Retell therapy: See how new narratives featuring women are taking shape - Hindustan Times
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Retell therapy: See how new narratives featuring women are taking shape

ByAnesha George
Jun 07, 2024 09:52 PM IST

Stories of women that were rarely being told are now in the spotlight. Poems, photos, fables are exploring new landscapes infused with fresh perspectives

We prefer not to use the “Did you know” line in Wknd… But did you know that the term scientist was coined for a woman? (We thought this one warranted it.)

. (Illustration: Rahul Krishnan) PREMIUM
. (Illustration: Rahul Krishnan)

Here’s how it happened: Cambridge University historian William Whewell invented the phrase in the early 19th century, to describe Mary Somerville, a woman known for her English translation of the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace’s five-volume work on the mechanics of the solar system.

The term stuck on simply because the more common “man of science” needed an alternative.

If we didn’t even have a term for women of science until so recently, how were we telling their stories? The answer is that we weren’t. Which isn’t new. What’s new is the ways in which this is changing, as women begin to tell stories of other women that should have been told long ago.

“There’s a sea of extraordinary stories out there that are waiting to be told,” says journalist turned historian Anita Anand, author of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary (2015) and co-host of the Empire podcast with William Dalrymple. “And more boats are fishing in that sea, mostly manned by women, who are pulling those stories out for a wider public.”

Sometimes these are biographies or biopics; or corrective notes made in the annals of history. “He didn’t invent that, actually. She did.”

This week, we’re looking at four projects that take a wider view, zooming out to explore an entire landscape differently: botany, math, war.

In Mathematics for Ladies (2022), American library curator Jessy Randall frames poems about women in science, infused with humour and outrage, surprise and sarcasm, as she documents the lives and work of people who resisted the conventions of their times, succeeded where no one expected it, and were still rendered invisible.

There’s a poem on the Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani (1977–2017), who became the first woman to be awarded a Fields Medal — in 2014. There are ironic references to Marie Curie (1867–1934), who won two Nobels, one each in physics and chemistry, and went on to become the only woman scientist most people could name, for several decades.

“Stop comparing me to every woman scientist!

Another Madame Curie this. A new Madame Curie that,” the poem goes.

“Stop re-naming women altogether!”

From poetry and science to botany and motherhood, Canadian evolutionary biologist Erin Zimmerman recently released a memoir titled Unrooted: Botany, Motherhood and the Fight to Save an Old Science (April; Melville House). It is her response to being edged out of a highly competitive research career, she says, as soon as she started a family.

In her book, Zimmerman explores the battles of mothers with PhDs, and what it would take to make academia kinder to caregivers. She also traces the intriguing history of botanical illustration (one of her specialties), which started out as a rare field open to women. Today, women still outnumber men in botany classrooms, she adds, but as one moves into the higher ranks, they fade away.

In war-ravaged Ukraine, meanwhile, where stories are centred on violence, bloodshed and forced migrations, British photographer Polly Braden decided to focus on the women who were suddenly becoming single mothers, fleeing the country and navigating new worlds with their children. Her subjects range in age from 16 to 51.

And in India, Nidhi Goyal, founder of the disability rights group Rising Flame, is rewriting classic European fairytales. And They Lived… Ever After (March; HarperCollins), features a wheelchair-using Rapunzel who won’t leave her tower till the prince builds ramps across his province, liberating all those who are trapped by their absence. A neurodivergent duckling finds their tribe. And a Cinderella refuses to marry a visually challenged but rather spineless Prince Charming.

Each tale is written by a differently abled woman; Goyal, who has also written one of the stories, is blind herself. The idea came to her, she says, because “across rural and urban India, I would meet women resigned to the idea of never finding love because they never saw themselves as the main character of these stories.”

Seeing oneself as the main character can be hard, when one is a woman.

“In history, economics, science and even in recorded data, women have been conspicuous by their absence through the years because nobody had thought it worth recording their lives and contributions,” says writer and essayist Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan, the feminist publishing imprint of Kali for Women. “Ethnographers, till barely 20 years ago, were going into villages and writing definitive stories about spaces by talking only to men, and never thinking that their work was incomplete.” This led to an exclusion that was barely missed because not enough women themselves questioned this lack of representation, she adds.

The change today is small but impactful. It will be hard to lose these voices again, Butalia says, as more women also, finally, insert themselves into the narrative.

Hidden figures: Old stories in new verses

Maria Mitchell,the first professional woman astronomer in the US, gazing at the stars in a painting by artist Herminia Dassel in 1851. (Wikimedia)
Maria Mitchell,the first professional woman astronomer in the US, gazing at the stars in a painting by artist Herminia Dassel in 1851. (Wikimedia)

“Being a woman is such a huge handicap that my religion has never mattered,” the Jewish physicist Lise Meitner said, when what should have been a shared Nobel went to her collaborator, the German chemist Otto Hahn, in 1944. They had worked together for years on their discovery of nuclear fission, and all she got was a brief mention in Hahn’s acceptance speech.

It is stories like this one that inspired Jessy Randall’s book of 70 poems on 70 long-overlooked women scientists, titled Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science (2022; Goldsmiths Press).

The poems weave professional and biographical details into exasperated, mischievous and easy-to-read verse. The women range from astronomers and physicians to botanists, physicists and chemists. They include women from the Middle Ages, such as Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179; a philosopher, composer, medical writer and practitioner) and more recent legends such as the Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017), who became the first woman to win a Fields Medal, in 2014.

They include her personal heroes too. “As a kid, I admired Elizabeth Blackwell very much, not just for becoming the first doctor in the US, but for very specifically choosing a career path so that she could make it easier for other women after her,” Randall says.

Jessy Randall’s book Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science features 70 poems about long-overlooked women scientists. (Bryan Oller)
Jessy Randall’s book Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science features 70 poems about long-overlooked women scientists. (Bryan Oller)

Raised by a working single mother, Randall grew up being told she could be anyone she wanted to be, which makes her marvel, she says, at women who were raised so differently, and yet blazed new trails.

Some faced challenges that most of us cannot even begin to know.

James Miranda Barry (1789–1865) was much admired for his skills as a military surgeon, until at death it was revealed he had been a woman, born Margaret Ann Bulkley. “Some of the poems almost wrote themselves, the metaphors and lyricism were unmissable,” Randall says. Of Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831–1895), the first black woman doctor in the US, she writes:

“They call her

the first Black woman

to earn a medical degree.

She called herself doctress.

She called herself businesswoman.

She called herself being.

They say first, first, first,

as though everyone before her lost.”

Of the first professional woman astronomer in the US, Maria Mitchell (1818–1889), Randall writes:

““My” comet.

“My” observatory, built for me.

“My” moon crater.

I’ll lay claim. I’ll take them all.

Most of all, “my” students. If they

belong to me, let me let them

stay up late. Curse your curfews,

Vassar. We can’t study stars

in the daylight.

These students are mine,

and the night is ours.”

The book’s title draws from the fact that descriptive math was at one time derided as a useless branch of the subject, more philosophy than math. It was called Mathematics for Ladies, “and that idea was just absurd to me. Math is not subjective! There are times when you have to take a break from crying and screaming and just laugh,” Randall says.

The title sets the tone: wry, exhausted, but retaining a sense of wonder and pride. “I figure that these women had to be wry and snappy and have a sense of irony, or they could never have stayed in STEM.”

But poems don’t wholly do justice to the stories of these powerful women, she adds. If Randall were to reimagine Blackwell’s life, she’d like to do it as a Broadway musical, she says. American marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964) deserves the full Hollywood treatment, “a biopic that would win an Oscar”. June Bacon-Bercey (1928 –2019), the first female African American meteorologist who landed her job after her predecessor was arrested for robbing a bank, should have a comedy feature based on her, she adds.

“If we can imagine what it was like for these women, doing what they did at the time, we can understand the history of science and sexism, and can perhaps see the value — for everyone — in a more gender-balanced future of STEM.”

Roots and wings: Footnotes from academia

Evolutionary biologist Erin Zimmerman on field. She left research as a botanist after the intense system seemed to leave no room for motherhood. (Eric Chevalier)
Evolutionary biologist Erin Zimmerman on field. She left research as a botanist after the intense system seemed to leave no room for motherhood. (Eric Chevalier)

In Europe, between the late 17th and early 19th centuries, botany was one of the branches of science that women had the greatest access to. One could have samples dispatched to one’s address, and create sketches without ever leaving the house.

This is how it works for the reclusive protagonist Kya in the 2022 Hollywood film, Where the Crawdads Sing (based on the novel by Delia Owens). Only now do we call these women what they were: naturalists.

Meanwhile, as botany moved into the labs and became more organised, the women began to be edged out. Many of the scientific societies where new discoveries were unveiled and discussed didn’t admit women as members.

“As part of some rather insidious re-branding, the activities of women in the field were dubbed ‘polite botany’ and dismissed as a hobby,” says Erin Zimmerman, 41, an evolutionary biologist from Ontario, Canada. The struggles of women in botany are far from over, she adds.

Zimmerman’s memoir Unrooted: Botany, Motherhood and the Fight to Save an Old Science (April; Melville House) traces the intriguing history of the field, and unpacks the biases and obstacles of today. “Running in parallel to the loss of both species and our capacity to build knowledge about them, a different loss of diversity is happening within scientific research...” she writes.

Women who have spent years studying, training and rising through the ranks are leaving academia after they become parents. Within months of completing her PhD, Zimmerman was pregnant with her first child. With no room for motherhood in the intensity of the system, “things really quickly got impossible to maintain,” she says.

She felt isolated; faced snide remarks about how she was changing.

She found herself pumping breast milk in a mildewed shower stall and remembers thinking: “How was I once worth six figures in doctoral scholarship money and now was not worth a clean pumping space?” She remembers feeling humiliated and unwelcome.

Her observation, that the field is mostly women at the undergraduate level but mostly men in the middle and higher ranks, is borne out by research.

An eight-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2019 found that 43% of women leave full-time STEM employment after their first child.

Zimmerman left too. She is now a science writer and botanical illustrator.

“I felt a lot of shame when I left research, as though I just hadn’t tried hard enough,” she says. “I’d like other women like me to see that it’s okay to make this choice and that there are other ways to use their skills and expertise too.”

Leaving Ukraine: New battles, old scars

Yulia in Warsaw during Poland’s Independence Day march last year. She remembers how some people on the march chanted 'Poland for Poles.' (Courtesy Polly Braden)
Yulia in Warsaw during Poland’s Independence Day march last year. She remembers how some people on the march chanted 'Poland for Poles.' (Courtesy Polly Braden)

In February 2022, British photographer Polly Braden had just created a project called Holding Baby, documenting single-parenthood, when she saw similar frames splashed across newspapers and on TV screens.

They were images of women leaving Ukraine, babies wrapped in their arms, teenagers by their sides. “With the men not allowed to leave Ukraine these women weren’t only crossing a border, they were becoming single mums,” says Braden, 49.

It struck her that they would have to find housing and schooling, make their way through a new bureaucracy while perhaps not knowing the local language. The artist decided to travel to the region, go beyond the frontlines, stay with them, “dig into what it is like to become a single parent in the face of war”, and tell their story.

Lena calling her mother Tatiana soon after getting a job with a law firm in London, 2022. (Courtesy Polly Braden)
Lena calling her mother Tatiana soon after getting a job with a law firm in London, 2022. (Courtesy Polly Braden)

She flew into Moldova, which shares a border with Ukraine, and started documenting the lives of six women. She stayed with them, on and off, for two years. Her photo and video project, Leaving Ukraine, is currently on display at the Foundling Museum in London until September.

Braden, a single mother herself, captures the women in the listless moments before their next move, in the emotional highs of finding work in a new country, in the isolation of living far from loved ones and from home, while surrounded by people whose lives have not changed at all.

These women (Braden has only used first names) were teachers, lawyers,sign language interpreters for the news, before Russia’s invasion of their country.

“I was like, ‘Oh, no no no! It’s going to end in like two weeks.’ But then it all changed,” says Lena, 21, a lawyer, in a video that forms part of the project. She had just started her first job when her life was reduced to scrolling through the news on her phone, unable to imagine her future. She fled with her mother, Tatiana, a sign-language interpreter with a Ukrainian news channel, but then they parted ways too, after Lena moved to London under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

A year on, Lena has found love, married and had a son she named Noah. Tatiana is back in Ukraine, desperate but unable to be the involved grandmother she had dreamed of being.

‘It’s been really important to document all these women because they are the future, the people who will be rebuilding Ukraine,’says Braden about the exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London (above). (Fernando Manoso)
‘It’s been really important to document all these women because they are the future, the people who will be rebuilding Ukraine,’says Braden about the exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London (above). (Fernando Manoso)

Meanwhile, 16-year-old schoolmates Sofiia, Aliesia and Yuliia started out attending online classes in which the teachers and students were scattered across countries and time zones. They have since graduated from those classrooms, and have new homes. Sofiia is enrolled in school in Switzerland, where her mother Nataliia, once a teacher and real-estate agent, now works the night shift at a bakery. Yuliia is similarly settled at a university in Poland. Aliesia is back to online learning in Ukraine. The teenagers reunited recently in Ukraine for prom, but their school had been bombed so it had to be held at a private hall.

“It’s been really important to document all these women because they are the future, the people who will be rebuilding Ukraine,” Braden says.

If it seems like there’s an element missing (What happened to the men?), try a thought experiment: If the genders were reversed, would one still be asking that question?

From fairytales to fierytales

Classic European fairytales are being retold, by differently abled women, as stories that are full of female agency, joy and compassion in And They Lived… Ever After.
Classic European fairytales are being retold, by differently abled women, as stories that are full of female agency, joy and compassion in And They Lived… Ever After.

A wheelchair-bound Rapunzel saves a prince and his province. A neurodivergent Ugly Duckling finds a sense of community. A female Rumpelstiltskin learns that one needn’t have extraordinary talents in order to be worthy of love.

Classic European fairytales are being retold, by differently abled women, as stories that are full of female agency, joy and compassion. Written by 13 women authors from India and Sri Lanka representing autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and visual, hearing, locomotor and psychosocial disabilities, And They Lived… Ever After (March; HarperCollins) was born as a part of an online workshop organised during the pandemic, by the disability rights NGO Rising Flame.

“I realised the power stories had when I would meet women at workshops across both rural and urban India, who were resigned to the idea of never finding love because they never saw themselves as the main character of these stories,” says Nidhi Goyal, 38, founder of Rising Flame. Instead, they identified, she says, with the characters who were disabled: the hunchback of Notre Dame, the scarred witch with a crooked nose, the villainous captain with an eye patch and a wooden leg.

The idea was to break down this prevailing structure and replace it with a new set of tales, says Goyal, who wrote one of the retellings, and is blind.

The stories don’t just recast their main characters. They make room for a range of smaller players who have also been stereotyped or ignored in the originals, such as a Cinderella’s stepsister, also trapped in a world governed by her mother; Rapunzel’s guardian, recast as a woman who is independent and strong yet isolated and struggling; and the mother of the Ugly Duckling, quietly soldiering on, trying to be a good parent to her differently abled child.

The idea of the book was to break down the prevailing structure of fairytales and replace it with a new set of fables, says Nidhi Goyal, the founder of Rising Flame. She wrote one of the retellings too, and is blind.
The idea of the book was to break down the prevailing structure of fairytales and replace it with a new set of fables, says Nidhi Goyal, the founder of Rising Flame. She wrote one of the retellings too, and is blind.

This approach allowed the writers to get a lot said. Kolkata-based entrepreneur Soumita Basu, 41, for instance, used part of the Rapunzel tale to address a pet peeve. Basu runs an inclusive clothing line called Zyenika, operates with 20% mobility, and is always irked when well-meaning people intervene and “help her” without speaking to her first.

So, in her story, a character named Grandpa Tebog is blind and stands at the corner of a street. “People routinely just take his hand and help him across. So he keeps going back and forth, back and forth, when all he wants is to stand at the corner and enjoy the breeze,” she says laughing.

The hope is that a book like this aimed at children will introduce an altered mindset early on. “A mother told me that this was her six-year-old son’s first exposure to fairytales. She’d kept them away from him so far,” says Goyal. “I was delighted because now he will never find it odd if Snow White is deaf or Rapunzel saves the prince.”

He will also have in his early memory examples of empathy, kindness and respect for people who may vary from the “norm”. The aim, Goyal adds, is to rewrite “normal” altogether, because the way it is defined isn’t really accurate, and hasn’t really worked very well.

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