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Inspirational figures from history: the male champion edition

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Men have always played a huge role in everywoman’s events and award ceremonies. And in 2015 - in recognition of the work by male mentors in championing women’s advancement - men can be nominated for Industry Champion Awards across our portfolio of industry award ceremonies – from Technology to Engineering.

We’re taking a look at three men from decades past who championed the women in their networks, and helped redefine feminism and female advancement as a cause beneficial to both genders and society as a whole.

 

Benjamin Elmy (1838 - 1906)

Orphaned at a young age and denied an education despite showing much promise, Elizabeth Wolstenholme became a fierce campaigner for female education, founding first a private boarding school for girls and later a society for the education of ladies, a group whose lectures were open to both men and women. It was in such thought circles Elizabeth met her future husband, poet Ben Elmy, an early male feminist whose views on the limiting affects of a patriarchal society on both sexes, matched those of his wife. The very term ‘feminism’ to define the thinking around gender roles prominent in the late nineteenth century has been attributed to the combined brainpower of Ben and Elizabeth as they sought to label the wave of gender campaigning in process.

While Elizabeth furiously lobbied parliament on sensitive topics as diverse as conjugal rape, sex education for girls and the right to vote, her husband remained her fierce supporter, writing that the world’s “happy golden time” would evolve only when women were no longer seen as inferior to the “mad conceit” of male superiority. When Elizabeth, a lifelong pacifist, resigned from the suffragette movement led by Emmeline Pankhurst on account of its increasingly violent activity, her name was tarred. She was condemned for having earlier fallen pregnant out of wedlock, and criticism whirled once more of her husband’s advocacy of free love and commitment outside marriage. Much of Ben’s feminist writings have been wrongly attributed to the hand of his wife, due to his use of a pseudonym drawing on his mother’s maiden name and the rarity of men writing about women’s issues at that time.

 

 

Magnus Gustaf Mittag-Leffler (1846 – 1927)

The celebrated Swedish mathematician – who in later life added his mother’s maiden name to his own – was a convinced supporter of women in the sciences. Under his insistence of her appointment, Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya, became the first woman in the world to hold a full professorship in mathematics – a position blocked to her since her student days on account first of her gender and later her status as a single mother following her husband’s suicide.

Mittag-Leffler was instrumental in ensuring another remarkable female scientist was given due rewards for her pioneering work – Marie Curie was originally not to be awarded a Nobel Prize in physics for her discoveries in the field of radiation; the coveted award was due to go to her two male colleagues, including her husband Pierre. As a member of the committee, Mittag-Leffler intervened and encouraged her husband to make a complaint. He did, and Marie Curie not only became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize but also one of only two people to win two.

Incidentally, when Curie was preparing to accept her second Nobel Prize some years later following the death of her husband, she found support in another male scientist – Albert Einstein. Having received a glowing reference from Curie, which saw him accepted at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Einstein sent his mentor a letter urging her to ignore the “hogwash” being written about her - a media storm had erupted after the estranged wife of Curie’s new lover went to the press: “If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash,” he wrote. Curie and her daughters were said to be highly shaken by the angry mob camped outside their home, but Einstein’s words brought comfort. When the Nobel committee urged her to stay away from the ceremony for her forthcoming second Nobel Prize, she replied: “The prize has been awarded for the discovery of radium and polonium. I cannot accept that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life.”

 

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)

The American painter and illustrator is best known for his visualisation of Rosie the Riveter, the fictional feminist icon symbolising women’s economic power during World War II. The creation of the US government’s wartime propaganda office, Rosie was a composite figure based on a number of real-life women from varied backgrounds. One, Rose Bonavita, set a production record by drilling 900 holes and driving 33 rivets into the tail end of a torpedo bomber during one six hour shift at General Motors in New York City. Another, Rose Will Monroe, built B-24 bombers for the Air Force and starred in a promotional film about the war effort at home.

However it was Rockwell’s depiction of Rosie on the cover of a Memorial Day 1943 edition of The Saturday Evening Post – complete with powerful Michelangelesque pose and bulging bicep muscles – which cemented her status as the enduring image of the strong American woman, keeping the economy afloat and the forces in supplies while her man fought on foreign soil.

The image is credited with inspiring a social movement which increased the number of working American women from 12 million in 1940 to 20 million by 1944, and with it a universal shift in mentality about women’s abilities. “Women,” says the Encyclopaedia of American Economic History, “quickly responded to Rosie the Riveter, who convinced them that they had a patriotic duty to enter the workforce. Some claim that she forever opened the work force for women.” While most women returned to previous roles or left the workforce altogether after the war, many remained in industry.

One young woman wasn’t quite as taken with Rockwell’s ubiquitous illustration – his teenage model. Mary Doyle, a telephone operator who received $5 apiece for her two sittings, received an apology from the artist for his gross exaggeration of her slim frame. In later life, however, she acknowledged the importance of the work: “I didn't expect anything like this, but as the years went on, I realised that the painting was famous,” she said, shortly before her death at the age of 92.

 

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