Can we please stop (mis)quoting Albert on Emmy, it’s demeaning?

Emmy Noether, whom I’ve blogged about a couple of times in the past, is without any doubt one of the greats in the history of mathematics, as is well documented by the testimonials written by some of the greatest contemporary mathematicians and physicists and collected in Auguste Dick’s slim but well research biography, Emmy Noether: 1882–1935.

Emmy Noether c. 1930
Source:Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday was World Maths Day and the Royal Society tweeted portraits of mathematicians with links to articles all day, one of those tweets was about Emmy Noether. The tweet included a paraphrase of a well known quote from Albert Einstein, after all what could be better than a quote from old Albert the greatest of the great? Well almost anything actually, as the Einstein quote is highly demeaning. As given informally by the Royal Society it read as follows:

Emmy Noether was described by Einstein as the most important woman in the history of mathematics.

What Einstein actually wrote in a letter to the New York Times on the occasion of her death in 1935 was the following:

In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered, methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians.

In the same year, but before she died, Norbert Wiener wrote:

Miss Noether is… the greatest woman mathematician who has ever lived; and the greatest woman scientist of any sort now living, and a scholar at least on the plane of Madame Curie.

Now I’m sure that the Royal Society, Albert Einstein and Norbert Wiener all meant well, but take a step back and consider what all of them said in their different ways, Emmy Noether was pretty good for a woman [my emphasis].

Emmy Noether was one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century, male or female, man or woman, about that there is absolutely no doubt, to qualify that praise with the term woman is quite simple demeaning.

In my mind it triggers the text of Melanie Safka’s mega pop hit from 1971, Brand New Key:

I ride my bike, I roller skate, don’t drive no car

Don’t go too fast, but I go pretty far

For somebody who don’t drive

I been all around the world

Some people say, I done all right for a girl [my emphasis]

On twitter, space archaeologist, Alice Gorman (@drspacejunk) took it one stage further, in my opinion correctly, and asked, “Dare I cite Samuel Johnson’s aphorism about the talking dog?” For those who are not up to speed on the good doctor’s witticisms:

I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” – Boswell: Life

Can we please in future when talking about Emmy Noether resist the temptation to quote those who affix their praise of her mathematical talents with the term woman and just acknowledge her as a great mathematician?

 

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6 Comments

Filed under History of Mathematics, Ladies of Science

6 responses to “Can we please stop (mis)quoting Albert on Emmy, it’s demeaning?

  1. You’ve misread Einstein. What he actually said was not “good for a woman” but “In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began” (well, it’s your quote, I shall trust you :-). *Weiner* said “good for a woman”. Einstein just provided a time frame. Admittedly it is easy to misread, and it is even possible that AE meant what you took from it, but still: that isn’t what it says.

    • It is how the Royal Society paraphrased/interpreted it and I know from experience they are not the only ones

      • If your post was complaining about the RS, I’d have no complaint. But you wrote “Now I’m sure that the Royal Society, Albert Einstein and Norbert Wiener all meant well…” so you seem to be including Einstein in your criticism. Was that a slip of your wording, or did you mean to criticise him? If so, what for?

        Indeed, there’s your post title: “Can we please stop quoting Albert on Emmy, it’s demeaning?”

        If what you actually meant was “can we please *accurately* quote Albert on Emmy, then you have the wrong title 🙂

  2. Matthew Steele

    It looks to me like Einstein is making an argument not so much that she’s smart for a woman, but that she’s smart in general and thus evidence of why integration is ideal.

    “In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”

    Reads to me as “She’s brilliant, male or female, and we wouldn’t have had her without giving women higher education.”

  3. simplicio

    Agree that the Royal Society was somewhat misquoting Einstein. Especially in light of the second sentence of the quote, which points out her achievements stood out amongst the current and previous generations of (presumably male) mathematicians, not just relative to other woman mathematicians.

    Weiner was definitely playing up the “woman mathematician as a novelty angle”, though in his defense, he was writing to try and get funding for her position in the States after the Nazi’s came to power, and that was probably a more effective sales-pitch than discoursing on non-abelian groups or whatever.

    As to the general point of characterizing her as a *woman* mathematician, I think it can be read in two ways. In a negative “pretty good…for a girl” sense, or a positive “despite the strong 19th century social disincentives to woman in intellectual fields, Noether rose to the top rank of mathematicians”. I imagine the RS meant it in the latter sense, but they could’ve been clearer (and not mangled the sense of the Einstein quote).

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