Hopkins hadn’t yet heard Franklin’s side of the story. She was enthralled with Watson; he’d not only given her a position in his lab but encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. As the years ticked by, Zernike shows us Hopkins numbering her days in the lab with a palpable resignation. While she loved her work, it was not without its regular humiliations. Her introduction to Francis Crick started not with a handshake, but with his placing his hands on her breasts. “What are you working on?” he asked. Later, she was sexually assaulted by a colleague.
And yet, Hopkins believed things were changing, maybe quickly enough to allow her to be both a scientist and a wife and mother. Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” had just been published, famously identifying this conflict as “the problem that has no name.” Hopkins assumed “that by diagnosing the problem the books had solved it — they had made it possible for her and the other young women of 1964 to have a life outside the home.”
Not everyone saw it that way. In 1969, the assistant Harvard dean Francis “Skiddy” von Stade wrote, “I do not see highly educated women making startling strides in contributing to our society in the foreseeable future. They are not, in my opinion, going to stop getting married and/or having children. They will fail in their present roles as women if they do.”
But Hopkins also believed in the promise of affirmative action. In 1964, the Johnson administration prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin. In 1967, L.B.J. amended the law to include the word “sex.” For women like Hopkins, it was a signal that the playing field had been leveled. Suit up, ladies! You’ve made the team. Or at least the bench.
Because despite Hopkins’s belief that science should be meritocratic, it was not. Even when she had to choose between science and marriage (spoiler alert: Science won), she still found herself laboring under a sexist system. Reading the litany of indignities she suffered — a tiny lab space, a salary well below that of her male colleagues, her name omitted from papers — you’ll find yourself wondering not just why she stayed for decades, but how.
Then, as Zernike relates, came yet another blow. Her popular Introduction to Biology course was commandeered by a trusted co-developer of the class. He and another scientist had a plan to make millions from textbooks, videos and CD-ROMs — all based on seven years of joint work. And lest you think we’re still stuck in the 1960s, this was 1992 — “the Year of the Woman.”
While, at this point, you may feel the need to take a break and knock a hole through a wall, Zernike’s excellent reporting forces you to read on. She tells her story with careful pacing and precise detail, illustrating each injustice with jaw-dropping quotes and solid facts. As I read, I felt as if I was in the lab, dealing with slick colleagues — I could feel Hopkins’s isolation and despair. At one point (on a plane) I found myself practically shouting, “Nancy, don’t believe him!”