Friday, December 18, 2009

Katharine Dexter McCormick

Like many other Americans, I have been thinking way too much about how hopeless the health care situation has become.  After this week's Joe Lieberman shit storm obliterated any type of true reform from the REFORM bill, my hope balloon was officially deflated.

I do, however, like to remind myself that what happens on the front page usually isn't the full story and that reform and progress continue behind the iron curtain that is the main stream media. 

Luckily, there are plenty of women who have led the way to great societal achievements without the help of being front and center. 

Katharine Dexter McCormick transformed life as we know it for basically the entire planet.  Yet she isn't a household name and most certainly doesn't have her head carved into the side of a mountain in South Dakota.  (I hate Mt. Rushmore.)


Ms. McCormick was born to a wealthy family and grew up in Boston.  She was educated in Massachusetts, Chicago, and Europe.  This education, while extensive, was geared towards the arts and subjects suited for proper "female minds" and did not fully prepare her for her dream school, MIT.  She had to first enroll in the institute as a special student to catch up and eventually became a regular student completing her degree in Biology in 1904.  After finishing school she married Stanley McCormick whose father had invented the reaper and, because of this, was extremely well off.  After two years of marriage, Stanley was diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent to live in California.  Under the advice of a doctor, Katharine was kept away from Stanley and did not see her husband for two decades.
Katharine at work in a lab.

Left without a husband, she became a major player in the suffrage movement.  She spoke to thousands in Massachusetts, raising support for the cause.  After winning the right to vote, she acknowledged the men and women who had opposed the 19th amendment and called all suffragists to forget them and their deceitful anti-suffrage tactics because "Victors can afford to be generous."  Wouldn't the world be better if we had taken this advice after the '08 election?  Maybe Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and the other crazies would have faded away by now.  I know, I know...too idealistic.

While tirelessly advocating for women's rights, she was also working with scientists to figure out a true cure for her husband's illness.  This is a key part of what makes her such a revolutionary.  Medicine, up until the first half of the 20th century, was still very primitive.  No major gains had been made as far as cures were concerned.  Most treatment consisted of alleviating the ailment as much as possible but really couldn't guarantee a full recovery.  Treating mental illness was even more behind and Stanley's family believed that the best thing for him was psychoanalysis.  Katharine's hope for real medicinal correction was an unheard of idea that was completely ahead of her time.  The McCormick family did not want her using all of her husbands money for medical research and charity so there, of course, was a long court battle that she ultimately lost.  Upon Stanley's death in 1947 however, she became the sole benefactor of his estate, allowing her to do with the money as she wished.

Back in the early 1900's she became interested in the cause of birth control.  She befriended Margaret Sanger, a women who was a major birth control advocate, and started to support her as best she could.  This was a time where you could be jailed for such work and smuggling illegal contraception into the country was completely forbidden.  However, she did what she could regardless of the consequences.  Once she was in control of her wealth, she was able to begin to contribute funds to researching an oral contraceptive.  It was this direct involvement that lead to the first birth control pill that was released in 1960.  And it goes without saying what that has done for the world at large. 

McCormick left her massive wealth entirely to MIT when she passed away and by doing so solidified women's education at the institute.  This in turn lead to a ripple effect throughout the higher ed world, opening numerous doors to women in the fields of science and technology. 

Katharine lead a life bursting with accomplishment for the greater good.  Most of what she did was for the betterment of others.  Imagine if the "Real Housewives" knew about her and aspired to serve others as she did.  Or any of our modern day socialites for that matter. 

The recognition of her accomplishments is incredibly minimal but she does give me hope.  I have to believe that there are people out there solving the problems of our generation in a selfless and real way.  It helps me cope with the ever present ignorance of the incompetent blowhards the media constantly high lights. 
Suffrage days (McCormick on the left)

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