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Column: Contributions of women inspirational


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Many people were disappointed that Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking in favor of educating girls in Pakistan, did not win the Nobel Peace Prize for which she was nominated.

That’s understandable.

It’s very easy to root for this brave girl who not only survived the shooting but continues to speak out despite repeated death threats from the Taliban.

Her courage and her dedication to the cause of education for girls are truly inspiring.

But another woman was in the news recently, a woman I find equally inspiring.

Ruth Benerito died Oct. 5 at the age of 97. I would wager that most Americans, including me, had never heard of her until they read about her after her death. I would also wager that after reading about Benerito’s contribution to society, most Americans, including me, sent a silent “Thank you, Ruth” heavenward.

She did not risk death by speaking out, as young Malala did. She did not cure a disease, though she saved a lot of lives. But her main contribution to science changed the lives of millions of people, including me.

As a chemist for the U.S. government, Benerito led a team that helped create wrinkle-resistant cotton. While those who manufacture and sell irons and ironing boards likely are not huge fans, millions of Americans who daily don a variety of “no-iron” cotton clothing owe Benerito a debt of gratitude.

I know I do. Over the years I have tried many times to iron shirts and other clothing and can say with certainty that the “before” always looked as least as good as the “after.”

While most of Benerito’s 55 patents were related to her work with cotton, during the Korean War she also pioneered a lifesaving treatment involving the intravenous delivery of fat to wounded soldiers too sick to eat.

While I admire Benerito for her scientific discoveries, I admire her even more because of when she accomplished these breakthroughs.

Today much of the world takes for granted that young women can pursue just about any career they want to.

But that was hardly the case in 1948, when Benerito received her doctorate in physical chemistry. Back then, many women — the same women who had produced the weapons and other products that helped win World War II — had been forced back into the kitchen, surrendering their jobs to returning soldiers.

Benerito credited her parents, whom she called early feminists, with encouraging her to pursue a career then seen as unladylike.

Even in 1958, when Benerito took charge of the cotton chemicals laboratory at the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, girls seeking a career were more likely considering teaching, nursing or clerical work than chemistry.

Benerito faced her own challenges. At Newcomb College she was one of just two women allowed to take physical chemistry. Even armed with a master’s degree in physics, she had a tough time finding a job, teaching math, science and even driving safety before beginning her research career.

Always quick to share the credit for her work with cotton, Benerito continued to teach after retiring from her government position. She was an adjunct professor at the University of New Orleans until poor vision forced her to stop at 81.

Malala Yousafzai was just 14 when she was nearly killed by the Taliban. Ruth Benerito was just 14 when she graduated from high school. At different times and different places, both have made significant contributions to the world.

And both are excellent role models for girls everywhere. Malala Yousafzai nearly died because she believes that she, and all girls, deserve the chance to learn. Ruth Benerito, who got that chance, made the most of her opportunities and improved our lives in the process.

Malala Yousafzai reminds us that some cultures still consider females to be second-class citizens … or even worse, property. For many girls and women, suffering is a way of life.

I hope the world does more than admire the courage of Malala Yousafzai. I hope we also listen to the message she risks her life to deliver. One can’t help but wonder how many Ruth Beneritos are out there, just waiting for their own chance to change the world.

Doug Showalter can be reached at 379-5625 or dshowalter@therepublic.com.

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