Recorded: 09 Apr 2001
This actually is the one issue on which I think Jim and I don’t fully agree, although Jim was maybe the first feminist I actually knew. In a way it’s an interesting thing, because when I was a student, a young person at Harvard and so forth, I never thought about women or women in science or whether women could be scientists. I just looked around me and I noticed that weren’t any women on the faculty at Harvard, really. And it was very clear why there weren’t any women there: because the men who were in Jim’s lab—these postdocs like Mario Capecchi, Ray Gesteland—these people worked seventy hours a week. And their wives—they already were married and their wives after they had young children at home. So, as a woman, who, if you expected to have children—how could you be expected to be doing what they [the men] were doing and being home being their wives. I mean, these were two full time jobs, so how was this possible [to do both]? So it didn’t occur to me why there was any other issue involved about why there were so few women in science. I just didn’t think about it; I only thought about science. I actually thought that probably I would be a scientist, but I could only do that for a while because then I would quit and follow my husband, and become a mother and so on.
But when I got into science, I discovered it was very difficult to be a scientist actually, for reasons I hadn’t thought about. For a long time, I thought, the reason is because you have to be very aggressive to be a scientist—you know, promote your discoveries, and take credit for them, you had to be very aggressive. And I thought that’s what it was and I just thought I had to learn to be more aggressive.
But as time went on, over many years, I found out that there was something more about this than that I had understood in the beginning. And I found out that really men and women did not have an equal life in science. I found that out by watching how other women were treated, because there were so few of them, I naturally took a very long time to figure it out because there weren’t very many women. But I came to realize that there really was a difference in how they were treated and how their ideas and their thoughts and even their discoveries were valued by their colleagues. So two people could make the same discovery, but if it was made by a woman, it just didn’t have the same weight and importance [as it would if] it was made by a man.
It was a very surprising discovery to me. I must say, the first person who tried to tell me this was Barbara McClintock. But I thought, “Why is Barbara McClintock telling me this? I don’t want to know this. And it has nothing to do with me. She is so old!” because when you’re young, anybody over thirty is old. And she was seventy! So I thought she was, I thought, like 150 and since she lived in another century or two, it had nothing to do with me. And so she had a hard time of course, but I wouldn’t have a hard time. After all, Jim encouraged me to be a scientist, I was friends with all the best scientists. I wasn’t having any problems, so I didn’t want to hear about it, didn’t want to know about it, didn’t really believe it would impact my life at all. But I found out that it had not gone away, that the things that Barbara had tried to tell me when I was young still happened, although probably not as severely as they happened to her.
And it bothered me a lot, but I didn’t like to talk about it because I wanted to just be a scientist; I just wanted to be one of the boys, I mean not boy or girl, I didn’t want to think of it that way. I just wanted to just be a scientist and if you talked about being a woman, then you weren’t just being a scientist. So I didn’t want to go down that road. But finally circumstances drove me to the point that I knew I couldn’t do the science and it had to do with this problem. So I had to do something about it.
Nancy Hopkins is a developmental biologist and the Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology at MIT. Working under Jim Watson and Mark Ptashne, Hopkins earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1971. As a postdoctoral fellow she moved to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where she continued working under Watson researching DNA tumor viruses. In 1973 she joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor in the Center for Cancer Research, where she researched the mechanisms of replication and leukemogenesis by RNA tumor viruses for 17 years.
Hopkins has also led an ongoing effort to end discrimination against women in science. In 1995 she was appointed Chair of the first Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science at MIT, and in 2000 she was appointed Co-Chair of the first Council on Faculty Diversity at MIT. Hopkins co-authored the fourth edition of Molecular Biology of the Gene. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.