I first encountered Emmy Noether when I was studying quantum field theory during my Masters. At first I didn’t give a second thought to the name attached to Noether’s theorem, beyond wondering how to pronounce it. I was more concerned with understanding the connection between symmetry and conservation laws that it described. I think it was in a subsequent lecture the the lecturer mentioned that Noether was female and that her full name was Emmy Noether. Of course, I had to google her. Here are some highlights of what I learnt then and since.
Even early in her studies, she was hampered by rules restricting women’s participation in classes. For a while she could only audit classes and only with express permission from each individual professor. She was ultimately allowed to graduate with a degree in mathematics, however.
After publishing some papers, her work gained the attention of David Hilbert (another famous mathematician whose work is relevant to general relativity) and Felix Klein and they invited her to join them at the University of Göttingen. Other members of the faculty there did not want a woman teaching among them. One of the reasons I remember reading somewhere was because the poor lads learning at the university might become traumatised by having a woman senior to them. And, to quote directly, "What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman?" (I remember having a rather spirited argument with a friend who thought that not traumatising soldiers was a valid reason for sexist attitudes. You think you know someone…)
In many ways, Noether was lucky that her family were comfortable economically and supporting of her academics, possibly because her father had also been a mathematician. They were able to pay her room and board for the first four years she was at Göttingen, when the university refused to employ her properly. She spent those years teaching on the sly, with the lectures officially advertised as being taught by Hilbert with her officially “assisting”. It wasn’t until after the (post-WWI) German Revolution brought additional rights for women that she was allowed to apply for a tenured (and paid) position. Instead of rewarding her mathematical prowess in the normal way (i.e. with money), the relevant minister gave her a “special” position with limited rights and still no tenure. She finally got the paid position of Temporary Lecturer for Algebra a year later. She continued teaching there for almost a decade until the Third Reich fired her (among others) for being "a Marxist-leaning Jewess”. She continued teaching students from her apartment for the months before taking up a position in the US, where she died a few years later.
Honestly, one of the reasons Noether fascinated me was because she was only the second woman I learnt about who made significant contributions to modern physics before 1950 or so. (The first, of course, being Marie Curie.) It was also encouraging to read about her disregard for social conventions — because maths was far more interesting — and that she is still remembered, despite all the hardships and obstacles others inflicted on her.
And on that note, I’d like to leave you with an XKCD comic about Noether and Marie Curie: http://xkcd.com/896/