Marie Curie vs. Masculine Science

Marie Curie
Cornell University Library / CC BY 2.0

The persistent dearth of women scientists has been researched, contested and speculated upon in recent years, with study after study interpreting this paucity as born of bias, biology or some combination of both. But amid this understandable concern about why so few women succeed in science, another significant question is often neglected: how the few women who have succeeded managed to do so.

Fortunately, a new book out by the Feminist Press may help fill that gap: The Madame Curie Complex, by historian Julie Des Jardins, challenges the prevailing notion that interest and aptitude are enough to rectify gender disparity in science. As she illustrates through a dozen or so profiles of women scientists from Marie Curie onward, when passion and genius take a woman’s shape, the male-dominated scientific community puts her in her place.

It’s maddening to note that, even in the past 100 years, the breakthrough scientific work of extraordinary women has been willfully appropriated by or attributed to the men who shared their labs. Today, few people remember that the world’s most popular woman scientist, Marie Curie, was long dismissed by her contemporaries as little more than her husband’s assistant: Even her Nobel prize was contested by fellow scientists.

Moreover, at roughly the same time, men astronomers at Harvard and MIT were publishing under their own names the groundbreaking research of their low-paid, less-educated women lab assistants. Decades later, molecular biologist Rosalind Franklin spent years meticulously uncovering the double helix structure of DNA, only to have her work usurped by 25-year-old James Watson, who won a Nobel prize for what was arguably her discovery.

How these women, some of whom Des Jardins makes a point of describing as professionally obliging and socially passive, managed to earn worldwide acclaim against such a misogynistic backdrop is especially curious. While genius and perseverance certainly played a role, their relationships to notable men (in particular, other Nobel laureates) may have played an even larger one. Des Jardins never makes the mistake of attributing the women’s successes to men, but her careful exploration of their personal and professional relationships certainly underscores the crucial importance of male allies in their struggle for gender equality.

As she demonstrates in these intimate histories, the tenacity of women—in combination with the support of a few unbiased men—has fostered leaps in women’s progress.

The Madame Curie Complex only takes us into the 1970s, but more recent events reveal that science is still plagued by many of the same biases. For example, when former Harvard president Lawrence Summers opined five years ago that women’s under-representation in science could be chocked up to innate gender differences,  responses to his sexist comments exposed contemporary inequities within the scientific community. Most memorable of these retorts was an essay written by neurobiologist Ben Barres, who described the sexual discrimination he experienced when he was a woman:

As an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I was the only person in a large class of nearly all men to solve a hard maths problem, only to be told by the professor that my boyfriend must have solved it for me… I am still disappointed about the prestigious fellowship competition I later lost to a male contemporary when I was a PhD student, even though the Harvard dean who had read both applications assured me that my application was much stronger. … Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”

Today, popular focus on the absence of women in science obscures the challenges still faced by women scientists operating in what Des Jardins characterizes as a needlessly and adversely masculinized field. The Madame Curie Complex reminds us that in spite of our conventional equation of science with progress, the scientific community itself has yet to achieve objectivity.

The Hidden History of Women in Science
By Julie Des Jardins
The Feminist Press
ISBN: 978-1-55861-613-40

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Catherine is an assistant features editor at Hyphen magazine and a first year student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She interned at Ms. in the spring of 2010, and has since reported on the gendered impact of immigration enforcement in Arizona, the rights of health care workers in the Philippines and indigenous women's struggle against Big Oil in Canada. She has a B.A. in English and a minor in Women & Gender Studies from Arizona State University.