Stanley Falkow said of Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg that "Experimentally and methodologically she was a genius in the lab." 1 However, although Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg was a pioneer of bacterial genetic science, she faced significant challenges as a woman scientist during the course of her career due to gender discrimination.
In the majority of Western human societies through the end of the 20th century, the leaders of society have traditionally been males; the supporters and nurturers of society have traditionally been females. This ordering of society along the lines of sex-based roles was strongly reinforced by the Hebrew Scriptures ("Old Testament"), the Qu'r'an, and the Christian Bible, which state that women's roles as nurturers and supporters of society (rather than the holders of power) has been ordained by god; that women must "submit" to their husbands.
Women's legal rights (like children's legal rights), have been extremely limited throughout recorded history. As recently as the 19th century in Europe, women were required to surrender control of their property to their husband upon marriage. Moreover, women's educational and occupational opportunities were severely limited. Upper-class women were expected to perfect 'parlour skills', such as singing and playing an approved instrument, and to learn such subjects as were technically approved for home study, such as crafts, poetry, French, and enough reading and writing to enable competent household record-keeping. However, pursuits, such as the reading of 'imaginative' novels, were usually frowned upon, and it goes without saying that women were usually denied admission to Universities.
Gender discrimination has affected the kind of work available to women, their pay, educational opportunities, and the services expected unquestionably from them. However, in the mid-20th century, there grew an increasing awareness that gender discrimination victimizes not only women, but men. Both sexes are thus limited in the skills they are encouraged to learn, their expected roles in the workplace, and their "proper" role in the family. Such narrow views also support the notion that this expection is universal (true in Africa, Asia, and South America, just as it is in Europe). Gender discrimination also frequently works hand-in-glove with other forms of repression, such as racism and anti-Semitism.
Esther Miriam Zimmer was a curious little girl who loved to learn. When her "zayde" (grandfather) tried unsuccessfully to teach Esther's several male cousins how to read Hebrew, Esther asked if she could learn. Though her Zayde had asked her male cousins first, following the Orthodox Jewish tradition that school is not essential for girls, Zayde was happy to teach Esther to read Hebrew. When Passover came Esther did all the reading at the seder, and made her Zayde very proud. (Her young male cousins, who had been uninterested in learning Hebrew, were unable to participate.)2
Esther's proficiency with languages stood her in good stead both in high school and at Hunter College, where her ability in French and Spanish earned her many awards. When Esther's instructors learned that Esther wanted to study science rather than languages, they exerted great effort to persuade her not to go into a field where women were not allowed to succeed, with the possible exception of botany. (In fact, Esther's career in science started with three internships doing botanical research with B. O. Dodge at the New York Botanical Garden.3) Esther would not be persuaded against following her interests in genetics and microbiology.
After graduating from Hunter College, Esther M. Zimmer worked as a Research Assistant at Carnegie Institution of Washington (later Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories), under Alexander Hollaender and H. F. Fraser. Although both researchers clearly respected Esther's ability, Dr. Fraser's letter of recommendation unconsciously trivializes Esther's productivity by saying that she "sticks to her knitting".4 A male Research Assistant who was being lauded for hard work and focus would never have been so described. One day while Esther was taking a break from her Research Assistant duties, one of the senior researchers observed her studying a Biochemistry book. The researcher brushed off this study with the remark, "Women don't need biochemistry." (It is unknown whether the person who made this observation knew any biochemistry himself.)
That Esther M. Lederberg experienced gender discrimination during her long, fruitful career as a research scientist is unsurprising. Ironically, Esther encountered increased gender discrimination due to her research collaboration with her husband of 20 years, Joshua Lederberg.
The first known letter between Esther M. Zimmer and Joshua Lederberg was a July 2, 1946 inquiry by Joshua Lederberg regarding Esther's work with Neurospora 1633. Joshua had been referred to Esther by George A. Beadle, in whose laboratory Esther was then working, as part of her Masters program at Stanford.5 Esther and Joshua were married five months and 11 days later.
Esther had already published three research papers before she met Joshua. After meeting Joshua she published five papers alone and one paper with Norman Giles before publishing her first paper with Joshua in 1951.
While they were married, Esther M. Lederberg and Joshua Lederberg published 12 papers together. At the October 31, 1958 press conference where he reacted to the news that he had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Joshua Lederberg offered this view of his own work:
In the development of my own work, I feel very abashed to have this attention without mentioning the numerous associates and students and fellows that I've had in my own lab, and the people on whom I've relied and whose ideas and work have been extremely important. First among these is my wife, who is my close associate in the laboratory. And then I happen to have a list of a number of people who have been in the lab before, and I'd like to give you an idea of the international distribution of this cooperation by mentioning some of their names and where they're located at the present time. [...] 6
Some who were less familiar with the caliber of Esther's research made assumptions about her relative "worth" to Joshua Lederberg. In a many-years-subsequent interview by Joshua Lederberg, detailing his negotiations with the University of California-Berkeley during the late '50's, he states, "There was also a question raised about a position for [my] wife Esther relating to nepotism ..." 7
In a later testimonial on Esther M. Lederberg's behalf, even
co-collaborator Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza lapsed into unconscious
Esther Lederberg had to fight to gain a position on the Stanford faculty. Retained as a Senior Scientist, in 1974 she was forced to transition to a position as Adjunct Professor of Medical Microbiology “coterminous with research support.” 9 (Adjunct Professors are typically un-tenured.)
Allan Campbell noted the injustice of Stanford’s attitude toward women
scientists in a letter of recommendation for Esther M. Lederberg,
written in 1971:
At scientific conferences in the latter half of the 20th century, female research scientists were relatively rare; so much so that conference planners, who routinely tried to provide activities for the non-scientist spouses of the attendees, tended to lump Esther in with the non-scientist wives. In an anecdote told to her second husband, Matthew Simon, Esther noted how, at one Gordon Conference, she was invited to go shopping.11
At another meeting, where Esther was the only female scientist, all the men were smoking cigars. The chairperson looked up and asked if Esther minded if they smoked cigars. Esther responded that she did, whereupon all the men put out their cigars. After the meeting was over, a female secretary expressed outrage that Esther had made an issue of the men smoking cigars! In this secretary's view, Esther's status as a scientist did not outweigh her status as a woman "intruding" in a field dominated by men.12
Esther M. Lederberg's was summed up best, and most publicly, upon her death in 2006. In his eulogy for Esther M. Lederberg, Stanley Falkow said that while preparing his remarks he had checked the internet and found “a suggested topic for a term paper to meet the requirements for a passing grade in a bioethics course in Pomona College." He read:
Through the end of the second millenium, it was unusual for a woman to persist against the advice of society and the teachings of their family and religion, to learn and practice skills that took them 'beyond' their sexual stereotype. However, some women persevered against gender discrimination and managed to accomplish significant gains. Some brief descriptions (ten out of many) follow:
Twenty-first century science historians are beginning to look back on the mid-twentieth century as a time when researchers made great strides in the sciences, but lagged far behind in the area of gender discrimination. For a look at how science historian Pnina Abir-Am highlights the accomplishments of Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg and other under-credited female scientists, see the Brandeis University website "Scientific Legacies".