Women’s Day is celebrated annually on 9 August in South Africa (SA) to honour the bravery and strength of women in their fight against gender inequality and discrimination. The entire month of August is now a time of celebrating the achievements of women. This day also marks the anniversary of the 1956 Women’s March when 20,000 women protested against the apartheid regime’s discriminatory pass laws.
On August 9th, 1956, women from all different backgrounds, races and ethnicities united to march against the apartheid government’s proposed amendments to pass laws. Those laws required non-white SA citizens to carry identification documents known as “dompas” to restrict freedom of movement.
Courageous women, led by pioneers such as Lillian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, gathered in Pretoria, armed with a petition signed by thousands of women. The event captured the world’s attention and became a turning point in the struggle for gender equality and racial justice in SA.
Honouring Women’s Achievements
National Women’s Day is an occasion to celebrate the achievements of women in various fields and acknowledge their contributions to society, leadership, and their resilience in overcoming challenges. It is a day to recognise the role of women in shaping the nation’s history and future, seeking to inspire and empower future generations of women. Through educational programmes, workshops, seminars and public events, young girls and women are encouraged to dream big, pursue their goals and break gender barriers, serving as a reminder that gender should never limit anyone’s aspirations and abilities.
WISA honours Witkin, who died on July 8 at the age of 102, for her contribution to science and cancer in particular.
Witkin attended New York University to study zoology and intended to stay for graduate school, but her political advocacy changed that. She was one of the primary protest organisers who disagreed with the university’s policy to bench Black athletes during games against segregated Southern schools. Ultimately, she was suspended in her senior year, pushing her graduation into the summer. Her prospects at NYU had dried up, so she went to Columbia University for her doctoral studies instead.
At Columbia University, Witkin met the legendary evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky and became his first female graduate student. Although Witkin had not previously taken microbiology courses, Dobzhansky fostered and encouraged her interests to seek further professional opportunities.
In the summer of 1944, Witkin irradiated E. coli with UV light and found that while many of the colonies died, a few survived against all odds. She surmised that the survivors must have acquired mutations protecting them against the high dose of radiation.
This began a line of study that lasted several decades and eventually determined which genes are necessary for DNA repair and how the cell coordinated that response. Witkin’s work allowed researchers to better understand how mutagenesis works in cancer, leading them to identify targets for treatment.
Witkin received many accolades throughout her career such as the Nobel Prize. She was also elected into the National Academy of Sciences in 1977, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978 and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1980. In 2002, then-President George W. Bush presented her with the National Medal of Science.
She shared the 2015 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research with Stephen Elledge for discoveries concerning the DNA-damage response, a fundamental mechanism protecting the genomes of all living organisms. She was also awarded the Wiley Prize that same year.In recognition of her 100th birthday in 2021, the Waksman Institute at Rutgers University honoured Witkin by naming a laboratory after her.