“Behind every great man is a woman hovering in the shadows” is a frequently uttered statement. This is not a phrase used to describe Lise Meitner. The sun shone directly on her. Otto Hahn’s winning the Nobel prize for their work on nuclear fission shoved her under an umbrella. Lise Meitner’s rich life follows the long tradition of women being thrown to the wayside, their contributions to great works discounted.
This story made me think of Meg Woltizer’s 2003 book The Wife. A fictionalised version of the Nobel Prize for Literature is won by Joe Castleman, a man who would be nothing without his wife Joan, a woman once, decades ago, captured by his apparent genius as a well to do WASP princess studying at Smith College in the 1950s, with his Brooklyn accented James Joyce quoting ways. A budding writer herself, she was warned of the irrelevant, unread fate she was to expect. More about their marriage is unwrapped as the story progresses, and secrets revealed shake the certification of his creativity. Their story appears, on the surface, a product of their time,
but the book haunted me because of how untrue that notion is. Growing up, and still now, I have witnessed bright, articulate and cruelly underdeveloped women forgo their full potential for men. Maintaining the domestic sphere is still a responsibility for women. Despite the trails left blazing, Joan’s full contribution is blanked by the establishment, just like Lise’s. Of course, their situations are different so are the reasons why, but each figure faces a institutional, entrenched kind of gendered ignorance.
Although, embarrassingly enough, as a promising young woman myself, finding her way, I get the appeal of Joan’s presented role: the idea of finding a man, who’ll pluck you out of the crowd, cite you as his muse, devote his entire acceptance speech to you. Realising this, fumes of self-disgust choke me. To be this kind of woman, to be a care giver, a support system or a playmaker, is not a failing. Often, they are a necessity. Personally, I have reaped benefit, comfort from these figures. For the sake of ease and circumstance, my mother took on traditional feminine roles, thus enabling my father to peak professionally. Perhaps, due to knowing nothing else, I cannot attest to an alternative, but my mother’s delay in intellectual development seems to have benefitted mine.
While this soliloquy may seem like an almighty digression, as Lise Meitner’s story is not that of an aspiring suburbanite, as a case study, there exist parallels. Both hold varying truths about the systemic erasure of women, a failure to be fully visible, a complex human in all her glory. However, the variety of blockages are vast and complicated. These are highly private, personal choices, and require nuanced cultural overhaul. Dialogues have been taking place for centuries concerning this. But liberation from the pale, male and stale order of business is not going to be simple, to pretend otherwise is another injustice. This fight is not new; shields waving in battle. Each generation contributing their own plan of attack.
In Lise’s situation, the frustration is heightened because gender seems to be her only real, quantifiable barrier. Yes, one could attribute the lack of recognition to sociopolitical factors. Aggression against Jews was reaching its violent peak across Europe. Austrian anti-Semitism forced her to flee to Sweden, a place she adopted as her new home. But, in the end, as other forgotten female figures in history, there was a man blocking her view.