More Valuable Than Even Radium: Christine Ladd-Franklin's Perspective on Intellect and the Life of the Mind

Article excerpt

"I hold out to them the good example of the University of Chicago, and I hope to make it 'work' in course of time," confided Christine Ladd-Franklin, noted color theorist and logician, to a sympathetic male colleague in 1914. (2) An unsalaried lecturer and one of the few women then offering graduate instruction at Columbia, Ladd-Franklin was critical of the gender barriers and anti-feminist biases she perceived at the Ivy League university. To Ladd's frustration, Columbia remained far more willing to admit women into its graduate departments than to hire them as faculty. This was the case despite women's achievements not only at the nation's women's colleges but also at male-dominated coeducational universities. Ever the tireless reformer and optimist, Ladd-Franklin hoped that her own example as a highly productive scholar and distinguished lecturer, together with her vigilance and continued prodding, might prick the conscience of Columbia men and help break down the barriers militating against women's advancement on campus. These barriers continued, she believed, contrary to both common sense and meritocratic values. To her, the mind was neither male nor female: it was gender-neutral. Intellectual power was not to be wasted; it was to be embraced, cultivated, and enabled. From her vantage point, the intellect was, simply put," more valuable than even radium." (3)

This essay explores how Christine Ladd-Franklin (1847-1930) conceptualized the capabilities and contributions of educated women and the meaning she attached to the life of the mind. As such, this study builds upon and contributes to a rich feminist literature aiming to integrate women's experience into historical writing on higher education, the disciplines, and the professions. In addition to recovering the research achievements of women scientists like Ladd-Franklin, historians have pointed to gender biases within academic culture, considered whether gender shapes scientific knowledge, and highlighted the strategies women adopted to fight exclusion and marginalization in male-dominated fields and institutions) In making common cause with the existing literature on women academicians and scientists, this biography hopes to emphasize a dimension of scholarly women's story that albeit embedded within accounts of her pioneering achievements is too often overshadowed or muted by discussion of the hurdles she negotiated striving to build a career and achieve by male-modeled norms--and that is, what did intellect and the opportunity to pursue a life devoted to intellectual matters (traditionally held to be a masculine rather than a feminine pursuit) mean to this woman?

In order to consider this question, this essay considers the contours of one particular woman's life in depth. Biography, as Barbara Finkelstein has described eloquently," is to history what a telescope is to the stars. It reveals the invisible, extracts detail from myriad points of light, uncovers sources of illumination, and helps us disaggregate and reconstruct large heavenly pictures." Indeed, moving well beyond mere chronology, the historical study of a life "offers a unique lens through which one can assess the relative power of political, economic, cultural, social, and generational processes on the life chances of individuals." (5)

In focusing on Christine Ladd-Franklin, this essay seeks to open a window to the social world that Ladd-Franklin and other kindred women were compelled to negotiate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We see how Ladd-Franklin's ability to envision and, beyond that, to realize an intellectual life and solidify her identity as an intellectual woman--to embrace her heroine Mary Wollstonecraft's dictum that women's "first duty is to themselves as rational creatures"--took shape against the landscape of major growth and innovation in higher education, especially the pivotal educational advances for women and the rise of research universities in the decades from the 1860s through the Progressive Era. …