Sexism in Science, or Why There was no Alberta Einstein

via NYTimes.com.  Oh boy, here we go again. John Tierney tackles another controversial topic by “daring” to side with the tired sexist conventional wisdom  that the reason there are fewer women in science than men is because of innate differences in intelligence.  Various replies in the comments section have nicely addressed the various studies that have demonstrated persistent social barriers to women in science, starting with social conditioning in childhood (e.g. boys are given trucks and tools, girls dolls and dresses.  Boys are praised for being smart, girls for being pretty).  For a great round-up of how women in STEM are addressing sexism in science, see the blog Geek Feminism.

Since I’m a historian, I’m going to limit myself to addressing this  one of the nearly 300 comments:

“When the Summers controversy erupted, I wondered why there was no Alberta Einstein and no Roberta Fisher. Solitary study of physics or chess doesn’t require much more than obsessive dedication, a piece of paper and a pencil or a chess board. Albert Einstein didn’t need an expensive lab, nor did Bobby Fisher. Both were clearly extreme in many ways. Equally extreme women could have duplicated their efforts, but not one did. Where are the extreme women?”

As an homage to Virginia Woolf’s reflections on what would have happened if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister name Judith. here are my thoughts on why there was no Alberta Einstein. In this case, I don’t have to make up a fictional talented sister.  There is already a real-life example of  a woman of this era who equaled or even surpassed Einstein in terms of ability and performance as measured by professional accolades:  that would be double Nobel laureate Marie Curie.

First, let’s deflate the myth that Einstein was a lone genius scribbling out his theories in pencil while laboring in a Swiss patent office.  While Einstein did face the not insignificant social barrier of Antisemitism, he was well-connected to the academic and scientific institutions of the era.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Zurich in 1905 and in less than a decade was a full professor at the University of Prague.  In 1921, Einstein received the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the photoelectric effect. He was forced to flee German during the Nazi era, and spent the rest of his life at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.

Here’s a summary of Marie Curie’s career.  Curie was fortunate enough to have a family who supported her educational aspirations.  She attended a prestigious gymnasium for girls in her native Poland, and later studied at the Sorbonne in Paris where she met her future husband Pierre.   Despite her academic achievements, she was denied a position at Krachow University solely because she was a woman.  Instead, she married Pierre and together they did the groundbreaking scientific research that led to them being awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903.  Eight years later, Marie received a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”   Despite being the only person, male or female, to be awarded two Nobel prizes by that time, she was denied entry to the French Academy of Sciences, again, solely because she was a woman.  She never received an academic appointment but did manage to get funding from the French government and private sources to run her own laboratory.

So, this is what happened to the most talented female scientists of Einstein’s generation.  For numerous other examples of women scientists from this period and beyond, see the excellent and exhaustive work of Margaret Rossiter.

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4 Comments

  1. I’ve always wanted to have a blog that focused on the comments section of the Hartford Courant…doing exactly this. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Or here’s another woman from their generation (born between Curie and Einstein). Harriet Brooks (1876-1933) was a Canadian physicist, first graduate student of Ernest Rutherford, on the team that discovered radon. She was teaching at Barnard College in 1904 when she became engaged to marry. This meant she had to quit her job according to college policy, even though her department chair pleaded for her to be kept on. Nothing to do with her innate abilities or training or skills–those were acknowledged to be excellent. She just wasn’t allowed to be both married and an employed physicist.

  3. Yeah, see also: Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958). Sigh.

    I just read a great biography of her by Brenda Maddox.

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