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On Nonconformity: Artist Ben Shahn’s Spirited Defense of Nonconformists as Society’s Engine of Growth and Greatness

“Without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay.”

On Nonconformity: Artist Ben Shahn’s Spirited Defense of Nonconformists as Society’s Engine of Growth and Greatness

“Society,” Emerson wrote in his timeless treatise on self-reliance and what it really means to be a nonconformist, “is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” In such a groupthink society, Emerson cautioned, conformity is the most prized virtue, but whoever wishes to be a true person “must be a nonconformist.”

“Life would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition,” wrote Marie Bullock, the courageous founder of the Academy of American Poets, a century later when she rose to defend E.E. Cummings from his detractors in 1951 — detractors who had attacked the Academy for awarding him their annual fellowship and accused Cummings, now one of the most beloved and influential artists of the past century, for being an “arch-poseur and pretender” and a “disintegrator of language” who had dared to break with tradition, invent new creative forms, and, in sum, be a nonconformist.

Five years later, the great artist Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898–March 14, 1969) made what remains the most elegant case for the transformative power and sheer cultural necessity of nonconformity in one of his six lectures for Harvard’s Charles Edward Norton Lectures, eventually published with original illustrations by Shahn as The Shape of Content (public library).


In the fourth of the six lectures, titled “On Nonconformity,” Shahn writes:

The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society. He seems a little unpredictable. Who knows but that he may arrive for dinner in a red shirt… appear unexpectedly bearded… offer, freely, unsolicited advice… or even ship off one of his ears to some unwilling recipient? However glorious the history of art, the history of artists is quite a different matter. And in any well-ordered household the very thought that one of the young men may turn out to be an artist can be a cause for general alarm. It may be a point of great pride to have a Van Gogh on the living room wall, but the prospect of having Van Gogh himself in the living room would put a good many devoted art lovers to rout.

Shahn illustrates the value of nonconformity as a catalyst of cultural evolution with the story of the tumult that took place in France when officials proposed that one of the pavilions of the prestigious 1925 Paris Exhibition be set up in the space belonging to the Society of Independent Artists — the collective of nonconformists whose annual exhibitions had been setting the tone for modern art since their formation in 1884. It was suggested that these innovators had done their job and there was no further need for their tradition-upending sensibility, so they should relinquish their space to the traditional art establishment.


An art critic appalled by the backward proposition responded with twenty-five reasons why the Independents should keep their space and hold their annual exhibition. The reasons he listed were only names — the names of the most recent winners of the Prix de Rome, the venerated French art award that had been conferred upon promising talents in traditional art since 1663. All but one of those names were by then completely unknown. The critic juxtaposed those with the names of twenty-five artists who had presented at the Independents’ exhibition — artists who, as Shahn points out, “could not by any stretch of the imagination have won such an award [as the Prix de Rome].” Among those were Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Cézanne.

Shahn considers the allegorical moral of the incident:

By fulfilling current standards drawn out of past art, the applicants [to the Prix de Rome] had won the approval of officials whose standards also were based upon past art, and who could hardly be expected to have visions of the future. But it is always in the future that the course of art lies, and so all the guesses of the officials were wrong guesses.


The very quality that prevents artists like the Independents from being lauded by the traditional establishment, Shahn argues, is the same quality that makes them capable of shaping the future, unencumbered by the past. He writes:

All art is based upon nonconformity [and] every great historical change has been based upon nonconformity, has been bought either with the blood or with the reputation of nonconformists. Without nonconformity we should have had no Bill of Rights or Magna Charta, no public education system, no nation upon this continent, no continent, no science at all, no philosophy, and considerably fewer religions. All that is pretty obvious.

But it seems to be less obvious somehow that to create anything at all in any field, and especially anything of outstanding worth, requires nonconformity, or a want of satisfaction with things as they are. The creative person — the nonconformist — may be in profound disagreement with the present way of things, or he may simply wish to add his views, to render a personal account of matters.


Shahn notes that while creative nonconformity is sometimes immediately recognizable as intransigence and deliberate rebellion, it isn’t always predicated on sudden and total upending of tradition — it often happens that a series of artists each contribute systematic small steps that eventually add up to an unexpected cultural leap. (Steven Johnson has termed this type of incremental innovation in science “the hummingbird effect.”) And yet all nonconformity — whether it operates on a small or large scale, whether it occurs in an instant or over time — requires a dissatisfaction with the status quo or, at the very least, a disinterest in its dicta. In a sentiment that James Baldwin would come to echo just a few years later in his unforgettable assertion that “the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war,” Shahn writes:

The artist occupies a unique position vis-à-vis the society in which he lives. However dependent upon it he may be for his livelihood, he is still somewhat removed from its immediate struggles for social status or for economic supremacy. He has no really vested interest in the status quo.

The only vested interest — or one might say, professional concern — which he does have in the present way of things rests in his ability to observe them, to assimilate the multifarious details of reality, to form some intelligent opinion about the society or at least an opinion consistent with his temperament.

That being the case, he must maintain an attitude at once detached and deeply involved. Detached, in that he must view all things with an outer and abstracting eye. Shapes rest against shapes, colors augment colors, and modify and relate and mingle mutually. Contrasts in life move constantly across the field of vision — tensions between the grotesque and the sad, between the contemptible and the much-loved; tensions of such special character as to be almost imperceptible; dramatic, emotional situations within the most banal settings. Only the detached eye is able to perceive these properties and qualities of things.

Within such contrasts and juxtapositions lies the very essence of what life is today, or any day. Whoever would know his day or would capture its essential character must maintain such a degree of detachment.

And yet where the artist differs from the scientist, Shahn argues, is in the necessity for feeling things in addition to merely perceiving them. Unlike the scientist, who may exhibit what Einstein called “a passion for comprehension” but goes about pursuing that passion with the cool tools of reason, the artist operates from an intuitive place of deep feeling. Echoing Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is essential for creativity, Shahn writes:

[The artist] must never fail to be involved in the pleasures and the desperations of mankind, for in them lies the very source of feeling upon which the work of art is registered. Feeling, being always specific and never generalized, must have its own vocabulary of things experienced and felt.

It is because of these parallel habits of detachment and of emotional involvement that artists so often become critics of society and so often become partisans in its burning causes. And also it is why they are so likely to be nonconformists in their personal lives.

More than a century after Kierkegaard contemplated the power of the minority and why we conform, Shahn points out the paradox of nonconformity, which has only grown more pronounced in the decades since:

It is an amusing contradiction of our time that we do applaud a sort of copy-book nonconformity. Everyone laments the increase in conformity; everyone knows that too much conformity is bad for art and literature and politics, and that it may deal the death-blow to National Greatness. The deadening effects of over-conformity are well understood. Yet, when it comes to the matter of just what kind of nonconformity shall be encouraged, liberality of view recedes. There seems to be no exact place where nonconformity can be fitted in.


Without the person of outspoken opinion, however, without the critic, without the visionary, without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay. Its habits (let us say its virtues) will inevitably become entrenched and tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen.


Nonconformity is the basic pre-condition of art, as it is the pre-condition of good thinking and therefore of growth and greatness in a people. The degree of nonconformity present — and tolerated — in a society must be looked upon as a symptom of its state of health.


Shahn considers the primary species of conformity:

There is always an impressive number of artists who are overwhelmed by the nearest outstanding figure. They adopt his point of view and mannerisms and become a school; that is one kind of art conformity.

Another kind of conformity is derived from the wholly venal business of catering to a popular market. Still another results from trends and the yearning of artists — an almost irresistible yearning — to be in the forefront of things.

Writing half a century before the filter bubble of the social web, that ultimate generator of groupthink, Shahn adds:

All these kinds of conformity are inevitable and to be expected. But there has grown around us a vastly increased conformity. One could say “conformism” here; for this is conformity by doctrine and by tribunal.

Shahn ends with a timeless and poignantly illustrative parable of the difference in motives driving the various conformists and the nonconformist — a parable a version of which the poet Sarah Kay, a true nonconformist of our time, likes to tell. Shahn writes:

I remember a story that my father used to tell of a traveler in thirteenth-century France who met three men wheeling wheelbarrows. He asked in what work they were engaged and he received from them the following three answers: the first said, “I toil from sunup to sundown and all I receive for my pain is a few francs a day.” The second said, “I am glad enough to wheel this wheelbarrow for I have been out of work for many months and I have a family to support. The third said, “I am building Chartres Cathedral.”

I always feel that the committees and the tribunals and the civic groups and their auxiliaries harbor no misgivings about the men who wheel their wheelbarrows for however many francs a day; the object of their suspicions seems, inevitably, to be the man who is building Chartres Cathedral.

Complement Shahn’s thoroughly invigorating The Shape of Content with James Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity and Teresita Fernández on what it takes to be an artist, then revisit Albert Camus on what it means to be a rebel and the vintage satirical gem How to Be a Nonconformist.

Thanks, Wendy


Making the Impossible Possible: 21-Year-Old Hillary Rodham’s Remarkable 1969 Wellesley College Commencement Speech

“If the only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives, so we use it in the way we can by choosing a way to live that will demonstrate the way we feel and the way we know.”

Making the Impossible Possible: 21-Year-Old Hillary Rodham’s Remarkable 1969 Wellesley College Commencement Speech

“America,” Walt Whitman wrote in his remarkable essay on democracy and why a strong society is a feminist society, “if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without… Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.”

A century after Whitman, 21-year-old Hillary Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, took the stage at Wellesley College on May 31, 1969, and addressed the graduating class — her own class — in a remarkable commencement speech, later included in In Our Own Words: Extraordinary Speeches of the American Century (public library). It endures as a triumphant testament to idealism unblunted by half a century of fighting on the front lines of the common good, and calls to mind Albert Camus’s insistence that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

21-year-old Hillary Rodham, Wellesley College, 1969
21-year-old Hillary Rodham, Wellesley College, 1969

“We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us even understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty,” Clinton tells her classmates as they set out to enter and shape the world in an era of at least as much sociocultural tumult and recalibration as our own. “For too long,” she urges, “our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” Facing the gap between her generation’s expectations and their reality, young Clinton celebrates it as a source of “divine discontent,” the supreme creative fuel, rather than a source of cynicism, the the magic of real human communication, Clinton leans on the poetic to make her political and humane point: “Words have a funny way of trapping our minds on the way to our tongues but there are necessary means even in this multimedia age for attempting to come to grasps with some of the inarticulate maybe even inarticulable things that we’re feeling.”

She speaks of what it means to have “integrity, the courage to be whole, to try to mold an entire person in this particular context, living in relation to one another in the full poetry of existence.” And she ends with an exquisite poem by the unduly forgotten poet Nancy Scheibner — a poem ablaze with astonishing prescience, with lines like “My entrance into the world of so-called ‘social problems’ / Must be with quiet laughter, or not at all. / The hollow men of anger and bitterness / The bountiful ladies of righteous degradation / All must be left to a bygone age.”

May this recording, courtesy of Wellesley College and Clinton’s official With Her podcast hosted by Max Linsky, remind us of the bygone age and the hollow men we must most urgently leave behind as we make the impossible possible.

I find myself in a familiar position, that of reacting, something that our generation has been doing for quite a while now. We’re not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest and I find myself reacting just briefly to some of the things that Senator Brooke said. This has to be quick because I do have a little speech to give.

Part of the problem with just empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn’t do us anything. We’ve had lots of empathy; we’ve had lots of sympathy, but we feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible. What does it mean to hear that 13.3 percent of the people in this country are below the poverty line? That’s a percentage. We’re not interested in social reconstruction; it’s human reconstruction. How can we talk about percentages and trends? The complexities are not lost in our analyses, but perhaps they’re just put into what we consider a more human and eventually a more progressive perspective.

The question about possible and impossible was one that we brought with us to Wellesley four years ago. We arrived not yet knowing what was not possible. Consequently, we expected a lot. Our attitudes are easily understood having grown up, having come to consciousness in the first five years of this decade—years dominated by men with dreams, men in the civil rights movement, the Peace Corps, the space program—so we arrived at Wellesley and we found, as all of us have found, that there was a gap between expectation and realities. But it wasn’t a discouraging gap and it didn’t turn us into cynical, bitter old women at the age of 18. It just inspired us to do something about that gap. What we did is often difficult for some people to understand. They ask us quite often: “Why, if you’re dissatisfied, do you stay in a place?” Well, if you didn’t care a lot about it you wouldn’t stay. It’s almost as though my mother used to say, “You know I’ll always love you but there are times when I certainly won’t like you.” Our love for this place, this particular place, Wellesley College, coupled with our freedom from the burden of an inauthentic reality allowed us to question basic assumptions underlying our education.

Before the days of the media orchestrated demonstrations, we had our own gathering over in Founder’s parking lot. We protested against the rigid academic distribution requirement. We worked for a pass-fail system. We worked for a say in some of the process of academic decision making. And luckily we were at a place where, when we questioned the meaning of a liberal arts education there were people with enough imagination to respond to that questioning. So we have made progress. We have achieved some of the things that we initially saw as lacking in that gap between expectation and reality. Our concerns were not, of course, solely academic as all of us know. We worried about inside Wellesley questions of admissions, the kind of people that were coming to Wellesley, the kind of people that should be coming to Wellesley, the process for getting them here. We questioned about what responsibility we should have both for our lives as individuals and for our lives as members of a collective group.

Coupled with our concerns for the Wellesley inside here in the community were our concerns for what happened beyond Hathaway House. We wanted to know what relationship Wellesley was going to have to the outer world. We were lucky in that Miss Adams, one of the first things she did was set up a cross-registration with MIT because everyone knows that education just can’t have any parochial bounds anymore. One of the other things that we did was the Upward Bound program. There are so many other things that we could talk about; so many attempts to kind of – at least the way we saw it – pull ourselves into the world outside. And I think we’ve succeeded. There will be an Upward Bound program, just for one example, on the campus this summer.

Many of the issues that I’ve mentioned—those of sharing power and responsibility, those of assuming power and responsibility—have been general concerns on campuses throughout the world. But underlying those concerns there is a theme, a theme which is so trite and so old because the words are so familiar. It talks about integrity and trust and respect. Words have a funny way of trapping our minds on the way to our tongues but there are necessary means even in this multimedia age for attempting to come to grasps with some of the inarticulate maybe even inarticulable things that we’re feeling.

We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us even understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty. But there are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living. And so our questions, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue. The questions about those institutions are familiar to all of us. We have seen them heralded across the newspapers. Senator Brooke has suggested some of them this morning. But along with using these words—integrity, trust, and respect—in regard to institutions and leaders, we’re perhaps harshest with them in regard to ourselves.

Every protest, every dissent, whether it’s an individual academic paper or Founder’s parking lot demonstration, is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age. That attempt at forging for many of us over the past four years has meant coming to terms with our humanness. Within the context of a society that we perceive—now we can talk about reality, and I would like to talk about reality sometime, authentic reality, inauthentic reality, and what we have to accept of what we see—but our perception of it is that it hovers often between the possibility of disaster and the potentiality for imaginatively responding to men’s needs. There’s a very strange conservative strain that goes through a lot of New Left, collegiate protests that I find very intriguing because it harkens back to a lot of the old virtues, to the fulfillment of original ideas. And it’s also a very unique American experience. It’s such a great adventure. If the experiment in human living doesn’t work in this country, in this age, it’s not going to work anywhere.

But we also know that to be educated, the goal of it must be human liberation. A liberation enabling each of us to fulfill our capacity so as to be free to create within and around ourselves. To be educated to freedom must be evidenced in action, and here again is where we ask ourselves, as we have asked our parents and our teachers, questions about integrity, trust, and respect. Those three words mean different things to all of us. Some of the things they can mean, for instance: Integrity, the courage to be whole, to try to mold an entire person in this particular context, living in relation to one another in the full poetry of existence. If the only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives, so we use it in the way we can by choosing a way to live that will demonstrate the way we feel and the way we know. Integrity—a man like Paul Santmire. Trust. This is one word that when I asked the class at our rehearsal what it was they wanted me to say for them, everyone came up to me and said “Talk about trust, talk about the lack of trust both for us and the way we feel about others. Talk about the trust bust.” What can you say about it? What can you say about a feeling that permeates a generation and that perhaps is not even understood by those who are distrusted? All we can do is keep trying again and again and again. There’s that wonderful line in “East Coker” by Eliot about there’s only the trying, again and again and again; to win again what we’ve lost before.

And then respect. There’s that mutuality of respect between people where you don’t see people as percentage points. Where you don’t manipulate people. Where you’re not interested in social engineering for people. The struggle for an integrated life existing in an atmosphere of communal trust and respect is one with desperately important political and social consequences. And the word consequences of course catapults us into the future. One of the most tragic things that happened yesterday, a beautiful day, was that I was talking to a woman who said that she wouldn’t want to be me for anything in the world. She wouldn’t want to live today and look ahead to what it is she sees because she’s afraid. Fear is always with us but we just don’t have time for it. Not now.

There are two people that I would like to thank before concluding. That’s Ellie Acheson, who is the spearhead for this, and also Nancy Scheibner who wrote this poem which is the last thing that I would like to read:

My entrance into the world of so-called “social problems”
Must be with quiet laughter, or not at all.
The hollow men of anger and bitterness
The bountiful ladies of righteous degradation
All must be left to a bygone age.
And the purpose of history is to provide a receptacle
For all those myths and oddments
Which oddly we have acquired
And from which we would become unburdened
To create a newer world
To translate the future into the past.
We have no need of false revolutions
In a world where categories tend to tyrannize our minds
And hang our wills up on narrow pegs.
It is well at every given moment to seek the limits in our lives.
And once those limits are understood
To understand that limitations no longer exist.
Earth could be fair. And you and I must be free
Not to save the world in a glorious crusade
Not to kill ourselves with a nameless gnawing pain
But to practice with all the skill of our being
The art of making possible.


Complement with Adrienne Rich on the political power of poetry and John F. Kennedy’s timeless address on poetry and power — one of the greatest speeches ever given.


Pioneering Physicist Lise Meitner’s Only Direct Discussion of Gender in Science

“For what human problems do ideal solutions exist?”

Pioneering Physicist Lise Meitner’s Only Direct Discussion of Gender in Science

“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.

Lise Meitner, 1906
Lise Meitner, 1906

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.

Illustration of Lise Meitner from Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
Illustration of Lise Meitner from Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky

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.

Lise Meitner with students on the steps of the chemistry building at Bryn Mawr College, April 1959.
Lise Meitner with students on the steps of the chemistry building at Bryn Mawr College, April 1959.

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.


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