Did you know that a woman named Rosalind Franklin was instrumental in the discovery of DNA, instead of only those two guys you read about in your chem text? Or that, in 1974, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s male supervisor after she discovered pulsars? It’s true. The world has been and continues to be filled with radical lady astronomers, biologists, physicists, programmers, and more, and we are way overdue to bask in their greatness. So let’s right some of history’s wrongs by delving into the fascinating lives of the most sensational, and crucial, women in science, technology, engineering, and math (aka STEM, for the uninitiated. Consider yourself initiated!).
“It’s made to believe
Women are same as Men;
Are you not convinced
Daughters can also be heroic?”
During the late 1700s, women in China were expected to do what women just about everywhere at that time were expected to do: sew, cook, have babies, and perhaps sew a little more for good measure. Writing politically charged texts was out of the question, especially since any Chinese person—woman or man—risked severe punishment for criticizing the emperor. A woman who managed to publish social tracts in such a repressive climate would have to Not Give a Dang, which Wang Zhenyi definitely didn’t. Paying no regard to the danger that she could be chopped to bits for her pursuits, or that she would have been deemed unmarriageable (the horror!), she published her opinions anyway and became one of the best-known scientists and poets of her time.
Zhenyi (Wang was her family name) was born into feudal China during the height of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12), China’s last imperial rulership. At the time, the country was dealing with not only an unsustainable population boom but also the devastating Sino-Burmese War, wherein China was trying to take over Burma. The Qianlong Emperor, as the dynasty’s fourth ruler was known, was all about preserving Confucian culture (which prized humanistic values like compassion and loyalty, putting a high value on acting ethically and morally in everyday life), and so he built up the imperial collection, which included art, historical documents, and rare books. But like most people with absolute power, the emperor took things a little too far, sliding easily from literary appreciation to literary persecution if he didn’t like what you were layin’ down, art-wise—book burning, beheadings, slowly slicing writers and artists into pieces until they died painfully, the usual.
Zhenyi was well-off (a situation that helps just about everyone in every era), but the Wang family was in decline. Her grandfather was a former governor, and the family home near present-day Nanjing, in eastern China, housed his epic library of over seventy-five bookshelves (Hogwarts-sized for the Qing dynasty). Growing up, Zhenyi took it upon herself to read her way through her grandfather’s entire collection, and somehow she also managed to find time to study equestrian arts and archery with the wife of a Mongolian general (because apparently being a self-taught genius at math and science just wasn’t enough). Zhenyi knew she was awesome, too. In one of her well-regarded poems, she writes that her ambition was “to a kind even stronger than a man’s” and that she was often “reluctant to ride a horse with make-up” (totally understandable since eyeliner back then was probably not smudge-proof).
After an impressive childhood of self-education, a teenaged Zhenyi traveled extensively with her father throughout China, witnessing firsthand many of the problems from which the country was suffering. The population had grown so quickly that there weren’t enough resources to go around, and so impoverished and hungry people began fighting over scarce farmland while the rich remained indifferent and unaffected. Agonized by the plight of her country’s version of the 99 percent, Zhenyi expressed her feelings in a series of poems about injustice (since Twitter had yet to be invented). These poems weren’t written in the kind of dainty, flowery language common to most female poets of the time. Instead, they were unsparing descriptions of the massive inequity between China’s classes:
Village is empty of cooking smoke,
Rich families let grains stored decay;
In wormwood strewed pitiful starved bodies,
Greedy officials yet push farm levying.
Zhenyi’s protest poetry wasn’t just a hobby. It led her to befriend and exchange ideas with other ahead-of-their-time lady scholars in both nearby Jiangning and countrywide. Zhenyi even named herself Jiangning Nüshi, meaning “female intellectual from Jiangning”—perhaps not the most creative name, sure, but she was about to earn the title in a big way. At that time in China, many astronomical principles were still revolutionary (for comparison, some guys in England were just starting to figure out what that whole Milky Way thing was all about). But sharp-eyed Zhenyi stood on the cutting edge, writing papers describing the equinoxes; the rotation of the sun, moon, and planets; trigonometry and the Pythagorean theorem; and the fact that the Earth was round and we weren’t going to fall off its edge anytime soon. Her most groundbreaking publication was a treatise titled The Explanation of a Lunar Eclipse—the first on the subject that anybody in Zhenyi’s neck of the woods had ever written. To prove her theory, Zhenyi went into a garden and set down a round table (representing the Earth), hung a lamp above it (the sun), and stuck a round mirror on one side of the table (the moon). Then she moved the three objects the way their corresponding celestial bodies move and bam!—proof of a lunar eclipse worthy of any modern science fair. When many others blamed the eclipse phenomenon on supernatural events, Zhenyi wrote back, “Actually, it’s definitely because of the moon.” (Direct quote!)
All of Zhenyi’s fancy research didn’t detract from her passion to reach people at every level of the social hierarchy. She knew that not everyone had the same access to books and education as she did (she also realized that a lot of the men who published scientific papers and math theorems before her were really bad at it), so she spread the Joy of Science by rewriting old arcane texts into simple language and republished them for beginners—and that’s on top of all the books she was writing on her own. Basically, Zhenyi was the Bill Nye of eighteenth-century China. She would totally be hosting Cosmos were she alive today.
And all that stuff about being “unmarriageable”? Zhenyi soon found a rad dude who loved her for who she was (because who wouldn’t?) and tied the knot at age twenty-five. Marriage didn’t slow her down any, though; she remained a constant and outspoken advocate for equality of both the classes and the sexes. In one of her texts, Zhenyi decries that the majority of her compatriots in Qing dynasty China felt “women should only do cooking and sewing” because, in her words, men and women “are all people who have the same reason for studying.” (Darn right, Zhenyi. Can you shout that a little louder into the twenty-first century?)
Though she lived to only twenty-nine years old, she achieved over 300,000% of an average human’s scientific accomplishments and left the world a better and smarter place, all while advancing the position of women in eighteenth-century China. And as for that daughters-being-heroic thing? I, for one, am totally convinced.