Jessy Randall on “Fay Ajzenberg-Selove (1926-2012)”

Jessy Randall is a poet who finds inspiration in the lives of the pioneering women who broke barriers in science. Here, she discusses the life of nuclear physicist Fay Ajzenberg-Selove, who received a National Medal of Science in 2007, yet was originally denied a job at the University of Pennsylvania because its physics building lacked a women’s restroom. Enjoy Randall’s poem “Fay Ajzenberg-Selove (1926-2012)” from our May/June 2022 issue!

Jessy Randall’s poem, reprinted below, appears in the May/June 2022 issue of Analog.

Fay Ajzenberg-Selove (1926–2012)

“Inadequate research publications,”
they told me. So much bull.

There was an inadequacy, though.
No women’s bathroom in the science building.

“I’ll use the men’s,” I said. I didn’t escape the Nazis

to let a urinal scare me.
They’d already tried to lower my pay.

As if, I said to them. As if energy levels of atomic nuclei

can be argued with. As if physics are negotiable.

I’m so pleased and proud that Analog has published four poems from my forthcoming collection, Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science (Gold SF, September 2022, distributed by MIT Press

More about the project:

Previous interview with Analog:

More about Gold SF in a forthcoming post.

The University of Pennsylvania really did tell Fay Ajzenberg-Selove they couldn’t hire her because the Physics building didn’t have a women’s bathroom. This story isn’t unique to her: mathematician Evelyn Boyd Granville, too, was denied a position on the grounds that the college would “have to change the plumbing.” (For the full story, see Women of Mathematics: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook, 1987). The women in Mathematics for Ladies faced many and various obstacles to pursuing careers in STEM fields, but this bathroom thing has got to be the most circular and ridiculous. No bathrooms for women in science buildings, therefore no women teaching or taking science classes, therefore no need to install a women’s bathroom . . .

Ajzenberg-Selove, unlike most of the women in my book, got a chance to tell her own story. Rutgers University published her memoir A Matter of Choices: Memoirs of a Female Physicist in 1994. Your library ( probably has it.

 Jessy Randall’s poems, stories, and other things have appeared in Asimov’s, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Nature, Poetry, and Scientific American. Her most recent book is How to Tell If You Are Human: Diagram Poems (Pleiades, 2018). She is the Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College, where she occasionally teaches a class in The History and Future of the Book.

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