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The Official Student News Site of Parkway West High

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The Official Student News Site of Parkway West High

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Hidden figures of history: Stories of sensational women left behind in the shadows of time

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Risa Cidoni
The celebration of Women’s History Month, originating in 1987, marks an annual acknowledgement of women’s contributions to various fields of work. However, many female revolutionaries remain underrepresented in our history books, oftentimes overshadowed by male counterparts who could reach a greater audience because of their status. “Back then, women didn’t have the voice that we do now, [but] their actions gave us the voice we have today to be able to speak up. Now, we share information to show how far we came from,” Black Student Union member and sophomore Jariyah McCalister said.

Behind every great man is a great woman. 

The saying is one we’ve heard countless times before. Rephrased and redefined repeatedly, the moral of the quote remains the same: a man who serves his accomplishments to the public is one who gained the skills or even the courage to share them, from a woman in his corner.

While the sentiment may seem to acclaim the women behind the scenes, far too often, women across history and the present are forced to limit their capabilities due to societal proclivities towards the male voice. Through watching the stories of past female revolutionaries, women are left to consider: why must we always remain behind the man? 

In its very being, the aforementioned statement certifies the validity of a tale told time and time again: a woman overshadowed by a man. From outright plagiarism and discredit for female work to a lack of praise in comparison and a definitive wage gap, it has become a common offense for the work of a woman to fall short of the world’s expectations due to the sole factor of gender.

Today, we live in a seemingly opposite world; as the month of March comes to an end, people celebrate the last few days of the annually-appointed Women’s History Month. Created in 1988, the celebration of this month marks the points of progress over the previous years by highlighting the many successful women of the world. However, while this month stands for a bright present and brighter future, we cannot forget the past women who were discredited and underrepresented long before we could ever celebrate their names. In the worlds of science, music and social activism, women like British chemist Rosalind Franklin, singer-songwriter Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and civil rights activist Septima Clark made momentous contributions that have brought these fields to the forefront of their capabilities — all while fighting for a holistic appreciation that they never truly received beside a man accomplishing a similar task. 

These women’s stories are more than unfortunate experiences to sympathize with or even work to reverse. If there is anything to learn from that underappreciation, it is the ability to stand up and demand recognition over and over again until it is fully achieved. The future is female, but the past was too — even if the world has refused to show it by leaving the voices of powerful female revolutionaries unsung. By learning about those voices ourselves, we develop a mentality that replaces that former saying with a different one: by learning from history, we make sure to never repeat it.

A stolen legacy

When it comes to the field of STEM, specifically in the realm of biological science, perhaps one of the most significant developments has been the human understanding of the function of deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. In fact, this biological component that remained responsible for the age-old question of genetics wasn’t even conceptualized until the late 1800s. The path from this original discovery by Swiss biologist Friedrich Miescher was quickly followed by advancements in scientific theories by various scientists; however, despite the significance of these discoveries, this path was one tainted by prejudice. 

In 1968, biologist James D. Watson published the autobiography “The Double Helix,” a highly popularized novel that recounted his experiences alongside biophysicist Francis Crick in the laboratory as they collaborated in the discovery of the physical structure of DNA. The published work attributed the credit of conceptualizing and studying the double helix structure of DNA, to Watson and Crick. 

But the true backbone of Watson and Crick’s claim to fame, the groundbreaking helical discovery, was none other than the work of Franklin herself. As one of the few female scientists studying and working at King’s College, Franklin primarily worked independently on her focus toward DNA as she excelled in X-ray crystallography. Eventually, through her X-ray images, Franklin was able to determine the structural components of DNA that students learn about today: two forms of DNA, sugar-phosphate backbones and precise DNA fibers. 

After one of her colleagues, British biophysicist Maurice Wilkins, showed Watson her images without permission, Franklin’s work was taken without credit and used as the basis for the theorized double helix structure of DNA that Watson and Crick published research about later on. Franklin remained the only one of the four scientists — including Watson and Crick — who assisted in discovering the structure of DNA, yet did not receive a Nobel Prize for her contribution. It was only after her untimely death from ovarian cancer that Franklin was ever truly acknowledged for her major contributions to these findings. 

“[Franklin’s] story is important because it shows how society has always preferred males to succeed in the STEM field, even when it meant hiding the fact that women were capable of [scientific achievements],” Women in STEM co-president and junior Arushi Agrawal said.

While the acknowledgment of female contribution in the STEM field has increased since Franklin’s time, it continues to remain a prominent issue. To this day, women only account for 29.3%of STEM federal workers, in part because of the lack of diversity and gender-based discrimination that can often come with the field. 

“In the past, there was so much discrimination [in the STEM field] that if you were a woman saying anything, no one would actually believe that what you’re doing is right. Women today don’t want to join that environment; they would rather just go into something where they know there’s going be a lot of girls. It’s decreased the amount of women willing to go into STEM,” Women in STEM co-president and junior Bhavya Gupta said. 

However, in the past decade, the percentage of women in STEM fields has risen and is projected to continue that way. With the help of newer organizations like Gupta and Agrawal’s Women in STEM club, women can gain a support system that may be lacking in the original workplace. 

“Female representation is really important, especially right now. [While] women are getting more and more interested in STEM, when they go into something like a computer science class and see that there’s no women, that can be pretty scary,” Gupta said. “In our club, there’s so many women that are going into STEM fields, which we usually wouldn’t think would be happening. By having this community that’s inclusive, women are getting more of an idea of how diverse STEM can be.”

The queen of rock and roll

The music world is no stranger to conflicts of inspirational credit. From the beginning of time, it has been hard to blur and focus the lines between drawing inspiration from an artist or outright copying their work. Even now, court cases seem to come up constantly of a fan-favorite, chart-topping song getting sued for copyright infringement. 

But a particular situation of musical inspiration credit, a well-known cover released seven decades ago, has begun to resurface in debate more recently. With recent biopics such as the box-office hit “Elvis” starring actor Austin Butler, the late singer Elvis “King of Rock & Roll” Presley has become a furthered prevalent topic of discussion. However, surrounding one particular song, the discussion seems to be somewhat controversial. 

In 1953, blues shouter Thornton recorded “Hound Dog,” written specifically for her unique vocal tonality by songwriters Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber. Her recording quickly rose to No. 1 on the all-Black rhythm and blues charts in 1953, leaving a significant mark on Southern rock and blues history. Categorized by her down-home, dominant vocal agility, Thornton earned her nickname “Big Mama” as thousands grew addicted to her vocal growl and tone as well as the piercing lyrics of the song itself, one that depicted a woman’s rejection of a man. But Thornton’s version, powerful as it was, proved to be the least of “Hound Dog”’s experience in the spotlight. 

“In the 1950s, singers like [Presley] and other Sun Record performers were performing songs that were done previously by lesser-known black artists. There was a shift in what performers were being accepted by the general public, and race was involved in a lot of that,” history teacher Mel Trotier said. “For example, [Presley], growing up in a small town in Mississippi, would have heard Black artists [like] Thornton, Bessie Smith and Sister Rosetta Tharpe as influences on his singing style.” 

In this manner, the influence of traditional blues and rock music developed into a smash-hit cover of “Hound Dog” by Presley. After hearing a version of the song recorded by the rock and roll group Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, Presley released his cover of “Hound Dog” that lionized on the aspect of rock and roll; in fact, the lyrics themselves were adjusted to reflect a man talking to a literal dog, instead of a woman talking to a man, in order to fit that rock and roll style. As the cover soared to international acclaim, the traditional blues sense of the song was left a little more lost, and soon, Presley’s name was tagged alongside the song disproportionately more than Thornton’s.

And while Presley has been known to mention his musical inspiration from Black rhythm and blues artists, with his status as a white man in 50s, Presley’s outreach was much wider than Thornton’s; while Presley was selling over two million records of a cover of Thornton’s song, Thornton had only received one measly $500 check. Moreso, after Presley gained accolades for “Hound Dog,” Thornton essentially lost her big break in the music world. 

Thornton was just one of many Black and female artists that have been discredited throughout history, mostly due to the inherent chaos and discrimination of the music industry. While Presley’s version may be the one that is turned on most today, Thornton’s “Hound Dog” is the one whose message and talent remind us of the power of women in music. 

“With any musician that you look at, it’s incredibly important to talk about where the music comes from because it gives so much more context to what the song means and the emotion of it. If you can trace it back to its roots, it gives that much more power and emotion to the song,” Trotier said. 

The mother of the movement

The last of these women is one responsible for one of the largest social justice movements in history: the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps one of the most recognizable historical moments of our nation is the Washington March, a massive peaceful protest that called attention to the perpetuated segregation against African Americans long after the emancipation of slavery. But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the famous line, “I have a dream,” the message he told was one stemming from the voice of civil rights activist Clark — a voice that continues to be unheard in our history books. 

Born to a former slave, Clark grew to be an influential force in the South. While she focused on teaching while also earning her higher educational degrees, Clark also made great advancements alongside the Youth Women’s Christian Association. In fact, Clark’s participation and stance in a lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was instrumental in providing pay equity for black and white teachers. Persistent in her beliefs, Clark continued to align herself with the lawsuit despite revokement of her employment as a teacher. 

Clark went on to conduct her own teaching workshops in which she emphasized the teaching of social justice and the practice of “citizen education,” a concept of seeking justice and empowerment as a marginalized group through education, rather than only legal equity. In this way, Clark weaved the thread between education and political activism, a thread that would become the basis of King’s peaceful protest movement in the Washington March.

Even then, King wasn’t the only one to take inspiration from Clark’s methods. Through her teachings to activist Rosa Parks, Clark was monumental in the enactment of the Montgomery bus boycott. And though Clark’s workshops were shut down later by the state of Tennessee, groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference would go on to model their own programs on her classes — all the while claiming that Black women did not hold a significant weight on the Civil Rights Movement. 

So while King openly acknowledged Clark with the term “mother of the movement,” it was he who was able to stand in front of the nation and deliver speeches based on her lessons, in part due to those Southern civil rights activists who could not take a woman’s words with as much weight as a man’s.

“Back then, women didn’t have the voice that we do now. With the Civil Rights Movement, it was more like [Clark] was thinking it and [King] was doing it. She had all the ideas, but she wasn’t able to play them out because she was a woman,” Black Student Union member and sophomore Jariyah McCalister said.

While Clark didn’t receive the widespread recognition of her contributions at the scale that King did, she did receive monumental awards such as the Living Legacy Reward from former President Jimmy Carter. Though she remains underrepresented to the current public, trapped within the halls of history, her teachings apply to the current generation daily and have brought equality to the point it is today. 

“[These women] gave us the voice to speak up for what is right and what is wrong. We’re now more able to do what we want to do and be passionate about it because no one is here to restrain us. Even though [discrimination] is still going on, we’re able to speak up more,” McCalister said. “It’s important to [tell her story] because everyone should get some type of knowledge on what the stepping stones [were] for us to be here now.”

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About the Contributor
Risa Cidoni, Features Editor
Pronouns: she/her Grade: 11 Years on staff: 3 What is your favorite piece of literature? "Where the Crawdads Sing." Who is your hero? My grandma. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be? Green grapes.
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    Audrey GhoshApr 3, 2024 at 10:20 pm

    Such a well-written article, great job Risa!!

    Reply