So I guess this is “women’s history month” or something. Evidently the idea was to assign the boring late winter months when nothing else is going on to grievance groups to make them feel good about history they really didn’t make a whole lot of. Yes, I know the purpose of this series is in part to debunk the idea that well behaved women don’t make history, but when it comes right down to it, the idea that women don’t make history is more or less right on the money. No, the future is not female, because history has not been female either. No, it’s not oppression or “the patriarchy” that are responsible.
Anyway, today’s guest of honor on an installment showing what women can do when they can act like mature adults is someone who gets trotted out this time of year every year as a sterling example of a woman who accomplished great things, Marie Curie. And really, Madame Curie does deserve to be recognized and remembered for many reasons. To give a quick synopsis, she was a Polish-born, French-educated chemist and physicist in the early twentieth century whose research into radiation and radioactive elements forms the basis for much of present-day radiology and many other branches of both disciplines. She is the first woman ever to receive a Nobel Prize and the first person (and only woman) to win it twice. She was unquestionably brilliant and often referred to as her scientist husband Pierre’s “greatest discovery.”
The modern caricature of Marie Curie is that she was some kind of crusading feminist who didn’t let man-centered obstacles get in her way and boldly blazed a shining path for women’s rights and blah blah blah, but in reality, Marie was (commendably) just in it for the science. It was her husband, Pierre Curie, an accomplished scientist in his own right, who pulled the strings to get doors opened for Marie, in particular to get her admitted to study for a Ph.D. in Paris (in part because he wanted her to come back to Paris and, you know, marry him). It was Pierre who assisted with, encouraged, and critiqued Marie’s work and in turn she encouraged him in his, and eventually Pierre did switch over and engage in Marie’s study of radioactive elements full-time, but not because she was a demanding and insufferable crusader for women. He did it because she was a formidable mind and ultimately he found her work more interesting than his own.
Do note that I am not crediting Pierre with Marie’s success any more than tangentially. What I am saying is that for a woman of her historical significance there’s not a ton of actual accounts of her going off on some women’s rights don’t-need-no-man screed, and plenty of indicators in her history that despite her groundbreaking research and phenomenal mind, she operated within the confines of the expectations of her time, and it was others (Pierre in particular) who opened the doors for her–without a lot of fuss, I might add. Of course, mythology surrounding this person has sprung up to make her out to be a feminist Joan of Arc, but it’s nothing more than mythology.
Marie had her share of typical female faults–after Pierre’s untimely death she was scandalized by carrying on an affair with a married man. Despite having thoroughly nuked herself via her experiments as the detrimental effects of radiation were not known at the time, Marie lived into her sixties and continued to be active in the fields she pioneered right up until her death. For the most part, and certainly while she was doing things worthy of historical note, Marie Curie could not have been more well behaved. The world makes exceptions for true talent, which she plainly demonstrated. So this month, as posters go up in middle schools telling Marie Curie “you go girl” or some other insipid blather, be mindful of the fact that the real Marie was more interested in radium than feminism, and that it was her husband, her evil oppressive white male husband, who saw to it that her potential was able to achieve full blossom. Well done, Madame Curie.
Next week, back to someone we’d just as soon forget.