What a Woman’s Mind Can Accomplish

As the role of women in Judaism inspires debate yet again, it’s worth considering the historic achievements American women have made. Whether or not the average woman’s brain differs from the average man’s brain, history has shown that there is a woman who can accomplish any task that a man can handle. American Jews can look up to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg if they want to see the judicial wisdom women are capable of.

A biographical film about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg details the challenges she endured earning her law degree from Harvard University and practicing law in the mid-20th Century. Many people discriminated against her, because they felt that the law was a man’s field to work in. She proved them wrong by earning her law degree, becoming a law professor, and winning a gender discrimination court case.

Justice Ginsburg was able to forge a new path that later generations of women followed, because she followed in the footsteps of an American naturalist who first opened Harvard’s gates to women in the 19th Century. Elizabeth Agassiz was the female half of a Harvard power couple who revolutionized Harvard University and did biology field work in South America.

Agassiz managed classes for women at Harvard that eventually became Radcliffe college, and was a prominent leader of that women’s college where students received degrees signed by the president of Harvard and the president of Radcliffe. By the end of the 20th Century, Harvard integrated male and female students and dissolved Radcliffe. Her work as an educator made it possible for Justice Ginsburg to study law at Harvard long after Agassiz retired.

Elizabeth Agassiz’s work as a biologist is also noteworthy. During her lifetime, it was rare for women to study science, and those who did pursue biology were pressured to avoid zoology. Elizabeth Agassiz was married to Louis Agassiz, a biologist at Harvard who studied natural history. The two of them traveled to Brazil, collecting organisms and examining the geology. The book they produced with their findings describes a voyage that most modern American men would consider too difficult to take.

Field work for a 19th Century naturalist was not an easy mission. The Agassiz research involved a long trip on a ship from Massachusetts to South America, handling specimens from many environments, communicating with people in different languages, and trekking through Brazil. Despite the difficulties, Elizabeth Agassiz broke gender barriers by joining that project. Back home, she made it possible for women to study at Harvard at a time when education was a man’s industry. If she and Justice Ginsburg could break new ground for women, surely there are women out there with the brains to handle any job that is traditionally done by men.

After earning a Masters of Science in Ecology and Evolution, Joseph Dunsay became a science writer for international audiences. His LGBT erotic e-book launched in the summer of 2015.