On International Women’s Day 2017, let’s ask what is freedom? Since there is no object in the world we can point at and say ‘this is what I mean by freedom’, it is clear that freedom is an idea, and we can’t analyze it well. We can’t define freedom in concrete terms but we know when we DON’T have it, especially if we lose it. We may be in a beautiful home surrounded by wonderful people, but the moment we realize that we are not allowed to leave, that home becomes a prison. When we lose access to choices because of someone else’s decision, the unnecessary limits reveal a lack of freedom.
Freedom involves choices but it is not choice alone.
A donkey chooses to pursue a carrot dangled in front of its face and thereby pulls the farmers cart. That isn’t what we mean by freedom.
The donkeys choice is constrained by bondage. The denial of alternatives let’s us know it is something far less than freedom.
My mother’s choices were imposed upon by my grandfather. She wanted to do research and she had a scholarship, but she was forbidden by him. He did not believe women should be highly educated. My mother told me that story when I was around 16 years old and I felt shocked. My grandfather altered the course of a her life based on a custom we now reject!
Just think of how many customs we’ve rejected over the centuries.
We’ve seen such great contributions to humanity from women, in the light of this fact, to impose limits based on custom seems unjust and foolish. We will never know what my mother might have done. I don’t believe that humanity is somehow better off when women’s choices are limited. I’ll give one example of a woman’s contribution that went largely unrecognized.
In 1944 Otto Hahn was selected for the Nobel prize for splitting the atom. But he was a chemist, not a physicist. He performed an experiment constructed by Lise Meitner but he did not understand the results. It was Lise that understood what happened using Einstein’s equation of mass and energy. She explained the results in a letter to Otto while she was on the run and living in exile from the Nazi’s.
Think of all the changes for the better that we enjoy today, changes that our parents and grandparents could not even imagine. We should remember that all change begins with a minority and often faces opposition from entrenched opinions. A challenge to a new idea is a good thing, because we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Progress is not about change for the sake of change but rather a hope for a better life and a better humanity.
All the trial and error that our ancestors went through that improved our lives testifies in favour of being open to change.
I want women to have access to as many choices as life will offer them. We don’t know what they will choose but we have a word for people who dare to take risks for the sake of discovery, that word is courage.
By Todd Vickers
The Nobel mistake, never acknowledged, was partly rectified in 1966, when Hahn, Meitner, and Strassman were awarded the Enrico Fermi Award.