Last Saturday, we met up in the beautiful Christopher Columbus Park on the Waterfront to discuss The Madame Curie Complex by Julie Desjardins. The book mostly discusses the history of women in science since the 1880s, starting with Marie Curie. The title comes from the fact that Curie was often written about as a super-woman of sorts, who had time to raise her children and also win two Nobels. She was seen as a matronly martyr, even though that stereotype didn’t resemble her life at all. She was reclusive, brilliant, and seemed to prefer science over everything else. She was a Gold Standard of sorts for female scientists, who were supposed to be brilliant but only in a “womanly” fashion. Many early female scientists discussed in this book were seen as helpmeets or assistants to their male superiors. The women were mostly relegated to data collecting positions, as their “female brains” were supposed to be attentive to detail, while the analyzing and problem solving was something more suited to a “male brain”.
The book also discusses Lillian Gilbreth, the woman behind Cheaper By The Dozen, who pioneered workplace efficiency science with her husband and who continued to be a scientist of “domestic arts” (natch) after his death. The chapter about her is full of how awesome she was at managing her time and keeping her house run like a factory. She was portrayed as a mistress of domesticity, even though in reality she never cooked anything herself and had to make up a cake recipe on the fly for a publicity campaign.
The other women discussed in the book are: the women of the Harvard Observatory, the women who worked on the Manhattan Project, Rosalind Franklin, Maria Mayer (Nobel winner for the shell-orbit theory of atoms), Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, and many more.
Overall, I found the book informative but a little long in some parts. The author really enjoys belaboring some points while not focusing too hard on other points. The Manhattan Project section was a little jumbled and she jumped from scientist to scientist until I couldn’t tell who did what, while the chapter on Lillian Gilbreth went on and on about how efficient the woman was. However, it was still an enjoyable read for me, since I like to read about history, especially with a feminist analysis. Others in the BSBC wanted to learn more about the science that the women were doing but I found the history of institutionalized sexism the most interesting part and the book definitely talked a lot about that.
If you read the book but couldn’t make it to our meeting, leave a note in the comments! I want to find out your opinions, whether you liked it or didn’t. And don’t be shy–come out to our meetings! You don’t have to be a regular (or even finish the book) to join us and have a good time.
Our next book is Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures. Our next meeting date is June 19th at 3 pm, location is TBD for now until we know what the weather is like. If it’s sunny, we’ll meet again at the CC Park, otherwise we’ll probably meet at our usual Border’s Cafe. Come join us for a fun-filled parasitic chat!