The marquee event of her six-week U.S. tour (in 1921) was held in the East Room of the White House. President Warren Harding spoke at length, praising her “great attainments in the realms of science and intellect” and saying she represented the best in womanhood. “We lay at your feet the testimony of that love which all the generations of men have been won’t to bestow upon the noble woman, the unselfish wife, the devoted mother.”
It was a rather odd thing to say to the most decorated scientist of that era, but then again Marie Curie was never easy to understand or categorize. That was because she was a pioneer, an outlier, unique for the newness and immensity of her achievements. But it was also because of her sex. Curie worked during a great age of innovation, but proper women of her time were thought to be too sentimental to perform objective science. She would forever be considered a bit strange, not just a great scientist but a great woman scientist. You would not expect the president of the United States to praise one of Curie’s male contemporaries by calling attention to his manhood and his devotion as a father. Professional science until fairly recently was a man’s world, and in Curie’s time it was rare for a woman even to participate in academic physics, never mind triumph over it.
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Alas … not a whole lot has changed. Walk around any semiconductor company and you’ll find about a 50:1 ratio of men to women doing the real science/engineering work.
I spent part of my week with the design team at a fairly big company in the semiconductor sector, and the floor is shared with some other ridiculously bright teams (analog chip design, RF, etc.) … I could confidently say I was the dumbest guy on that floor. Out of 50 or so highly-educated engineers, the only woman was the receptionist. Seriously. What gives? Why no women? It clearly isn’t intelligence or mathematical aptitude … some of the brightest people I know are women (physicists, biologists, etc.). The salaries and job prospects in this kind of work are above average (six figures is perfectly realistic), with good benefits and career options at the top. Alas … while I’d like to say I don’t understand why that is, I think all those male engineers have a big part of the blame for that since it’s hardly a world where women feel welcome when you still have posters if big-breasted bikini clad women hanging on your office walls. 🙁
Always nice to see women who do carve a place out for themselves. It’s just a shame it has to be singled out for the exception it is, even 100 years later, and if you’re a woman you can’t just be a good engineer, you have to be singled out as a good female engineer, which just shows what an unfortunate oddity it still is.