Physics Education at Radcliffe and Harvard

Joanna Behrman ’13
Joanna Behrman '13. Photo by Tony RinaldoJoanna Behrman '13. Photo by Tony Rinaldo

Joanna Behrman considered Bryn Mawr when she was looking at colleges. “I immediately felt a strong sense of community there, but Harvard could offer so many more resources,” she says. “And Harvard does have the best physics department in the world.”

Now in her senior year, Behrman is obviously proud of her soon-to-be alma mater. She plans to become a physics professor and is considering graduate programs. An ardent student, she’s writing a thesis, even though the Harvard physics department doesn’t require one. Her topic—a comparison of undergraduate physics teaching at Harvard and Radcliffe from 1895 to 1953—led her to the Schlesinger Library, where she applied for and won a Carol K. Pforzheimer Student Fellowship to begin her research during the summer of 2012.

Behrman is concerned about the lack of gender diversity in her field. “Physics has a problem with cultural diversity, and it lags behind all the other sciences in terms of gender parity,” she says. “Only mechanical engineering is worse.”

She’s aware of existing research that finds undergraduate education to be the leakiest part of the pipeline to careers in physics. It’s also known that women’s colleges tend to produce proportionally more physicists than coed colleges. So Behrman decided to conduct a scientific experiment with Radcliffe and Harvard. “Here we have a women’s college and a men’s college with the same faculty and at least nominally the same education,” she says. “I wanted to see what the undergraduate physics experience was like at both colleges.”

A physics class at Radcliffe, 1912, from the Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger LibraryA physics class at Radcliffe, 1912, from the Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library

Behrman spent months going through archival material stored at the Schlesinger Library. “They have amazing digital collections,” she says. “I looked at everything they have online: yearbooks, enrollment records, annual reports. I was able to do very nitty-gritty data collection that feels very solid, that I can track very easily.”

She also looked at manuscript records that gave her a feel for the time period. For those, she went online in the catalog and searched “women, physics.” Or “Schlesinger Library, physics.” “I literally went through every single entry trying to determine if there was anything that could possibly be of use,” she says.

Although Radcliffe told prospective students that they would get the same education as Harvard students because the faculty and resources were the same, Behrman says she found that the education was not equal at all. “It tended to be doctoral students and junior faculty who taught at Radcliffe,” she says. “Sometimes the teachers didn’t even have their PhDs and might be only two or three years older than the Radcliffe women.”

In 1943, because of World War II, there weren’t enough men at Harvard to justify teaching the classes separately, so some classes became coed. Behrman discovered that there was even a woman teaching physics that year. But she can find nothing about her in the physics archive. “There’s just a blank,” she says. She found the woman’s name in the Radcliffe course catalog, but nowhere else. “I suspect she was someone’s wife who had maybe taken a degree in physics,” Behrman says. “I know by her name that she was married, but I’m still trying to track her down.”

She found only two women who went on from Radcliffe to pursue careers in physics. Marian Butler ’50 earned a master’s and went into industry, where she conducted research, and Margaret Kivelson, also Class of 1950, earned her PhD at Harvard in 1957 and went into academia, where she conducted research in plasma and space physics. Kivelson is now a professor emerita of space physics at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“Radcliffe was very good at producing astronomers, because the Harvard College Observatory and its director, Harlow Shapley, provided employment,” Behrman says. “It became very normal to have female astronomers, but it was still abnormal to have a female physicist.”

Behrman is heartened by how far women have come since the time she’s researching and writing about. She says her thesis advisor, Howard Georgi, a Harvard College Professor and a Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, is very supportive of women in physics and has actively recruited them into the field. Although she hasn’t taken any classes with Melissa Franklin, also a Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics—who held a Radcliffe Institute fellowship in 2004–2005 and subsequently became chair of the department—Behrman is well aware that Franklin was the first woman to receive tenure in physics at Harvard, in 1992. Franklin gave her access to Harvard’s physics archives for her thesis research.

Behrman’s own story at Harvard is cautionary. “It turns out that the best high school in math and science in Wichita, Kansas, is nowhere near as good as some of the high schools other Harvard students attended,” she says. “I came here very bright-eyed and happy, saying ‘I can do this, I love math and science.’ Then my first couple of semesters were very difficult.”

Behrman’s mother, a professor of physics and math at Wichita State University, gave her a lot of support, and Behrman joined study groups, which she says tend to form along gender lines. Plus, no surprise, she worked hard. Later, as copresident of the Society of Physics Students, she helped other students understand that after about two years, everyone’s preparation evens out.


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