Women's Studies 30

Interview with Rose Polonsky Feldman


Claire Feldman-Riordan



Technology and Personal Experience

- definition

- before college

- in college

- Oak Ridge, TN...

- ...At home

- ...At Oak Ridge National Laboratories



Rose Polonsky was born on February 18, 1922, in Philadelphia, to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Latvia and the Ukraine and married in the United States. She says of herself, her older sister, and two younger brothers, "Despite the fact that we were from very low economic background, we were very encouraged to study and build lives for ourselves, and so all four of us had higher educations in the city of Philadelphia in the public schools."

How would you define technology as relevant to your own experience and to your family's experience?

What is technology?

"Well, we didn't think of it as technology; we called it science," Rose says. "And science included everything -- physics, chemistry, pharmacy, medicine, everything of that sort."

Public School in Philadelphia

In eighth grade Rose had an autograph book in which she recorded under "Goals in Life" that she wanted to be a boy because "boys could do anything they wanted to do, and girls couldn't." At the Philadelphia High School for Girls, she dreamed of becoming a doctor, encouraged by high test scores and two wonderful teachers. During the summer after graduation, Rose and a friend volunteered at Philadelphia General Hospital as volunteers in the clinical chemistry lab. They learned extraordinarily advanced techniques, which Rose describes as "complicated... -- there were not all these electronic instruments," to analyze for Vitamin C and for cholesterol esters in different fluids.

At University of Pennsylvania (see also Claire's Personal Perspective)

When she was in college at the University of Pennsylvania, Rose studied with some inspiring professors. She particularly enjoyed one class based on the Socratic Method -- students designed their own experiments under the professor's supervision. Rose chose to analyze salt concentration in the skin of frogs.

During another summer of research, Rose helped a doctor to establish and choose the equipment for one of the first blood banks in Philadelphia. She notes that it was "exciting" to "see all these things happening." Rose fought with the university to have her scholarship renewed for a semester to study non-science courses, such as the history of music, even after she had accumulated enough credits to graduate.

Three women in Rose's class wanted to pursue a BS in Chemistry, but the general college would not accept women. Women had to pursue a BA in the women's college and were not allowed to take classes with men in the Engineering department. Rose and the other two women demanded that the department allow them to take "regular" chemistry with the men, and while they were permitted to take the course, they were not allowed to be in lab when men were present. "Their feeling was not that we would be a bad influence; they just felt we weren't up to the level of the professional [chemists]." While one woman in this triumvirate went on to become a librarian, Rose pursued a multi-faceted career that would include family, biomedical and chemical research, relying heavily in all areas on her research experience with technological (or scientific, in her words) processes. In fact, Rose even "met [her] husband through chemistry" -- when in the university library studying with a friend, Rose came across a German word she didn't understand. Since she was unable to find the word in any dictionary, Rose approached a "very handsome young man" (at her friend's urging) who was reading a German chemistry textbook. "Neither of us remembers what the word was, but I married him anyway," laughs Rose.

In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, working...

Rose and her husband Cyrus Feldman moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, when Cy was "sent under sealed orders" to work on the mysterious Manhattan Project, part of the war effort, shortly after their marriage in 1944. (stay tuned for Rose's insights on women and the Manhattan Project)

Rose and Cy decided to stay in Oak Ridge after the war to raise their family. Cy began to work full-time at the newly developed Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) doing research in chemistry, specifically spectroscopy.

...At Home

Rose's work centered mostly around her family until she decided in 1961, with tremendous support from her husband, to accept a full-time job as a chemist and biomedical researcher at ORNL. On the homemaking side of her career, Rose found her "training in technology...very helpful." Once her electric mixer quit working in the middle of the night, and after she finished mixing the cake by hand, she took apart the mixer, figured out the problem, and fixed it while the cake was baking. "I've always been interested in how things work," Rose remarks.

...At ORNL

Here is what Rose has to say about her work in the labs: "The fact that I'd worked in science...didn't interfere in any way with my pursuit of feminine things like baking and sewing and cooking and meeting with people... but... [my full-time work in the biomedical lab for 22 years] was very enriching to me because I met interesting people. I learned many new things by working at the laboratory.... When it came time to have tests and... medical procedures, myself and for my friends who had no technical backgrounds, I always had to go look them up and find out what was happening and what results were gotten and what they meant, whether they were important or not. My training in science is related to all of that. I knew about enzymes...coenzymes...the minerals involved...photosynthesis."

Even though they worked in organic and inorganic chemistry, respectively, Rose and Cy often used the same techniques in their work, and both enjoyed the materials in the science library at ORNL. When I asked her why this was significant, Rose replied, "it changes your relationships with your husband, with your family.... I had a friend who was trained in chemistry, as I was -- never wanted to go back to work; told me she didn't have time to work again. She had to be devoted just to her children. Her husband was... an engineer. I don't think she had the least notion or the least interest in knowing what he did."

Rose talked a bit about the presence and treatment of women and people of color at ORNL. "I never made it to a senior person at the lab because I didn't have a doctorate. You couldn't. That was a bit annoying, too, because the approach in the biology division...was that if you had a Ph.D., you were in the professional table of organization. If you didn't... you were in the non professional group. And I resented it at first, I really did... Some of the young men Ph.D.'s were very patronizing about it." As for the few African-Americans at ORNL, most had high school educations and were "hired by the researchers to do very sophisticated work." Their lack of theoretical background did not take away from the great significance of the work they did. To her knowledge, none of the African-American workers did not make professional status.


Rose's reasons for, and the positive results of, her work in the sciences are best illustrated by the explanation she gave to students who worked and interned at ORNL when they asked about her background. "I really wanted to do it, and am very glad I did it because I have felt much more in touch with the world today because of my technological background, although I haven't done anything world-shaking in it. Still, I understand much more, and I sort of act as interpreter to some of my friends when they get medical tests. And I also really encourage the young people that I worked with because I would help train them in lab techniques when they came through... And they could see how much I enjoyed doing it. So I think... both sides were encouraged by it. ... I've been a part of the things that are happening in the world, in a sense, and it's all part of the scientific background I've had."

To see some of Claire's work in Women's Studies 1, click here.

Return to Women's Studies Homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Women's Studies

last updated 10/29/98