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ON THE SHELFMyths, Men, and Motherhood

For women scientists, the route to distinction has twists and turns.

The Madame Curie Complex:
The Hidden History of Women in Science
by Julie Des Jardins. The Feminist
Press at the City University of New York
2010, 312 pages

Marie Curie is that rare female scientist whom most Americans can identify - one of only four individuals and the only woman to receive two Nobel Prizes, in Chemistry and Physics. Yet, while Curie looms as a figure of immense achievement, the myths surrounding her life and work have often discouraged other women, even as they've struggled to live up to the ideal of a self-sacrificing researcher, humanitarian, and devoted wife and mother. The resulting inferiority complex has been further aggravated by an equally damaging belief that science demands a masculine sensibility, writes author Julie des Jardins, a historian at Baruch College, City University of New York.

Part of a series sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Feminist Press, The Marie Curie Complex seeks to recover a neglected history of women who found entrée into science and engineering, exploring the barriers and choices they encountered, and the impact they made - or failed to make. Des Jardins's larger goal is to illuminate how "cultural ideas of gender have shaped the methods, structure, and meaning of science itself," with a distinct bias toward men. Noting the furor that ensued after Lawrence Summers's 2005 speculation about the two sexes' "variability of aptitude," she reminds us that gender debates are far from resolved. She offers these stories as a way to address enduring questions and raise new ones.

The book's biographical portraits are divided into three distinct historical periods, identified as the point of scientific professionalization, in the early 20th century; the rise of heroic "masculine" science during World War II and its aftermath; and the transition to practices influenced by "second-wave feminism," in the 1970s. In each section, she demonstrates the feminist dictum that the personal is political - that women's careers collapsed under the pressure of resistant male advisers, flourished with encouragement from scientific husbands and fathers, and often reached a critical juncture when marriage and child-bearing came into play. Several women succeeded only with the aid of relatives and servants who assumed their household duties; others lost professional credibility and work when their husbands died prematurely; and far too many sacrificed family life and feminine identity to pursue their science.

The opening chapter on Curie stands out as the book's most satisfying, in-depth study. Exposing realities long obscured by romantic biographies (think Greer Garson in the 1943 Hollywood classic), Des Jardins details Curie's struggle for professional acceptance but also her indifference to mothering and a rumored affair with a student, which caused European society to spurn her. It was a U.S. magazine editor, Marie Meloney, who helped salvage the chemist's reputation during Curie's 1920 American tour, through a carefully crafted image of a "maternal martyr." Curie bristled at the fabrication and endless publicity events, but Meloney's efforts garnered several hundred thousand dollars worth of donated radium, materials, and fees.

Other portraits include figures well-known in their fields, such as industrial engineer Lillian Gilbreth, physicist Rosalyn Yalow, and primatologists Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. There are also many women whose contributions have been obscured in standard historical narratives. We learn, for example, of several who pursued research at the Harvard University Astronomical Observatory between 1880 and 1940 without access to advanced degrees, professional recognition, or decent pay. The work of these observatory "housekeepers" in cataloguing and codifying stars was for years undervalued, dismissed as "womanly proclivity to tidiness."

Des Jardins identifies a distinct link between the 1970s feminist movement and a stronger assertion by women - and men - to pursue science on their own terms. In closing, she suggests that the two sexes bear no biological predisposition for conducting science in one way or another. Instead, it was their social location in science and in society that consigned women to areas considered more nurturing and maternal. Even readers who do not accept Des Jardins's depictions of a rigid, often ego-driven "masculinist culture of science" should find these biographical sketches both informative and provocative.

Robin Tatu is senior editor of Prism.




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