Babe Didrikson Zaharias – one of the greatest female sports stars in history

‘Babe’ Didrikson Zaharias was one of the greatest female sports stars in history and her achievements are so extraordinary I was amazed not to have heard of her.

Babe was born into a poor Norwegian immigrant family in Texas. Christened Mildred, she was given the nickname Babe after the baseball player Babe Ruth. She was a tough, foul-mouthed girl who described women as ‘sissies who wore girdles, bras and that junk’ and spent her youth playing baseball and basketball with boys as they proved better competition than girls. At school she was the star of the basketball, baseball, volleyball, tennis, golf and swimming teams.

At age 18, the Employers Casualty Insurance Company, persuaded her to leave school and play for its women’s basketball team in the Amateur Athletic Union. In 1932, she was the sole member of their team, competing with other company teams of up to 20 women, often finishing one heat and then immediately rushing to the starting line of another. She won five events and took the championship. She went on to participate in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Here she made the first of what became her famous audacious declarations: ‘I am out to beat everybody in sight and that’s just what I’m going to do.’ She almost succeeded, winning gold in the a javelin and 80 metres and silver in the high jump after the judges ruled that her jumping style was illegal, a rule that no longer exists. She became instantly famous but after the Olympics found few places to compete and had to endure prejudice and ridicule, accused of being a man in disguise and having taken up sport to compensate for her inability to catch a man

In need of a job, she became a vaudeville performer, touring Chicago and New York with a show that included stunts such as hitting plastic golf balls into the crowd. The performances became hugely popular and made her rich. In 1932, she began playing golf and in only her 11th game produced a 260-yard shot from the first tee. She entered the all-male Los Angeles Open, an achievement that would not be repeated until 2003. Golfing legend Bobby Jones described her as one of the 10 best golfers of all time, male or female. Wherever she played, she attracted crowds. As a journalist explained: ‘Babe stalks the fairway with a conscious sense of theater. She flips king-size cigarettes into the air and catches them nonchalantly in her mouth, then lights her match with her fingernail. Her hawkish, sun-toughened face is frozen for the most part in a thin-lipped mask, but she knows when to let go a wisecrack. When one of her tremendous drives sails out of bounds, she turns to the crowd and explains, “I hit it straight but it went crooked”… She operates like a woman whose life is a constant campaign to astound people.’ Babe wasn’t popular among her fellow golfers, probably because of her habit of telling them that they were all playing for second place, but this was the truth. She dominated women’s golf in the late 1940s and her 14-tournament winning streak remains the longest in history. In 1950 the AP acclaimed her the “Woman Athlete of the Half Century.”

In 1938, she met George Zaharias, a 235-pound professional wrestler who impressed her by being able to drive a gold ball further that she could. By December they were married. It was a successful and happy marriage; George became Babe’s business manager and trainer.

In 1953, Babe was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent a colostomy. Despite reports that she would never play again, she won the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open by a record 12 strokes. Sadly, her cancer worsened and she died on September 1956, at the age of 45.

Caroline Haslett: freed women from domestic drudgery

Today’s blog post tells of a pioneering woman of the 20th century whose feminism took a very practical form. Caroline Haslett was born in 1895 in Sussex, where her father was a railway engineer. She grew up preferring to play with machinery rather than dolls. A bad back kept her from attending school regularly, and as a result she was considered not strong enough to ever lead a normal life and was advised to leave school as it would be a waste of time. But she worked on strengthening her spine and not only finished school, but also attended secretarial college. In her teens, she became a suffragette. Her first job was as a secretary with the Cochran Boiler Company in London in 1914, just as war was breaking out in Europe. The shortage of men gave Caroline her chance to learn about the engineering side of the company and by 1918 she moved to Cochran’s Scotland site. In 1919 she took the job of secretary with the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), which had been founded to ensure that the opportunities provided by the war for women to enter traditionally male professions were not lost. Caroline worked tirelessly to break down the prejudices of employers towards women in the workplace, and to ensure that women gained access to courses at universities and engineering institutions that had previously been open only to men. The society also provided career advice.

But Caroline wanted to help all women, not just those seeking careers. In the early 1920s, few houses had electric light or heating, and domestic appliances were rare. As a child Caroline had been horrified by her mother’s daily routine, later saying: ‘… and so the work of the house went on: sweeping, scrubbing, polishing and dusting, all done by hand. No wonder Mother got tired.’ She realised that the grueling burden of housework was causing women to become ill. In 1922 Caroline surveyed women to find which appliances would be most useful to them. The most popular answer was a dishwasher followed by a vacuum cleaner. Her survey led to her proposing an organisation to educate women about the uses of electricity and how to use electrical appliances in the home. The WES weren’t supportive so instead Caroline co-founded the Electrical Association for Women (EAW). The organisation’s slogan was ‘emancipation from drudgery’. Caroline is quoted as saying: ‘We are coming to an age when the spiritual and higher state of life will have freer development, and this is only possible when women are liberated from soul-destroying drudgery … I want every woman to have leisure to acquaint herself more profoundly with the topics of the day.’ As well as giving women careers advice, the EAW campaigned for safety awareness courses, as well as producing magazines and books such as ‘The Electrical Handbook for Women’. Women learned how to wire a plug and visited power stations to see how electricity was produced.

Caroline traveled widely to promote her mission, meeting Albert Einstein and Henry Ford. In the process, she became well known and was featured in a 1920s newspaper article entitled “Miss All-Alone”. Her independent lifestyle, flat-sharing in London and doing her own electrical wiring, was practically unheard of at the time.

During the Second World War, Caroline was the only woman member on a committee that investigated the standards for electrical installations in post-war Britain and instigated changes to the designs of electrical plugs to make them safer. From then onwards, Caroline presided over many committees, including becoming the first woman to chair a government working party and the first female chair of the British Electricity Development Association. Caroline’s achievements were recognised when she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1947. She died 10 years later, and her dying wish was that she be cremated by electricity.

Phyllis Pearsall – inventor of the A-Z

The subject of today’s blog post is an unusual one – a woman who set out to be an artist but her enduring legacy can be seen all over the UK in A-Z street atlases.

Phyllis Gross was born in London in 1906 to wealthy though mismatched parents – a flamboyant Hungarian Jewish immigrant and an Irish-Italian Roman Catholic suffragette. The marriage didn’t last and Phyllis was sent to Roedean, a private boarding school, until her father went bankrupt and she was forced to leave. Her mother had by now remarried and no-one seemed concerned about her welfare so at 14, she went to Paris, working as a tutor and shop assistant, even sleeping rough until she could afford to fund herself to study at the Sorbonne. She travelled around Europe, trying to establish herself as an artist, but only earned a modest living. During this time she married an artist friend of her brothers, Richard Pearsall. But marriage didn’t suit her; after 8 years she left Richard in a Venice hotel room, while he was asleep, and never remarried.

In the 1930s Phyllis’s father, wrote to her, asking her to publish in England a map of the world produced by his company in the United States. By this time he had emigrated after losing the map company he had originally established in London. She reluctantly agreed and learned the technical aspects of printing. One evening, after getting lost on her way to a party, realised that there was a need for a cheap but accurately indexed atlas of the rapidly expanding London. And so the A-Z was born. She researched it herself, walking 3,000 miles to check the names of the 23,000 streets of London, waking up at 5am every day, and working an 18-hour working day. The first issue apparently was missing Trafalgar Square from the index since Phyllis had knocked a shoebox of cards marked ‘T’ out of her office window.

No-one was interested in publishing the resulting street atlas, so she printed 10,000 copies herself. More snubs were to come – Hatchards, Selfridges and Foyles would not see her – but WH Smith agreed to take 1,250 copies, which she delivered herself with a borrowed hand-barrow. Although not the first street map of London – Bartholomew’s Reference Atlas of London and Suburbs had been published two decades earlier – its visual style was appealing and easy to read. The book became a huge success and soon she was taking orders from every railway station in London. Her striking use of colour, orange for A roads and yellow for B roads, was adopted into the language of London taxi drivers, who called them ‘oranges’ and ‘lemons.’ Phyllis set up her own company, The Geographer’s Trust, which still publishes the London A-Z and that of every major British city.


During the Second World War, selling maps to the public was forbidden, but Phyllis worked for the Ministry of Information, producing maps of Europe. She wanted to be a war artist like her brother but instead produced a booklet to boost the morale of women in wartime. Although not published (eventually surfacing as a book entitles Women at War in 1990), it contained drawings of women in a variety of activities, from nursing to munitions factories. However her presence wasn’t always welcome and she was almost arrested for drawing a naval aerodrome when she was meant to be sketching Wrens at work.


It has been claimed since that Phyllis’s story was largely self-invented and that the truth of her map-making was much more mundane – the street plans would have been available at the local authorities. But for me this adds to her charm – a story-teller as well as an artist. She became a millionaire, wrote her autobiography, From Bedsitter to Household Name, and in 2014, her story became a musical on the London stage. But she thought of herself first and foremost as an artist and continued to paint until her death in 1996, a month before her 90th birthday.


Caroline Herschel, housekeeper by day, comet hunter by night

As you know, the theme of my blogs is women doing things that were thought unsuitable. Today’s story is of a woman who ‘played the game’, living a respectable domestic life, but in her spare time discovered comets. And even though she presented each of her findings in deferential, timid letters, she made sure she got the credit she was due.

Caroline Herschel was born in Hanover in 1750, the eighth child of a musician. At the age of ten she contracted typhus, which stunted her growth – she only reached an adult height of four feet three inches – and suffered vision loss in her left eye. Her ageing parents assumed she would never marry and so brought her up to look after them and her brothers. Although she was taught mathematics, it was only to enable her to manage the household expenses.

By contrast, her brother William, led a life free of restrictions and moved to England to pursue his interest in music. When Caroline was 22, following her father’s death, her brother suggested she join him there. She learned to sing and play the harpsichord, and took part in William’s performances. But she struggled to fit in with the local society, and made few friends. William also taught Caroline more maths, but only cautiously – ‘a little algebra for Lina.’ William loved to share his interests with Caroline, and soon she’d become fascinated by his new hobby: astronomy. In 1781 William discovered the planet Uranus, for which he was rewarded with a pension from George III on condition that he moved to Windsor and gave up music. Caroline reluctantly became William’s housekeeper and assistant, later complaining that “I did nothing for my brother but what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, I did what he commanded me.” But Caroline was dutiful, putting her brother’s needs first during the day. It was during her solitary nights with her telescope that she first discovered a comet. And despite her humble claims that she wanted to publish her finding to advance astronomy, she was keen to take credit for it, presenting her findings as quickly as possible by writing to an influential friend. Recognising her achievements, George III paid her a modest salary as William’s assistant, making her the first woman to be paid for her contribution to science.

A year later, William married, fracturing the brother-sister relationship and causing Caroline to move into lodgings. This independence allowed Caroline to become well known as a comet hunter and, in some circles, a figure of fun, as this caricature shows.


She discovered seven more comets, each accompanied by her trademark self-effacing letters, using phrases like: “a woman who knows so little of the world ought not to aim at such an honour, but go home, where she ought to be, as soon as possible.” In the case of her eighth comet, she even rode her horse 30 miles through the night, to Greenwich to announce her discovery to the Astronomer Royal, to ensure she would be credited with the discovery.

After her bother’s death in 1822 she returned to Germany and continued to work. She was the first woman to be paid for her contribution to science, to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and to be named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society. She remained active until her death at the age of 97.


Emmy Noether – mathematical genius

The subject of today’s post is a true unsung heroine – not only is she unknown among the general public but few scientists have heard of her, even though Albert Einstein called her ‘the most significant and creative female mathematician of all time’, and the mathematical theorem she developed became the basis for many important discoveries in physics, including the Higgs boson.

Amalie ‘Emmy’ Noether was in Erlangen, Germany on March 23, 1882, the daughter of a professor of mathematics. While her brother was encouraged to follow in his father’s footsteps, and later became a renowned applied mathematician, Emmy was encouraged towards more feminine pursuits – English, French, cooking and piano. She went to a finishing school and in 1900 gained a certificate to teach English and French. But Emmy couldn’t suppress her love of maths, and, although she was not allowed to formally enrol, was given permission to audit classes at the University of Erlangen, where her father taught and her brother was a student. She took the final exam and did so well she was given the equivalent of a degree. Emmy went on to gain a postdoctoral degree – only the second woman to do so – and earned the respect of all her colleagues. But the university refused to hire her as a professor and for ten years she worked with her father at the Mathematics Institute in Erlangen, and began to publish her work.

During the First World War – a time that distressed pacifist Emmy – she was invited by leading mathematicians Felix Klein and David Hilbert to help them further define one of Einstein’s theories at the University of Gottingen. Faculty members blocked her appointment as a professor, saying: ‘What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman?’ Hibbert fought Emmy’s case, protesting: ‘I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her. After all, we are a university, not a bathhouse.’ Emmy was eventually appointed as an unpaid guest lecturer, a position that became more or less permanent. Her spontaneous and enthusiastic teaching style didn’t suit everyone but Emmy gained a reputation as a warm and charismatic teacher, who treated her students as family and listened to their personal problems. Her fiercely loyal students, who became known as Noether’s boys, traveled from as far as Russia to study with her.

At this stage, Emmy began formulating what became Noether’s theorem. I won’t bore you with the details – it is maths after all – but it’s to do with energy and momentum. When her findings were published they caused a sensation, matched only by the later discovery that she was a woman.

Emmy lived for maths. She never married and lived modestly with no interest in possessions or personal vanity. A colleague described a lunch in which she became so engrossed in her discussion of her theorem that she gesticulated wildly while eating and spilled her food constantly, wiping it from her dress, completely unperturbed. She was energetic and happy, and is described as laughing often. But her happiness was short-lived. Following the rise of the Nazis in 1933 she was one of the first Jewish scientists to be fired, and was forced to flee Germany. She traveled to the US, where Einstein helped her find a teaching position in the Bryn Mawr College. Here she taught women for the first time, was highly respected and formed a close friendship with Anna Pell Wheeler, another woman mathematician. But only 18 months after arriving in the US, Emmy had an operation for an ovarian cyst and died of an infection a few days later, aged just 53.

Since then, despite remaining relatively unknown, her recognition has extended beyond the world: a crater of the moon and a minor planet have been named after her. And last year Google created one of their lovely doodles to celebrate her 133rd birthday.

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Alice Herz-Sommer: oldest Holocaust survivor

It’s a while since I wrote a blog post, but recently I discovered a story so uplifting I was inspired to restart. Alice Herz-Sommer was born in Prague in 1903, one of five children, including a twin sister. Her childhood was intellectually stimulating: her parents ran a cultural salon and visitors included Franz Kafka, Gustav Mahler, and Sigmund Freud. At the age of six she started learning piano and by her teens was teaching and performing. She met Leopold Somner, a violinist, in 1931 and married him two weeks later. They led a busy and creative life and had one son, Raphael.

After the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, most of Alice’s family emigrated to Palestine but Alice remained to care for her sick mother, Sophie. In 1942, Sophie was arrested and later killed. Alice channeled her grief into her piano playing, practicing endlessly until her own arrest, together with Leopold and Raphael, in 1943. They were sent to Terezin-Theresienstadt camp where Alice’s musical prowess became her saviour. She later told of her experience:

‘We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year. The Germans wanted to show its representatives that the situation of the Jews in Theresienstadt was good. Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come, they would have died long before. As we would have.’

In the years of her incarceration, she played more than 150 concerts. Raphael also performed in the children’s opera staged by the Nazis to show ‘normal’ life in the camps. Sadly, Alice was separated from her husband and he died in Dachau, six days before the end of the war.

After the war, Alice moved to Palestine and was reunited with her twin, though many of her family, her husband’s family and all her friends had died. But what makes Alice’s story exceptional is she didn’t let this tragedy define her, instead living a fulfilling life. She once said: ‘I am looking for the nice things in life. I know about the bad things, but I look only for the good things.’

In 1962, she attended the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, commenting: ‘I have to say that I had pity for him. I have pity for the entire German people. They are wonderful people, no worse than others.’

She taught music before moving to London in 1986, to support Raphael in his career as a cellist. Sadly, Raphael died of a heart attack in 2001, aged 64, a devastating blow, but Alice remained positive. She lived alone and for many years had an active daily routine that included swimming, playing the piano for three hours and attending classes at the University of the Third Age.

Alice became the oldest Holocaust survivor and died in 2014, aged 110. She attributed her long life to optimism: ‘I was always ugly. My twin sister was very beautiful. But she was a pessimist and so she died at 74. If you are a pessimist the whole organism is in a tension all the time.’ When asked whether she was afraid of dying, she replied: ‘Not at all. No. I was a good person, I helped people, I was loved, I have a good feeling.’

Jocelyn Bell Burnell – the astrophysicist who was overlooked for the Nobel Prize.

This week I’m returning to one of my favourite subjects, women in science. Jocelyn Bell Burnell made one of the most important astronomical discoveries of the 20th century but have you heard of her before? Me neither.

Jocelyn was born in 1943 in Lurgan, Northern Ireland and developed an interest in astronomy from her father’s books. After failing her eleven-plus she went to Lurgan College and, to her dismay, found that she was not permitted to study science – when the boys went to the science labs, the girls were taught domestic science. Keen to encourage her, her parents sent her to a Quaker boarding school in England, where she developed a talent for physics. After school, Jocelyn attended Glasgow University and there, too, suffered discrimination. Female physics students were a rarity in the early sixties and she entered a lecture room she would have to endure whistles and jeers from the male students.

After gaining a degree in physics, Jocelyn went on to Cambridge to work on her PhD, where she assisted her supervisor, Antony Hewish, in constructing a large radio telescope, a physically demanding tax that involved swinging a 20-pound sledgehammer. When it was completed, two years later, she was given the responsibility of operating the telescope. In pre-computer days, analyzing data from the telescope was arduous: chart recorders generated 96 feet of paper a day for 6 months, and all this had to be analyzed by hand. When Jocelyn first noticed curious signals, pulsing regularly at a rate of about one pulse per second, she showed Antony, who thought they must be man-made interference. It even crossed his mind that the signal may originate from alien life and dubbed the signal LGM-1, for ‘little green man’. However, Jocelyn eventually convinced Antony that the they came from an object that was moving around the sky with the stars, and thus discovered pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars that provided a significant step in the understanding of black holes.

Together with the rest of her research team, Jocelyn published her work in Nature journal under the name SJ Bell so at first no one realised her gender. Soon, this significant finding attracted the attention of world’s media, and Jocelyn and Antony gave many interviews. But while interviewers would ask Antony about the astrophysical significance of the findings, they asked Jocelyn personal questions about her boyfriends and even her vital statistics! Worse was to come. Despite the fact that Jocelyn had been the first to observe these stars, Antony Hewish and a fellow researcher, Martin Ryle, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, while Jocelyn was overlooked. Fellow astronomers were outraged on her behalf, and dubbed it the ‘No Bell’ prize. But Jocelyn’s contribution has now been widely acknowledged and since then she’s received every prize in her field.

Jocelyn refused to become embittered by the oversight and continued to break new ground for women. She became the first president of the Institute of Physics, was made a dame in 2007, and is now visiting professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University, and president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Now 72, she still makes regular public appearances and encourages young women to study science.