else’s quilt.

So many times those stories start off with feelings of loneliness and isolation, feeling stranded and out-of-place, nervous, unsure footing on choppy seas that are taking you far away from everything you know. And then the magic: one day, one coffee, one conversation, one friend. The tide begins to turn. The seas calm. Coffee doesn’t slosh out of your cup when you’re trying to drink it. You look around, and far from being alone, you’re at a table for forty eating kilos of cake.

 Just look how it ends: a room full of twenty, thirty, forty, sixty people who have put aside a chunk of their day to celebrate a friend, a friendship, to say goodbye and good luck. It ends in a room full of women to whom you mean enough that they hold back a tear, wipe a wizened eye, choke back a sob. A panel on that magic expat quilt that never stops growing.

Just look what you mean. 

Blimey, indeed.

Women’s History Month: Nancy Wake (1912-2011)

Nancy Wake was a secret agent during WWII, working in France against the Germans.

Born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1912, Wake was married to French industrialist Henri Edmond Fiocca when the war broke out. She worked as a courier for the French Resistance, and by 1943, was the Gestapo’s most wanted person, with a price of 5 million Francs on her head. Wake proved so adept at evading capture, the Germans nicknamed her The White Mouse.

When her network was betrayed, she decided to flee France. Fiocca stayed behind. He was captured, tortured and executed when he would not give up Wake’s whereabouts.

Wake traveled to Britain, where she joined the SOE and was trained by them. In 1944, she parachuted into occupied France near Auvergne:

“Upon discovering her tangled in a tree, Captain Tardivat greeted her remarking, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.”, to which she replied, “Don’t give me that French shit.”

Wake was a liaison between Britain and a local maquis group. She recruited new members and eventually their ranks swelled to over 7,000. From April, 1944 until France’s liberation, her maquisards fought the Germans in many ways.

“She also led attacks on German installations and at one point destroyed the local Gestapo HQ in Montluçon killing 38 Germans. At one point Wake discovered that her men were protecting a girl who was a German spy. They did not have the heart to kill her in cold blood, but when Wake insisted that she would perform the execution, they capitulated.She was a fast shot, a superb organizer, and at one time “killed an SS sentry with her bare hands to prevent him from raising the alarm during a raid.” {Nancy Wake}

She rode a bicycle 300 KM through German checkpoints to find a new wireless operator after hers was forced to destroy codes.

And then back.

All in 72 hours.

Wake was the recipient of numerous awards, including the George Medal, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance, and thrice, the Croix de Guerre.

Wake died in 2011, age 98 in London.

Nancy Wake: The Socialist Who Killed a Nazi with her Bare Hands (the name given to her inclusion in a NYT list of notable obituaries in 2012).

Learn more about Nancy Wake here.

Happy Women’s History Month!

Women’s History Month: Las Mariposas (1961)

Las Mariposas were the Dominican sisters who helped to bring down a dictator.

The four Mirabel sisters were born into a family of farmers in the 1920s and 30s in the Dominican Republic. All four girls were all well-educated, an exception for the time, and three of the four received college degrees.

The sisters grew alarmed at events they were witnessing in their country under the shadow rule of Rafael Trujillo. Minerva, the third sister, was personally targeted by the dictator, allegedly for refusing his sexual advances. On several occasions Trujillo gave orders for Minerva’s arrest and harassment. She was barred from attending her 2nd year law school classes until she publicly praised the dictator and upon graduation she was denied a license to practice law. Their father was arrested and thrown into jail and the family’s finances ruined. Patria, the oldest Mirabel, witnessed a brutal massacre by Trujillo’s men while on a religious retreat, and joined her sister’s active resistance against the regime. Youngest sister Maria Teresa joined her older sisters in their resistance efforts.

Together the sisters led The Movement of the Fourteenth of June. They distributed pamphlets, gathered weapons, and even made makeshift bombs out of firecrackers around Minerva’s kitchen table.

The sisters became known by Minerva’s underground code name: Las Mariposas.

The Butterflies.

After an assassination plot against Trujillo became known, Las Mariposas were thrown into jail. However, due to pressure from the Catholic Church, the trio were spared torture and released after a short time. Their husbands, who joined the women in their political resistance, remained jailed.

On November 25, 1960, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa, on their way either to or from visiting their husbands in jail, were ambushed by Trujillo’s secret police. The sisters, along with their driver, were dragged out of their jeep, separated, strangled and beaten with clubs. Their bodies were put back into their car which was pushed over a cliff.

Patria was 36, Minerva, 34 and Maria Teresa, 24.

In death, the sisters proved iconic, becoming “symbols of both popular and feminist resistance.” Rather than ending his problems, murdering Las Mariposas contributed to the dictator’s own demise. In 1961 Trujillo was assassinated by military leaders.

The fourth Mirabel sister, Dede, who was not an active part of the Mirabel resistance efforts, raised the six children her sisters left behind. She kept her sisters’contributions to the country’s history alive until her death in 2014.

In 1984, the United Nations named Nov. 25 the “Day of Non-Violence Against Women” in honor of The Butterflies.

In 1994, Dominican author, poet and essayist Julia Alvarez published In the Time of the Butterflies, a fictionalized account of Las Mariposas.

Of the Mirabel sisters Alvarez has said the three are “a reminder that we [Latinas] have our revolutionary heroines, our Che Guevaras, too.”

Las Mariposas: Badass resisters.

Read more about Las Mariposas here.

Happy Women’s History Month!