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Einstein and Women

by Nina Byers

Einstein with his wife Mileva and son Hans Albert.
Einstein with his wife Mileva and son Hans Albert.

C. P. Snow wrote regarding Albert Einstein, "To me he appears as out of comparison the greatest intellect of this century, and almost certainly the greatest personification of moral experience." Snow’s assertion is nearly uncontroversial in this "Einstein Year" in which we celebrate the centenary of publication of his great 1905 papers. But during Einstein’s lifetime, he was vilified by people who found objectionable some political views he expressed. He was an avowed socialist, and he was a staunch defender of civil liberties and human rights as well as a pacifist throughout most of his life. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, kept him under surveillance after he emigrated to the United States in 1933. The copious file compiled by the FBI is detailed by Fred Jerome in a recent book. With one possible exception, what is known about Einstein’s life supports Snow’s assertions. The exception has to do with critical views expressed with regard to the tragic failure of his first marriage and reported infidelities in his second. One finds, for example, that Jerome refers to many published works saying "there is no doubt about Einstein’s sexism." This is an inaccurate and misleading statement. It does not take into account the many interactions of Einstein with women in his scientific and public life. There is no known evidence indicating that his treatment of female physicists, mathematicians and other professionals was anything but exemplary. This is in stark contrast with the widespread gender discrimination that was practised by scientists and scientific institutions in his lifetime. From a historical point of view it is worthwhile to draw a distinction between Einstein’s behavior with women in his public life and with female partners in his private life.

Information about the scientific lives of women who contributed to physics in the twentieth century is becoming widely available. History records numerous instances of sexist behavior on the part of physicists. For example, Max Planck admonished Lise Meitner at a reception for young physicists in Berlin in 1908 "Fraulein Meitner I understand you have a doctorate from the University of Vienna, what more do you want?" Another more egregious example was the treatment of Henrietta Leavitt by Edward C. Pickering, head of the Harvard College Observatory. After her discovery of the period—luminosity relation of Cepheid variable stars, which enabled measurement of intergalactic distances for the first time (this was published under Pickering’s name in 1912—see http://cwp.library.ucla.edu/articles/leavitt/leavitt.note.html), Leavitt was obliged to go back to work in photographic photometry rather than pursue the consequences of her discovery. Sexism in the professional sphere caused female scientists major difficulties in the twentieth century. However, the record so far as we know it does not show any evidence of such behavior on the part of Albert Einstein. On the contrary we have evidence he treated the women with whom he interacted scientifically and professionally with dignity and respect, and gave them unequivocal career help when needed. For example, he wrote letters for Marietta Blau when, as an Austrian refugee from the Nazis in 1938, she needed a job. A letter in the Einstein Archive in The Hebrew University in Jerusalem speaks of her excellence as an accomplished experimental physicist without the usual caveat such as "among the best women working in the field". And finally one might mention a note he wrote to David Hilbert in 1916 regarding Emmy Noether saying "It would not have done the old guard at Göttingen any harm had they picked up a thing or two from her."

The question of Einstein’s role in relation to his first wife Mileva Maric’ is complex. In the years they studied together in Zurich before the birth of their children, he freely and unabashedly shared his passion for physics with her. This is clear from the letters he wrote to her in this period. No signs of sexism there. But it is clear that from the early days of the marriage he did not share domestic chores equally with her. Indeed she wrote to her friend Helene Savic’ in 1903, two and a half months after they married, "We have a nice little household which I am taking care of quite alone." It is unlikely they had domestic help. Albert’s salary from his job in the patent office was quite low. Given the environment in which he was raised, it seems unrealistic to expect him to have washed diapers and fixed meals for his wife and infant son. Not without love for his wife and son, born May 14, 1904, he nevertheless devoted attention when he could to physics. His wife wanted more time with him than he was able to give. From her letters it would seem that in the competition between the demands of his physics and his wife, physics won out. The joyous life they had had together did not persist beyond the birth of their second son. For female physicists, it is difficult not to be sympathetic with Mileva but it is also difficult to disparage Albert. What is not difficult, however, is to disparage the historic gender discrimination and institutional denial of support and equal opportunity faced by women wanting to do physics. It is notable, therefore, that the historical record indicates Einstein treated female physicists with dignity and respect and did not engage in the gender exclusion which was common among his contemporaries.

Nina Byers is research professor and professor emeritus of physics at UCLA and Visiting Scholar, Harvard University. She is past chair of the APS Forum on History of Physics.

She would like to acknowledge helpful comments from historians and archivists of the Einstein papers, Gerald Holton, John Stachel, Diana Buchwald, and Ze’ev Rosenkranz.

For further reading: Fred Jerome, The Einstein File, St. Martin’s Press, 2003.

Albert Einstein/Mileva Maric’: the Love Letters edited and with an introduction by Jürgen Renn and Robert Schulmann and translated by Shawn Smith, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1992.

In Albert’s Shadow: The Life and Letters of Mileva Maric’, Einstein’s First Wife, edited by Milan Popovic’, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2003.

Lise Meitner, "The Status of Women in the Professions," Physics Today, August 1960.


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