the web site of Austin-based writer Eileen Mcginnis.


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“The Chains of the Merely Personal”: Physicist Mileva Marić-Einstein, the Price of Genius, + the Value of a Woman’s Work

“(My husband) is now regarded as the best of the German-language physicists, and they give him a lot of honors. I am very happy for his success, because he really does deserve it; I only hope and wish that fame does not have a harmful effect on his humanity.”

-       Mileva Einstein to Helene Savić, Sept. 1909

“(Mileva’s) illness has made me sad, but fortunately she is now in full convalescence. Despite this interest on my part, she is and will remain always for me a severed limb…. Do not feel sorry for me…. I resemble a farsighted man who is charmed by the vast horizon and whom the foreground bothers only when an opaque object prevents him from seeing.”

-       Albert Einstein to Helene Savić, Sept. 1916


The Matilda Effect

During a wintry visit to Syracuse when I was about five months pregnant, my mother-in-law bundled me into the car and drove us off to nearby Fayetteville, NY. Our destination: the Matilda Joselyn Gage Home, a museum established by Diane’s friend Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner.

By the end of the tour, I had acquired (1) a radically altered perspective on the early history of the women’s movement and (2) a ravenous appetite for lunch. My second-trimester hunger pangs had, alas, won out over my hunger for knowledge.

Back home in Texas, I made up for my hungry inattention at the museum by researching Gage online. She is a fascinating subject in her own right:

  • A radical feminist, who was written out of the history of the U.S. suffrage movement that she had created alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

  • An adopted member of the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk nation, who campaigned for indigenous rights, and whose studies of the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy’s government informed her feminist vision.

  • The mother-in-law of L. Frank Baum, who would encourage him to publish the bedtime stories he had set in “the marvelous Land of Oz.”

Gage’s particular relevance here comes from an essay she penned in 1883. Titled “Woman as an Inventor,” the essay reaches back in time 6000 years, crediting two emperors’ wives, Yao and Si-Ling-Chi with, respectively, the invention of spinning and the discovery of silk. It then zooms forward to highlight contemporary women worldwide inventing agricultural processes, noise-reduction technologies, scientific equipment, and medical instruments. Gage not only claimed a long history for women’s practice of invention; she re-evaluated what ‘counts’ as invention in the first place. 

Over a century after Gage’s essay appeared in the North American Review, the science historian Margaret Rossiter would name a theory after her. The “Matilda Effect” refers to the historical bias toward undervaluing, misattributing, or ignoring the contributions of women in science and technology. 

The Matilda Effect hangs over the marriage and motherhood of Mileva Marić. She was a promising Serbian intellectual born in 1875 into the Austro-Hungarian empire. Marić became first a study partner, then a romantic partner, to the young Albert Einstein, while they were both enrolled as physics students at the Zurich Polytechnic.

Later, to the detriment of both her career in physics and her personal happiness, she became his wife.

Baby Einstein

Marić’s story doesn’t fit neatly into a ‘recovered heroines of science’ narrative. It would be difficult to write an inspiring kids’ book about her. But that doesn’t mean her story shouldn’t be told; in fact, it gives the telling all the more urgency.

In her early life, Marić excelled as a student. As with many pioneering women in science and engineering, she enjoyed the support and encouragement of her father. He first enrolled her in a gymnasium across the border in Serbia, then petitioned for her admission into the all-male Royal Classical Gymnasium in Zagreb. There, she became one of the first women of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to attend a physics lecture alongside male students.

In Zurich, Marić was the only woman in her physics and math cohort at the Swiss Polytechnic, a group that included Einstein, three-and-a-half years her junior. She did experience her first wobble in confidence at having failed her final exams in the summer of 1900, but was not deterred from retaking them the following year.

A young, determined-looking Mileva Marić, circa 1896.

A young, determined-looking Mileva Marić, circa 1896.

And then something shifted. Even if, as Einstein biographers Roger Highfield and Paul Carter surmise, psychology rather than physics was Marić’s true intellectual passion, it’s hard to believe that her curiosity and drive suddenly vanished, as mysteriously and irrevocably as her daughter Lieserl did.

Oh yes, there was a baby. On the eve of retaking her exams, Marić discovered she was pregnant out of wedlock.

Einstein and Marić’s daughter Lieserl was born in January 1902 at her parents’ home in Novi Sad. Marić’s parents likely raised Lieserl until her possible death of scarlet fever at age 2.* This unplanned child could at least partly explain Marić’s withdrawal from physics, her inability to immerse herself in academic life given the weight of other preoccupations.

Despite growing ambivalence from the once-ardent Einstein, as well as the adamant opposition of his mother Pauline, their relationship weathered the storm. In 1904, the couple married in a modest ceremony. But perhaps Lieserl’s birth planted the seeds of their future rift, and of a deep sadness that seemed to settle permanently over Marić.

She gave birth to two sons: Hans Albert in 1904 and Eduard (nicknamed Tete) six years later. In letters to her longtime friend and confidante Helene Savić, Marić says nothing about her abandoned daughter or her unfulfilled ambitions, though as time wears on she does hint at marital tensions.**

Marić with her older son Hans Albert.

Marić with her older son Hans Albert.

Hans Albert would recall seeing his parents “work together in the evenings at the same table.” But they were largely confined to separate spheres. During their school days, when Einstein was away on summer vacation, he had written to Marić,

When I read Helmholtz for the first time I could not – and still cannot – believe that I was doing so without you sitting next to me. I enjoy working together very much, as well as finding it soothing and less boring.

Even after she became pregnant, Einstein’s letters offered a vision of their future marriage that made a place for intellectual collaboration: “When you’re my dear little wife we’ll diligently work on science together so we don’t become old philistines, right?”

But in 1904, while the newly married Marić was off visiting her parents (and possibly Lieserl) in Novi Sad, Einstein wrote to her, “Things don’t yet look nearly so bad at home as you think. You’ll be able to clean up in short order.” Although the tone is jocular, the domestic work was real. Two months into her marriage, Marić would apologize to Helene for the long gap in their correspondence; she excused herself on the grounds that “My new duties are taking their toll. We have a nice little household, which I am taking care of quite alone….”

The woman with whom Einstein had once longed to study the physics of Hermann von Helmholtz side-by-side had become a housekeeper.

This is the Matilda Effect in another guise: the foreclosure of opportunity for the spouses of male scientists. Although marriage in the 19th and early 20th centuries played a crucial role in getting women into science and retaining them as active participants, it was also what put their reputations and recognition at risk.

Einstein, for instance, could afford to break with Heinrich Weber, the couple’s mentor at Zurich Polytechnic; he simply acquired a new advisor. But for Marić, the falling-out with Weber, made on behalf of Einstein, was costlier. She now depended on the goodwill and support of her spouse to retain a foothold in the world of physics. And Einstein never appeared to bother about being that advocate for Marić. His criticisms of bourgeois mores notwithstanding,

(Einstein) seems to have been content to let (Marić) play the ‘philistine’ role of hausfrau, involving her in his work as little more than occasional amanuensis, and never publicly acknowledging her contributions.

Once Einstein soured on their relationship, life became even more trying for Marić. The couple separated in 1914 and divorced five years later, though Einstein’s affair with his cousin Elsa, who would become his second wife, had begun in 1912. After their separation, Marić suffered a mysterious physical breakdown that left her convalescing for several months. For the remainder of her life, she faced financial struggles as she raised their two sons alone. To make ends meet, she took on boarders, sold off investment properties, and sought part-time work giving math and piano lessons. Her younger son Eduard required costly health treatments and ever-more-watchful care after being diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Einstein often complained about the oppressiveness of his first marriage, but surely, surely it was Marić who got the raw deal.

Quantum Effects

What do we do with all of these shitty men from history?! I rail aloud to my husband, who is innocently trying to fall asleep. My mind is still racing with the echoes of Einstein’s epistolary abuse toward Marić, with the disquieting thud of yet another fallen idol.

Despite his tiredness, Sol makes a good point: we might be able to avoid watching Woody Allen movies, but we can’t exactly ignore the laws of physics. Einstein must, somehow, be reckoned with.

Throughout his life, Einstein positioned himself as apart from others. In his memoirs, he boasted about his detachment, his ability to rise above the “chains of the merely personal.”

Decades earlier, Einstein had expressed a similar sentiment while rationalizing the dissolution of his first marriage. As he explained to the couple’s mutual friend Helene:

I resemble a farsighted man who is charmed by the vast horizon and whom the foreground bothers only when an opaque object prevents him from seeing.

Those pesky “objects” in the foreground, obscuring the farther view, could have been material goods or social niceties. In context, though, they seem to refer to his human wife and children.

Einstein’s words recall an idea I’ve written about before: the “art monster.” Jenny Offill coined the term in her 2011 novel to refer to creators, often men, who live for their art, without regard to other people. They might not have children, or they might outsource the raising of kids to a partner or spouse. Here is a chance to explore the art monster’s analogue in science. Marić herself saw the resemblance, when she worried that Einstein, enticed by his work, and the growing celebrity it fostered, would lose “his humanity.”

In my mind, these myths—the solitary genius, the art monster—are worthless. Even, especially, when we consider the story of someone like Albert Einstein, who has become the absolute epitome (or ultimate caricature?) of this kind of figure.

Marić and Einstein.

Marić and Einstein.

For one, the genius or “great man” model of history obscures the collaborative nature of science. While Einstein was no doubt a brilliant, original theorist, he developed his ideas in conversation. He relied on these social exchanges to clarify and enrich his thinking. In the first years of the 20th century, the ones leading up to his ‘miracle year,’ Marić was both his main squeeze and his main conversation partner.

Later, that circle would expand to include other minds, including that of his lifelong friend Michele Besso. But at the start, and even quite late into their marriage, Einstein’s genius fed off of, depended on, his relationship with Marić:

Marić and Einstein shared intimacy and science for perhaps a decade. Their union helped to sustain his creativity, seemingly more than hers, as she was driven from the partnership of their student days into the almost exclusive roles of wife and mother.

More generally, their marriage underscores the unpaid, unglamorous labor behind the so-called ‘lone genius.’ The household management, the raising of children that created space for contemplation, which was sorely lacking given Einstein’s day job at the Patent Office during those early years of his career.

The burdens on Marić only grew after their separation, and as Einstein’s reputation soared. Marić single-handedly raised their boys in Switzerland, while Einstein sent her paranoid, acrimonious letters*** first from Germany, then from across the Atlantic.

Marić with her two sons, circa 1912.

Marić with her two sons, circa 1912.

A Woman’s Worth

But what, you ask eagerly, was Marić’s intellectual contribution to special relativity and the other papers that formed Einstein’s ‘miracle year’?

I am going to timidly sidestep that fascinating but explosive question.

Not only because I fear the Defenders of Einstein goon squad appearing at my doorstep. I also believe we simply don’t know. The evidence offered by both ‘sides’ (and this is a very partisan fight****) is inconclusive, circumstantial.

Marić’s champions hinge their arguments on the inclusive pronouns Einstein used when referring to the research that led up to his celebrated 1905 papers (“our work”). They also find it curious that Einstein promised his Nobel Prize money to Marić for child support, perhaps a secret admission that she deserved part of the credit. Naysayers rest their dismissal on Marić’s lackluster performance at the Polytechnic, as well as her lack of engagement with Einstein’s effusive riffs about physics in the couple’s love letters.

I hope that future historians will uncover more information about the nature and extent of the Marić-Einstein collaboration. The findings have the potential to be earth-shattering, incendiary. But, viewed from a different angle, the answer doesn’t matter at all.

There’s a bigger story surrounding Einstein and Marić’s creative partnership. It has to do with the invisibility of women’s labor, and the pernicious myth of capital-G genius. It’s not just about the science.

Regardless of her role in the paradigm-shifting discoveries of twentieth-century physics, Marić’s life demands our sympathy, and our attention. Why do we need to imagine that she played a crucial part in developing special relativity or discovering the law of the photoelectric effect in order to see her labor? Why is that the only way to validate her place in the history of physics? Why is that the sole metric for reckoning her contribution?

For much of the century since Einstein and Marić ended their marriage, we have exempted male artists, geniuses, entrepreneurs from personal responsibility; we have set them outside of, and above, the social fabric. This tolerance of monstrosity in the service of art, or science, rested on a warped understanding of how creativity works, and especially how it can work to the good of humanity.

The “merely personal,” as second-wave feminists would have schooled Einstein, can plant the seeds of creative expression, cultural change, and large-scale political movements. Einstein’s chains can be reimagined as a web.

Maybe the best way forward is to invent new myths about creativity. To acknowledge the multi-dimensional lives of parents, in history and in the present.

Just as we’ve over-hyped the capital-G genius, we’ve historically undervalued the physical and emotional work of caregiving.

I started researching this post around Mother’s Day, when there were features about reclaiming the holiday’s origins as a vehicle for recognizing, and compensating, women’s labor in the home.

Marić herself had contemplated this very topic. In Marić’s copy of Auguste Forel’s The Sexual Question, likely purchased in 1904 when she was pregnant with Hans Albert, she had underlined the following passage:

In a marriage, the housework of a wife should not be seen as an independent performance but as real work which she should be just as much paid for as her husband.

Marić would soon relinquish both her professional goals and her egalitarian ideals of marriage. But her life experiences imparted a hard-earned wisdom far beyond that of her much-vaunted ex-husband.

Mileva Marić understood deeply, intimately, the hidden costs of Male Genius, and the unseen value of a woman’s work.


*In their lifetimes, the couple kept Lieserl a closely guarded secret; scholars only learned about her existence in 1986. Even now, despite an entire book devoted to uncovering her story (Michele Zackheim’s Einstein’s Daughter), Lieserl’s fate remains shrouded in mystery. Some speculate that she died of scarlet fever as a toddler; others that she was put up for private adoption in Serbia.

**The historical record lacks Mileva’s voice, other than an impression of sadness, struggle, and a deep, abiding love for her children (admittedly, that may well be because many of her letters have been lost). It was difficult finding her candid perspective even in correspondence with her close friend Helene, aside from this reference to Einstein a few years after the divorce:

I am thinking of something else that has pleased me a great deal and that I would not close without mentioning. It was your attitude when we spoke about Albert Einstein…. Even my closest friends still feel a great deal of admiration for his scientific achievements and transfer that to the personal sphere. You alone understand me best when you were able to say: I no longer care for him.”

***Einstein sent Marić increasingly strident ultimatums, fearing she was turning their children against him. She wasn’t to interfere at all in his correspondence with the boys, and he threatened to sever contact with the children if he sensed that she had meddled at all in their correspondence. Perhaps feeling ashamed or on the defensive, he went on the attack: “If I had known you twelve years ago as I know you now, I would have judged my responsibilities towards you quite differently.”

The record on Einstein and women more generally is pretty dismal. Despite his famous friendship with Marie Curie, he saw her as a “a brilliant exception” to his belief in a general law that women were incapable of scientific achievement: “It is conceivable that Nature may have created a sex without brains!” And as a serial philanderer in his second marriage to Elsa, he sought out women who did not have any intellectual ambitions. Otherwise, he was not at all discriminating. As he wrote about another female relative who had caught his eye before Elsa: “I cannot understand how I could have ever liked her. In reality, it is very simple. She was young, a girl, and welcoming. That was enough.”

****This is a fraught debate that involve partisan stakeholders, including preservers of Einstein’s legacy, Serbian patriots, feminist historians. It’s hard to get a clear perspective since, as linguist Senta Trömel-Plötz points out, researchers come to the question with their own, often unexamined biases:

Of course, I am not “objective” either; I am arguing from the very beginning from a feminist perspective in the interest of Einstein-Marić. History, as we know, is written by the winners – winners of wars or of Nobel prizes. In contrast to the authors whose politics it is to write “history” under the camouflage of scientific objectivity in the interest of Einstein, I state my motivation. The life of Mileva Einstein-Marić touched me from the first time I heard about it. A life that in spite of all good preconditions – a protective family, intellectual promotion and financial support, university studies in Zurich and Heidelberg – was not to succeed, a life in which expectations did not come true, a life in which happiness and success were ephemeral and fleeting. Would we know her today as a great theoretical physicist if she had never met Albert Einstein?

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