Beyond the Legend of Marie Curie: Role Models and Mentors for Women in Chemistry

Beyond the Legend of Marie Curie: Role Models and Mentors for Women in Chemistry

Young women at “Starting Down the Chemistry Pathway,” a mentoring event at CHF.

Hilary Domush is the lead researcher on CHF’s Women in Chemistry Oral History Project, which she launched in 2008. Her research interests include different avenues to success in industry, academia, and national laboratories; the role of science education in increasing gender diversity; interdisciplinary science; and globalization of science. Domush is currently working on an oral-history project related to atmospheric science and the upcoming CHF exhibit Sensing Change. She wrote the following article based on a talk she gave at the American Chemical Society Women Chemists Committee Women in Industry Breakfast in August 2011.

Marie Curie exists in the public imagination as a legend, far greater than the sum of her parts. She was more than a woman in science, more than a wife, more than a mother—she was a living icon to millions of women. At times she was a distraction, like when asked by the Nobel Committee not to come to Stockholm and accept her second Nobel Prize in 1911 due to the scandal resulting from her affair with physicist Pierre Langevin. For many, Curie is the quintessential female scientist—often the only female scientist they recognize. 

Curie’s legend and legacy are magnified (not unduly) because she is a woman in a traditionally male dominated arena. Historically, women in chemistry have been slow to achieve many of the high-status positions occupied by their male counterparts. Due to this dearth of women at the top levels of the profession there have been few female mentors to whom aspiring women in chemistry could turn for professional guidance. In the absence of female professors or supervisors to serve as role models, many women looked to the annals of history and found Marie Curie as the only woman available. 

A quick online search results in numerous children’s t-shirts for purchase that say “When I grow up I want to be a Marie Curie.” Yet both the parents who buy this t-shirt as an inspiration and the chemists who look to Curie as a role model know only the Marie Curie of legend—the one-hundred-year-old legend. Marie Curie appeared to “do it all,” and many women still dream of embodying that idealistic phrase by becoming the successful combination of scientist, wife, and mother that Curie was.

Yet those who draw on Curie for inspiration are often unaware of the struggles and setbacks underlying her many successes. Her daughter Eve concisely summarized the Marie Curie we have come to know, noting in a 1938 biography of her mother: “The life of Marie Curie contains prodigies in such number that one would like to tell her story like a legend” (Eve Curie, p. ix). And legend is exactly what Curie became. While most people, especially most women in science, are familiar with the basic aspects of Curie’s life in which she did it all—science and radioactivity, wife and mother—the details often remain abstracted from this basic summary. As with all celebrities, a tension exists between the complex reality of their lived experiences and the legend that has grown around them. Idealized in legend, Curie remains suitable for inspiration, but not for the role of mentor a modern woman requires—even for women in chemistry attempting to do it all.

Between 2008 and 2012 the Chemical Heritage Foundation completed over thirty oral histories with female chemists in academia, industry, national laboratories, and non-profit institutions in the United States. These women and the stories they share about balancing career and family, utilizing social and professional networks, and forging successful paths in the chemical sciences provide contemporary real-life examples of mentoring and professional success. The stories and experiences of women in chemistry are a microcosm of the issues that women in science face more generally and are at the same time uniquely personal. Of their experiences, few women have said, “You know, it just worked out beautifully for us, so there was no issues there,” as Michelle V. Buchanan of Oak Ridge National Laboratory did (Buchanan Oral History, p. 72). However, many women had wonderful stories of overcoming challenges—and still do.

The Women in Chemistry Oral History Project provides detailed discussions of the lived experience that is not fully realized in the more formal laboratory-based, research-oriented, scientific publications and reports. Learning from the oral histories how women succeeded and where they learned the skills necessary to overcome obstacles blocking their professional advancement provides crucial insights into the continuously changing climate of chemistry over the last twenty years. The oral history discussions highlight how these women were able to pave a path toward success while having few—if any—female role models or peers. One of the patterns to emerge is the importance of making decisions with confidence. Judith C. Giordan, President and co-founder of Visions in Education, explained:

There’s only one thing that stands between success and failure, only one. It has nothing to with credentials. It hasn’t got to do with brains. It hasn’t got to do with your rolodex, although that helps. It has to do with confidence and believing you can do it. And my own research […] shows that confidence is the single most important factor for women in being able to do it (Giordan Oral History, p. 26).

The bulk of women interviewed began their education and careers in the 1970s, on the leading edge of an increasingly growing population of women in chemistry. These women demonstrated confidence while having few shoulders to stand on except the legend and inspiration of Marie Curie.

For a long time, women were hard to find in chemistry and related sciences. In 1970 only 1.5% of chemistry professors at the top fifty American chemistry departments were women. (Rawls and Fox, p. 40; Raber, 2010, p. 42.) And though the percentages remain far below where many would like them to be, this figure had risen to 17% by 2009. (Raber, 2008, p. 40; Raber, 2010, p. 42.) Marking the percentages of female professors is useful because all women in chemistry begin as chemistry students whose first professional role models are their professors. Everyone interviewed for the Women in Chemistry Oral History Project was at one time or many times the sole woman in her research group, department, or division, and as such did not have professional women in close proximity who could act as mentors or even simply as a peer.

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