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As A Young Scientist, Angela Little Battled Sexism at Every Turn

At 100, one of Berkeley’s oldest alums remembers a difficult road to academia.

September 21, 2020
by Angela C. Little, as told to Ying Zhao
FirstPerson Image source: Kathryn Ratke

I didn’t realize there was a kind of basic prejudice against women during the field trips in my second semester at Berkeley. There were two women and 26 guys on the trips. The T.A. always tried to make it too tough for the women. It was like, “Well, the girls couldn’t keep up, just go back and forget about it.”

It was only later that I analyzed the T.A.’s actions and realized how unwelcoming they were.

I was only 15 when I enrolled at Berkeley. At that age, you don’t think in terms of anti-female prejudice. So I took it because I had taken it before from my father, who was authoritarian.

Angela Little
Angela Little // Illustration by Kathryn Ratke

He had very strict, old-world ideas, which meant I had to live at home and commute from San Francisco to Berkeley. That meant three hours a day on two streetcars, a ferry boat, a train, and another streetcar.

After graduation, I worked in different laboratories. Guys with Ph.D.s and M.D.s used to look down on a mere bachelor’s degree person like me, no matter what ideas I might have or how well I could perform.

My daughter was born in 1948, and I went to work in a laboratory at Stanford Medical School. One day, I was pouring solvents into a big chromatography column over my head and got very sick with solvent poisoning. They thought this was psychosomatic. It was a dreadful thing. So I quit working.

Over the next few months, I thought, I’ll go back to Berkeley to get a master’s degree and Ph.D. and free myself from the prejudice.

So I signed up for the graduate program in biochemistry and was admitted. The chair of the department, a Nobel laureate, knew nothing about me. I was a perfect stranger.

He asked, “Are you married?” I said, “Yes.”

He asked, “Do you have children?” I said, “Yes, I have a little girl.”

Then he said, “Why do you want to be a biochemist? Why don’t you just go home and have more babies?”

I was furious. I went to the campus. I kicked rocks. I punched trees. I cried out loud, “What kind of person is this?”

I went to the head of a graduate group in food science. I told him “My name is Angela Little, I’m married, I have a child, and I had to change my major.” He was under pressure to find graduate students, so he said: “Welcome!”

All in all, my years at Berkeley had ups and downs. It wasn’t always easy being a woman among a whole bunch of men.

But I started getting sick again and showed all the signs of chronic solvent intoxication. I couldn’t do wet labs anymore. I went into a new area, agricultural chemistry, and eventually got my Ph.D. It was not the kind of research that I had ever dreamed of doing, but I was able to make a mark.

At that time, female professors had seven years either to make tenure or they were out. If they took some pregnancy leave, it was still counted as part of the seven years.

After becoming a faculty member at Berkeley, I chaired the committee on the Status of Women and Ethnic Minorities. We suggested stopping the clock for new mothers—let them have their time out and then come back and restart the clock. That was considered a very forward-looking proposal.

All in all, my years at Berkeley had ups and downs. It wasn’t always easy being a woman among a whole bunch of men.

I had people who were very receptive. And I had bad experiences, too.

When affirmative action came about, the chair of the chemistry department was quoted saying, “If I have to have a woman, I will send one of my men to Denmark.” Denmark was where they had the first trans woman.

And there were men who would have loved to see me go up like the Wicked Witch of the West. They thought if they poured water on me, I would just dissolve or something.

When the faculty did something I thought was wrong, I’d say, “I do not accept that. Listen to me.” It was like when I felt my father was wrong, I would tell him so. He’d be very upset with me, but I would not give ground. 

“When you were young, I thought you were very stubborn,” my mother said to me when I was an adult, “but now I know you were persevering.”

Angela C. Little is a 100-year-old professor emerita in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology. She first attended Berkeley in 1935 as an undergraduate student and retired in 1985. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she was going to the gym three times a week.

From the Fall 2020 issue of California.

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