7 powerful all-women teams who changed history

For Women's History Month we have a list of seven all women teams who changed history. Some were scientists, some soldiers, some living, and some long gone. All of them shaped the world.

March is Women’s History Month in the US. To honor this, we have a collection of seven teams of women who changed history. They are from around the world, include women of all creeds and nations, and we all owe them a debt of some kind.


The Black Mambas 

The Mambas prepare for a night watch (Getty Images)

Named after the deadly snake, the Black Mambas are a group of park rangers that protect wildlife in South Africa. Trained in tracking and combat, but working unarmed, their presence has reduced snaring of animals by 75% and nearly ended rhino poaching in areas they patrol. They are treated as local heroes and have received international attention for their efforts, including a United Nations Environmental Program award.

Their contribution to the protection of endangered animals is massive. Rhino horns are worth their weight in gold on the black market and the sharp reduction in poaching is remarkable. The Mambas also serve as a striking example of what women can do in a traditionally male occupation when given training and support. They continue to inspire conservationists around the world.

The Night Witches


A Polikarpov, similar to that used by the Night Witches, at a museum in Germany. (Wikicommons)

Perhaps the most intimidating team on our list. The Night Witches were the members of the 588th bomb regiment of the Soviet Air Force during WWII. They flew night bombing missions, notable for difficulty in navigation and targeting, in obsolete biplanes made for training. They operated without parachutes, as the low altitude of the missions rendered them useless. The planes were unable to hold much weight, so many raids required each pilot to return to base to reload several times in one night.

During attack runs, they would turn off their engines and glide towards their targets. The Germans compared the eerie sound of the planes gliding and dropping their bombs to the sound of witches on broomsticks. When it was learned in the USSR that they had been dubbed the Nachthexen, the pilots adopted the name themselves.

23 of the pilots won Hero of the Soviet Union medals. Night Witch Nadezhda Popova was the only Soviet bomber pilot to win three Order of the Patriotic War medals for bravery. Each pilot flew more than 800 missions, and the entire regiment flew more than 24,000 missions. They were featured prominently in propaganda images and were honored for participation in critical battles.

NASA's Hidden Figures

Katherine Johnson receives the presidential medal of freedom from President Obama. (Getty Images) 

As depicted in the popular movie from a couple of years ago, NASA employed human computers to do the math needed to make the space program possible. Many of these women were African Americans who worked in segregated offices.

One of the women, Katherine Johnson, personally calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and back up routes for use on several Mercury missions, the trajectory for Apollo 11, and the return path for Apollo 13. Her work was vital to NASA’s efforts to win the Space Race, and she was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. 

Of course, there were others too; Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan among them. The author of the book Hidden Figures Margot Lee Shetterly remarked that there were “…. teams, and those teams had other teams.” She did say that she understood that the movie couldn’t have had 300 characters, however. In an era where mechanical computers were limited, the calculator on whatever you are using to read this is much more powerful than what NASA had; humans were needed to make and double check calculations. We have gained an enormous amount of knowledge from the NASA projects of the 1960’s, and these women made the missions possible.

 

Women’s March on Versailles


A depiction of the march (National Library of France)

On October 5th, 1789, less than three months after the fall of the Bastille, 7,000 Parisian women armed themselves with pikes and cannons and marched on the palace to demand food and the moving of the royal court to Paris. The news spread quickly, and they were joined by thousands of National Guardsmen, much to the dismay of their commander, Lafayette.

They were met by guards and soldiers intent to keep them out. A small delegation of women was allowed to meet the King and promised food. However, the crowd remained unsatisfied. After finding a single unguarded gate, the women stormed the palace and placed the heads of royal guards who got in their way on pikes.

Lafayette convinced the Royals to move to Paris to appease the crowd. This deal included the King’s acceptance of the August decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

This event is considered to be the beginning of the transfer of power from the French nobility to the people. The events of the French Revolution, bloody and glorious as it was, can be traced back to this event. The influence of their actions cannot be overstated. When asked for an assessment of the revolution two hundred years later, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai replied: “It is too early to say.” We are still reckoning with the actions of these women.

The Bletchleyettes

During the second world war, cracking the German Enigma code was a project of vital importance. The operations that succeeded in doing so were made famous in the film The Imitation Game. However, the film might leave you thinking code breaking was a boys club.

While most of the fame goes to Alan Turing, Enigma could not have been broken without a team. Three-quarters of the 10,000 staff members working on the project were women. They were hired for their skills in STEM fields, the German and Italian languages, and due to the shortage of men as the rest of them were off at war.  

The cracking of German codes was of such importance to the war effort that the project was given a new security classification to protect the work. While Turing’s unquestionable genius was vital, the codes could never have been broken without the entire team. Their work is why this article is in English and not German.  

The Women’s Social and Political Union


A group of suffragettes celebrating the release of Emmeline Pankurst, center, from prison. (Getty Images)

During the late Victorian Era, women’s suffrage organizations sprang up all over the world. One of the most prominent suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst, helped to organize an English group which would come to dominate much of the discussion. The group was women only, and expressed its militancy with the motto “Deeds, not words.”

The group pressured parliament to pass a suffrage act. The failure of parliament to respond, the arrest of several demonstrating members, and some unwise remarks by Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman lead to the group taking more drastic actions; including hunger strikes, arson, and the famous attempt to tie a banner to the King’s horse. Police attempts to re-arrest activists who were released to recover from hunger strikes were stopped by a group of members who had learned martial arts.

While the overall effectiveness of their militant actions is still debated, their ability to publicize the aims, motivations, and activities of the suffrage movement remains beyond question. It is also agreed that the more moderate suffragette movements were forced to organize better in response to the terroristic activity. Universal suffrage would likely have been delayed without their dramatic actions.

Lysistrata

Our final team of women is, regrettably, fictional. It is a shame that they are because world history would probably have turned out better if they were real, as they manage to end a war that ended the Golden Age of Greece.

In the play, named for the title character, the women of Athens and the other major cities of Greece realize that the Peloponnesian war is disastrous. As they lack political power and their husbands refuse to take their concerns seriously, the women declare a sex strike until peace breaks out. To further their agenda, they also storm the Acropolis and capture the Athenian treasury. The men of all city-states attempt to get the women to break the strike but are forced to make peace instead. The play is incredibly raunchy but also hilarious.

Sex strikes have been used to great effect in real life as well, most notably in Columbia and Kenya. These actions owe a great debt to the fictional women of Athens. The core concepts and themes of the play have been borrowed countless times in the 2500 years since the first production. The concept of a farce that mocks our current political troubles is a staple of film and theater, and these women are among the first in this long and hilarious tradition.  

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

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Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.

Lapses

Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.