A Week of Nobel Queens

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Stella Fosse

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A Week of Nobel Queens

What a week for older women!

Poet Louise Gluck, 77, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” Gluck is a professor at Yale who previously won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Her lifetime of work includes twelve volumes of poetry and several collections of essays on poetry. One of her best known works is the 2006 collection Averno, named for a crater thought by the ancient Romans to be the entrance to the underworld. In it, the poet explores the myth of Persephone, consigned to the underworld, as a metaphor for mortality and the mysterious aspect of all human relationships.

Andrea Ghez, 55, was one of three winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics for discoveries about black holes. Ghez is a professor at UCLA who studies the center of our galaxy. She is known as a force of nature who simply will not take no for an answer when she is on the hunt for new phenomena. Her team not only discovered the black hole at the center of our galaxy, confirming one of Einstein’s theories, but also discovered that stars are orbiting that black hole. Ghez continues to inspire new generations of graduate students with her love of the chase.

Two women, Emmanuelle Charpentier, 51, and Jennifer Doudna, 56, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of the CRISPR gene editing tool. Charpentier is Director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin. Doudna is a professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley. CRISPR began as a project in basic science to study Cas9, a molecule used by bacteria to kill viruses. Charpentier and Doudna determined that the molecule could be used as a precise tool to edit genes. CRISPR is now used by researchers all over the world for applications as varied as curing genetic diseases, improving crops and creating biofuels. Winning this prize as a two-woman team shows, as Doudna said, that “women rock.” She added, “Many women think that, no matter what they do, their work will never be recognized the way it would be if they were a man… (This prize) refutes that. It makes a strong statement that women can do science, women can do chemistry, and that great science is recognized and honored. That means a lot to me personally, because I know that, when I was growing up, I couldn’t, in a million years, have ever imagined this moment.”

Senator Kamala Harris, who will be 56 on October 20, made history on October 8 as the first black woman in a Vice Presidential debate. Harris, who brought her experience as a prosecutor and attorney general to the debate stage, was smart, passionate and powerful in her presentation. Harris was the second African American woman elected to the United States Senate (the first, Carol Moseley Braun, served from 1993 to 1999). Harris is the first African American woman and the first Indian American on a presidential ticket. She recalls that when she was a child visiting her father in upscale Palo Alto, California, other children were not allowed to play with her because she was black. She was one of the first children involved in desegregation of the Berkeley Unified Schools.

With an average age of 59, these five women are stellar examples of older women around the country and around the world who make art, make discoveries, make policy, make love. The pandemic doesn’t stop older women, our putative “invisibility” doesn’t stop us, and every personal and professional barrier to our success likewise does not stop us. In every field of human endeavor, older women confound the unrealistic and limiting expectations of a sexist and ageist culture.

There could be no greater inspiration for older women than Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the revered Supreme Court justice who died last month at age 87. When asked by an interviewer how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough, she famously said “Nine.” Her reasoning: The Court was only men for a long time, and it will take years of an all-woman court to even things out. By that logic, how many women in the Senate are enough? One hundred. How many women Nobel winners, how many women Presidents and Vice Presidents? All of them, for years to come.

I wrote recently about being daring.  In a week of Nobel Queens, it is time to dream about what can be. Dare to dream!
We do not get to vote on Nobel Laureates, nor on Supreme Court justices (at least not directly), but we do have a say in who will be our next Senators and our next President and Vice President. We do have a say about who will be in the State Legislatures that will choose electoral districts for the coming decade in 2021, based on this year’s census. It is up to each of us to be true to ourselves, to make our own art, our own discoveries, our own love, whilst thinking about the sort of world we want for our children and grandchildren. And it is up to each of us to make our voices heard through our vote.

They say that behind every great woman is a bunch of other great women. I believe it. When I get together online with others involved in phone canvassing for this election, I see that most of the political foot soldiers of the 2020 election are older women. Whether we are writing, taking political action, or making new discoveries, let us be there to support one another as we break down barriers.

And let each of us show up to vote, as we steer our nation toward inclusion and justice.

4 Responses

    1. You’re so welcome! One of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, wrote: “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.”

  1. Brava for highlighting these remarkable women and for your call to action. There is more wisdom, strength and creativity in older women than can possibly be measured. For every female Nobel Prize winner, there are thousands of other women who shine in the arts, literature and the sciences.

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