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Karen Uhlenbeck on Being the First Woman to Receive the Abel Prize

The following is a slightly edited excerpt of the remarks that Karen Uhlenbeck gave at the reception held in her honor at the Institute for Advanced Study on March 19, 2019.

By Karen Uhlenbeck Published 2019

George M. Bergman/Archives of the Mathematisches Forschungsinstitut Oberwolfach
Karen Uhlenbeck at Berkeley in 1969

I think many of the people who are interested in congratulating me on the Abel Prize are doing so because I’m a woman and I’m the first woman to get it. 

And I can’t help resist telling the story that actually it isn’t quite as unnerving as being the second woman to give a plenary address at the International Congress of Mathematicians. That was in 1990. The first woman was Emmy Noether in 1932, which is a pretty frightening fact when you’re in the middle of it. Now it doesn’t seem so bad. 

But, anyway, it’s not so easy being a role model. One of the things you learn when you’re going through life and so forth is that you need role models, but you don’t need perfect role models. You need role models who fall down and pick themselves up. You need role models who show how even though you can’t do everything, you can do some things. You need role models to keep you going. 

One of the things that interviewers have been asking me is, “Did I have a role model?” And I’ve thought about it, and I can tell you who my role model was. It was Julia Child. She had these fantastic television programs, and she was a real person. She could pick the turkey up off the floor and serve it. 

People also ask me if things have changed for women, and I want to say, “Boy, have they.” And that’s because most of you are young. You don’t know what it was like. It wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70s that the laws that prevented women and minorities from getting jobs were taken off the books. I was really at that first stage when it became possible that you could make your way into mathematics and become a mathematician. 

Of course, there were still some laws on the books, but some universities hired women without worrying about it too much and it was a great moment. And I do have to say that, along with a lot of the other women who took advantage of this, we thought that—now that the laws are changed and the doors are no longer locked—women and minorities would just march through the doors and take their rightful place in academia. And sad to say it was not that simple. But it is a lot better now, and I hope that I have helped to make it a better place. 

I also want to say one last thing and that’s thanks to the Norwegian government for recognizing pure mathematics. It’s a wonderful subject, a lot of fun. And I feel very privileged not only to have been a research mathematician but to have enjoyed it and to be rewarded for it. Thank you very much.

A recording of the reception in Karen Uhlenbeck’s honor is available here.

Published in The Institute Letter Spring 2019