Letter from San Francisco #12

August 12th, 2013 by Jane Sloane.

When I was at university I took a course called Mathematics, Information and Communications Management. We had a gifted lecturer whose approach to teaching included a fascinating account of the lives of mathematicians who had influenced the course of history. All of these mathematicians were men.

“Where are the women?” I asked my lecturer after another captivating history lesson, sans women. “There weren’t any of significance,” he said.

Terra nullius means land without owners and, in Australia, the colonisers acknowledged the presence of Indigenous people but justified their land acquisition policies by saying the Aborigines were too primitive to be actual owners. This was in spite of the fact that Aboriginal people had lived in the country for at least 60,000 years and had a deep attachment to country. The history we were taught in school reflected the view that there weren’t any people of significance living in Australia prior to white settlement. (“Oh, you mean ‘the NATIVES? Oh, well, we didn’t see them as fully human, fully formed, fully intelligent, fully THERE, you know…)

And so, in this same vein, there weren’t any female mathematicians of note in history, only men.

My lecturer went on to say “If there were female mathematicians who influenced the course of mathematics and history then I would have included them too.” Of course.

So I went and hung out in the stacks section of the university library and continued my research over the next couple of weeks until my major assignment was due. I turned in my paper on Emmy Noether. On a woman whom Albert Einstein called the most “significant” and “creative” female mathematician of all time. Others of her contemporaries were inclined to drop the gender reference.

Amalie Emmy Noether was born in 1882 in Erlangen, Germany. After attending finishing school, and being certified to teach English and French, she chose to pursue a university education in mathematics. Noether eventually received a PhD in mathematics and, from 1907, she worked at the Mathematical Institute of Erlangen without pay or title, and then later at the Mathematical Institute of Gottlingen. Here, she could not join the faculty by virtue of her gender and she could only lecture under the name of a prominent male mathematician called David Hilbert.

Despite her professional invisibility, in 1918 Noether invented a theorem that united two conceptual pillars of physics: symmetry in nature and the universal laws of conservation. Some consider Noether’s theorem, as it is now called, to be as important as Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Noether eventually left Germany because, as a Jew, social democrat and pacifist it was too dangerous for her to stay in Germany. She received professional recognition in Moscow and Zurich, including the prestigious Ackermann-Teubner Memorial Prize in Mathematics, and she eventually travelled to the United States and to Bryn Mawr College in 1933 where she was a guest lecturer until her death in 1935.

My lecturer gave me a distinction plus for my paper and he wrote me a note saying he was changing the curriculum to include Emmy Noether.

Having role models of women who have gone before in this field makes it easier for girls to imagine themselves in these roles. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media at the University of Southern California has been studying the number of women in on-camera speaking roles in the US and found that in 2010 there were 160 speaking roles in family films where the character was revealed to work in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (acronym: STEM) job. Only 26 of them were women, just 16.3 percent. In prime time there were 71 STEM employed characters; only 15 of them were women. If girls can’t see themselves studying STEM, and are not encouraged to see this as a career path, then they won’t be able to access the better paid jobs of the future. This will further the economic and technological divide between women and men.

Together with this need to encourage young women to consider studying a STEM field is a recognition that igniting and sustaining a girl’s passion in these areas early in her life is essential to ensuring that a large number of girls sign up to become STEM students when they’re older. One initiative fueling this passion is ‘Girls Who Code’. Reshma Saujani founded ‘Girls Who Code’ in Spring 2012 as a national not-for-profit organization with the aim of teaching one million girls to code by 2020. This has resulted in girls in the US being given hundreds of hours of hands-on experience with companies like Twitter, Google, eBay and GE in programming fundamentals, building mobile apps and websites, learning web development and design, robotics and mobile development so that they have the knowledge and tools to be active agents of change. So that, equipped with these tools and techniques, they have the confidence to try anything,. The organization, Black Girls Code, is also working to support more girls of color on this path. And companies like Google are funding STEM camps for girls in countries including Nigeria, Liberia and India in order to foster a future digitally savvy workforce.

Girls and women in other countries are using digital technologies to power themselves to a different future. For instance, a Mobilink-UNESCO program to improve literacy among girls in Pakistan uses cell phones to allow girls to exchange messages in Urdu with a teacher from the safety of their homes. Given the dangers that young girls face in rural Pakistan, the program is a big step in providing inexpensive and intuitive education to girls and young women in areas of conflict. Within four months, the percentage of girls in the program who achieved an A level on literacy exams increased from 27% to 54%. Likewise, the percentage of girls who achieved a C level on examinations decreased from 52% to 15%.

In Zanzibar, Tanzania, a program called Wired Mothers ensures that pregnant women have mobile phones that are linked to a primary health care unit in order to receive SMS reminders for care appointments and have access to emergency health care via the cellphone. In India, a Global Fund for Women grantee, Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT) is creating a movement of tech smart women and girls by training those from poor and low-income families in digital technologies. And in disasters and humanitarian emergencies, women and girls are using Frontline SMS and RapidSMS for violence reporting while organizations like Digital Democracy are helping women and girls in Haiti to protect themselves from rape, and to also to express themselves using digital photography.

And yet, with mobile phones as enablers and conduits for expression, access, protection and advocacy, they have conversely, in the hands of a girl or a woman, invoked male fury, revocation, violence and murder. In India this year, a Panchayat (tribal court) in Kishanganj district imposed fines on women using cellphones while in Siwan district girls were banned from using cellphones and wearing short dresses. In a separate encounter, Arifa, a mother of two, was stoned and bricked to death by her uncle and relatives on the orders of a Panchayat for possessing a cell phone. Police registered a First Information Report (FIR) against the Panchayat but no one was arrested. Arifa was buried in a desert far away from her village and no-one (not even her children) was allowed to participate in the funeral. In places where there is no enforcement of the law by the judiciary, police or any other governing institution and where there is a high degree of corruption and contempt for women, women have little chance of protection or justice.

chilasIn Pakistan, two teenage girls were shot dead in the town of Chilas, Pakistan in June this year after a video they took on their mobile phones showed them dancing in the rain. In the short film they created, the girls, Noor Basra and Noor Sheza, aged 15 and 16, are wearing traditional dress and green and purple headscarves. They are smiling and laughing as they run around their home, breaking into a dance. The girls’ stepbrother, named as Khutore, apparently considered the video an “assault on the honor of his family” and carried out the murder.

Years ago, the Australian author, Anne Summers, and former editor-in-chief of ‘Ms.’ magazine, wrote a groundbreaking book that attracted great attention and a cult following. The book was called ‘Damned Whores and God’s Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia.’ In the book, Summers wrote about the dual perceptions of women in the early 19th century as being sex objects/sexually available as well as being the keepers of morality. This was especially so, given the convict nature of early white settlement and the ideal of the ‘virtuous woman’ (genteel/non-convict) setting an example to other women.

The phrase is still apt and it can be applied in a different (global) context.

Every day we hear stories of men blaming women for causing them to rape, maim or kill women due to women “asking for it” due to their short dresses, provocative clothing, words, behavior and actions including, God forbid, for dancing in the rain and being joyful. In all these situations, men invoke women as damned whores, and whores damned to eternity, while these men assume the role of God’s Police, invoking God or Allah or whatever higher authority they believe in, in order to punish, imprison or kill women. Women attacked and raped during the Arab Spring uprising were blamed by conservative religious clerics and some government officials for mixing with men and thus “inviting harassment and sexual abuse.”

When I was in the Solomon Islands, my conversation with one man went, in part:

(him) “Well, women here have themselves to blame. They dress like they are asking to be raped, with the short skirts and dresses many of them wear and all of that bare skin. It’s natural for a man to grab them if they dress like that.”

(me) “No, it’s not. Men don’t own women and women have the right to be safe from violence and abuse regardless of what they’re wearing. Your country is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is designed to protect women’s freedom of expression and movement and to safeguard them from violence of any kind.”

(him) “You can’t change men’s desire and our way of being. It’s natural. It all started with Adam and Eve and original sin. Eve seduced Adam. Women are the seductresses and causes of sin in the world.”

Here in the US we have heard Republicans talk about women who are raped still being required to carry the baby as it was God’s will. And these same men would pass laws, and thus judgment, on women seeking an abortion to ensure that this right was revoked as it was they, as God’s Police, who would control decisions on women’s bodies and not women, some of whom might have been asking to get raped or pregnant anyway. (Damned Whores – “if you go down that road, some girls, they rape so easily” – Republican State Representative, Roger Rivard, December 21, 2011 – endorsed by Paul Ryan August 9, 2012; “if it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” — Republican Gubernatorial candidate, Clayton Williams, Texas, March 25th 1990)

Why is it that we can muster great forces and resources when there is a natural disaster or humanitarian emergency or military imperative and yet remain passive and desensitized when the tsunami of violations and violence perpetrated on women continues unabated and when women’s extraordinary potential remains just that, unrealized potential.

Where I work, at the Global Fund for Women, a fundamental tenet of our grant making to women’s rights organizations is a commitment to collective leadership in sustaining a global women’s movement working to realize women’s and girls’ human rights. Rather than direct investment to individuals, Global Fund grants work to build relationships, coalitions and collective power in the pursuit of women’s and girls’ human rights.

This work to strengthen, propel and sustain a strong and resilient women’s rights movement comprised of diverse populations and perspectives, and numerous smaller movements, is built on supporting connectivity and collaboration among women’s groups as a critical factor in ensuring the success of larger movements. It is also, critically, rights based, rather than development focused, in support of women being able to claim their full human rights rather than just making the case that it is good for the economy (though it is that, too).

The most sustained change happens when we claim the values and rights for which we stand and when we stand in solidarity with those whose rights are being violated. Today, as I write this, in my head and my heart I am in solidarity with sisters, Noor and Noor, wearing a purple and green headscarf. I’m holding a sign to the camera on my cellphone – it says ‘I dance for women’s human rights’.

It is raining! I feel so much
I love to feel the rain on my skin as I
I love to feel truly
With my sister, laughing, we


Jane Sloane – San Francisco

One thought on “Letter from San Francisco #12

  1. Michelle Imison

    Hi Jane,

    I’ve been enjoying your letters recently since my good friend and mentor Shirley Randell put me in touch with your website.

    A nice Australian example of young women doing for themselves in STEM is Robogals – a student-run organisation that introduces school girls to the idea of engineering and science as a career.

    A less-than-stellar Australian example (where women and men don’t appear to be getting equal opportunities in a tech-related field) has recently presented itself in my inbox; thanks, you’ve just reminded me to get in touch with the organisation concerned and talk to them about that!


Comments are closed.