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S.H.E. IS: Maria Goeppert Mayer, “I wasn’t going to be just a woman”

“I wasn’t going to be just a woman.”

Maria Goeppert Mayer (B. 1906 – D. 1972) was the second women in history to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Physics. Marie Curie was the first women to win this award. Maria won in collaboration with Hans D. Jensen in 1963 for their research on the structure of the atomic nucleus and the spin-orbit coupling shell model of a nucleus. This research was vital for how we understand the composition of everything in our world.

Maria’s career can be described in one word: Persistence. Throughout her childhood and young professional life, she worked hard for positions in male dominated fields. Her father supported her education and career aspirations, but issues of gender inequality in academia created challenges to her success.

Maria was told by her father that she should not grow up to be a woman, meaning a housewife, and therefore decided. What does “to be just a woman” mean today? Maria ‘s father might have thought about overcoming gender barriers against women. His language makes me think on how the opportunities available to women had changed.

Despite her family support, Maria worked for thirty years in three different fields at three American universities doing unpaid volunteer work. She was not respected or valued for her work. She did not receive a salary until she won the Noble Prize. These barriers did not impede her who continued to work successfully on her research in Quantum Physics. However, these barriers did impair many other women. Eventually, Maria received accolades for her success, but this was after years of being ignored. She was elected into the National Academy of Sciences in 1956.

Compared to Maria Goeppert Mayer, women in 2020 have more opportunities; however, gender inequalities still exist. The glass ceiling which Maria Goeppert Mayer had to break through in the 1950s transformed into a labyrinth in our modern day. The barriers have changed, and an intersectional approach is important as other identifying characteristics impact opportunities. The barriers which women now face are different and complex, but we can reflect on individuals such as Maria Goeppert Mayer for inspiration. She overcame gender barriers while transforming the field of science.

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