Ugly Blot of Bigotry
It Hurts All Of Us
Bigotry hurts all of us, not just the targets, and it deprives us of the genius, beauty and compassion abundant in all races, genders, religions and ethnic groups and it knows no intellectual boundaries, geniuses can be bigots just as easily as that guy with the MAGA tattoos on his face.
And bigotry is like a virus that fuels both the bigot and convinces the target of his or her lack of worth, regardless of the person’s potential. Take Cecilia Payne for instance, do you know who she was, probably not and probably there are millions of young girls who might literally shoot for the stars if they knew about Cecelia Payne.
Here is what Jeremy Knowles, the late Harvard chemistry professor and dean of the Harvard University faculty of arts and sciences, had to say about Cecelia Payne:
“Since her death in 1979, the woman who discovered what the universe is made of has not so much as received a memorial plaque. Her newspaper obituaries do not mention her greatest discovery. Every high school student knows that Isaac Newton discovered gravity, that Charles Darwin discovered evolution, and that Albert Einstein discovered the relativity of time. But when it comes to the composition of our universe, the textbooks simply say that the most abundant atom in the universe is hydrogen. And no one ever wonders how we know.”
We know about the abundance of hydrogen because of Cecelia Payne, the most famous astrophysicist you never heard of. Her story is particularly relevant because she was the relatively rare woman in science and that is still largely the story, in part, because girls are taught either directly or subtly that science is a man’s world. Catalyst.org reports that averaged across regions, women accounted for less than a third (29.3 percent) of those employed in scientific research and development (R&D) across the world in 2016. Central Asia (48.2 percent), Latin American and the Caribbean (45.1 percent), the Arab States (41.5 percent) and Central and Eastern Europe (39.3 percent) are the only regions in which women represented over a third of the R&D workforce.
So who was Cecelia Payne? Born on May 10, 1900, in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, England, her mother wouldn’t give her money for college so she won a scholarship to Cambridge. She finished her studies but Cambridge wouldn’t give a degree to a woman, so she moved to the U.S. and was the first person, man or woman, ever to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College. Otto Strauve, a famous Russian astronomer and one of the most distinguished and prolific astronomers of the mid-20th century, said Payne’s doctoral thesis was “the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”
Payne proposed in her 1925 doctoral thesis that stars were composed primarily of hydrogen and helium but her groundbreaking conclusion was initially rejected because it went against the scientific wisdom of the time, which held that there were no significant elemental differences between the Sun and Earth. She came to her conclusion through viewing more than 3,000,000 observations of variable stars. But Payne never got credit for her discovery because that went to astronomer Henry Norris Russell, even though he reached his conclusion four years after Payne came up with her finding and Russell convinced her not to publish her findings, according to a 2004 biography of Payne by Rachael Padman.
After her doctorate, Payne studied stars of high luminosity to understand the structure of the Milky Way. Later she surveyed all stars brighter than the tenth magnitude. She then studied variable stars, making over 1,250,000 observations with her assistants. The work later was extended to the Magellanic Clouds, adding a further 2,000,000 observations of variable stars. The data were used to determine the paths of stellar evolution.
Payne was the first woman to be promoted to full professor at Harvard, and is credited with breaking the glass ceiling for women in the Harvard science department and in astronomy, as well as inspiring entire generations of women to take up science. She received honorary degrees from Rutgers University, Wilson College, Smith College, Western College, Colby College, and the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and Asteroid 2039 Payne-Gaposchkin was named after her as was the Payne-Gaposchkin Patera volcano on Venus. Impressive.
There have been a relatively few number of people who have broken through cultural stereotypes to achieve fame. Martha Gellhorn was famous for her brief marriage to Ernest Hemingway in the 1940s but her real contribution was as a war correspondent at a time when most correspondents on the front lines were strictly men. Gellhorn reported from all over the world in photographs, news articles and novels.
Francis Crick and James Watson get credit for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA but without the work of Rosalind Franklin, Crick and Watson might never had made their historic discovery. Franklin used X-ray crystallography to capture a clear picture of DNA and without her permission, her photo was taken by another scientist, Maurice Wilkins, who showed it to Watson who quickly realized the enormous import of the Franklin’s finding. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958 and there was no mention of Franklin’s role.
T. E. Lawrence gained worldwide fame as Lawrence of Arabia but a woman, Gertrude Bell, worked on some of the same expeditions and has received little historical attention. Bell was a writer, cartographer, archaeologist and explorer who helped establish modern day Jordan and Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. She wrote about her experiences in great detail and her writings, especially those on Iraq, are still studied today.
There have been untold numbers of African Americans who made important achievements but were crowded out of the history books because of the color of their skin.
Mary Ellen Pleasant is believed to have been a slave in the 1810s in Georgia and was later indentured to a Nantucket shopkeeper from whom she learned the basics of running a business. She also learned about the abolitionist movement from the shopkeeper who was a strident abolitionist. She married to another abolitionist and they worked to help slaves escape to the North. After her husband died, Pleasant moved to San Francisco where she started a boarding house and worked as a cook in wealthy homes, saving and investing her money and soon amassing a fortune that she invested in stocks, real estate and a series of laundries and food establishments. At her peak, she was worth an estimated $30 million.
Bessie Coleman was born in a one-room shack in Texas in 1892 and her future was in the air, a place dominated by white men . She worked as a laundress to save money to attend college in Oklahoma, then moved to Chicago where she overheard stories of pilots who had recently returned from World War I. She made up her mind to be a pilot but was stonewalled by sexism and racism from American pilots. Black newspaperman Robert Abbott, the publisher of The Chicago Defender, heard about Coleman and encouraged her to go to France to learn how to fly, which she did. She returned to the U.S. and performed as a stunt flier at air shows, gaining the nickname “Queen Bess.” Coleman had hoped to inspire other young African Americans to take to the skies by establishing a flight school but was killed in a plane crash in 1923.
Matthew Henson was born in Maryland just after the Civil War. His parents died so he moved in with an uncle in Washington, D.C., then walked to Baltimore in hopes of getting work on a ship. As a cabin boy on a freighter, he traveled around the world and after six years, the captain of his freighter died and Henson returned home to work in a furrier’s shop. There he met Navy Lt. Robert Edwin Peary, who soon offered Henson a job as his assistant on an upcoming survey trip of Nicaragua. Henson was a member of Peary’s crew on various expeditions including a final attempt to reach the North Pole in 1908. Henson arrived closest to the Pole in advance of Peary, but Peary struggled the last few miles to plant the American flag and history reflects Peary, not Henson, as the first to reach the pole.
And then there were the relentless campaigns to cover up the homosexuality of Hollywood stars, many who were wed in “lavender,” sham marriages for the sake of their careers. Marriages were arranged by Hollywood studios between one or more gay, lesbian or bisexual people in order to hide their sexual orientation from the public. They date back to the early 20th century and carried on past the gay liberation movement of the 1960s. Lavender marriages were first introduced by Universal Film Company and contracts permitted the company to discontinue actors’ salaries “if they forfeit the respect of the public.”
One of the earliest speculated lavender marriages was the 1919 union of silent film actor and early sex symbol Rudolph Valentino and actress Jean Acker, who was rumored to have been lesbian.
Another involved Cary Grant and his roommate, Randolph Scott, who lived together for more than a decade. The lavender marriage between Rock Hudson and his secretary Phyllis Gates lasted for two years, after rumors of his homosexuality and infidelity began to pile up.
And as with all bigotry, the truth is painfully withheld to fit the stereotypes and we are all the worse for it.