Oral History Interviews

Interviews that offer unique insights into the lives, works, and personalities of modern scientists

Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her parents' expectations and her childhood.

Oral history audio excerpt

Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her parents' expectations and her childhood.

Burnell:

No. There’s wasn’t intimidation, although our parents were obviously much more delighted when we did well at school and that was obviously valued by them. And if you hadn’t done well it was going to be less enjoyable going home after school. They really saw education as being important, and important that we were stimulated and reached whatever level we could reach; that we reached our potential academically.

DeVorkin:

Did they have specific expectations?

Burnell:

I don’t know that they had thought it through. Probably particularly not for the girls. I became conscious in later life that I had been given an education that enabled me to do all kinds of jobs, but often jobs weren’t open to me. You know, so in that sense I think they hadn’t thought it through and they hadn’t thought what young women do when they have a university education and they get married and have children. It’s issues just like that where I think they hadn’t seen it through, but perhaps it’s asking too much that they should have.

DeVorkin:

Of that generation, certainly. But I’m curious as to how much gender specificity there was in your family between you, the three sisters, and the brother. Were you definitely on different tracks?

Burnell:

Depends who you’re talking of. As far as our parents were concerned, no, we were not; we were equal. But I mentioned maids and cooks and nannies. They were almost invariably Southern Irish Roman Catholics, and they came out of a society that was very strongly patriarchal. And one of the incidents from my early life is my brother came along eighteen months after me, and the nanny would go out with the baby in the pram and me togging along beside and go meet other nannies, you know, other young women like them, and they would say, “Isn’t it great that Mrs. Bell has a son now?” in my hearing. And I don’t quite know what happened, but somehow or other I was taken to the family doctor and the family doctor spotted this and told my parents what was going on.

DeVorkin:

And what did they do about it?

Burnell:

They say, “Very obviously, we value little girls as much as little boys.” And I can remember that, because it didn’t quite seem to ring true, or it didn’t seem to me to be the whole story is perhaps a fairer way of saying it. You know, I think my brain was already saying, “Well, you may say that, but the nanny says differently,” you know.

DeVorkin:

Did you ever envy boys?

Burnell:

Yes, frequently in my life.