It’s Women’s Day today, a day where we celebrate the women in our lives: a daughter, a mother, a friend. A day where we celebrate the achievements of women throughout history and in our times.
There are a great many women that I admire, from Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her advocacy of the rights of Muslim women, to Georgia O’Keeffe for changing the face of American art forever, to Frida Kahlo and her struggle with chronic pain and her deeply complex, unstable life as an artist.
One woman I truly admire is one that might not be quite as well known as the women above, and certainly not as well-known as say the Kardashians or Rihanna. She was born in the tiny coastal town of Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. It was her great passion and pleasure to spend winters trawling the crumbling cliffs searching for newly exposed fossils. Having a rudimentary Sunday school education, Mary Anning would accompany her family as they sought to supplement their income with fossils; fossil-hunting had become a source of tourism and prestige for the area, and tourists were eager to purchase these unique relics.
Mary Anning was a pioneer; she was the one who discovered the first ichthyosaur skeleton – a large marine reptile that lived alongside the dinosaurs – and then went on to discover several more revolutionary finds in natural history. She uncovered two complete plesiosaurs and even a pterosaur – the flying dinosaur.
If all these discoveries weren’t impressive enough on their own right (David Attenborough and the Sea Dragon), we have to consider that this all happened back in the first half of the 19th Century, when the world of science was dominated by gentlemen, and women were rarely more than mothers and housewives.
That Mary was able to take her love of fossil-hunting and became quite an influential voice in geological circles is endlessly inspiring. But, as a woman, unfortunately, she did not get the acclaim and the respect that she truly deserved. Thanks to Mary Anning we were able to piece together great swathes of mystery surrounding the evolution and ultimately, the demise of the dinosaurs. But, as a woman, there was only so much she could do.
I like to think that we’ve moved on from this, and I know we have. Though she never got the credit for her contribution to the scientific world, after her death she finally started to be taken seriously, as is often sadly the case.
In her own words: “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”
The world needs to stop treating women scientists and pioneers unkindly. We don’t need to be suspicious of them – rather, we should celebrate them! Trail-blazing women, modern-day Mary Annings should be on top of the pantheon of role-models. Scientists like Emily Levesque, Katherine Freese and Maryam Mirzakhani. If you haven’t heard about these stars of modern science then you’re missing the big picture.