Saturday, February 03, 2007

View of Marie Curie in 1927

Jenny F. Scientist has an interesting post on the profile of Marie Curie in Benjamin Harrow's Eminent Chemists of our Time, published in 1927. As she points out, the biography starts out positively, pointing out that Curie was not receiving the recognition she deserved:

The foremost scientist of France, and the greatest woman scientist in the history of mankind, [Curie] counts politically less than many a man fit for the lunatic asylum. And as if to encourage that conception of women to which so many men cling tenaciously, the French Academy, numbering among its members the élite of French intellect, decide [sic] that woman, be she ever so much a genius, cannot be admitted into their sanctum. If further proof were needed that intellect often runs counter to freedom, and that scientists who work so strenuously for an enlargement of their scientific horizon often belong to the most reactionary group in politics, the case of Madame Curie affords an excellent example.
As it goes on, it's clear that Curie is held out as an exception - a woman "as good as a man" at science. Not only that, but there is a whole paragraph reassuring the reader that Curie hasn't let her feminine duties lapse:
Mme. Curie may be the great scientist, but she has many of the traits of femininity and motherhood which most men of all ages have admired. Aside from her work, her attention is devoted almost exclusively to the welfare of her two daughters... When the two children were younger Mme. Curie made all their dresses, and washed and ironed the more delicate pieces of lingerie.
As Jenny points out, this really isn't "history".
This wouldn't be quite so distressing if these attitudes were, y'know, gone. Women have to work twice as hard to get recognition? Check. Given lesser positions for equal work? Excluded from Old Boys' Club? Check. It's tradition? Check. 'Don't worry, science doesn't make her completely unwomanly, she still cooks and cleans and dresses pretty'? CHECK.
Looking at profiles of current women scientists, I've noticed many that make a point of including personal tidbits that demonstrate "typical" femininity - time spent with the children, hobbies such as cooking or sewing, and the like. While none of those things are bad - even scientists have interests outside of their work - it's annoying that such facts are typically omitted from the profiles of male scientists. It simply reinforces the attitude that science is an inherently non-feminine activity and that women in science need to demonstrate that they have feminine "credentials" by their activities outside the workplace. I'm hoping that 80 years from now profiles of male and female scientists won't be noticeably different in their content.