No Belles – Part I

It’s that time of year again, when headlines with the luminous word “Nobel” float over beaming photos of the newest laureates. Every October the world watches while the Swedish Nobel committees honor the best writer, economist, scientists, and so on. No prize is more unpredictable, prestigious—or profitable. As well as the million-dollar purse, there is a lifetime promise of enticing work and, in the sciences, research money in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Theoretically, women are invited to this party. Sweden, after all, has garnered its own prize from the United Nations as the most gender-friendly country on the planet—women make up 55 percent of ministers and 43 percent of parliamentarians. Yet the number of women who have won the Nobel tells a different story. A closer look at both the recipient list and the selection process—particularly in the sciences—suggests that those awarding the prizes have hidden the discussion of gender discrimination behind their reputation for objectivity. If women haven’t won, the argument goes, it means they simply haven’t been good enough.

But how good is good enough? Since the Nobel Prizes for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, peace, and literature were first awarded in 1901, only 2 women have won the physics prize, compared with 157 men. Only 3 women have captured the chemistry prize, compared with 129 men. No woman has won the prize in physics since 1963, or in chemistry since 1964. Six women have been awarded the physiology or medicine prize, but the first came only in 1947, and then not again until 1977. No woman has taken the economics prize since it was first awarded in 1969. The numbers for peace and literature are 10 and 9, compared with 77 and 87. Nadine Gordimer broke a 25-year no-woman stretch in literature in 1991.

“How can we look back a hundred years and say that only nine women have won the prize for literature?” says Ebba Witt-Brattstršm, professor of literature at Sšdertšrn University in Stockholm and one of Sweden’s most prominent feminists. She maintains that at least 40 percent of the prizes should have gone to women.

The discrepancy in the sciences has not gone unnoticed either. When Witt-Brattstršm attended a Nobel dinner two years ago, a Japanese scientist leaned across the table and inquired, “Could you tell me why it is that there are no women here? We all know there are lots of them in science.”

Finding the answer is further complicated by the Nobel Foundation’s policy of keeping the nomination lists and selection process confidential for 50 years. Elisabeth Crawford, who has spent 20 years studying the Nobel archives as a senior fellow with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, found that of the 5,000 nominations for the physics and chemistry prizes up until 1949, only 50 were for women. Nobel defenders say that many women may have been nominated since 1950, but few have made the final cut.

Nobel purists say the prizes should not be influenced by gender balance. The history of the prizes, however, is full of subtle kinds of influence. In a classic case of old-boy-networking, the wealthy industrialist Armand Hammer decided that he wanted a Nobel Peace Prize. He spent several years schmoozing influential people but died before he achieved his goal. Edward Jay Epstein, who wrote Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer, later reported that Hammer had supposedly made it onto a short list of two people. The other was the Dalai Lama.

A 1998 New Yorker article detailed the literature committee’s infighting over whether making a point of giving the prize to new voices or minorities threatened its value. Conservative Swedish literary critic Mats Gellerfelt sarcastically noted in the article that the ideal candidate for a Nobel today would be a lesbian from Asia.