Six years ago today, President Obama conferred the Presidential Medal of Freedom on 19 Americans, six of them posthumously. Such ceremonies invariably are tinged with partisan politics, this one more than most.
Among the 19 award recipients were four Democrats who had served in Congress, as well as Ethel Kennedy, the matriarch of a dynastic Democratic political family. It also certainly made sense that the nation's first African American president would honor others who had worked for racial justice: The recipients in that category ranged from the truly heroic (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights volunteers slain in Mississippi in1964) to the underappreciated (black golfer Charles Sifford) and the controversial (Suzan Harjo, a Native American woman obsessed with changing the name of Washington, D.C.'s professional football team).
Two Democratic-leaning Hollywood types made the cut: Meryl Streep and Marlo Thomas. The others included economist Robert Solow, journalist Tom Brokaw, novelist Isabelle Allende, choreographer Alvin Ailey, and musicians Stephen Sondheim and Stevie Wonder.
For those who pay attention to such things, seven of the 19 Americans lauded at the White House on Nov. 24, 2014 were women. Eight were non-white. And for those of you counting along with me, you'll notice that I only mentioned 18 people. The name I'm omitting was the lone scientist among the group, Mildred Dresselhaus. Remember on the SAT test how a group of items would be listed, with one being different from the others? Well, in the East Room that day, Dr. Dresselhaus was the SAT answer that didn't match -- not that she herself would ever have missed a test question.
Twenty-four years before Barack Obama draped a medal around the neck of Mildred Dresselhaus, President George H.W. Bush awarded her the National Medal of Science for her pioneering work studying metals and semimetals, such as carbon. In the process, she laid the groundwork for the entire field of nanotechnology.
"Queen of Carbon," as she was called respectfully, is not necessarily a moniker coveted by other women of her generation. But then again, the opportunities were less for women when she entered college in the late 1940s.
"At that time, there were only three kinds of jobs commonly open to women: teaching, nursing and secretarial work," she recalled in a 2012 interview. So she went to college intending to become a teacher. In a sense, she fulfilled this dream, along with so much more.
Even while doing the research in her Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab that revolutionized her field of study, she found time to mentor "dozens of young faculty and hundreds of MIT students over the years," university President L. Rafael Reif said upon Dresselhaus' death in 2017. He counted himself as one of her proteges.
She was especially inspiring to women interested in the natural sciences -- and if the environment in STEM research is vastly different now than it was then, well, that's due in part to her efforts. When she was hired at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory in 1960, the school had only 4% female enrollment. In a 2007 interview with National Public Radio, she noted with satisfaction that it was then close to 50%. "Of course, I didn't have that much to do with making it all happen," she added in a disclaimer that school officials said was far too modest.
But mostly, for her, it was always about the learning -- about her love of science, which, when done right has a gratifying purity to it.
"I think that entering the field of science is really almost the best career [young women] can have," she said the year she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. "What's the reason for it? There are two reasons. One, the work is very interesting, and secondly, you're judged by what you do and not what you look like."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.