HerStory December 2018: Zaha Hadid

This month in HerStory, we’re delving into the engineering aspect of STEM. Our December recipient, and “Queen of the Curve,” Zaha Hadid, was born in Baghdad, Iraq in October 1950. Her father was an industrialist and a leftist activist, and her mother was an artist. Hadid studied mathematics at the American University of Beirut, and then went on to London to study architecture at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. She studied under such revolutionary architects as Koolhaus, Zenghelis, and Tschumi, and blew their minds with her waaaay out of the box approach to design. Zenghelis noted that they “called her the inventor of 89 degrees. Nothing was ever at 90 degrees.” (The desire to build without resorting to a 90 degree angle was, in fact, the driving architectural philosophy throughout her career). She worked for former professors Koolhaus and Zenghelis for a couple of years after graduation, after which she started her own firm and continued to bend the rules of architecture.

For a while, it seemed that Zaha Hadid was the most radical and remarkable architect that couldn’t actually get anything built. She wowed her colleagues and blew the minds of her students with über-ambitious-yet-unrealized projects, but was frustrated that, even with all of the praise, contracts were often awarded instead to “safer” architects and projects. Finally, in 1991, Swiss furniture firm Vitra contracted with Hadid to design a fire station on their campus. The resulting building was spectacular (and, before ground was even broken on it, was featured in architectural journals for its brazenness and uniqueness). All raw concrete and glass, it housed the fire company’s fire department for a short period of time before being given over to an exhibit and event space. This project broke the dam, and Hadid’s designs finally began to cross from the theoretical to the physical, and her visions began to be made into reality.

Hadid existed in a world that didn’t fully understand her art. Even after she began be to awarded contracts, her work was always at least a little bit controversial; that controversy lay in the sheer audacity of what she created. Her buildings were so far from the norm that they made some folks uncomfortable. In a NYT article in 2016, Michael Kimmeman stated that “…her buildings elevated uncertainty to an art, conveyed in the odd way one entered and moved through the(m) and in the questions that her structures raised about how they were supported…” In short, her work made people uncomfortable, and because of that discomfort, she (and her work) received some hefty criticism, even as she was lauded for her refusal to fit neatly into the box of traditional architecture.

In 2004, Zaha Hadid was the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize, the architectural equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. This occurred smack-dab in the center of a long list of prizes and awards she won, such as being made a dame by Elizabeth II for services to architecture in 2012, and winning the Sterling Prize (Britain’s most prestigious architecture honor) in 2010 and 2011. Even though she experienced a lot of “first woman to”‘s, Hadid did not consider herself to be a feminist icon, and preferred to be thought of as an architect, as opposed to a “female architect”. Although, in one interview, she grudgingly conceded that “if it helps younger people to know they can break through the glass ceiling, I don’t mind that (being referred to as a female role model).”

A bout with bronchitis in 2016 that turned bad resulted in the way-too-early death of Zaha Hadid. She had a heart attack at the age of 65. Her work continues, as some projects she had begun are still in progress, and her firm is still in existence. And the influences of her work can be seen in the world around us; think about Zaha Hadid whenever you see a building that curves and bends and seems to say “oh hell no” to right angles, think of her.

photo credit: Dmitry Ternovoy – https://terranova.viewbook.com/album/portraits.html

HerStory November 2018: Rosalind Franklin

This month, we’re diving deep into the very building blocks of life, as we honor Rosalind Franklin, whose research directly resulted in our understanding of how DNA is structured.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in July 1920 to a prominent British Jewish family. Her early education occurred in the best schools around, and she was described by an aunt as “alarmingly clever.” Her interests always leaned toward science and math, and she excelled in both. Although her family was liberal by nature (they were active in women’s suffrage and helped settle Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis, particularly the children who were able to get away), her father just wasn’t all that into encouraging his daughter to pursue academics beyond college. Fortunately for the scientific world, Rosalind Franklin just wasn’t all that into listening to what her father had to say about her life. 

She attended Cambridge College in the late 1930s, well before they awarded actual B.A. or M.A. degrees to women. Until 1945, women received “honors,” which served to qualify them for employment at a bachelor’s level. Yikes. 

As she furthered her studies (eventually, she was awarded actual degrees for her work), she also lived in London and, along with her cousin, volunteered as an Air Raid Warden. This was during WWII, and London was a volatile and sometimes frightening place. She did research for a coal concern, and was instrumental in discovering the properties and the porosity of coal, which helped in both coal use for fuel and as a filter for things like gas masks. She broadened her research and knowledge by studying X-ray diffraction and crystallography, at first applying those techniques to the further understanding of coal’s structures, but eventually working on the structure of DNA. She was the first to capture a photograph of the helical structure of DNA (Photo 51, referred to by one researcher at the time as “amongst the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken,”) and the first to posit that there were two forms of DNA, and that at least one of those forms was helical in structure. Throughout her professional career, she found herself at odds with her colleagues, mostly, it seems, due to her male colleagues discomfort with the kind of woman she was (bold, unapologetic, more interested in lively scientific debates than the expected decorum of the time).

Watson and Crick are widely lauded as the discoverers of the double helix structure of DNA, and for cracking the code on the secrets of life. Their seminal and important work was based directly on the work of Franklin and her research partner, particularly a back-channel view of the aforementioned Photo 51; without that glimpse, they might not have reached the conclusions they reached for quite a long time. Seeing Photo 51 flipped a switch in Watson and Crick’s brains, and opened up the pathway to the DNA model they were eventually able to build. Franklin published her own papers on the structure of DNA, but it was Watson and Crick who received the most praise, and it was Watson and Crick who eventually received the Nobel Prize. 

Franklin continued to work on further understanding DNA, and had begun researching RNA’s structure when she fell ill to ovarian cancer. Two years after her diagnosis and treatment began, Rosalind Franklin was dead, at the age of 37. Because Franklin was a woman, and because she was a woman who didn’t squish herself into the mold of what her male colleagues thought a woman should be (she was brash and argumentative, she was unconcerned with her appearance, all of the things that make men uncomfortable around intelligent women), she was subjected to not only gender bias but gender harassment, treated like an assistant when she contributed as a colleague, not given credit where it was definitely due. 

Our Rosalind Franklin-inspired colorway, The Miracle of DNA, is comprised of rich, unapologetic colors that echo the colors of Hanukah. Franklin was widely considered to be agnostic; in fact, as a child, when discussing faith, she remarked to her mother, “Well, anyhow, how do you know He isn’t She?” just to see what kind of a reaction she could get. However, she considered herself to be Jewish, culturally if not religiously. Throughout her too-short life, Franklin honored Jewish traditions, and this colorway is our homage to both her cultural heritage and her boldness. 

image credit: Jewish Chronicle Archive/Heritage-Images http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic-art/217394/99712/Rosalind-Franklin

HerStory October 2018: Wangari Maathi

 It’s Fall, y’all, and even though the leaves are turning orange and red in our part of the country, we are all about green this month for HerStory, as we delve into the life and activism of Wangari Maathai and her founding of the the Green Belt Movement.

Born in Nyeri in rural Kenya in 1940, Wangari Maathai truly did it all. She was a pioneer in practically everything she did, and seemed to be collecting firsts: she was the first woman ever in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree; the first woman ever to chair a department at the University of Nairobi, and the first woman ever to become an associate professor there. She was also the first African woman to win a Nobel Peach Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” After earning degrees in America, she returned to Africa and became active in pro-democracy politics in her native Kenya. It was during her time chairing the National Council of Women of Kenya in the late 1970s that she began her work on what would become the Green Belt Movement, which was to become her most lasting legacy.

As she became more involved in advocacy groups such as the National Council of Women and the Kenya Red Cross Society (which she also directed) in Kenya, she realized that many of the problems she was seeing in her beloved home country were a direct result of environmental degradation. She was inspired to create a business that provided the seeds (see what we did there?) for the Green Belt Movement. Envirocare sought to connect ordinary Kenyans, particularly women, with the means to plant fledgeling tree nurseries, paying them to look after these nurseries. Even though Envirocare did not ultimately succeed, it was because of this work that Maathai was inspired and able to create the Green Belt Movement.

The Green Belt Movement was and is a grass-roots environmental organization with the goal of empowering people, mostly women, in rural communities to work at both environmental conservation and building their own food supplies toward more self-sustainability. This is achieved by community seed-planting and -stewardship, which in turn helps to build and protect soil and rainwater retention. Participants receive training and a small stipend for each seedling planted, and their community enjoys environment benefits from replenishing and rebuilding the soil. The main thrust of the movement is for communities to take control of their own destinies, by working together to address their specific needs. 

Throughout all of this, Wangari Maathai had a personal life, too: she married, had three children, and ultimately divorced. Readers of this letter will be unsurprised to learn that her husband wished for a divorce because she was difficult to control, and even went so far, in the divorce proceedings, to accuse her of adultery and state that the worry over that caused high blood pressure. The (male) judge ruled in Wangari’s husband’s favor, which inspired her to wonder, in an interview, if he was corrupt or incompetent. The judge THEN charged her with contempt of court AND SHE WAS FOUND GUILTY AND SENTENCED TO SIX MONTHS IN JAIL!!! Whaaaaaaaaa…..? Fortunately, her lawyer was able to spring her after only three days, but seriously??? Once she was out of jail, her ex-husband demanded she stop his surname, to which the seemingly salty and, we’re sure, fed up to her eyeballs Wangari responded by merely adding an extra “a” to the name, effectively changing it.

There is so much more to talk about with this amazing HerStory recipient (as there have been for every single one so far this year)… For instance, during her time at the University of Nairobi, she campaigned for equal rights for woman, and even attempted to form a union in the hopes of gaining more bargaining power. Although the union was thwarted, the seeds of equal rights were planted, and much of what she was pushing for was eventually adopted by the university. And, because of her ethnic heritage and advocacy for a democratic Kenya, a lot of what she tried to accomplish politically was thwarted once Daniel arap Moi was elected president in the late 1970s. 

In the 1980s, the government started attacking the Green Belt Movement, partly because it was such a democratic organization, and the government was swinging closer to authoritarianism (sound familiar?). As Maathai became more political and more outspoken against the ruling power, she was targeted by the government, called “a crazy woman” who ran a “bogus organization” run by a “bunch of divorcees.” Resolved to fight for democracy and fairness, she was arrested in 1992, after her name was discovered on a governmental hit-list, and after barricading herself in her house for three days. She took part in a hunger strike (along with other mostly-women protestors) shortly after being released from jail, and, along with her fellow protestors, was attacked by the police so forcibly that hospitalization was necessary. She was again called “a mad woman” by the president of the country (can you imagine the president of a country personally attacking a private citizen? Oh, uh… nevermind). Through all of this, she continued to fight for democracy and environmental stewardship, and helped to get the National Rainbow Coalition on the ballots and winning in Kenya. She was elected to serve in the Kenyan parliament, and founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya in 2003, fostering environmentalism in politics. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. We love her. Sadly, she passed away in 2011 at the age of 71 from complications arising from ovarian cancer.

There is so much we weren’t able to cover, because Wangari Maathai had a multi-faceted life that won’t easily fit into two pages. We encourage you to check out the Green Belt Movement (https://www.greenbeltmovement.org), read her books, watch the documentary on her (called Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai), and if you can, donate. Our colorway is inspired by her work in the Green Belt Movement, and we’re calling it Unbowed, after her memoir. 

image credit: (c) Patrick Wallet

HerStory September 2018: María del Socorro Flores González

Our September HerStory recipient just had a birthday (September 10, 1955 is her birthdate), so let’s all sing Happy Birthday, or Cumpleaños Feliz to her:

¡Cumpleaños feliz,

Cumpleaños feliz,

Te deseamos todo,

Cumpleaños feliz!

She’s yet another amazing heroine, whose mostly unsung work has saved thousands upon thousands of lives in the developing world. Yet another woman who saw a problem that wasn’t being addressed much in the greater world and decided to apply her massive brain power and heart to figuring out a way to fix that problem.

Dr. María del Socorro Flores González was born in San Buenaventura, Coahuila, Mexico, the eldest of five children. Her family was unique in that gender equality and education were important family values, and it’s said that her grandmother, a strong woman in her own right, was her biggest influence and champion. As long as María and her siblings were working to further their education, they enjoyed the full support of their family, and that was something that wasn’t all that common in the 1950s.

After getting her Master’s and Doctorate in science, specializing in immunology, at the National School of Biological Sciences of the National Polytechnic Institute in the 1980s, Dr. González conducted post-doctoral work in Paris. She then devoted the next twenty years to the understanding and study of invasive amebiasis, a parasite affecting the gastrointestinal system which is an endemic problem in nations that suffer from poor water quality such as her home country of Mexico. Hundreds of millions of people are affected every year by invasive amebiasis, and over 100,000 die because of the infection. Dr. González invented a diagnostic test that can be easily administered in and by countries that don’t enjoy the most technologically-advanced everything, and because of this discovery, many lives are saved every year. Infections that, in the time prior to her work and discovery, would have resulted in grave illness and death, are treated effectively. 

Dr. González recognized that, because of the populations being affected by invasive amebiasis, there had been a low priority in the medical research field to discover treatments and cures for this widespread disease. Dr. González’s greatest wish is that this will aid in the care and treatment of those greatest affected by this disease: folks with low incomes, who have been ignored for so long. We could all stand to devote more time, brainpower, and resources to those things/issues/people that are most ignored in our society, don’t you think? 

Our colorway this month is our attempt to make lemonade out of lemons; in other words, we’ve taken an image we found of amebiasis and turned it into this gorgeous colorway, which we’re calling Invasive Invaders.

image credit: https://ortegaan.wordpress.com/culture-site/biography/

HerStory August 2018: Seema Prakash

We are sharing our love letters for the HerStory Sock Club here, just in case you misplaced yours, didn’t get one, or want to check out what we send prior to signing up. Remember that there are many LYS’s that carry HerStory (listed on our front page), but if your local shop doesn’t, or if you love getting unicorn-encrusted mail from us, you can purchase a 3-month or year-long subscription from us here

As a child in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India, Seema Prakash became interested in science at an early age. She dreamed of becoming a pediatrician, after becoming enamored with Florence Nightingale, but even though as she grew, so did opportunities for women in India, the barriers to medical school were just too high. She attended an all-girls college in her hometown, earning her Masters in Botany before getting married and moving to England for a bit. During the early years of her children’s lives, she concentrated on parenting, but it was while in England that she began her journey on the work that would eventually land her on our 2018 HerStory list. One website we found stated that, in the end, she DID become a pediatrician of sorts, although to plants instead of human babies.

In the 1990s, her family moved back to India and Seema earned her PhD. Inspired by Bob Geldof’s activism in support of raising money for the famine in Africa, including the recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and the Live Aid concerts, she began working diligently on figuring out a less expensive way to clone plants. You see, before Dr. Prakash’s groundbreaking work, plant cloning was prohibitively expensive for most, and thus was reserved for the big dogs of farming: the corporate farms who could afford the large price tag associated with it (the medium in which cloning traditionally occurs (agar) is very expensive). Dr. Prakash, seeing that having access to cloned plants, which have a higher yield, are more resistant to environmental factors that affect lesser plants, and are easier to propagate, would greatly help impoverished areas (such as great swaths of India), experimented with other media in which to culture plant tissue. After lots of trial and error, she discovered that sterilized glass beads and liquid nutrients, which are inexpensive and easy to come by, are just what the doctor (aka Dr. Prakash herself) ordered. 

In the mid-1990s, Prakash founded a company to market this new way to clone, called In Vitro International Private Limited. (If you go to the website, know that it appears to not have been updated since the mid-1990s, and will show you just how far internet technology has come.) Her company is doing good works, pioneering different ways for small-scale farms to up their production and therefore better support themselves in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable way. The goal is a balanced growth, encouraging farmers to marry economics and ecology to support economic AND environmental sustainability for all. She has also created an education program for school-aged children, encouraging them to learn about plants and plant propagation through a “Plant Passport” program, with the goal of inspiring children to care about preservation and conservation.

We found ourselves very inspired by Dr. Prakash (although we also found that information about and images of her are hard to come by). Her efforts include creating a trust to ensure that rural farmers in developing countries have access to information and knowledge about economically-sustainable plant propagation free of charge; tireless advocation for women in agricultural and sustainable rural development work; and the introduction of technological advances to developing countries to introduce food self-sufficiency to parts of the world that have not yet achieved those goals, mostly because of economic and environmental disadvantages. We hope that this love letter, and the accompanyingly-inspirational colorway, Famine Fighter, that we created in honor of Dr. Seema Prakash teach you a thing or two about this amazing August HerStory recipient.

Speaking of Famine Fighter, we had so much fun creating this colorway! We did a massive google image search of saris, scrolling all around and mentally choosing colors to apply, and then we headed into the dye room and started playing. We have so enjoyed the creation of each of our HerStory colorways so far this year, but this one was particularly fun. Super-saturated silky blue and green and yellow, all in a skein of yarn? YES PLEASE!