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MIT Professor Esther Duflo and Husband Win Nobel Prize

My high school English teacher once told my class about how she made the personal choice to not take her husband’s last name when she married, as she did not want any part of her identity or accomplishments under her old name to be erased. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of her wedding ceremony, the officiant of the wedding still introduced her and her new husband under his name only. Despite her best efforts to avoid it, her name seemed to vanish the very instant she became a wife. My teacher laughed it off, calling it ironic, but I think she experienced the perfect metaphor for a social phenomena I am only beginning to understand.

In the middle of October, three professors were awarded the Nobel Prize in economics: Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, professors at MIT, and Michael Kremer, a professor here at Harvard. Esther Duflo is the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize in economics, and only the second woman. Her laundry list of accomplishments include co-founding the Poverty Action Lab, directing the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s development economics program, and becoming one of the youngest faculty members to hold tenure at MIT. Duflo and Banerjee are married, only the sixth married couple to be awarded the Nobel prize. While a husband and wife duo winning the Nobel prize seems like an occasion to be celebrated, some media sources seemed to elevate one member of the couple more than the other.

After hearing of the couple’s receiving the prize, the Economic Times, the most read English-language business newspaper in India, and which claims to be among the world’s top three English business dailies, published a headline (that has since been changed) reading, “Indian-American MIT Prof Abhijit Banerjee and wife wins Nobel in Economics.” Duflo is left completely unnamed, reduced only to “wife.” The verb “wins” has not even been conjugated for a plural subject. To be fair, it makes sense that Banerjee’s Indian heritage would be a focus of an India-based newspaper. However, even with this in mind, reducing Duflo and her accomplishments entirely to “wife” is a huge oversight at best, and grossly misogynist at worst.

This phenomena of reducing powerful and accomplished women to “wife” or speaking of them only in relation to their marriage is a plague that pervades American media as well. When Amal Clooney, an accomplished human rights lawyer, gave a resounding speech at the United Nations, TIME Magazine seemed more inclined to focus on her baby bump, pregnancy, and outfit, rather than on her speech or her work combatting sexual violence in the Middle East. The introductory sentences ironically read, “Amal Clooney was all business on International Women’s Day. The mom-to-be (who also happens to be married to George Clooney) stepped outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City on Wednesday, showing off her baby bump in a dark gray pencil skirt and matching cropped blazer.”

Married female athletes are often described in the same manner, with the media coverage of athletes such as two-time Olympic medalist Corey Cogdell-Unrein, two-time World Cup champion Julie Ertz, and three-time Olympic gold medalist Katinka Hozzsu providing particularly egregious examples. Here, the women are either left unnamed, described as “wives,” or worse, ignored, their accomplishments having been attributed to their husbands.

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Sometimes society seems to decide that married women are only wives, as if this is their sole important attribute. Their accomplishments seem to fade away, and they become the half of the pair whose professional success is deemed to be less important. Why are married women referred to as “wives,” but married men are CEOs, academics, athletes, politicians, etc. in the headlines?

A New York Times Upshot piece describes a study showing that women who earn more than their husbands are likely to perform more household duties, as if to apologize for not conforming to the societal standard that women should not be as successful as their husbands and compensate for their professional success. While this standard has certainly loosened over the past few decades, this study and these headlines show that there is much work to be done.

Women should never feel the need, consciously or unconsciously, to downgrade their professional lives or apologize for their success, and society and the media should certainly not do it for them, as we see with these headlines. My English teacher, Esther Duflo, and Amal Clooney are far more than just their husband’s wives, as are Corey Cogdell-Unrein, Julie Ertz, and Katinka Hozzsu.

Let us be aware of this bias, on our campus, in our media feeds, and in our futures. When the women of this campus leave Harvard, I hope that they will be remembered for the professional and personal accomplishments I know they will achieve, rather than just their marital status.

I hope that I will read headlines with their names written proudly in big, bold letters. They — we — are far more than someone’s future wife.

Chloe A. Shawah ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Cabot House.

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