Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. From their website, ‘Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognized. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines.” I think the day is a great idea, and it offers another opportunity . Not only is it crucial to highlight the accomplishments of these tech heroines, it’s also important to make sure that memory of these women is not distorted through gendered lenses.
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Marie Curie, one of the worlds most famous scientists. Her life story is by all accounts an amazing story of a woman’s success in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. While Curie may seem like a strange choice for a day celebrating unsung heroines, the way in which stories of her youth are generally distorted underscores a need to check up on stories to make sure they do not distort the accomplishments of women through gendered lenses. Consider the difference between different stories about Curie in children’s books.
While Marie Curie is one of the most well known scientists when we tell her story to children it is generally through a deeply gendered lens. Practically every children’s book about Curie focuses on following story. In this story Manya Skłodowska (Curie’s childhood name) was the youngest and smartest student in her class. The occupying Russian forces forbid teaching children in Polish and teaching Polish history. Instead, schools were required to have children memorize Russian history and learn the Russian language. The school that Manya attended disobeyed these rules. When Russian school inspectors came to check on the school a look-out in the hallway would warn the class and the class would hide their Polish books. Once the inspector came in, the teacher would call on Manya to answer his questions. In the story, Manya succeeds by answering all of the Russian inspector’s questions in Russian to his liking. After he leaves, apparently exhausted, she cries and is comforted by her teacher.
In this story it becomes apparent that while Manya is very smart and strong she still has a kind of frailty. In this situation readers see that Manya’s knowledge gives her a kind of importance. She is called on in class because of her impressive memory, and saves the class from the inspector. While there is a clash with the authority of the inspector the story places Manya in a much more traditional relationship with the authority of her teacher, who comforts her once the inspector leaves. While the stories of Einstein were marked by an exaggeration that stressed his clashes with authority, the story of the Russian inspector is usually treated in a way that is much more consistent with the authoritative texts.
Curie The Rebel
A very different picture of Curie emerges in the other stories from Curie’s youth. These selections come from the second chapter of Eleanor Doorly’s 1939 book, The Radium Women: Madame Curie book, appropriately entitled “Rebels.”
In the Russian-run high school Manya and her friend Kazia “took delight in inventing witticisms against their Russian professors, their German master, and especially against Miss Mayer who detested Manya only a little less than Manya detested her.” Their teacher Miss Mayer stated, “It’s no more use speaking to that Sklodovska girl than throwing green peas at a wall!” On one occasion Doorly tells us of a time in which Manya was openly disrespectful, and witty. “I won’t have you look at me like that!’ Miss Mayer would shout. ‘You have no right to look down on me!’ ‘I can’t help it,’ said Manya truthfully, for she was a head taller that Miss Mayer. No doubt she was glad that words sometimes have two meanings” (1939, pp. 21-22).
In all of these other school stories the young Manya is openly disrespectful of her teachers. While the story of her encounter with the Russian inspector is interesting it should be just one of several stories about Manya’s school experience. Importantly, it is the only story that puts her in a position of weakness against the authority of both the teacher and the inspector. Other stories show the potential of portraying a Manya who is similar to the exaggerated Einstein, openly disrespectful of a rather hostile teacher.
To highlight the extent to which current portrayals in children’s books have departed from Doorly’s 1939 children’s biography of Curie and Eva Curie’s depiction of her mother, consider the following two discussions of Manya’s curls. According to Keith Brandit’s 1983 picture book about Marie Curie,
Manya was the picture of the perfect pupil. She stood straight, her face calm and serious. Her hair was neatly braided and tied with a dark ribbon. She wore the school uniform: a navy-blue wool dress with steel buttons and a starched white collar. On her feet were dark stockings and polished, black, high laced shoes (1983, p. 35).
Here, not only is she the perfectly upright pupil, she is also the picture of the perfect student. Compare this with Doorly’s 1939 Manya.
Look at your ridiculous, frizzy, disorderly head, Manya Sklodovska! How often have you been told to confine your curls? Come here and let me brush them down and make you look like a decent school girl.” “Like a German Gretchen!” thought Manya, but she said nothing. So with the brush that brushed everybody’s hair, she set on Manya’s head with good hard blows. But however hard she brushed, the curls were rebels, still those light, capricious, exquisite curls that framed Manya’s round rebellious face (p. 25).
Putting these two texts in parallel it is hard to see them as discussions of the same individual. In the 1939 piece from Doorly, we see a witty and rebellious student far more exciting than Brandit’s 1984 “picture of the perfect pupil.” Both the story of the inspector and the other stories originate in Eva Curie’s biography of her mother. However the only story included in practically all books after 1939 depicts Manya’s power as something subject to the authority of the teacher. The Curie books ignore parts of her story to emphasize just the opposite point. All of the incidents between Curie and her teachers at the Russian school are ignored and young readers are left with only the incident with the Russian inspector. While Curie does exercise a kind of power in the incident with the inspector, it is subdued.
Recognition Is A Good First Start, But It’s Not The End
Women in science and technology are often enough uncredited, and it is important that we make sure their accomplishments are recognized. But even when they are, like in the case of Marie Curie, it is not enough. Not only is it crucial that women are recognized its also crucial that recognition is scrutinized to be sure that it is not simply recycling the gendered stereotypes.
Brandt, Keith. Marie Curie, Brave Scientist. Mahwah, N.J: Troll Associates, 1983.
Doorly, Eleanor. The Radium Woman, a Life of Marie Curie; and Woodcuts. New York: Roy Publishers, 1939.
This post draws on information from a larger study, published in the journal Cultural Studies of Science Education.