Tuesday, September 22, 2009

“Future Without War” Author Hails Women Nobel Winners

Judith Hand Pays Tribute to Women Honorees’ Courage, Commitment


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Of the 789 people who have won the Nobel Prize since its inception in 1901, only 35 have been women. That’s 2.25 percent, a far cry from the 51-plus percent of the total human population that is female. But biologist, author and peace activist Judith L. Hand has found a lot to admire in the courage, commitment and dedication of these women, many of whom — particularly the women who’ve won the Nobel Peace Prize — have literally put their lives on the line for peace, freedom and positive social change. She talked about many of these remarkable women at a presentation at the San Diego Public Library downtown on September 20 sponsored by the Humanist Fellowship of San Diego.

Dr. Hand began as a cultural anthropology major at UCLA. She switched to biology in her graduate work, and eventually won a doctorate for studies that included animal behavior and primatology. After a research fellowship through the Smithsonian Institution, in which she studied primate behavior at the National Zoo, she returned to UCLA as a research associate and lecturer. Her studies convinced her that men and women approach problem-solving differently, and that the key to a world without war lies in bringing women into power as equals with men and having them use their more cooperative style of conflict resolution to settle international differences before they reach the battlefield.

Rather than trying to describe all 35 women Nobel winners, Dr. Hand said she picked the ones “that meant the most to me personally and achieved great things in an era in which women’s contributions were not valued.” She briefly described the origins of the Nobel Prize. Alfred Nobel, “a scientist and pacifist” from Sweden in the late 19th century, is ironically “best known for the invention of nitroglycerine and dynamite,” Dr. Hand explained. When he died, he left a one-page will stipulating that his fortune be used to endow prizes for human achievement in physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, and literature. At the suggestion of his female secretary, Nobel also included a prize for peace.

“The very first woman to win a Nobel Prize was Marie Curie, who won a shared Nobel for physics in 1903 with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel for their discovery of radioactivity, and then won the prize on her own for chemistry in 1911,” Dr. Hand said. “She’s the only woman who has won two.” An audience member pointed out that she’s also the only person of either gender who has won two Nobels in the sciences. The only other double Nobel laureate was biochemist Linus Pauling, but just one of his was for science; the other was for peace. What’s more, in 1935 the Nobel for chemistry went to Marie Curie’s daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, who had continued her mother’s researches after Marie’s death. They remain the only two women from the same family who have won Nobels.

Dr. Hand remembered first encountering the story of Marie Curie in the 1943 film made about her, Madame Curie, directed by Mervyn LeRoy with Greer Garson as Marie and Walter Pidgeon as her husband. Well before Dr. Hand had decided on a scientific career herself, she saw this movie and “what stuck with me was the hard work they had to do to discover anything. Her research probably also killed her, because she died of aplastic anemia caused by radiation sickness. It’s rare for a scientist hero to pay for her discoveries with her life.” Irène Joliot-Curie and her husband and collaborator, Fréderic Joliot-Curie (who took her last name to honor his mother-in-law’s achievements) , also died of radiation-related causes.

After Marie Curie, the next woman to win a Nobel — and the first of the 12 who’ve won the Peace Prize — was Bertha Felicitas von Suttner. She, Dr. Hand explained, was an author who wrote a book called Lay Down Your Arms “in which her heroine suffers the horrors of war.” She also was one of the few Nobel laureates who knew Alfred Nobel personally; she had worked for him briefly as a secretary and it was she who suggested adding a peace prize to the scientific and literary awards he had originally endowed.

Dr. Hand’s presentation then leaped ahead to the pioneering American geneticist Barbara McClintock, whose pioneering work turned the field of genetics upside down. She was the discoverer of so-called “jumping genes,” genes which transmit from one organism to another, which proved to be a key way bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics. McClintock was also a personal role model for Dr. Hand, since “she was much in the news during my doctoral fellowship.” Dr. Hand came to know McClintock’s work largely from the biography by Evelyn Fox-Keller, A Feeling for the Organism, published in 1983 — the same year McClintock won the Nobel — which “depicted McClintock as approaching the subject differently from male geneticists. Fox-Keller said men try to dominate the subject, while McClintock ‘let the genes talk to her.’ She let the data speak for themselves, and did not try to bend the data to fit a preconceived theory.”

McClintock’s observation that male and female scientists had different approaches to research made Dr. Hand more confident of her own observations about gender differences in other forms of animal and human behavior. “My work dealt with gender differences between male and female gulls in coupled relationships,” she explained. “I found that they settled their differences through egalitarian behavior, and that fact had been missed by males who had researched the same question in the same species.” Both McClintock’s example and her own convinced Dr. Hand that women approach problems in a more collaborative, less competitive fashion than men — which in turn gave a rational basis to her hope that involving more women in political and social positions of power will help build a future without war.

The most recent Nobel laureate in the sciences — or anything else — is Françoise Barre-Sinoussi, who was Luc Montagnier’s research associate at the Institut Pasteur in Paris in 1983 when they discovered evidence of the existence of a virus in patients with AIDS. They called it Lymphodenopathy-Associated Virus (LAV), but it is now generally known as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and widely regarded as the sole cause of AIDS, even though Montagnier himself has generally insisted it needs some other infection as a co-factor to cause disease. Dr. Hand praised the award to Barre-Sinoussi as an acknowledgment that women deserve recognition for research work rather than having the men they work for hog the credit. John Crewdson’s book Science Fictions, an account of the discovery of HIV, says that Barre-Sinoussi did all the actual laboratory work even though Montagnier took the original credit — and no doubt, as a former research associate herself, Dr. Hand had a personal investment in seeing Montagnier’s hard-working staffer get top-level credit for her work.

Dr. Hand then mentioned four of the 11 women who’ve won the Nobel prize in literature — but admitted that of the four she discussed, Pearl S. Buck, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing, she’d only read Buck and Morrison. An American novelist who lived in China for years and specialized in writing books set there, Buck was cited for “her rich and explicit descriptions” of Chinese life. “I read Buck’s The Good Earth and Peony, and they were wonderful insights into a foreign culture,” Dr. Hand said. “I was inspired by The Good Earth to pick cultural anthropology as a major. Later, as an aspiring novelist, I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and it inspired me to more brilliant creativity.” Dr. Hand particularly praised these writers for creating “a body of work under their own names,” rather than using male pseudonyms as earlier women writers had done.

“The Peace Prize is the most common category for women to win in,” Dr. Hand claimed. (It is, but only barely; there have been 12 women Peace Prize winners, 11 winners in literature, eight in medicine or physiology, three in chemistry and two in physics. These totals count Marie Curie twice.) “I think it’s the most common place for women to distinguish themselves,” she added. The first woman Peace Prize winner she discussed is a problematical one for feminists generally because she was a Roman Catholic nun, born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia in 1910 but known worldwide as Mother Teresa.

Mother Teresa’s career began in 1931, when her order, the Ireland-based Sisters of Loreto, assigned her to work in India and teach at St. Mary’s Catholic high school in Calcutta. In 1948, appalled by the poverty, suffering and ill health she saw in the city, she asked for permission to leave the school and work with the poor. In 1950 she received permission from the Pope to found her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, which now has branches in 50 Indian cities and 30 other countries. “In 1952,” Dr. Hand recounted, “she opened a hospice for Indian poor people, and in 1957 she started working with lepers. By her own light, she did her best to follow the teachings of Jesus, but there’s some controversy about her because, as one person said, ‘She was more interested in converting poor people than helping them.’”

According to Dr. Hand, in an otherwise laudatory biography, A Revolution of Love, author David Scott wrote that “Mother Teresa was more interested in helping poor people than overcoming poverty.” Dr. Hand also cited articles in two respected journals, the British Medical Journal and Lancet, criticizing the standard of care in Mother Teresa’s hospitals, including allegations that she and her staff reused hypodermic syringes, gave patients cold baths when they shouldn’t have, and offered care “that did not reflect sound diagnoses.” She also mentioned that Mother Teresa was so totally committed to Catholic dogma that she opposed not only abortion but also birth control as well. “I believe that her Catholic background and her belief that suffering was ‘good’ affected her work,” said Dr. Hand, who also pointed out that writings published only after Mother Teresa’s death showed that she “had grave doubts about the existence of God.”

Dr. Hand then discussed the members of the Nobel Women’s Initiative (www.nobelwomensinitiative.org), who include all the still-living women Nobel Peace Price recipients. She talked about hearing many of them speak live at peace events in San Diego and elsewhere, and being inspired by them. She mentioned Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, who shared the prize in 1976 for their efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Williams got involved when she witnessed police in Belfast shoot at a car in which Irish Republican Army (IRA) fighter Danny Lennon was attempting to escape. The police gunshots killed Lennon — and also three children who were mowed down by his car when it went out of control after he was shot.

Williams responded by organizing a series of marches to say to both sides in the deadly feud between Catholics and Protestants that was ravaging Northern Ireland that enough was enough; too many innocent people were dying as a result of a dispute that would better be settled by negotiations than guns. Corrigan got involved because she was the aunt of the three children Williams saw killed. “Betty was a baptized Catholic, but her father and her husband were Protestants,” Dr. Hand recalled. “She and Mairead organized a peace march that was disrupted by the IRA. The next week, they returned to the streets and led another march that drew 35,000 people.”

One of the inspirations that Dr. Hand draws from Williams and Corrigan is that conflicts that are seemingly intractable because they’re based in centuries-old religious and historical disputes can be solved if the people involved can be brought together to settle their differences peacefully. That’s why she’s hopeful that a similar approach can bring peace to the Middle East. In fact, both Williams and Corrigan are still involved in peace work far beyond the borders of Northern Ireland. Corrigan was recently arrested by Israeli authorities for trying to smuggle food into occupied and besieged Gaza, Williams’ current passion, Dr. Hand explained, is World Centers for Compassion, an organization designed to help children who through no fault of their own have been born into conflicts in which their parents have been killed.

Another one of these inspirational leaders — and one who has been prevented from traveling as part of the punishment for her work — is Burmese politician and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. The daughter of a respected leader of Burma’s anti-colonial struggle, Suu Kyi ran for the Burmese presidency in 1989 and received 82 percent of the vote. But she never took office because the Burmese military overthrew the government in a coup, changed the country’s name to Myanmar and have ruled it dictatorially ever since. Dr. Hand is particularly impressed by Suu Kyi’s dedication to nonviolence, to the point where she once led a march up to a line of soldiers whom she knew had orders to kill her … and was able by the sheer force of her presence to get them not to.

“She has been kept under house arrest for 20 years, and was recently ‘retried’ and sentenced to another five years,’ Dr. Hand said. “In 1999 her husband died of cancer in London, and the Burmese authorities refused his request to be allowed to see her one last time before he died.” Asked why she didn’t go to see him, Dr. Hand said, “The Burmese government would want her to leave and rejoin her family, but she knows if she does she will never be allowed to come back” — so in addition to the repression, the house arrest and the death threats, she has had to face the indignity of having her children grow up in London without her.

The next woman Nobel Peace Prize laureate on Dr. Hand’s list was Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú. A Mayan Indian growing up in the Guatemalan countryside, Menchú “was part of the CUC labor movement, and her brother, father and mother were all killed” for their involvement with the same group, Dr. Hand explained. “She taught herself Spanish and other languages, organized peasants and joined the radical January 31 party. In 1982 she won the prize for organizing Indians. I heard her at the same conference where I heard Betty Williams, and she said she’s had to hire bodyguards and flee the country.” She published a well-received memoir, I, Rigoberta Menchú, though the veracity of the book has been criticized because she allegedly included horror stories she’d heard about from other indigenous Guatemalans and attributed them to herself.

Another woman Nobel Peace laureate Dr. Hand particularly admires is Jody Williams, who won in 1997 for a campaign to ban the use of anti-personnel land mines. “I heard her at a peace meeting, and there was a lot of gentle talk about transforming the world through love,” Dr. Hand recalled. “She shocked the crowd when she said, ‘I don’t work for love. I work out of anger.’ She was trained as a teacher and took up a position with the International Coalition to Abolish Landmines. Jody’s specialty is ‘massively distributed collaboration,’ finding ways to work together in a common cause.” Her proudest achievement came in 1997, when the International Ottawa Treaty banning landmines was signed — even though the world’s biggest military powers, the U.S., Russia and China, all refused to join.

Yet another woman who’s faced persecution at home for her Nobel-winning efforts for peace is Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi, who won in 2003 “because of her fierce and dangerous support as a lawyer in defending women and children in Iran,” Dr. Hand said. “She’s an Islamic woman trying to surf all the turmoil in Iran and speaking out about the general political future. She’s a staunch internationalist who says, ‘Iran is not Iraq. We are a proud, ancient culture. We will resist any attempt to influence our affairs, and fight an invasion to the death.’” Like Menchú, she has had to hire bodyguards to protect her. According to Dr. Hand, she’s the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, “and she personally resists her friends’ appeals to dress more fashionably. She is trying to embrace and describe the situation in Iran from within.” Her most recent activist move was to approach the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights and ask to have the recent Iranian presidential election nullified on grounds of fraud.

The most recent woman winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, who grew up in the 1950’s and was educated in Catholic schools — “which helped her escape the Mau Maus,” Dr. Hand said. In 1960 she was one of 300 Kenyan students chosen to be allowed to study in the U.S.; another one, Dr. Hand noted, was Barack Obama’s father. “This woman has had a very exciting life, including a nasty divorce,” Dr. Hand said. “She’s had lots of run-ins with the government and has been arrested many times. The Kenyan president called her ‘a threat to order and stability in society.’ She associated herself with the Green Belt movement, and the director of the Norwegian Forestry Service contacted her and offered to work with her.” The project they started involved planting trees on denuded forest land in Kenya. Within four years they had spread the Green Belt movement throughout Africa — and when Obama visited Kenya this year he met with Matthai and planted a tree with her.

“We have 35 Nobel women and 754 Nobel men,” Dr. Hand said, “because women’s voices were and still are silenced in hundreds of thousands of ways, large and small. There are many powerful women in the world, from former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to former U.N. Human Rights Commissioner and Irish president Mary Robinson, from Queen Rani of Jordan to CNN broadcaster Christiane Amanpour, who are able to express their brilliance, their creativity and their viewpoints. But in many developing countries, women’s voices are still being silenced.”