On Friday December 8, former UCLA physicist and current U-M research scientist Margaret Kivelson presented the lecture “Magnetic Structures in the Solar System.” If the “Kivelson” moniker sounds familiar, it should: Margaret Kivelson is the mother of Valerie Kivelson, professor of Russian history.
The elder Kivelson gave this year’s Nelson W. Spencer lecture, an annual event presented by Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering. Switching up the format a bit, the talk was followed by a conversation with daughter Val, about what it was like pursuing a career in space science in the 1940s and 1950s.
Val began their exchange with the vivid memory of her always fashionable mother, a high-powered physicist, making dinner in high heels for Nobel Prize-winning guests. Visitors included a number of Russians, who sparked Val’s own interest in Russia and its history.
Margy recalled pursuing physics after her father, a physician, told her that a career in medicine would make her “less feminine.” She attended Radcliffe in the 1940s. Radcliffe students by her sophomore year had integrated science classes at formerly all-male Harvard. Campus life remained segregated, however, and the few women in these courses had to comply with an early curfew, effectively shutting them out of evening study groups.
Val asked her mother about the tenor of the times: “Did you feel it was wrong or natural?”
“It was the way things were,” Margie responded, then admitted being embarrassed by that attitude now. When she embarked on a PhD program, all the men recieved teaching positions, but sections were segregated and only one position was available for women, which she did not get. She petitioned and won a gradership, but was not allowed to stand before male students as an instructor.
“After all that, have you made a difference to women in the field?” Val asked.
Margy paused for a moment to reflect. “Not so much at UCLA, but yes, at Michigan,” she said. She mentioned fighting successfully for an ombudsman on the UCLA campus and related how she had introduced a promising female grad student to a colleague for a research postdoc position.
Val followed up, asking if she felt she should have protested more. “I think you don’t sweat the small stuff, but don’t shirk the big battles, either,” Margy replied.
For Margaret Kivelson, working within the constraints of the moment did not mean losing sight of bigger goals. Times have changed, and sharing personal histories between generations keeps the possibilities of change alive.