Friday, 09 March 2012 00:00
Recently, Meryl Streep won the Academy Award for her depiction of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady. Lady Thatcher is not only an extraordinary stateswoman but also the quintessential modern self-assured and self-made woman who didn’t have to ride in on the coattails of her politician husband like America’s Hillary Clinton.
On the night of the Academy Awards, one of the cable TV stations broadcast Sex in the City II, the ongoing saga of four New York women whose lives revolve around shopping, sexual encounters and excessive alcohol consumption; four shallow and neurotic veterans of dysfunctional relationships who, more than Lady Thatcher, seem to have become the role models for young American women.
Once upon a time, the “women’s movement” had something serious to say: the temperance ladies, the women fighting for property rights and “equal pay for equal work” and the drive to give women the right to vote. But for the most part, the feminist movement has now “jumped the shark” and become an absurd parody of itself as embodied by Long Islander Ellen Cooperman who fought a two-year legal battle in the 1970s to have her name legally changed to “Ellen Cooperperson.” Newsday recently dedicated its mid-section to commemorating this stunning achievement that’s done much to help homeless women, girls working in Indonesian sweatshops and the human-trafficking of Mexican women into the “sex industry.” A smiling Cooperperson, now 65, is seen in the newspaper holding a poster of her heroine, Wonder Woman.
Now if women don’t have to be “just housewives” as the feminists sneer, they don’t have to be restricted to being radical activist lawyers, angry nightclub comics, or people only qualified to teach “women’s studies.” They can be people, unlike Ellen Cooperperson, who can be taken seriously. I don’t doubt for a second that women are just as capable of men as being political and military leaders, religious authorities, captains of industry, learned scholars, brilliant artists and scientists as men. Unlike Ellen Cooperperson, my heroines are not cartoon characters like Wonder Woman, the women of Sex in the City II, or someone who’d spell my name “Paul Personton.“ I named my daughter Elizabeth Regina after two monarchs – one who proved to be one of the greatest rulers in history and another who has proven herself to be the epitome of dignity, grace, restraint and tradition that ought to be the conduct of every head-of-state. (Indeed, before her 5th birthday, my daughter said she wanted to be an Episcopal priest when she grows up; a member of the clergy of a church led by Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who also holds a Ph.D. in oceanography.)
No, my heroines include the following: Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415 A.D.), who was one of the ancient world’s greatest astronomers and mathematicians; Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), who wrote an encyclopedia on the medicinal uses of plants and minerals; Anne, Countess of Conway (1631-79), who studied chemistry and the history of philosophy and had a significant influence on Gottfried von Leibniz; Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), whose Insects of Surinam is considered the first published books on tropical entomology; Emilie du Chatelet (1706-49), Voltaire’s lover and a brilliant mathematician and chemist; Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815-82), who worked with Charles Babbage in constructing a calculating machine called a “computer;” Marya Sklodowska (1867-1934), better known as Marie Curie, who became the first person to win two Nobel prizes; Lise Meitner (1878-1968), an exceptional German physicist described by Albert Einstein as “our Madame Curie” and immortalized with Metnericum on the Periodic Table of Elements; and Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), who died of cancer before she was able to share the 1962 Noble Prize for Medicine with Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and James Watson for their ongoing research into the function of DNA.
Locally there are outstanding women like religious reformer Lady Deborah Moody (1586-1659), who founded Gravesend, Brooklyn, and the geneticist Barbara McClintock (1902-92), who won the 1983 Noble Prize for genetics. These women don’t include some of our area’s female civic leaders, writers and historians whom I have personally known.
Women have come a long way. It’s just a pity that the only thing holding them back from being taken more seriously are women who were a joke back in 1971 when they were burning their bras.