By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
Late in the nineteenth century, women were regarded largely as ornamental. They were just there to support their husband, clean the house, and have babies.
In the midst of this mindset, physicist Pierre Curie met Marie Sklodowski when she went to a university in Paris to study physics. I mean, seriously? A woman? Studying Physics? In the nineteenth century?!? Even today it is rare to find women in physics (which is still a tragedy today), but back then it was unheard-of.
All scandal discussion aside, a year later, Marie Sklodowski took the name “Curie”. It’s hardly the end of the story though, because Pierre was just some kind of freak. As unbelievable as this might sound, this man actually respected his wife. As bizarre as that is, he actually brought her into his lab. To work with him. In science. On radioactive isotopes, no less. And as if this isn’t bad enough, this man, this traitor to his gender, actually had the gall, the unmitigated nerve to actually bring her with him to scientific meetings. Like, real meetings. Of scientists. The greatest minds of men. And amongst them…a WOMAN!
Just in case you’ve missed it, this has all been written tongue-in-cheek in an effort to emphasize just how unusual this was, and sadly, still is today although not to the extreme. We’ve made some progress, but more needs to be made.
At these meetings, other scientists would typically default to Pierre for questions. Pierre, then, would defer the question to Marie, explaining that she is better versed and can answer the question better than he can. Over time, Marie won their trust, and they learned to go to Marie with their questions.
Then tragedy struck. Pierre Curie died, not of radiation poisoning as one might expect, but by being struck by a horse-drawn carriage. Mrs. Pierre Curie became “Madame Curie”, a widow, alone in a man’s world.
But that didn’t stop her. She returned to the lab, and resumed her research. What’s more, she continued to attend scientific meetings, with the respect of the community she had already gained. Madame Curie would go on to become the first scientist (not the first “woman”…the first SCIENTIST) to win TWO Nobel Peace Prizes in TWO different disciplines (Chemistry and Physics). Even today, this is rare (I believe that, so far, only one other person has done it).
When I think of this incredible story, I can’t help but wonder how much talent, how many innovations, how many advances have been thrown away throughout history. How much more would we know, how much further would our technology have advanced, how much better off would we be if we didn’t throw away people’s talents, skills and intelligence because they were the wrong gender, or their skin was the wrong color, or because their God had the wrong name?
We’re not much better off today.
Madame Curie succeeded on her own merits and talent, of that there is no doubt. But doors were opened for her by a husband who respected her, believed in her, and elevated her to the position that was natural for her. It’s unfortunate that the men women should trust the most (their husbands or partners) often do not support them as they should be. In my relationships, I always try to support my partner in her goals and dreams.
Women are incredibly intelligent and talented. I’m not suggesting that women “must” have lofty goals; the job of stay-at-home mom is a challenging and full-time job. I was married to a woman who wanted to finish college to become a teacher, so I supported her, encouraged her on her homework, helped her as I could, and pitched in with the kids and housework. I dated a woman who wanted to get back into music, so I encouraged her to start playing piano and flute again, and developed a plan to get her back into the field.
It’s not hard. Listen to your partner, get to know her desires, her goals, and her interests without trying to push your own agenda on her. Pitch in when needed to support her in following her dreams. If you want to give her an amazing Valentine’s Day gift this year, devote yourself to helping her develop her dreams!