Amazing Structure: A Conversation With Ursula Franklin

By Robinson Meyer

It’s hard to describe what Ursula Franklin’s done in her life. There’s just too much. 

The 92-year-old metallurgist pioneered the field of archeometry, the science of dating archaeologically discovered bronzes, metals, and ceramics. Her research into spiking levels of radioactive strontium in baby teeth factored heavily into the U.S. government’s decision to institute a nuclear test ban. She delivered the Massey Lectures—an important, annual series of talks delivered by Canadian public intellectuals—in 1989, and she was the first woman to be named University Professor at the University of Toronto, the university’s highest position.

She was also born in Munich in 1921, and was imprisoned in a Nazi work camp for the last 18 months of the war.

I spoke to her recently by phone. It was a snowy day in Toronto, she said and she was happy to stay inside.

I’m here and ready and have a cup of tea and a pad of notes,” she told me, “and so I’m happy to meet you.”

Unlike many of the other women we’ve been talking to, you’ve been active as a philosopher—

—as a citizen.

—as a citizen, as much as scientist.

Yeah.

So I think we’ll start with questions about your background—and if you think it ties into an interesting or useful concept, then you should feel absolutely free to elaborate on that.

Okay. Will do so. I think you’ll find it’s more difficult to stop me than to encourage me.

Excellent. How did a girl growing up in interwar Germany—though of course it didn’t seem interwar at the time—how did you come to be interested in the sciences, and then enter them?

I take you back. I was born in ’21. I grew up German in mostly Berlin. My mom was Jewish; my father, of an old German family, a Lutheran family. My mother was Jewish only culturally, not religiously. Both my families—my mother was an art historian, my father, though he had an engineering background, was an Africanist—so I grew up in an academic atmosphere, but also in a very political one.

My mother particularly saw the dangers of fascism quite early, encouraged my father—unsuccessfully—to immigrate, and so we were all at the danger of threats and camps, etc., through the Nazis and survived it, though barely. None of my maternal family did. 

When I was a child in school, the fact that the laws of nature seemed to be permanent and immutable, compared to the laws of the state, made science most attractive to me. And I recall as a kid in school, a physics experiment—and my also mischievous pleasure that even these overwhelming, secular authorities couldn’t change the direction of a beam of electrons. And so I went into science for the fact that this was a career one could pursue with integrity—and that’s very dubious—but it’s what appears to the 13-, 14-year-old. There was also nothing else. 

I loved to state with the clarity of the scientist. I went into that and stayed in it as a milieu. 

My main interest then developed into solid-state crystal structure and the concept of structure: The arrangement of the parts to make a whole, and how the properties of the whole are not just the sum of the parts, but profoundly affected by the respective positioning of the parts to form the whole. That was a sort of [interest] that has stayed with me and [transferred] very easily into the political and the social things. So it’s all the back and forth of life—it’s always been navigating around a standing structure and changing them so as to change their properties.

And that applies, of course, as much to making special alloys of metal as it applies to any other social situation, so I have a sense of cause and consequence very much, being brought up, that things happen for a reason—that they have roots; that they are, in turn, the feedback for consequence, which are then the shoot; and much of that ‘root and shoot’ tighten my thinking.

As you were getting into alloys and metals, were there other women in your science education program or in college? 

The gender issue is really a postwar issue. Women, wherever they were, what side or what in the war situation, stepped into the places that men had left. And they were competent, and they could do it. It was only after the war, when the men came back, that they needed the mystique—that she’s a girl, and so oughtn’t [to be] there, this is a man’s job. The gender issue, in practical terms—either who [could be] in school or who thought they could do which job, which science, which math—is a postwar issue anywhere in the world.

And it’s the issue of a large number of well-organized men, who often got their training in the army during the war, returning and needing both work and justification for their organized maleness in a very hierarchical structure. These guys came out of the military, and brought skills, but mostly brought demands.

There were women who had coped—often very well in very technical [positions]—but what was needed now was a distinction between those who came out of a culture of order, discipline, and minimal consideration of an individual’s contribution. So you had to get the women out of the workplace. And that’s when that question—they can’t do math, or they are frightened of machines—that’s where all that crap comes from. But it’s there, and it took until the late ’50s when women said: “Ah ah! What’s going on here?”

It’s the collectivity—with some consciousness-raising, you see—that actually, the personal is political. It’s not that our skirts are too short or too long; it’s just that we are being pushed around and maybe we have to put a stop to it collectively. But that gender-based look at knowledge and competency is postwar.

So my school experience: It was ‘so what?’ 

How did you—in order to catch up to the late ’50s—you served in a Nazi work camp and then—

—and then I went back to university, got a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from the Technical University in Berlin, and then came to Canada on a postdoctoral fellowship.

And then, after three years as a postdoc—and this is where your interest may come in—I went and became a senior scientist at a small Canadian, Ontario-based industrial research organization that was doing technical work for small firms in the province of Ontario that were too small to have technical establishments within their own organizations but which were in need of good, competent technical services and advice. This organization—called Ontario Research Foundation—was created by the province to allow small firms to have technical competence without being burdened by the sophisticated establishment that they couldn’t afford.

And I went here as a senior scientist and built up their inspection and x-ray department, so that meant that I was constantly with practicing engineers who had real-life problems in their own factories and organizations, while bringing to them the most appropriate of modern science. That was the aim of that Ontario Research Foundation, and it was a very good one. It allowed that link between the scientist and engineer on the ground level of the practicing type, who came in and would say, look, it doesn’t work, it explodes; or it’s stuck. So I was sent into that position and was in it for ten years, and that meant using science and technology in the workplace.

That was work in the real dirty hands sense of the word—and I was the only woman. And there, it began to show.

Ursula Franklin Academy, a Toronto public high school named after the metallurgist (Loozrboy / Flickr)

Were their particular instances or situations where that became really apparent?

Yes, indeed. You see, administratively more than personally. Administratively, certainly in Canada in the early ’50s, no one was prepared that their staff would be women, and therefore have women’s needs. You had staff; that staff was male; if you couldn’t find it, you took competent females and the females had to see that they better be a bit more competent than anybody else. But, in the structure of the administration, there was nothing that regarded them or their needs as women. They were lucky if they were met with the same standards as the man—usually they got lower pay.

I’ll give you a story very quickly. I think it demonstrates how unprepared the workplace was for women as women, and how they wasn’t even an administrative or legal structure that acknowledged that not all employees were men.

That would be great.

The story is that I headed up the non-destructive testing and x-ray department at the Ontario Research Foundation. Good equipment, few people, interesting work. I was in there from the university, respected and the fact that I was a woman was probably not a big deal. Then I got married. It was a bit of social rumble—‘she, I mean, she got married?’ Okay, I got married.

But then, two years later, I got pregnant and we expected our first child. At the outset, I decided to tell them quite early and say look: I am expecting a child. I would like to continue working. I can be in the lab fifty percent of the time—two and a half days. My mother is here; she’ll look after the baby. The other two and a half days, I will work at home, because much of my work—the writing and calculations and report-writing—it was possible to have the data for, and I could take my reports to work.

And they were stunned—because it had never happened. 

And so what do you do [if you’re them]? You strike a committee. You strike a committee and you deliberate. And of course the one thing that goes on in parallel is the pregnancy, and so they kept on deliberating, and I eventually had arranged that my summer holiday would be pushed ahead and I just picked on doing that because I gave them that plan. But I also said, ‘if that is unacceptable, then for heaven’s sake, appoint a successor that I can break him in, because it’s complicated, difficult work.’

Right.

Okay. They had that bloody committee, and they went on deliberating. They didn’t appoint anybody, so I kept on working, seeing that my staff would do what was needed. I could not assume that my model would be in the end what people would do. So I skipped summer holidays so that I had three weeks [of vacation], and there was no legislation anywhere—we’re talking 1955—for maternity leave.

So eventually—to their great shock—our son was born.

And four weeks later, I began to do what I had suggested. The committee never made a decision. Probably they never hired a woman of childbearing age again, but I kept on for another eight years and had a second child in that mold. 

The unpreparedness, administratively and legally, to recognize that women, when you employ them, have needs, and require an administrative framework that takes that into account was totally absent. So that the task, then, for women like myself who were feminists, was to know that you had to have laws that gave maternity leave; you had to have provisions for flexible work; and the struggle from there on was not for us, but was struggled for all women to have decent working conditions and safe wages. 

And that’s how it starts. 

Was that when you were also researching archeometry? 

No, this was before that. It was when I was totally involved in practical engineering work. And I kept that on until ’67, when I began to be interested in archeometry and went, I have to say, back to the university—because the same place that had initially been the place where I studied hired me to the professorial ranks. And I then began to train engineers, rather than only work with them on the problem-based ground floor.

So your research into archeometry began in 1967. 

Roughly in 1967. 

So while you were still at the Ontario Research Foundation, it seems your first pregnancy falls just within a few years of the beginning of second-wave feminism.

Yes. It—in a sense—it was just in that period, and I was very conscious during that period of how the women who had been in the university were slowly being pushed out.

During the war, for instance, the department of physics and the department of astronomy were predominantly female. Ten years later, there were, for two to three men, one female; and it got worse as time went on when the university expanded both to teach and to pick up much more sophisticated research that was out of the war research. That was a great expense, hiring only male faculty. So I was very aware how the women who were there in ’49—when I came into the university—were slowly and surely pushed out and marginalized during that period. So my feminist consciousness was sharpened by the practice that I saw in my daily habits.

And when was that expansion at the University of Toronto?

Universities, roughly from the end of the ’40s when the veterans came back, they needed some ability for university credit. Universities had to extend, and those who could teach came back from their military involvement, at least in Canada, so that both teachers and students had to be accommodated—and that process pushed many of the women out. And that was beginning in the late ’40s.

And that pairs to the G.I. Bill expansion here in the States.

Yes. That’s the equivalent in Canada for the legislation that allowed access to university education, but also then many of the people who had experience in research—and many of the research tools, both theoretical and practical—moved with their instructors into the university. And that pushed the women out because no new women were hired.

I notice how often you cite one of the ideas that came out of that period, “the personal is political.” You were attuned to that idea almost as it was emerging, it sounds like.

Yes. Very much so. And that again links back to my interest in structures, that it was very clear [that what was presented to women] were not individual opinions, but that these were collective opinions—and that, if you would want to redress them, there’s no private solution. There’s only a principal, political solution, that goes into law and regulation and standards.

And so that was very clear to me, and the clarity was facilitated by my background that made me think in terms of structure—that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

So many of your ideas seem communally and collectively based, and that seems strongly informed by your Quakerism. When did you take up that faith?

Well, I’ll tell you, I was a pacifist before I was a Quaker. I was a pacifist and a feminist. And if you are a pacifist, and if you’ve believe that all are equal in the face of God, then you say: ‘Well, how can I believe that and then stab people, shoot people, put them down?’ That doesn’t match!

When I looked for a religious environment, after being brought up in the German Lutheran tradition, we had young children. We could no longer deal with people who prayed to God that they kill their enemies or bless their weapons or do anything like that. 

But that does not dispense with one’s belief and need for things that are beyond the secular. Both my husband and I, when our children were young, and not having any family here, looked for an extended family. My husband has had Quaker experience in England, so we found, in a sense, a Quaker resoluteness and a belief structure that would not contradict our beliefs in either equality or peace. 

So, as I said, I was certainly a pacifist before I was a Quaker.

You mentioned, in this period, between the early ’50s and 1967, when you were working at the Ontario Research Fund. I think in our emails, you mentioned that the American context was different from the Canadian context—how so?

The major one was the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada. It was the formative experience here that had come from where we were as women were pushed out and then, after the middle ’50s, they began to say: ‘What’s going on here?’ The personal is political, and we aren’t really here privately; as a structure, it’s wrong.

Now for Canadians, the crucial time was around ’67, when, in fact, the national women’s organizations got together. Their executives then say, ‘Now here we are representing a very broad spectrum: From the very Catholic, from the Deacon’s Federation, from the business and professional women, from the Protestant women, from the farm women to the university women. Is it for you to say, as it is for us, that all of our members don’t get the same pay as their male colleagues? That our women members can’t get bank loans? That we have these horribly lopsided life insurance policies? Is there something systemic in this?”

And three weeks after that question was raised—‘are women second-class citizens?’—the Canadians did the Canadian thing: They went and pushed the Minister of Justice, who at that time was [future Prime Minister Pierre] Trudeau, and he, after some push and shove, called for a royal commission. 

A royal commission is a wonderful instrument to get clarity on things, and that commission, because of the women who ran it, was run beautifully in terms of traveling across the country, accepting briefs, as well as commissioning research. What that did was not only produce research for fresh and binding legislation. The fact that that the commission came and heard briefs produced a women’s community that hadn’t been there before. Women’s groups that hadn’t talked to each other much met because they heard each other’s briefs, because they had to be in a certain place at a certain time, and then the women that said this were astute enough to hang together and eventually form a national action committee on the status of women.

And that experience has not—that Canadian experience—that allowed the modifications to the Constitution, and various forms of anti-discrimination legislation, that then had become very helpful, not only to women, but also to other minorities.

Have you seen the changes of the legislation and Constitutional amendments in your lifetime?

There’s no question that somebody who was in the position I was when my son was born, and said to somebody, ‘I’m pregnant.’ There’s legislation now; they have to keep your job; they have to give you that much maternity leave; you have a medical insurance system that picks up some of those expenses; and no employer can say no. That’s an enormous change.

The salary thing is still a question where one may have to struggle, but it is not that a priori a woman gets paid less for work of equal value. And there are laws that one can change. Not that people who need to challenge have the power to do so, but that exists. I mean if you see the number of women—school principals and university presidents—that is the change.

I constantly emphasize that the issue is not essentially gender. The issue is patriarchy. I must say that I myself have been surprised at the rapid rise of lady patriarchs. And of course there are lady patriarchs. I was surprised how easily young women who have all options open for patriarchy become as much the patriarch in a hierarchical structure as any man does; and conversely, how many men—how many men, not that many—have found a collaborative structure convenient and don’t pull rank. 

The developments flow from there. The main development is legislation—and that hand-waving isn’t good enough. 

Hand-waving…?

To say: ‘Yes! Everybody’s equal.’ And then you get hold of the pay schedule or the promotions schedule and it isn’t so. One has to say it is not legal to put somebody down and pay them half.

And when you say “lady patriarchs,” what do you mean?

I mean women who behave as if they are generals or bishops. It makes no difference in many ways if it’s a woman or a man. In particular positions, a woman can be as inconsiderate a lady patriarch as a male patriarch would have been. So the issue is the hierarchical structuring; the issue is patriarchy. 

You were also involved in strontium testing. Did that float out of your social work in the ’60s, your work as a citizen? 

What you are referring to is the sense that one is a citizen first and happen to be a professional in one area or another, but you don’t stop being a citizen because you are a highway engineer or a professor of metallurgy, but you also don’t leave all your scientific knowledge when you are a resident in the district that is suddenly heavily influence by pollution from another plant; or, globally, from fallout or chemical pollution.

When you object to things like that, you bring the skills that you have to have professionally to it, as do all the others who may provide citizen input or position. The whole fabric of the democratic process comes from citizens who are competent in various ways, and my competency happens to be science. I have a certain skill in teaching to make it clear to people without using jargon what certain inevitable things, such as nuclear fallout or river pollution, mean, and that the half-life of uranium doesn’t change when you change governments. Somebody has to say that at the right place in the right language, and I’ve always taken these opportunities and, like others, contributed with the best I had.

So I’ve very much been a part of women’s peace organizations and very much meet in the most active form of pacifism—the prevention of situations that lead to war. So the pacifism, elective pacifism, are all the political and social measures against injustices that in the end drive hatred and violence. 

Once you were at the University of Toronto, and got into archeometry and teaching, I suppose that followed the reforms in Canada. Did you see the university change over your time there, and just generally what was it like to be a female professor of engineering during the ’70s and ’80s?

Well… pretty lonely. You know the real difficulty is to protect and advance your women students, and to see that they are in a hassle-free learning environment. When I came to the university, I’d been around long enough to know that I wasn’t one of the gang, and I never would be. I didn’t have a desire to be one of the boys.

But the great wish—to give my women students a hassle-free, happy learning environment—that’s what’s difficult. The culture of engineering is not a culture of acceptance and understanding of anything that is female and—at the same time—equal. So that’s… that’s a real job. It was a long and hard [work] in this, and it’s by no means yet all done.

What are some mechanisms by which you tried to create a happy and hassle-free environment? 

Well, most of all, a community of women—that the women were helpful to each other. The other was to deal with the administration that pornography on the Internet—or what preceded it, the girly pictures on calendars in the lab—that that was just not acceptable.

I frequently had to say: Look. If instead of the girly pictures, these would mock Jews, it would be down in three minutes. If that would be black vs. white, the same. It is not acceptable to just have the stuff around and say, ‘Oh it’s just nice, we like that.’

And that’s particularly with pornography on the net. The girly calendar, you can take down. The current, really difficult thing, is the pornography on the net, that you cannot—other than by people’s own attitude, cannot directly police or check in a university environment in which censorship is not a tool one wants to use.

I think all the range of things like cyber-bullying, pornography—any of those techniques of threat in absentia, in the sense that we don’t see those are threatening but you should see those who are being threatened—that sort of thing is a very, much more difficult thing than the direct attacks of the people who would say we don’t have girls in the lab.

To them you could say—okay, you can’t afford this anymore, it’s illegal around here to reject an applicant because she’s a woman—but the next phase, that we now see, is things like cyber-bulling, targeting, without being visible as the attacker… that’s a very difficult thing to deal with.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/03/amazing-structure-a-conversation-with-ursula-franklin/284349/