Marina von Neumann Whitman to read from new memoir 'The Martian's Daughter'

U of M Press

By John Bohn, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 2, 2012

Children often fret about living up to their parents’ accomplishments. Business Prof. Marina von Neumann Whitman had more to worry about than most people.

Reading of 'The Martian's Daughter'


Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.
Hatcher Graduate Library
Free


.

Whitman’s father, John von Neumann, is known for inventing Game Theory, pioneering developments in computer science and contributing to the Manhattan Project, among other achievements.

“This was a force to contend with,” Whitman said. “He was a wonderful father, but he put a lot of pressure on me to always be on the top of everything.”

Still, it’s safe to say she’s escaped her father’s shadow. She was the first woman to be appointed to the president’s Council of Economic Advisers in 1972, by President Richard Nixon. Whitman also served as vice president and chief economist of General Motors from 1979 to 1985 and group vice president for public affairs from 1985 to 1992.

On Tuesday, Whitman will be giving a reading of her recently published memoir “The Martian’s Daughter.”

“The book is my memoir and my life and career, but it has two basic themes,” Whitman said. “One of which is my relationship with my father and how I got out from under the shadow of a larger-than-life parent.”

She remembers one contentious exchange after Whitman told her father that she planned to get married upon graduating college.

“He had a fit,” Whitman said. “He thought that this would be the death knell for any professional ambitions I might have. And in the 1950s, he was statistically right, but he was wrong about me.”

The last chapter of her book boasts the title “Having It All.”

“What I mean by that is, looking back at my advanced age, I realized that I’ve been able to do what my father wanted me to do, which is use whatever intellectual capacities you have,” Whitman said.

“I managed to be very happily married for 56 years to the man I announced at the age of 17 I would marry. And we had two terrific children and two terrific grandchildren. And so, in a sense, all those expectations merged,” she added.

Using two distinct anecdotes, Whitman’s second focus in the book is how society has changed during her lifetime. In the first, she describes how she was turned down for a prospective job opportunity at IBM because the recruiter saw she was engaged to be married.

“I stood up and apologized for taking up his time and left,” Whitman said. “He was completely in his rights. I could have kicked and screamed on the floor and threw a fit, and it would have made absolutely no difference. There was no (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), nothing.”

The second anecdote discusses Whitman’s application to Princeton University for a Ph.D. in economics; the economics department invited her to apply, yet turned her down for a simple reason.

“I went to see the president (of Princeton). And what the conversation boiled down to was, ‘I’m so sorry, Mrs. Whitman, we can accept a student of your caliber, but we just don’t have enough ladies’ rooms.’ ”

“And I think the message for younger people, young women, but young people in general today, is that it is still within my lifetime that things have changed,” Whitman said.

“It took the work of a lot of people to get there despite the fact that there are still plenty of problems,” she said. “And it’s fragile; it could disappear. And I think in the current political environment the notion of that fragility, and the fact that it takes some work to make sure we move forward and not backward, is relevant.”

Having served in such powerful positions during her career, Whitman said the media was much to blame for continuing stereotypes about women in the workplace.

“The very worst were the Fourth Estate,” Whitman said. “The press was appalling. Every headline was, ‘Woman Economist.’ Half of them would write things about my looks and my clothes and whether the family gerbil survived the trip to Washington. I mean the press reports were about as sexist as you could get.”

In the gallery of the Hatcher Graduate Library on Tuesday, Whitman will read the prologue to “The Martian’s Daughter,” take questions and sign copies of the book. There, one can ask about her dream job on the Council of Economic Advisors — and why she eventually chose to resign in 1973.

“Like many people, I succumbed to the vanity of thinking, ‘Well, if I’m involved in it, it’ll do less harm than if someone else was involved,’ ” Whitman said.

As hinted by the book’s title — which references a nickname given to her father by his colleagues — like Martian father, like Martian daughter.