A nuclear physicist, and the only Chinese-American believed to have worked on the Manhattan Project, Wu made many critical contributions to atomic science, none considered more important than the “Wu experiment,” designed to test a theory of parity held by fellow physicists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang. While the experiment was named for her, the 1957 Nobel Prize was awarded to her male colleagues, ignoring her contribution entirely. She was not the only woman to be snubbed by the Nobel Committee in this way. In a telling commentary about American culture she said, “There is a misconception in America that women scientists are all dowdy spinsters. This is the fault of men. In Chinese society, a woman is valued for what she is, and men encourage her accomplishments, yet she remains eternally feminine.” Read more about the “first lady of physics” on the National Park Service site.
A beloved humanitarian, Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1945). She was known for always taking the side of those she believed to be most mistreated by society: women, children, Indigenous people, Jews, war victims, the poor. Her work is known to be deeply emotional, exploring emotions often at odds, from love and jealousy to hope and fear. She said,“Many things can wait. Children cannot. Today their bones are being formed, their blood is being made, their senses are being developed. To them we cannot say ‘tomorrow.’ Their name is today.” Learn more about her at the Poetry Foundation. Read a selection of her poetry, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin.
A daredevil from a young age, flying airplanes by 13 and skydiving by 16, in 1977 Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500. Despite the intense harassment she received, including being greeted on a daily basis with a chant of “No Tits in the Pits,” Guthrie persevered to pursue the sport she loved, and over time her racing skills silenced her critics and opened the door for other women to enter the sport, including famed driver Danica Patrick. In reflecting on prsuing her passion despite the odds, she said, “It is a matter of spirit, not strength. It is a matter of doing your best each little moment. There’s never a break. You must have desire, a very intense desire to keep going.”
Among of hosts of “firsts,” Marin Alsop is the only conductor to ever win a MacArthur Fellowship. She was named the Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007, becoming the first woman to conduct a major metropolitan symphony in the US, and was later named the first female chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony. A believer that music can change the world, she is an advocate for education and access. In 2020 she spearheaded the “Global Ode to Joy,” celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday with an “invitation to the global community to share the call for tolerance, unity, and joy.” She said, “With so much need alongside so much possibility, I hope we can use any opportunities we get to set an example and inspire others to join us in trying to change the world.” Watch a quarantine interview from May 2020 with Alsop.
Born in 1910, Pauli Murray was a Black Queer civil rights lawyer and activist who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus 15 years before Rosa Parks did the same, and organized restaurant sit-ins 20 years before Greensboro. The descendant of slaves, free Blacks, Native Americans and slave owners, she was unapologetic about her gender fluidity, fought relentlessly against discrimination, was an advisor to FDR and Kennedy, and became the first female African-American priest. The Episcopal Church designated her a saint in 2012. She said,“If one could characterize in a single phrase the contribution of Black women to America, I think it would be ‘survival with dignity against incredible odds.’” Learn more about her.