“The female lead never stands out”, Rosalind Franklin’s character bitterly remarks in Anna Ziegler’s play, Photo 51, right before the curtain drops. With the unlikely topic of the first image of human DNA as its central theme – an image captured by Franklin and illegitimately acquired by Watson and Crick to develop their famous DNA model – the play is a brilliant depiction of the various levels at which sexism in science operates. One such level, of diminishing or erasing women’s contributions, was recently instantiated by a series of newspaper headings referring to Esther Duflo, a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics, solely as the wife of another recipient, Abhijit Banerjee, sometimes without even mentioning her name (here and here).

The striking omission of Duflo’s name comes in a context of forceful contestation of the erased or diminished contributions of scientists’ wives to their husbands’ successes. Mileva Maric, Einstein’s first wife, is widely reported by acquaintances to have worked alongside Einstein on his papers – work which included editing, mathematical calculations (which Einstein is reported to have claimed were done exclusively by her), and preparing lectures – some appearing in Maric’s handwriting. While both Einstein and Maric repeatedly referred to the papers as joint work, they were published under Einstein’s name alone. This might have been a joint decision, according to Maric’s most extensive biography,[1] to help Albert make a name for himself and marry her in a context of extreme urgency (the couple had put a child up for adoption out of financial instability). A further reason, given by Maric herself when asked why she would not put her name on the patent for a voltometer she had constructed with Einstein and Conrad Habich, was a deep perception of all things in common between married people – or as she put it in answering Habich: “Warum? Wir beide sind nur ein Stein.[2]

The practice of overlooking private female contributions to public male achievements is also common in the humanities and social sciences. In a 2018 paper, Donica Belisle and Kiera Mitchell reveal the unacknowledged work which Mary Quayle Innis (1899-1972) put into advancing the career of her husband, political economist and economic historian Harold A. Innis. This included “typing, editing, writing, researching, preparing indices, curating his papers, revising his publications, and bringing his manuscripts to press” (2018: 456). In political theory, the contributions of Harriet Taylor Mill (HTM) to shaping the social and political thought of John Stuart Mill (JSM) are widely detracted, despite JSM’s explicit claim that he was sometimes no more than an amanuensis of HTM’s thoughts and that On Liberty “was more directly and literally our joint production than anything else which bears my name… The whole mode of thinking of which the book was the expression, was emphatically hers.”[3]

Mill’s dedication of On Liberty to HTM


The case of HTM is perhaps the most telling for how a notable female contribution has been minimised as the contribution of a ‘wife’. Unlike Mileva Maric’s case, where Einstein himself [4] and then the Einstein Foundation [5] made efforts to silence her claims to joint authorship, JSM made explicit and repeated efforts to acknowledge HTM’s contributions. But then, as Jo Ellen Jacobs rightly asks “Why doesn’t anyone believe him?” (Jacobs 1996: 240) The accepted answer is that the psychological comfort and ‘emotional release’ JSM derived from her presence in their domestic life led to a completely inflated sense of her contribution.[6] Once relegated to the private sphere, it is easy to diminish the role such a ‘private’ contribution could have had for ‘real’ academic work. H.O. Pappe, for example, questions whether what JSM got out of the collaboration with HTM could not in fact have been given to him by any other woman. As he puts it, “Mill without Harriet would still have been Mill” (1960: 47–8 in Miller 2019). Similarly, Reeves writes that “There is no reason to think that Mill’s views would have been substantially different had he ended up with, say, Lizzie Flower—although his life certainly would have been” (2007: 86 in Miller 2019).

As further evidence of a lack of contribution by HTM, accounts by common acquaintances are ushered in. Under the rubric ‘Detractors’, Dale Miller lists Thomas Carlyle’s comment that HTM was always “asking and re-asking stupid questions”, Jane Carlyle’s accusation that HTM had a tendency to “startle you with unexpected sayings” and Harold Laski’s story told by a friend of a friend who had personally talked to HTM, that “she repeated to him what afterwards turned out to be an article that Mill had just finished for the Edinburgh.

What this picture does is blur the lines between the private and the public in a way that serves to disqualify the contributions of HTM.  The first step is to relegate to the private sphere not just HTM’s contribution, but also the reasons for recognising authorship provided by JSM. A second step is to also relegate to the private sphere evidence for authorship itself (or lack thereof). The fact that the portrait that emerges from this evidence as brought by the detractors is one of a curious and unconventional mind, with intimate awareness of the work as published by JSM – all of which back up his portrait of her and description of their close collaboration – is not remarked upon.

Menaka Philips ventures to explain the resistance to viewing HTM as a co-author as due to a transgression of the supporting role of the philosopher’s wife. “Had the dedication in On Liberty read: ‘to the beloved and deplored memory of she who supported me in all my endeavors and contributed some very fine thoughts,’ Philips notes, “HTM might have become the most respected wife of the canon” (Philips 2018: 639). Instead, an explicit insistence that HTM acted not (just) as a wife but as an intellectual author in her own right “constitute[s] a breach of the wall between the public and private worlds of canonical figures” (idem).

It is here that the real problem of omitting Duflo’s name and title, referring to her solely as the wife of a Nobel co-recipient, comes into play. Of course, the recognition that comes with a Nobel prize cannot be as easily written off as the declarations of acquaintances or partners in Maric’s or HTM’s case. Nonetheless,  an uncertain status between the domestic sphere (wife) and the public sphere (MIT Professor, Nobel prize winner) might prompt arguments that align her identity with the domestic sphere of undifferentiated, emotional help rather than the public sphere of scientific achievement. By Philips’ logic, once this ambiguity is introduced one way to resolve it is to insist on the wife status to the detriment of the (co)author or (co)recipient status in a way that marks the kind of contribution that Duflo made in a gendered way.

The possible solutions point to different ways of thinking what justice demands of such gendered omissions as encountered in Esther Duflo’s case. A maximalist stance is to question the idea of authorship in a radical way, and to re-evaluate the essential but unsung ways in which women contribute to ‘fathering’ ideas in the private sphere. Indeed, this seems to be Belisle and Mitchell’s stance with respect to acknowledging the academic contributions of ‘faculty wives’ as academic contributions. A less radical stance is to regard the association between female authors (and especially female co-authors) and their domestic roles as one that renders women in danger of having their contributions lost or minimised. Doing this also requires acknowledging that the move towards gender equality is not one of victories building on top of each other, but one of victory punctuated by loss  –  of women who made it in their lifetime but were then forgotten – like Mary Astell, Émile du Châtelet and Mary Wollstonecraft. One way of furthering the recognition of women’s creative capacities is to prevent specific contributions made by women being blurred into a generic sustenance offered by the mother, the wife, or at best the muse.



[1] Milentijević R (2015) Mileva Maric Einstein: Life with Albert Einstein. BookBaby Print. I omit here two other pieces of evidence: that Maric’s name appeared on one of the early version of the manuscript (which could be explained by a practice of husbands taking on the name of their wives), and that Einstein gave the Nobel prize money to Maric (which could be explained as a mere financial settlement following their divorce).

[2] ‘Why? We are both but one Stone’ in Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1969/1988). Im Schatten Albert Einsteins. Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić (2nd ed.) in https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-forgotten-life-of-einsteins-first-wife/

[3] Mill, J.S (1981) Autobiography. In Robson J and Stillinger J (eds.), Autobiography and Literary Essays (Collected Works of John Stuart Mill: Volume I) Toronto: Toronto University Press: 257–9, in Miller, Dale E., “Harriet Taylor Mill”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

[4] Radmila Milentijević quotes a letter from Einstein to Maric on 24 October 1925, in response to Maric’s ojection that the Nobel prize money belonged to her for their common work: “You made me laugh when you started threatening me with your recollections. Have you ever considered, even just for a second, that nobody would ever pay attention to your says if the man you talked about had not accomplished something important. When someone is completely insignificant, there is nothing else to say to this person but to remain modest and silent. This is what I advise you to do.” (AEA 75-364).

[5] Herbert Smith Bailey (1989) On the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein: The Development of the Project, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 133 (3): 347-359, pp 354-355; Alberto A. Martínez (2011) The Myriad Pieces of Einstein’s Remains, Annals of Science 68(2): 267-280, pp. 269-270.

[6] Borchard 1957: 46, Laski, Trilling 1952, 118; Mazlish 1975: 286–91, in Miller, Dale E., “Harriet Taylor Mill”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Diana Popescu

Diana is an Assistant Professor in Political Theory in the School of Politics and International Relations. She joined the University of Nottingham in 2023, having previously worked at the University of Edinburgh, King’s College London, the University of Oxford, and the London School of Economics. Diana received her PhD in Government from the London School of Economics in 2018, and also holds a Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education from the London School of Economics. She co-edits the Beyond the Ivory Tower series for the Justice Everywhere blog, which publishes interviews with political thinkers who have made an impact on public matters through their work.