I watched a video on Marie Curie, twice Nobel prize winner. She was the first person and still the only woman to have done so. As well, she remains the only person to have received the award in two different subjects. A scientist extraordinaire, discoverer of polonium, radium, radioactivity and radiation. The video was from Kathy Loves Physics on YouTube. Kathy Balistreri also has a website. The science part was interesting, but remember I majored in sociology. It was the challenges she faced as a woman, that got me thinking about women’s issues.
Trying to get an education
Marie was Polish and at the time, higher education was non-existent for women in Poland as the country was under the rule of the Russian Empire. But Marie was undaunted. She had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, especially in chemistry, and read anything she could on the subject. She attended the Flying University, an underground schooling system in the Polish tradition. It was a nationalistic effort aimed at reaching as many people as possible, so women were accepted.
Getting a job
Eventually she went to work as a governess for a wealthy family and used her salary to pay for her sister’s room, board and education in Paris. The plan was that when her sister finished, Marie would then go to Paris and begin her university degree.
But Marie and her employers’ eldest son fell for each other. His parents eventually found out and forbid the relationship. I assume they did not want him to marry ‘the help’. But they continued to see each other and when they got caught again, Marie was fired. She stayed in Poland though, hoping the object of her affections would change his mind. Even when her sister was writing her, telling her to come to Paris.
Sacrificing it all for a relationship
Who doesn’t yell at the screen at this point? Marie, dudette, you gotta go to Paris. You gotta discover radium. You gotta win a couple of Nobel prizes. And anyway, you’re gonna marry Pierre.
It made Marie so human. You’d expect her to barge out the door at the first rejection. “See ya, I have to go make the biggest scientific discovery of the modern era, now. No time to dally.”
But don’t we, as women, still make these choices? Are we that different? Women put their lives on hold, shelve their dreams, their education, career opportunities, to keep themselves available for The Guy, The Relationship.
I’m not judging if it’s right or wrong. It just makes me realize that women, and men, have some basic hardwiring that hasn’t changed much over the centuries. It may also explain why I wrote a book where the protagonist is a single mother, who had twins at seventeen, after their father left her. There are some choices only women are faced with, because we are women.
Pursuing the dream
Eventually Marie Skłodowska would move to Paris, where she attended university and met Pierre Curie. In her search for a thesis topic, she began doing research in a shed that had been the university’s dissection lab. Pierre put aside his research to help with hers. Somewhere along the way he made the most romantic declaration, weaving in their passion for science. But I digress, watch the video.
The balancing act
After their first child was born, they hired a nanny and Pierre’s father moved in with them to help. Marie continued her research with Pierre, earning recognition from her peers, all men, such as Albert Einstein.
Marie Curie: driven scientist, making her place in a man’s world, working mom, balancing career and family, in business with her husband, organizing childcare, living in a bi-generational home. This could be happening today.
How different are we compared to previous generations? Certainly our world has changed, but what about us who live in it? It was long assumed that women’s happiness was wholly tied into being a mother. But in reality, finding fulfillment and raising children do not completely intersect. And they do to different degrees for different women. But there are only so many hours in a day and the balancing act is tricky. Priorities must be set, but what woman has not felt guilty at some point for her choices? Finding a solution to that would certainly be Nobel Prize worthy.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Unknown, circa 1900.