Luise-Charlotte Kappe


Born and raised in Germany before WWII, I got my Ph.D. at the University of Freiburg in 1962. After getting my PhD., I married a fellow mathematician and we immigrated to the US in 1963, where we have been teaching at a university ever since, first at Ohio State, then since 1968 at Binghamton University.

As long as I can remember, I had three goals in life: become a scientist (originally a physicist, since mathematics was so boring in school), have a career and have a family. In this pursuit, I had very few role models. It was not exactly easy to reach those goals, but all this pales compared to the obstacles previous women had to overcome.

What if I would have lived during my grandmother’s time? My grandmother, Erna Thie nee Sandow, born in 1882 into a family of musicians in Berlin, was a budding concert pianist when an injury to one of her fingers forced her to switch careers. She became an elementary school teacher, the only career open to girls at that time. I am sure, nowadays she would have ended up somewhere in academia. As every female teacher of her generation, her contract contained a clause, saying that she would have to quit her job if she got married. That was what she had to do in 1909 when she married my grandfather. She did not give in. She founded her own private elementary school and only shortly before WWII she was forced to close it. At the end her school had become the haven for many Jewish children who were forced out of the public schools.

When I was growing up, I saw nothing out of the ordinary ín the fact that my grandmother had a career. I thought that was what women did. Only later I realized how unusual she was for her time.

I had two role models in Germany from the generation of my mother: Ruth Moufang and Hanna Neumann, both mathematicians. Ruth Moufang was not permitted to get her Habilitation during NS-times but could do so after WWII. I met her in the fifties in Frankfurt. The first time I saw her lecturing when I visited Frankfurt, escaping Erlangen for a short time because I just had split up with a boyfriend. Seeing her gave me the confidence that succeeding in academia was not impossible.

Later on when I met Hanna Neumann, I got reassured that success in academia and raising a family by a couple who are both mathematicians is not impossible. Hanna and her husband Bernhard were one of the first pioneers in this respect.

Now to my generation.  Born and raised in Germany in a very dark and austere time made you appreciate what you had. It created a hunger for learning. Nevertheless, my childhood memories are brightly lit scenes. The end of WWII finds me in a one-room school house in a small village. You learned your lessons and those of the older students too. l became a voracious reader, in particular old school texts of my Uncle.  I dreamed of visiting Yellowstone Park. l became a teach-aholic: helping in the nursery school, teaching my playmates and siblings. But there were also afternoons in the ñelds, making hay, picking apples, harvesting potatoes.

Finally, after WWII, I could enter the gymnasium with a two-year delay. I remember the “Kohlenferien,” weeks off because schools could not be heated. Once a week we came to school in our coats and got lots of homework. Learning was with high intensity: Prime numbers! Fascinating! My father, out of work, had time for his family. We made chlorine gas out on the porch. Chemistry was my first love.

I finished the gymnasium in 1955 and got my Abitur in Düsseldorf. Looking back to that time, it was essential that it was an all-girls high school. Here a quote from the first female four-star general in the US army: “Limitations are not part of our vocabulary”. This was our attitude. In my school, our intellectual development was not hampered by the social aspects dominating co-ed schools in the US. I was ready when entering the university: there were no barriers, only what you did counted, not who you were.

How would things have been if I had been raised in the US? Yes, I would have made it with my “no limitations” attitude. A recent PhD. student of mine went to an all-girls high school. Her “no limitations” attitude shows. So does it for my son’s wife who first went to Bryn Mawr, then got a PhD. in Physical Chemistry from the University of Chicago. Another case in point is a colleague of mine in biology who combines academia and family. She went to Smith College.

Would I have continued in academia in Germany after the PhD? Yes! But being married to a fellow mathematician? I doubt it. This was unheard of 50 years ago and appears to have not changed now. Recently I read in a German publication “Mathe – nichts für Madchen?” (Math is not for girls?).  There was an increase of female Ph.D.’s in the fifties and sixties but this was not followed by an increase of academic positions held by females. They say they don’t know why. I can tell them. Here is one of them!

For that reason, my husband and I immigrated to the US in 1963. First, we were at Ohio State and then at Binghamton since 1968. In the U.S., raising a family and having a career for the parents is not impossible, but not a cakewalk either. We made it. We raised two sons and each of us had a career. We were lucky.

Combining academia with raising a family is hard for males too. But it is harder for women: the tenure clock ticks, the biological clock ticks. Equality is on paper. Men don’t have to bear children! Formerly they hired the husband and they took the wife in stride. Now often things are reversed. But that is not right either. Should hiring be done blindfolded, as if not married? That is also not right. So far there is no patent solution.

But I have it better than an experimental scientist. I am not tied to the lab. I can do math while doing my housework. I love to do my dishes, I love to do my laundry, because

I can do my math with it. I hate to do housecleaning, because I can’t do my math with it. I hired a cleaning lady. My advice to academics: get all the help you can. You need it and can afford it.

Whatever you do, there will be some years your career will be dormant. You are on automatic pilot. I got back to it about 30 years ago when my sons were in their last years in high school. My research output accelerated. At that time I started out the best thing I ever did: Working with PhD. students. Fourteen have finished. It is something that gives me tremendous satisfaction. You can make a difference is some one’s life! You cannot ask for more in life! It is indeed a wonderful life!

A special thank you to Charlotte Haddad, who suggested Dr. Kappe for this project.

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