Women in Science: Reflecting with Dr. Joan Feynman
In high school, my best friend and I were the yin and yang of the academic world. While I spent my time drooling over the bohemian world of Beat Poets, her plans involved disciplines in math and science far beyond my comprehension. She was, and still is, the smarter of the two of us. She doesn’t need me to stand up for her, but I still react with rage at the fact that the world isn’t ready to support female scientists.
Take, for example, her recent exchange at a car rental company on her way to an academic conference. When she told the rental car employee why she was in town, he replied, “But you’re too pretty to be a scientist.” Or the time someone referred to her as “Little Miss Planet.” When she corrected him, he apologized and changed his greeting to “Little Miss Dr. Planet.”
Truth be told, my friend is not alone. And this isn’t a new story. This was made particularly clear to me when the Jewish Women’s Archive and Jayne Guberman had an opportunity to sit down with Joan Feynman, an award-winning theoretical physicist. (If her last name sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve heard of her brother, Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman.) During JWA’s conversation with Dr. Feynman, she described the obstacles she faced her entire career as a female scientist, beginning at a young age when her mother informed her that she simply wasn’t cut out to be a scientist—women, she was told, couldn’t be scientists as “their brains can’t do it.”
Dr. Feynman fought an uphill battle—she had the smarts and the ability, but she was living in a world that wasn’t able to support or encourage a woman in science. Realizing the realities of the academic culture, she relegated her ambitions to being an assistant to a male physicist. Luckily for all of us—and for the field of theoretical physics—the support of her brother helped her set her goals at being a “high-medium physicist.”
Early in her career Dr. Joan Feynman took a position at the Naval Research Lab, where she was forced to endure special tests to prove that (despite being female) she could still be a competent scientist. If that wasn’t enough, she was also told to “dress up in heels” in order to attract attention and funding for her lab. (I think it’s safe to assume that none of her male colleagues were asked to put their looks out there for funding.)
Finding role models was difficult for Dr. Feynman, even with the enormous changes that she saw within scientific and professional landscapes.
She wasn’t willing to give up. With few role models, Feynman struggled to make headway in the confusing waters of the work-life balancing act that came with being a mom with a demanding job outside the home. In the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she saw an opportunity for progress in a changing world. She organized women to fight against discriminatory gender policies at the American Geophysical Union. Dr. Feynman infiltrated a “men only” dining room at a National Science Foundation meeting. She began to demand more published papers and more acceptance of women at academic conferences. In the clip below she speaks about how many in the science world reacted to the Civil Rights Act, particularly as it pertained to women.
Dr. Joan Feynman was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Science Achievement medal in 2002, and she continues to encourage women to persevere, work hard, get help, and do the work they love in the sciences. I know that my own Dr. Planet, my friend from high school, had it easier because she could step on the shoulders of scientists like Joan Feynman—but it’s clear that we still have a long ways to go.