Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Joys and Woes of Women in University

"It is hard to be twenty," I reflected today. "It is also hard to be twenty-one. It is hard to be a undergraduate woman in general, actually."

I was drawing mostly upon memory, mind you, since my twenty-something's undergrad days are long behind me. But I remember them as a restless, anxious time when I tried to balance jobs and classes, Catholicism with popularity, my wishes with the wishes of others and productivity with what I now realize to have been full-blown clinical depression. Many young women dread turning 25, but I can honestly say I am glad I have seen the back of 25 and will never see 25 again.

Interestingly, I did get a second chance at being an undergraduate. When I went to theology school to do an M.Div./STB, I think I got the "undergraduate experience" that I had wanted the first time: a smaller community, professors who had hours of time for me, a less frenetic social life, manageable challenges and, primarily because I was spared from depression, better grades.

There are women who become so involved in their studies that they barely look up to see if there are any cute men around. I envied these women. Women like them tend to get top grades. They are determined to succeed. They are singleminded and successful. They do not read Goethe's The Sorrows in Young Werther and sit around gloomy quadrangles thinking sad thoughts. They get on with their work. Eventually they get good jobs and great salaries and buy houses and it-bags.

Then there are women who want to know where the boys are. Goethe is not so much someone to study but a guide to life. I remember actually quoting from Doctor Faustus (Marlowe's, though) to encourage a hottie I had a huge crush on to mend his ways. He didn't. Sadly, such women seek their happiness not in their absorbing studies or burgeoning careers, but on their social lives and the general thrills that being like by boys provides. Oh, alas. C'etait moi at twenty.

If I could do undergrad all over again... Oh wait, I did. Well, if I had a daughter about to begin her undergrad, I would draw her aside and say, "Never mind about the boys. You're probably not meant to marry until 30 anyway, so just stick to your books and make friends who stick to their books." Hmm. Maybe I should work on the wording.

Women who succeed at their studies are more likely to get professorial encouragement nowadays than when women first bravely stormed the universities. The annals of women-in-science are full of utter horror stories of male research scientists determined to keep women rivals and colleagues down by any means, including stealing their work.* We have the example of Lise Meitner, who was not just a woman but Jewish in early-20th century Austria. Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. She should have been awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize with her college Otto Hahn, but she was not. She did, however, manage to get out of Austria before the Nazis got her, no thanks to colleague Kurt Hess.

So today, as I think about how difficult it is to be an undergraduate woman, I salute those women who found their happiness in the highest echelons of thought despite the machinations of others. And as Lise Meiter was one such woman, she is our Seraphic Single of the Week.

*Of course, they have probably done this to fellow male scientists, too.

Update: Welcome, sailors, from Ship of Fools!


sciencegirl said...

I loved college! I studied hard and made lifelong friendships with the other, even harder working engineering students. My schedule was jam packed with activities and studying, working at one point 3 different part time jobs for spending money, but after freshman year I really didn't get very stressed out because I got very good at managing my time and was ruthless at trimming out lower tier activities as soon as I felt to busy to relax. I wouldn't be able to handle that kind of schedule now, because I need more down time, but it was loads of fun at the time. I've also been lucky to not have back stabbing colleagues, but nice and supportive ones. I hope it stays that way! I think university life has some drawbacks, but it is great to be around other smart people who value knowledge.

Seraphic said...

Yay, sciencegirl! Lise Meitner would be VERY proud of you. Your B.A. years sound like my M.Div. years.

There is nothing like having great work to do and building a career on your interests, is there?

leonine said...

How very interesting. I'm ashamed to say I had never heard of her, but I tried to make up for it by devouring the wikipedia article. Thanks so much for posting.

Seraphic said...

I had little interest in science when I was younger, so I had no idea there were so many great women scientists and mathematicians in the 19th and 20th century. I thought Florence Nightingale (who invented a branch of Statistics) was "just a nurse", although I did learn that Lady Lovelace helped invent the computer.

In recent years, I've focussed on trying to find famous women in history who never married, and many amazing women scientists never did. It could be that science gave them all the thrills and interest (and support) they needed!

leonine said...

I always find this sort of thing particularly encouraging. Now, as I'm much more of an arts person than a sciences person (by inclination and by training), here are a few on the humanities side of things: Beryl Smalley, Dorothy Whitelock, Helen Waddell... as I think of others, I'll let you know!

Seraphic said...

Thank you! I was named after Dorothy Whitelock--me and a monkey. It's a story I'll repeat when Dorothy Whitelock is Seraphic Single of the Week.

leonine said...

ooh! Lucky you! I too was named after a Seraphic Single, a lovely, talented, accomplished woman who was (and is) one of my mother's dearest friends. Not a historian of Anglo-Saxon England, but then we can't have everything. :)