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Friday, 15 June 2012

Women on the cutting edge show us the way

Blink and you'll miss it, Deborah Smith's less-than-400-word story on Australian Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, who discovered telomerase, an enzyme that looks after the ends of chromosomes. Here's a short explanation of telomerase from the Journal of Cell Biology:
Without telomerase, our chromosomes would shorten incrementally with each cell division, thereby putting telomere-adjacent genes at risk of being gradually eroded.
So it's sort of a built-in repair mechanism for those marginal areas of the DNA that are still crucial for the faithful copying of chemistry's human blueprint. Blackburn won the Nobel in 2009 but she's hardly a household name here unlike Kylie Minogue, another successful Aussie export. It's an old story. Or, rather, it's not a story. Good stories infrequently get told, regardless of how important they are. The kids who met Blackburn during her recent trip to Australia thought she was worth spending time with, though. Maybe it's also an old problem that affects women especially. Last night's screening of the documentary Utopia Girls shows us that the most important individuals can get lost in the mainstream historical imagination because of the way the public sphere works. Nobody in Australia doesn't know who Ned Kelly was, but what about Mary Lee? Surely suffragettes are more worthy of our attention than bank robbers. Surely we should be celebrating the sacrifices that such women made for ideas that, today, we take for granted.

It's not every country that becomes the first to give the vote to women. The first sovereign nation, at least. As for firsts, it was New Zealand - another settler society - that first gave women the vote. But it was still a colony in 1893, whereas Australia in 1901 became a sovereign nation. The risks were greater here.

And it's not every day that someone wins a Nobel. Scientists have a lot of things to worry about. For Blackburn, additionally, there is the fact that she is a mother. But what struck me most forcibly about Blackburn's interview with Smith was her understanding of the value of the humanities. We often see science as something as distant from the study of human culture as the two terrestrial poles. But Blackburn said that "the humanity subjects like poetry and history also stood her in good stead" during her time researching the ends of chromosomes.

We readily, now, forget that the sciences actually grew directly out of the humanities, in the beginning of what we call "science" nowadays. If we go back to the point of departure for science, in the days of Elizabeth I, we find men who spent most of their time talking and writing about the world. They were reflecting the major shift in thinking in Europe from placing attention on God to focusing it squarely on mankind. It was a time of change (but what era is not?) and alongside Francis Bacon, the English author, we must also consider the discoveries of Michel de Montaigne, who lived in France at the same time as Bacon. The outer, physical world and the inner, personal world of the individual. We started to talk in detail about these two - apparently dissimilar - things at the same point in human history.

So when do women start taking up the pen in order to describe the world in their own words? In essence, this happened about 150 years after Bacon and Montaigne, in England during the 18th Century. Nowadays we celebrate endlessly the discoveries of Jane Austen - and for good reason - but perhaps we forget that she published her books in volumes without her own name. She was just "A lady". And many earlier books, by other novelists, had been published in the same guise. Austen was also by no means the first of her tribe to excel at novelising. What is most noteworthy, I think, is that it was English women who pushed forward the novel, which in those days was really a cutting-edge literary form, the app of the age. Not only did women read novels en masse, but they were often responsible for what they contained. Later, in the 19th Century, as the novel won a more solid reputation as a valid form of literature, men began to embrace it more enthusiastically, and take over the form as their own chosen mode of expression. So then we have Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy where before we had had Fanny Burney and Hannah More.

Some people complain that feminism has lost some of its power of moral suasion in the public sphere. I think that it doesn't matter if you are a woman or a man, you can still be a feminist. We should take advantage of the writings of the many talented women who publish books and other stories because their takes on the world will enrich our understanding of what the future should look like. And if we treat the discoveries of such women as Blackburn as stories, then we will be in a better position to move forward in a constructive manner, and fashion a future that truly answers the needs of all of us. We are seven billion. Half of us are women. All of us must now have our say in deciding the shape of the future.

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