Joan Steitz

Joan Steitz
"Women of my day had six kids and a station wagon. At that time there were no women professors in the natural sciences at any major university. Consequently, I never envisioned myself being where I am today. I never thought I would teach; I never thought I would mentor graduate students; I never thought I would be on the faculty of a prominent university. I really thought I would be a research associate in someone's lab—a man's of course."
- Dr. Joan Steitz

Induction Category:
Science & Health

Born: 1941

Inducted: 2008

Town: New Haven

When Joan Steitz entered Harvard University in 1963, she was the only woman in Harvard’s first class of biochemistry and molecular biology graduate students. Knowing that there were not a lot of women working in the sciences and that she would face gender discrimination, Steitz was unsure of how far she would be able to go in her chosen profession. During her first year of graduate school, a famous, well-respected male professor refused to advise her thesis work because she was a woman. Steitz could have been discouraged, seeing the barriers against women in the sciences as insurmountable. Instead, she persevered, welcoming Nobel Prize winner James Dewey Watson as her advisor and completing her degree in molecular biology. Dr. Steitz is now renowned as a pioneer in the study of ribonucleic acid (RNA) and is considered one of the most distinguished molecular biologists of the 20th century. She is known for her discovery and definition of the function of small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs), which are are critical for all of life’s basic processes and help in treatment for such autoimmune diseases as lupus.

Born in Minneapolis, Minn., on January 26, 1941, Joan Argertsinger was always intrigued by science, and her parents encouraged her to pursue her interests. After graduating from an all-girls high school, she continued on to Antioch College in Ohio where she received her B.S. in chemistry. Convinced that as a woman she would never have the opportunity to run her own lab, she resolved to become an M.D. and was accepted to Harvard Medical School. However, after a summer job in a laboratory at the University of Minnesota under the supervision of cell biologist Joseph Gall, she applied instead to Harvard’s new program in biochemistry and molecular biology.

At Harvard, she met Thomas Steitz, an X-ray crystallographer. The couple married in 1966 and, after finishing their doctorates, moved in 1967 from Cambridge, Mass., to Cambridge, England, for postdoctoral work at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology. There, Steitz made her first mark as an independent investigator by locating three translation “start points” on bacteriophage mRNA. However, when Tom was offered a position at Berkeley and inquired about a similar opportunity for his wife, he was told that women did not want jobs and that there was not one for Joan. In 1970, both Joan and her husband were offered positions at Yale University, and she joined the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, first as an assistant professor and later as an associate and full professor. In New Haven, Steitz began her groundbreaking and now famous research on the function of small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPS) in pre-mRNA splicing. In 1986, she also became an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

In addition to being one of the first two women scientists to receive the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research (2008), America’s largest prize in medicine, Dr. Joan Steitz has been honored by many awards including the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry (1976), the U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology (1982), membership in the Nation Academy of Sciences (1983), the National Medal of Science (1986), the Novartis-Drew Award in Biomedical research (1999), the FASEB Excellence in Science Award (2003) the RNA Society Lifetime Achievement Award (2004), the ASCB’s highest scientific honor, the E.B. Wilson Medal (2005), the National Cancer Institute’s Rosalind E. Franklin Award for Women in Science, National Cancer Institute (2006), the Gairdner International Prize (2006), and 11 honorary doctorates. In 2012, Dr. Steitz was awarded the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize and the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science. Both awards honor not only her pioneering work with RNA but also her commitment to advancing the careers of women scientists.

Dr. Joan Steitz is Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University and continues her work with the HHMI and advocates for gender equity in the sciences.

During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice

Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”

A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.

Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.

Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.

A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.

Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent.  Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.

The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.

Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.