Pioneering Physicist Lise Meitner’s Only Direct Discussion of Gender in Science
“For what human problems do ideal solutions exist?”
By Maria Popova
“The female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensue that capacity will be expanded,” Nikola Tesla asserted in his prescient and then-countercultural 1926 vision for women’s intellectual empowerment. The average woman, he predicted, “will be as well educated as the average man, and then better educated, for the dormant faculties of her brain will be stimulated to an activity that will be all the more intense and powerful because of centuries of repose.”
Tesla was born a generation before the great Austrian physicist Lise Meitner (November 7, 1878–October 27, 1968), who would go on to embody his vision and pave the way for women in science.
Despite showing an aptitude for mathematics from an early age, Meitner didn’t have the same educational avenues for pursuing her passion as her male peers. When her formal schooling ended at age fourteen, Austrian universities did not yet admit women. She had to wait almost a decade — a decade filled with voracious self-schooling — before pursuing her Ph.D., which she obtained in 1905, becoming one of a handful of women to have achieved a doctorate in physics in the entire history of the world up to that point.
But when 29-year-old Meitner arrived in Berlin with her hard-earned doctorate in tow, hoping to further her studies by learning from the great Max Planck, she was shocked to find herself in a time machine — German universities were still closed to women and she had to obtain special permission to attend Planck’s lectures. Shortly thereafter she met her collaborator, the chemist Otto Hahn, and had to consent to working in the basement of a male-only building in order to collaborate with Hahn, who was allowed to climb the floors while Meitner remained confined to below ground — one couldn’t dream up a better metaphor.
This uphill battle culminated with Meitner’s exclusion from the Nobel Prize awarded for the very discovery she herself had made. She continued to fight bias with the most potent weapon there is — consistently excellent work — and lived her long life with tremendous dignity and tenacity, but almost never spoke about the systemic discrimination she encountered.
At the age of eighty, during her 1959 visit to the United States, Meitner was invited to give a series of lectures at Bryn Mawr College. One of them, originally delivered on April 5 of that year, was later published under the title “The Status of Women in the Professions” — an erudite and beautifully well-rounded rhetorical voyage that flows across geopolitics, literature, art, theology, and science. The piece, to which I was led by a footnote in Ruth Lewin Sime’s excellent biography Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (public library), remains Meitner’s most direct discussion of gender in intellectual advancement and self-actualization. It offers a rare glimpse of a pioneer’s plight, revealing how far we’ve come and jolting us into the uncomfortable but necessary awareness of how far we have yet to go. Although it was written more than half a century ago, in its astonishing resonance to issues with which we are still grappling, it bears a resemblance to A Rap on Race — Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s strikingly timely 1970 conversation about racial equality.
With an eye to the trailblazing anthropological work of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, who demonstrated the wide range of tasks which tribal societies assign to women, Meitner writes:
The development of the professional and legal equality of women can only be properly understood if one remembers how many accepted customs had to be overcome in the struggle for the emancipation of women.
There were sharp adversaries and passionate advocates of the emancipation and higher education of women, and both were found among men as well as women. The literature that grew up around this is understandably of great variety, since so many questions are tied up with it: political and economic conditions, cultural and moral attitudes and institutions, in brief, everything that belongs to the pattern of culture of a society.
Pointing out how greatly these arguments have varied in motivation, Meitner writes:
When we look for male supporters of the higher education of women and of their professional equality with me, then it is remarkable how few men of general reputation we find.
On the other hand, you find a considerable number of very respectable names among those men who — form the most varied viewpoints — have made strong objections to the higher education of women and to their admission to various professions. Those attacks against women’s emancipation were directed partly against training in certain professions, partly in principle against any kind of higher education for women, ambitions that got lumped together as “emancipation or women” or “feminism.”
In a vital antidote to our cultural myopia, Meitner reminds us of what atrocious arguments such men of high repute made against women a blink ago in history — arguments with titles like the 1910 treatise Are Women Human? or The Physiological Feeblemindedness of Woman, authored by the then-respected neurologist Paul Möbius, grandson of the great mathematician and astronomer August Ferdinand Möbius, who gave us the Möbius strip.
Writing in 1959 — a time when women in Switzerland, an allegedly progressive country and a mecca of scholarship, did not yet have the right to vote — Meitner notes:
Women have achieved equality in different countries at different times, and differently in many aspects. It is by no means the case that progressive countries showed their progressiveness equally in all professional fields.
The legal regulations for the admission of women to the university was already settled in Sweden in 1873, but in Germany only in 1908. Amusingly, the main difficulty in Sweden — and in England too — was that the regulation before 1873 referred specifically to men’ the whole problem ultimately was to replace the word “men” by the word “persons,” in order to make the admission of women to higher schools possible. But when this was done, it also gave women the possibility to acquire the right to lecture; in Germany, this did not happen until after the first World War.
Looking back on the preceding century’s “satisfactory solutions” to the problem of women’s professional advancement, Meitner offers a cautionary caveat that reads just as true today:
Not all that can be desired has been achieved. In principle, nearly all male professions have become accessible to women; in practice, things often look different.
Although Meitner had been reluctant to discuss gender bias throughout her entire life, at Bryn Mawr she shares her personal encounter with various “discouraging and sometimes comical prejudices” — a testament to the importance of creating safe spaces where difficult stories can be told. She writes:
For example, between 1910 and 1915, I had written several review articles on the physical subjects for the semipopular magazine Naturwissenchaftliche Rundschau. As usual, I had signed them with my family name, without the first name. One day, the publisher received a letter in which one of the editors of Brockhaus (a well-known German encyclopedia) asked for my address, because he wanted an article on radioactivity for his encyclopedia. But when the answer revealed my sex, the editor of Brockhaus wrote back almost indignantly that “he would not think of printing an article written by a woman!” (This, after reading, and apparently liking, some of my previous articles!
Meitner illustrates how these biases take root in the hidden brain of a society, where they are subconsciously internalized by even its most intelligent and well-meaning members, and how slow the tectonic shifts toward progress are:
Even Max Plack, to whom both as a human and as a scientist I owe so much, considered it at first very peculiar that I was thinking of doing scientific work. I had obtained my doctor’s degree at the University of Vienna, and had published several papers in scientific journals; in 1907, I went to Berlin for further studies and presented myself to Planck, in order to attend his lectures. He was very friendly, but clearly astonished; he said: “You have a doctor’s degree, what more do you want?” When I replied that I wanted to understand physics more thoroughly, he said a few friendly words, but did not pursue the point. But five years later he offered me a job as assistant lecturer at his Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Berlin; this, in Prussia, was a complete innovation. Not only did this give me a chance to work under such a wonderful man and eminent scientist as Planck; it was also the entrance to my scientific career. It was the passport to scientific activity in the eyes of most scientists and a great help in overcoming many current prejudices against academic women.
Meitner encountered another instance of such a toilsome tectonic shift from bias to opportunity in the great organic chemist Emil Fischer, who at first forbade her to work in his lab with Otto Hahn and allowed her only on the condition that she never enter the classrooms where Hahn and other male students conducted their experiments. This prevented her from studying radiochemistry for a number of years, but Fischer eventually came around in support of Meitner. She reflects:
I owe it largely to him that I was eventually entrusted with equipping and directing the physical-radioactive section of the Kaiser-Willhelm-Institute for Chemistry in Berlin-Dahlem.
Zooming out from her own experience, Meitner considers the wider landscape of women in science:
Unique achievements like those of the scientists Marie Curie or Irène Joilot-Curie, of the writer Selma Lagerlöf, of Florence Nightingale can silence the current prejudice in the individual case, but the prejudice still persists. It is directed mainly against women in middle-class occupations, and particularly in high-ranking positions. Nobody seems to have protested against women as factory workers. But I don’t know of any woman who has a leading position in heavy industry.
Noting that these biases are especially pronounced in the academic world, Meitner turns to the particular problem of “professional women with children” and gives the example of Germany, where, at the time, female teachers were required to quit upon getting married. In a sentiment of disquietingly persistent relevance today, even six decades later, she writes:
Undoubtedly, women can see no ideal solution to their problem: profession and family. But for what human problems do ideal solutions exist? The husband can assist by helping in the house, and in many young households he does; maybe it is not the complete answer.
She ends with the words of Matthew Vassar, who remarked upon founding Vassar College nearly a century earlier:
A woman having received from her Creator the same intellectual constitution as a man, should have the same rights as man to intellectual culture and development.
Shortly after its opening, Vassar hired trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell as the first woman on the faculty. In propelling the pioneering generation of female scientists in America, she urged her first class of women astronomers: “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?”
For more of Meitner’s inspiring life, see the turbulent story of her Nobel-worthy discovery, then revisit Rachel Ignotofsky’s illustrated homage to trailblazing women in science, Margot Lee Shetterly on the untold story of the black women mathematicians who powered space exploration, and pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin on the importance of cultural modeling in overcoming bias.
Published November 7, 2016