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?



Filed under History of Mathematics, Ladies of Science

15 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).

  4. Eliza Banks

    This is so tiring. I think highlighting that she’s female was celebrating her achievements in the face of a dearth of female role models and support and acceptance of female education across the board. Always finding ways to be offended and feel like a victim is likely encouraging the next generation of females into always feeling like victims too. I don’t think that is empowering at all. Why must so many things be interpreted so negatively so often?
    – physics professor. female. <– i have to put that there lest you think I'm a white male who can't understand oppression.

  5. Wei Hong

    We should stop trying to “steal” offence, that is, “taking” offence where none is being offered. I am a man who supports certain progressive values, including affirmative action for women, but when we go too far in this “offense economy,” we unwittingly become “agents provocateur” and “straw men,” inducing people to side with our opposition.

    Your appeal that we should “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” misses the point entirely. We are not talking about whether Noether was merely a GREAT mathematician, but whether she was the GREATEST mathematician in human history. While the title of GREATEST mathematician ever would be subject to considerable controversy, awarding the qualified title of GREATEST FEMALE mathematician ever to Noether would uncontroversial in comparison.

  6. Davi

    Women were treated much more differently back then than they are now, as Einstein noted “since the higher education of women began” meaning previously they were not even considered intelligent or proper enough for higher education… the distinction is meaningful, brings more attention to women and to her particularly because women were treated less intelligently, and so boosts her more than it would have if he’d not mentioned her gender. It makes her stand out particularly because of the relative lack of distinction with women in science back then, as there were relatively very few and they were not expected to reach such accolades.

    The author considering their note demeaning not only demeans the meaning of the quotes but also the women and men of science back then. Women are still in the minority of the field, so any attention to them as women is empowering to other women.

    If the author supports groups or awards promoting women in science specifically based on their gender (like a “Women in Math Achievement Group” or “Most Accomplished Female Physicist Award”), then maybe the author supposes these groups are also demeaning to the women in them or being promoted to.

  7. I think that we need to cut Einstein some slack. There is no evidence that he was in any way misogynistic. (Yes, his first marriage failed, but that happens to lots of people and doesn’t imply misogynism.) Yes, he had groupies, but neither is that misogynistic. (There are also feminist groupies.)

    She certainly had the support of many who knew her well enough to judge her. IIRC it was Felix Klein who declined a professorship in Göttingen on the grounds that Noether was more deserving.

    Those were different times. Hilbert said (paraphrased, which is the case anyway since he said it in German) “I don’t see what the gender of the applicant has to do with her qualifications. We are a university, not a public swimming pool.” Today, anyone advocating separate (but equal?) swimming pools for men and women is probably a religious fundamentalist (Muslim, Christian, doesn’t matter much) and would be seen as very reactionary, but for his time Hilbert was very progressive. We shouldn’t always judge folks in the past by the criteria of today.

  8. There is no bigger champion of equal opportunity than myself. However, I think that one should be careful in attributing the lack of women in some professions (physics is worse than maths, rock music and chess are worse than physics) too much to the lack of role models, since this might distract from bigger problems.

  9. Jesper

    Einstein held great respect for her and his quote can be interpreted differently. I agree it is misquoted. I think what he is implying is, women should have had access to education much earlier since there are geniuses to collect from that practise.

    Also, remember the political landscape people had to navigate back then, especially abroad in macho USA. (Yes, germany was sexist, but they were all native there)

  10. Pingback: Baffled by the big questions in science? String theorist Michael Dine thinks he has the answers - Top Science News

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