because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Monday, June 18, 2012

Rita Levi Montalcini

When the Italians made Rita Levi Montalcini a Senator for life at the age of 92, they may have meant it as a symbolic gesture of respect. Certainly, we can imagine that they had rather specific (and reasonable?) expectations of her actual length and degree of service. After all, it would seem that even an in-your-face woman would start taking a day off once in a while when she reaches one hundred years old. But Montalcini, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986, apparently has no such intention.

And it's not like she's had an easy time of it either. Shut out of university research settings by Benito Mussolini's anti-Jewish laws during World War II, Montalcini just stayed home -- and bull-headedly conducted her research in her bedroom there, moving it from time to time one step ahead of the brownshirts. It wasn't the first time she had bucked in the face of male power. In 1930, when she announced her decision to go to medical school and her father expressed his concerns that "a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother," she simply went anyway.

And she's still going. To speak her mind as the Senior Member of the Senate in Italy. To present ideas at academic gatherings around the world. To accept an award from some prestigious body.  Or to appear in public and the media in support of the left-wing candidates she belligerently works to elect -- a practice for which she is openly insulted to her face and on conservative right-wing blogs.

Montalcini's unconcerned with other people's criticism. In 2009, at her 100th birthday celebration, she said, "I have a mind that is superior -- thanks to experience -- than it was at 20." And nobody contradicted her. They knew you can't win an argument with an in-your-face woman.

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