- The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science by Julie Des Jardins
Julie Des Jardins’s The Madame Curie Complex is a fascinating historical examination of the (in)visibility of women in science. Using a feminist lens to “ask new questions about heroism” (2) in science, Des Jardins weaves the experiences of Marie Curie, Lillian Gilbreth, Rosalind Franklin, Lise Meitner, Maria Goeppert Mayer, Evelyn Fox Keller, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, Annie Jump Cannon, Biruté Galdikas, and the women of the Harvard Observatory into a complex account of their struggles with sexism, as well as their triumphs. The book is organized around three historical periods during the twentieth century, beginning around 1880 and ending in the 1970s. Within each chapter, Des Jardins discusses the sociohistorical context of female scientists of that time period, their responses to those contexts, and how the consequences of their choices during their scientific journeys not only impacted their own lives, but also influenced both the experiences of their female successors and the broader field of science. Through a flowing and accessible narrative, she calls us to reveal the complexity of women’s history and how “the personal and professional, private and scientific are intertwined”(3).
Des Jardins threads the lives and experiences of these female scientists throughout her book by framing the narrative via the “Marie Curie complex,” which is the notion that women in science feel pressured to embody sacrifice, motherhood, devotion, altruism, and humanitarianism and simultaneously, to excel at science through objectivity and detachment. Marie Curie, the discoverer of radium and a female icon of science, was presented to the American public of the time as “a superwoman, too smart, too dedicated, too focused, and too talented to be emulated by ordinary women” (43–44). This portrayal has consequently led to the assumption that women in science are supposed to work twice as hard as men to be half as successful, especially given that male scientists often have mentors with connections and resources to assist them (that is, the “Matilda effect” [Rossiter 1993]). Reflecting on the portrayal of female scientists in the media, Marcel C. LaFollette (1988, 270) writes that “[w]hen women scientists gained visibility in the popular magazines, it was usually as one of two extremes—either a subordinate assistant or a ‘superscientist,’” two [End Page 187] extremes that some, including Des Jardins, would argue exemplified the public’s view of Curie’s life, along with notions of domesticity, motherhood, and humanitarianism (Owens 2011).
The strength of The Madame Curie Complex is how it reveals the power of stories in the construction of a normalized science identity that privileges masculinity. Media, as well as stories shared among scientists in everyday conversations and disseminated to the general public, have perpetuated a hidden and not-so-hidden narrative wherein women are viewed and treated as assistants, observers, and domestics to their male counterparts in science. From Curie, to the women of the Manhattan Project, to Louis Leakey’s “Lady Trimates” and Barbara McClintock, journalists and writers have contributed to the myth of scientists as embodying masculine characteristics; they have used metaphors that assume “masculine endurance, competitiveness, physicality, bravery, and grit” (120) and portray science as a heroic and solitary endeavor. Des Jardins astutely notes that “[w]e continue to venerate the lone maverick, male by definition, rather than the collective experience for which evidence of a female presence is greater. This lone maverick is also endearingly eccentric, a trait that has been imagined as unique to male genius” (150). Men often wrote science articles in magazines and newspapers (LaFollette 1988) that tended to perpetuate the idea of the male “lone maverick” with inherent “genius,” while they constructed images of domesticity for female scientists. Thus, Des Jardins’s analysis of the role of narratives in the construction of who belongs and does not belong in science complements the work of scholars like LaFollette, Mary Barbercheck (2001), Naomi Oreskes (1996), Orly Shachar (2000), Mary Terrall (2011...