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Marianne Kipper ‘61 making coffee in a Chatham College for Women lab.
 

The GLASS CEILING SMASHERS

A Real Oddball

 

Marianne Byrn Kipper, Ph.D. didn’t set off to smash any glass ceilings—she just really liked chemistry.


 

“Anyone who was a female chemist in the late 60s, early 70s was a real oddball. You just didn’t meet very many.”

 
 

Chatham initially rejected Marianne Kipper’s (née Byrn) college application. But after her high school guidance counselor advocated on Marianne’s behalf—her grandmother had died on the morning she took the SAT—Chatham changed its tune. And so began a long line of doors slammed in Marianne’s face, doors she kept knocking on or simply opened anyway.

At Marianne’s first opening convocation, Chatham President, Dr. Paul Anderson (1945-1960) implored students to broaden their horizons, encouraging them to be open to subjects they had struggled with in high school. Marianne took that advice to heart, opting to take Chemistry, a class she hated in high school. By the end of her sophomore year, she had declared Chemistry as her major.

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When she graduated in 1961, she was one of four women in her class of seventy-five who would leave Chatham with a B.S. in Chemistry. The fact that she was about to enter a wildly exclusive boys club hadn’t yet crossed her mind: “We didn’t have to think about that. As long as you were at Chatham, everything was going to be done by women anyway.”

Following graduation, she did research at Princeton, an all-men’s college at the time. Marianne audited classes and worked under a biochemist while applying to graduate school. The biochemist encouraged her to apply to Princeton, hoping that the chemistry department might boast Princeton’s first female graduate student. But Marianne didn’t want that: “Graduate school in chemistry was going to be hard enough without trying to break down some wall,” she said.

After being accepted to Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Cambridge University, she chose Berkeley. There, Marianne was forced to take off the rose-colored glasses she wore at Chatham: “It was the wind-up to the Vietnam war; any woman who was in school was taking the place of a man who would get a draft deferment,” she said.

 
 

“When I was at UCLA, I never felt a glass ceiling in my lab but it definitely existed in the department, there was no suggestion for there to be a female faculty member. When I left in 1999, there were only a handful of female faculty. It was a long time coming.”

 
 

At Berkeley, Marianne was one of three female Chemistry students out of 500. When she confided in a professor that she didn’t want to go into academia after graduation, he replied, “Well, they wouldn’t take you anyway.” When she interviewed faculty members about working in their lab, several said bluntly that they didn’t want a woman in their lab: “There was no compunction about it, it was just a fact,” she said.

Fortunately, Dr. Melvin Calvin had no qualms about having Marianne in his lab. In fact, a woman had been in his lab two years prior when he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1961. Marianne completed her PhD under his supervision, graduating in 1966 and specializing in bio-organic chemistry. After graduation, she applied to work at a grain company in Pittsburg, California. A month later, she still hadn’t heard anything. “I called and the man on the phone said, ‘Oh, well we don’t hire women’,” she said.  

Marianne and her husband, Dick Kipper

Marianne and her husband, Dick Kipper

Despite her doctorate from a nationally ranked Chemistry program, she struggled to find a job. Marianne was angry, but she kept going. When her then-husband was transferred to Michigan for work, Marianne wound up getting her first full-time position: running the fine chemical department at a manufacturing plant for Parke-Davis, a pharmaceutical company.

“A customer would call in and say, ‘I need a train car of something’ and I’d have to figure out how to make it, take it through process development, and then supervise it in the plant.”

Despite only being there for one year, it’s the job she loved most. In the years that followed, Marianne moved all over the country: Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans, Seattle, Los Angeles. Once in LA, she started working at UCLA as a staff research scientist under a physical chemist: “He wanted to crystallize chlorophyll and determine its absolute structure and I had done my graduate work on chlorophyll chemistry,” she said.

In all of her time at UCLA—25 years—they never managed to crystallize chlorophyll, but they did manage a number of other exciting feats, including using single crystals to do electron SPIN resonance measurements. She also built an excellent relationship with the faculty member she worked under, dividing their labor within the lab. She taught and oversaw the majority of work the students did in the lab.

Today, Marianne is retired and works on a number of fundraising initiatives with her husband, Dick Kipper. She revels at how different the environment is for young women now, both in and out of her field:

“The opportunities for young women now are limitless, you can pretty much do whatever you want. That doesn’t mean that you won’t, at some point, face a situation where you’re penalized for being a woman but it can’t be institutional anymore, and that’s a huge leap.”

 
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