Sunday, August 26, 2012

163: The Self-Empowered Woman: Emilie du Chatelet

Dear Followers,

The last few blogs have focused on modern-day high achievers. So, for a change of pace I'd like to introduce you to an amazing woman who was born in 1706, and is considered to be the first (and much-admired) female mathematician and physicist. She also translated Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica into French; although it was published ten years after her death in 1759, her translation is still considered the standard French edition of Newton's work.

Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Chatelet was born on the 17th of December, 1706, in Paris. She was the only daughter of six children, but only three of her brothers lived to adulthood. Her father was a member of the lesser French Nobility, and was responsible for introducing foreign ambassadors to King Louis XIV. Every Thursday writers and scientists attended his private salon, and researchers believe that it was this exposure that helped Emilie develop an interest in and aptitude for the sciences.

By the time she was ten years old, her father recognized that Emilie was a gifted child, and he encouraged her sense of intellectual curiosity (4: Supportive Someone). He arranged for a member of the French Academie des Sciences to visit their home and tutor Emilie about astronomy (2: An Early Sense Of Direction).

Obviously, her childhood was very different from that of most young girls of that time. In addition to exposing her to adult scientific conversation, he also made sure that she took part in physical activities like fencing and horseback riding. A variety of tutors were brought to the house to continue her education, and by the time she was twelve years old she was fluent in Latin, Italian, Greek and German, in addition to (of course) French. At the same time, she was being tutored in literature, mathematics and science, which she loved. Historians say that her mother strongly opposed her father's desire to have a well educated daughter, and tried to have Emilie sent to a convent as a way to stop her education (17: Dreaming Your Own Dream). 

In addition to all of her other activities, Emilie also liked to dance, played the harpsichord, and sang opera (9: Music). And when she was a teenager, in order to get more money for books that she wanted to buy, but couldn't afford, she even used her mathematical skills to create successful strategies for gambling (8: Turning No into Yes).

Obviously talented, Emilie was not considered a great beauty. One of her cousins wrote about the awkward teenager, "She was a colossus in all her limbs--a marvel of strength and a prodigy of clumsiness. She had terrible feet and formidable limbs." (6: Life Is Not A Beauty Pageant)

In 1725, the 18 year old Emilie married the 30 year old Marquis - who remained her husband for life, and the father of their three children. Their third child was born in 1733, when she was 26, and after his birth she reentered society and returned to her mathematical studies. She was tutored in algebra and calculus by Maupertuis before her marriage, and by the brilliant Clairaut after 1735 (4: Supportive Someone). 

Emilie was not allowed to sit in the King's library at the Louvre because she was female, and she was also denied entrance to Gradot's coffeehouse, where scholars met to discuss science and mathematical information. Determined to be included, she dressed like a man, and because the others admired her brilliance she was allowed to join their discussion (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

Emilie and her husband (like many couples of their rank and era) had an open marriage. She had met Voltaire in 1729, but four years later their friendship developed into something much deeper. With her husband's approval, Emilie and Voltaire lived together in her country home where they both studied physics and wrote scientific articles. In 1937 she published a paper about the science of fire, and even predicted what is known today as "infrared radiation." In 1740, her book Lessons In Physics was written as an introduction to science and philosophy for her thirteen year old son.

At one point in her life, she lost 84,000 francs (more than one million dollars in today's currency) while gambling in a card game (11: Risk Addiction). In order to pay back the debt she devised a financial arrangement much like our modern derivatives, which was unusual for that time.

Early in her marriage, Emilie had an affair with the nephew of Cardinal Richelieu, possibly because she spent much of her time in Paris while her husband was away on Garrison duty. Then, in 1748, perhaps disillusioned by both her husband and her arrangement with Voltaire (15: Forget About Prince Charming), she began an affair with a poet and became pregnant. She confided to a friend that she feared she wouldn't survive the pregnancy, and a week after her daughter was born, she died from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 42. Her daughter died 18 months later.

In addition to her famous translation of Newton's work, she wrote and translated a wide variety of articles and monographs (7: Magnificent Obsession), from Oedipus Rex, Fable of the Bees, Institution de Physique and Discours sur le Bonheur. In a letter she wrote to Frederick the Great of Prussia, she said "Judge me for my own merits, or my lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage...I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do...when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one."

Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

162: The Self-Empowered Woman: Helen Gurley Brown

Dear Followers,

Helen Gurley Brown

"My" issue

This week, Helen Gurley Brown, one of America's most controversial Self-Empowered Women died. As The New York Times reported, "She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger."

Before I tell you about her life, let me share with you how she touched mine. The magazine cover you see above, is from February 1980, and the words by the model's left elbow ["The Diary of a Woman Whose Husband Left Her (for Another Woman). Some Horror Stories, but a Happy Ending"] refer to the serialization of my first book. Diary of a Divorced Mother had just been published, and by including it in her magazine (with a mention on the cover!), Helen Gurley Brown changed my world overnight.

Born in Green Forest, Arkansas, her mother was a former teacher and her father (also a teacher), served on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission before he was elected (when Helen was a baby) to the Arkansas State Legislature. After his election, the family moved to Little Rock, where in 1932 (when she was ten years old), he died in an elevator accident (1: No Paternal Safety Net).  

Although her "goals" were not clear cut, even as a child Helen made no secret of the fact that she had big dreams. In her 1982 book Having It All, she recalled her dislike of the family's Arkansas roots "I never liked the looks of the life that was programmed for me--ordinary, hillbilly and poor--and I repudiated it from the time I was seven years old" (2: An Early Sense Of Direction).

After her father's death, her mother, older sister (Mary) and Helen moved to Los Angeles in 1937. Shortly afterwards, Mary contracted Polio and remained paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of her life. With a depressed and financially burdened mother, as well as a disabled sister, it was obvious that Helen was going to be the family breadwinner (12: Hard Times).

In high school, she was the valedictorian of her class (10: The Critic Within), but there was no money for her to complete college at Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman's University.) So she returned to Los Angeles, and graduated from secretarial school in 1941.

During this time, when she was 19 and anxious to earn more money for her family, she answered an ad looking for "young women for social evenings." She thought she could earn $5 for simply having dinner with "a gentleman," but learned that there was more to the job than she'd expected. She only had one dinner, one $5 bill, and one very disappointed escort.

Helen went on to work at 17 different secretarial jobs (14: Selective Disassociation), and didn't mind flirting with bosses if it helped her support her family. Finally she became a successful (actually, one of the country's highest paid) advertising copywriter, but--in an era when an unmarried 23 year old was considered an old maid--she always felt somewhat stigmatized by her humble beginnings.

She later wrote that she never felt pretty, and suffered from uncontrollable acne. She coined the word "mouseburger," which she used to describe women like herself who were "physically unprepossesing with little money and few prospects." Mouseburger became for women what milquetoast was for men.

Perhaps to compensate for her lack of confidence about her looks, she overcompensated regarding the things she could control. At 5 foot 4, she kept her weight at 100 pounds, which she claimed was 5 pounds heavier than her ideal weight. And she spoke candidly about her nose job, breast augmentation, face and eye lift as well as silicone and fat injections (6: Life is Not A Beauty Pageant).

When she was 37, she married David Brown, a former managing editor of Cosmopolitan who had become a Hollywood producer. (His later hits included The Sting, Jaws, Cocoon and Driving Miss Daisy, among others.) In 1962 (the year before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique) Helen published Sex and The Single Girl, which was designed to tell single women how to look their best, get men to love (and eventually marry) them, and have fun while doing so. The book became a runaway best seller, and Helen Gurley Brown became a household name. In 1964, a movie of the same title (starring Natalie Wood) was released, and the Brown's moved to New York.

Even though Helen had never been an editor, the Hearst Corporation asked her to take over Cosmopolitan, which was floundering. From her first issue in July 1965, she turned the formerly staid publication into a magazine that told women that sex could be recreational, and could even be used to acquire the right husband, the right career and the right designer labels. She was 43 when she became editor and admitted that the Cosmo Girl was the young women she had dreamed of being two decades earlier--a child of the Ozarks, indeed (8: Turning No Into Yes).

But her sexy magazine covers and advice on "seducing" men weren't always appreciated. In 1970, Kate Millett and a group of angry feminists staged a sit-in at Helen's office, and even in 1988 (and later) the magazine's stance on AIDS and sexual harassment met with disapproval (5: Life is Not A Popularity Contest).

Helen worked as Cosmopolitan's editor-in-chief from 1965 until 1997, and when she left, Cosmo ranked sixth in sales at newsstands, and for the 16th straight year was first in sales at bookstores on college campuses. Overall declining circulation, however, indicated to management that she might have lost touch with younger readers, and she was replaced by Bonnie Fuller. Because the magazine had been the focus of her life for four decades, Helen stayed on as editor of Cosmopolitan's 59 international editions (7: Magnificent Obsession).

In 2008, Slate Magazine named her as the 13th most powerful American over the age of 80; when she died, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said "Today New York City lost a pioneer who reshaped not only the entire media industry, but the nation's culture. She was a role model for the millions of women whose private thoughts, wonders and dreams she addressed so brilliantly in print." This year she donated $30 million to Columbia and Stanford Universities (both of which her husband attended), to create the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, August 12, 2012

161: The Self-Empowered Woman: 2012 Olympic Females

Dear Followers,

Claressa Shields
Ibtihaj Muhammad

Marlen Esparza
Since this year is the 40th anniversary of Title IX (the 1972 law that increased opportunities for women in sports in America), we all have a great deal to be thankful for. That's why I thought, as the 2012 Olympics come to a close, we should revisit some of the record-breaking events that deserve a moment of celebration.  Here a few  thought-provoking bullets:
  • Women won two-thirds of the U.S. team's gold medals, and over 50% of the overall medals
  • U.S. women won  29 gold and 58 total medals
  • Female athletes competed in 23 events at the London Olympics, but from 1896 until 1924 there were no women competitors at the Olympics
  • This was the first time ever that American women athletes  outnumbered their male counterparts at the Olympics (269 to 261)
  • Kayla Harrison won the first U.S. medal ever in judo
  • This year was the first time that women's boxing was included at the games; American teenager Claressa Shields won gold, and Marlen Esparza (whose career win percentage is higher than Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson) won bronze
  • Ibtihaj Muhammad (a 25 year old Muslim fencer) from Maplewood, New Jersey, competed while wearing a hijab (head scarf), as did Saudi runner Sarah Attar - the first time hijabs were seen at Olympic competition
  • Skeet shooter Kim Rhode became the first American to win a medal in five consecutive Olympic games
  • The women's  basketball team won its fifth straight gold medal
  • Both women's volleyball and soccer teams won their third straight gold medal (Athens, Beijing, London)
  • Serena Williams won two gold medals in tennis; she and her sister won Olympic doubles gold for the third time
  • As of yesterday, American women had won 26 gold medals (almost 25% of the total amount of gold won by women in London)
  • Swimmers Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt and (15 year old) Katie Ledecky all brought home gold medals
  • Sanya Richards-Ross and Allyson Felix won five golds between them in women's track
  • This was the first Olympics ever where every country had a female representative; 45% of the 10,800 athletes were women
 I could go on like this for hours, but I think you get the idea. We have quite a few remarkable female athletes doing their best to bring home medals for the U.S.A.  There is a lot for all of us to be proud of (and grateful about), athletically and otherwise.

This seems like an appropriate time to pay homage to former Olympian Ann Curtis, who died one month before London's opening ceremonies.  She was considered one of the world's greatest groundbreaking swimmers; she won two gold medals at London's 1948 Olympics and 34 U.S. championships.  She was so gifted that she broke five world as well as 56 American swimming records, and could compete from the shortest championship distance (100 yards) to the longest (1500 meters).

After the 1948 Summer Olympics, she married her college sweetheart, and together they opened a swimming school in San Rafael, CA, which she managed into her seventies.  She was 86 years old when she died from complications of Alzheimer's disease.

Looking forward to your comments...

Monday, August 6, 2012

160: The Self Empowered Woman: Larisa Latynina

Dear Followers,

Now that Michael Phelps has ended his Olympic career with a mind-boggling 22 medals (18 gold), I'd like to introduce you to the 77-year old previous holder of the "Most Decorated Olympic Athlete." For 48 years, Larisa Latynina (a former Soviet gymnast) held the record of 18 Olympic medals (9 Gold, 5 Silver and 4 Bronze), which until last week seemed untouchable.

Larisa was born in Kherson, a Black Sea port in Southern Ukraine in 1934 (just one year after the Holodomor Famine), and her father left the family when she was only eleven months old. When she was nine, he died in the Battle of Stalingrad (1: No Paternal Safety Net).

Her childhood was difficult, because resistance to Stalin's "collective farming" resulted in widespread famine. Athletic success was one of the few avenues to a better life, and her mother worked hard at two jobs to  support them and pay for hours of her training (12: Hard Times).

Latynina began studying ballet as a twelve year old, but when the dance studio closed she became an athlete (2: An Early Sense Of Direction). In order to make the transition from ballet to gymnastics, Latynina had to move to Kiev as a young girl in order to receive specialized training that was not available near her home (14: Selective Disassociation).

Her dancer's grace and elegance (she was 5 foot 3 inches, and weighed 115 pounds) allowed her to compete (and win) in three separate Olympic competitions--Melbourne/1956; Rome/1960; and Tokyo/1964. Today, many gymnasts retire at the age of only 18, but Larisa attended her first Olympics when she was 21 years old. Unlike today's teen aged gymnasts, Latynina competed until she was two months away from her 30th birthday.  

The sport was so important to her that at the 1958 World Competition she managed to win even though (unbeknownst to anyone else) she was four months pregnant.  By the time she was in her early 30's, she became the chief coach of the Soviet National Artistic gymnastics team, and under her guidance they won team gold in 1968, 1972 and 1976 (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Before she competed in Melbourne, she debuted internationally at the 1954 World Championships when she was a 19 year old. She finished 14th, and following her coach's advice, worked tirelessly to improve her self-control, calm her nerves and contain her excitement. Soon she was able to overcome any mistake made during a performance. In her words, "I can't say i was so much better then the others...I think I was a bit more focused, more composed, probably had a bit more desire and [more of] a will to win than the others." (10: The Critic Within).

In 1976, Latynina was criticized by the Soviet Sports Ministry because Nadia Comaneci defeated two Soviet gymnasts for the all around gold medal. The officials felt that it was Larisa's fault (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).  

In 1992, an honor was created by the World Sports Award of the Century for the "Greatest gymnast of the 20th century," but instead of going to Latynina it was given to Nadia Comaneci. The veteran gymnast, Larisa, had won nine Olympic gold medals while Nadia only had four, but the Romanian had (in 1976) become the first gymnast to ever score a perfect ten. Latynina was deeply disappointed, but at the 2012 Olympics her picture is at the top of a list of biggest medal winners of all time while, in her words, "See, there is no Comaneci there" (8: Turning No Into Yes).   

Rumor has it that she has been divorced three times (15: Forget About Prince Charming), but there is no denying that she and her daughter, Tatyana, have an exceptionally close relationship (16: Intensive Motherhood). Two years ago, Tatyana and her Russian millionaire husband moved to Sevenoaks, Kent (east of London), and Larisa conducted many of her 2012 Olympic interviews in their mansion.   

She congratulated Phelps on his victory, and joked that "forty eight years is almost enough time to hold a's time for a man to be able to do what a woman did long ago."   

Looking forward to your comments...