Post-World War II Teacher Shortage Led to the First Woman Faculty Member at Stevens
In the century between Stevens’ founding and the 1971 arrival of the first female students, the story of Stevens was decidedly male-focused. But the first to break the gender barrier wasn’t a student. That honor belongs to an unassuming physics teacher, and she broke it well before 1971.
She could be considered an accidental pioneer. With a tendency simply to do what had to be done — and that included escaping Nazi Germany as a teenager — Emmi Hauser Fischl became the first female faculty member at Stevens in 1947. It would be another 24 years before the first female students enrolled at the university.
Stevens administrators at the time explained that the post-war increase in undergraduate enrollment had created a teacher shortage, necessitating the hiring of qualified women. Fischl was indeed qualified. Her Stevens interviewer is said to have remarked, “You know, we never had a woman before, but if you are okay with it — so are we.” She needed a job, and she was quite okay with it. Independent, straightforward and practical, Fischl never made a big deal out of being Stevens’ first woman faculty member, nor of working in the male-dominated fields of physics and — later — computer science.
Her specialty was X-ray diffraction. Once asked why she chose physics as a field of study and career path, she responded, “because I like it.”
Fischl (née Hauser) was born in 1920. She fled the Nazis in 1939 at age 17, coming to the U.S. to live with cousins in Chicago. She overcame economic hardship, and went to Illinois College for undergraduate study and Pennsylvania State University for a master’s degree. She paid for her education with scholarships and jobs.
While at Penn State, she taught math part-time to freshman boys, undeterred by gender, or the fact they were close to her in age. Also while there, she met her husband, Fred Fischl, a doctoral student from the former Czechoslovakia, and after they both became U.S. citizens in 1945, they married in 1946, moving to Newark, New Jersey. Fred Fischl went to work for Standard Oil after getting his Ph.D.
When Fischl began her career at Stevens, local newspapers weren't sure what to make of her new role at a male-dominated institution, featuring a photo of her in the kitchen, rather than the lab. An article described her as “a soft voiced, pretty young woman” and commented that her male students had better “tend strictly to their Bunsen burners.” As she had so many times in her life, Fischl defied expectations and taught at Stevens for several years until the birth of her first child.
Two more children followed the first, and Fischl started a business in her home, translating technical articles. She took classes to become a substitute teacher so she would have the same schedule as her children. She later studied computer programming and became a Fortran programmer, which she continued until retirement.
Now age 97, Fischl lives in Fort Myers, Florida. She passed on her love of science and math to her daughter, Jacky, who became an engineer. At Stevens, she broke barriers and helped set in motion women's access to Stevens.