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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Nobel prizes: How far have women come?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2009 - The modern feminist movement began in the mid-1960s. Until that time, women with professional training were largely confined to certain feminine occupations: teacher, nurse, social worker. Most married women did not work outside the home. Graduate and professional schools admitted only a handful of female applicants. Why invest in someone who will not remain in the workforce for very long?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination because of gender at work and in school. Whether inclusion of sex discrimination was meant as a means of scuttling the bill or as a sincere nod to the second sex is still debated. But the inclusion of "sex" in the law enabled women to establish rights in the workplace and to break new paths for what could be woman's proper place.

In the ensuing decades, women have come a long way. They are found throughout the range of occupations. Most married women now work, whether for economic reasons or for self-actualization.

Students at law and medical schools are as likely to be women as not. Women have headed corporations and many serve as university presidents. More elected officials are female, though they do not come close to making up half of Congress or most state legislatures.

Since five decades have passed since most of the formal exclusions were supposed to have been lifted, now is a good time to assess how much more representative our workforces are. We should expect to see more women moving into top positions. However, the glass ceiling still exists and most women are well aware of it.

That Nobel Prize recipients this year were women certainly represented a crack. Never before have that many women won in one year, and the economics prize, for the first time, was shared by a woman. Yet, scanning a list of all female recipients shows a long road still ahead.

Only two women have ever received the prize in physics, the last awarded in 1963. Ada E. Yonath, who received the chemistry prize this year, is only the fourth woman to do so.

Two American women shared the medicine prize with a male colleague in 2009. There have been eight others since 1937. Twelve women have won the prize for literature, including Herta Muller this year. Twelve women have also won the peace prize, with greater regularity in recent years.

The sciences including "economic science" are less likely to see women as prize winners.

In economics, Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University this year became the first woman to join the rarefied group. She acknowledged that she was given little encouragement to pursue her path of economic research when she received her doctorate in 1976. Interestingly, she is a political scientist who belongs to the public-choice wing of the discipline. That wing relies heavily on economic reasoning and is generally regarded as conservative.

Ostrom has conducted large studies using federal research funds to study, among other things, the nature of police service in fragmented metropolitan areas. She found efficiency and cooperation, although she and her fellow public-choice adherents do not usually control for the fact that race and class place strong impediments to the freedom to live, and experience service delivery, wherever you like. (E. Terrance Jones' work in his book on St. Louis County, "Fragmented by Design," uses this public-choice perspective.)

The new women recipients of the Nobel Prize point to a more level playing field. However, if the field were truly level, we would not remark upon it. One can only hope that these awards will foreshadow even more enhanced recognition in times to come. It is a long way since 1964, but there still is a long way to go.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

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