I’m not entirely sure how I old I was when I first heard those words. Maybe ten, maybe twelve. I do remember exactly where I was. Scratched wooden tables, a floor almost shiny enough to slide across as long as you didn’t get caught. That subtle blend of backstage dust and institutional cleaner that haunts most school halls.
As it happens, the sentence was supposed to be positive.
“People will tell you that girls can’t do science,” my teacher said. “But don’t listen to them.”
I was bored. What were they on about? They might as well be saying, “Don’t let anyone tell you that girls can’t sing.” Some can, some can’t, much the same as boys…
Fast forward, er, let’s call it “several” years plus a few more life experiences and I thought of that teacher again.
In the midst of a fresh Paris spring, I was standing in another building with scuffed wooden floors and a curious blend of dust and industrial cleaner. I was standing in Marie Curie’s office.
It’s a small and fairly quiet affair, a subdued museum in the leafy streets of the 5th Arrondissement. The displays show a few posters, some yellowed leaflets and a terrifying collection of radioactive beauty products, endorsed by Miss France rather than Mme Curie, to help young girls get perfectly clear skin. Somehow, it didn’t do justice to the real story.
A young woman, Maria Sklodowska, flees from Warsaw to Kraków for her own safety. She then moves to France in the late 1800s to study further. Her husband dies in an accident, leaving her a single mother with two young children. When World War I breaks out, she teaches herself how to drive and travels to the front line to use X-rays to help treat wounded soldiers.
Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.
Marie becomes the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize but, far more importantly, the only person in history to have won a Nobel Prize in two different science subjects: physics and chemistry.
I’m going to say that again: the only person in history to have won a Nobel Prize in two different science subjects.
Yet the French Academy of Sciences refused to admit her as a member, declaring that “women cannot be part of the Institute of France.”
It was that small postscript, those few words, that brought me back to my schoolteacher and my altogether less illustrious place of learning.
The problem has never been that girls can’t do science; it’s that people think that they can’t.
Disclosure: the author has two XX chromosomes plus a fair few scientific awards, although (alas!) none of them are Nobel Prizes.
The Curie museum has been renovated since I wrote this post and I haven’t yet had the chance to return.
You can find more information about the new Curie Museum here.