Blesok no. 93, November-December, 2013
The Women and the Canon
(Reflections on “The Radiant Love of Maria S.C.,” a play by Mimoza Ristova)
The long list of Nobel Prize recipients offers unfortunately a sad history of gender (in)equality. It is a fact that between 1901 and 2013 there were only 44 women Nobel Prize recipients out of 876 awarded recipients. Given the fact that some rewards are shared among several winners, that means 45 out of 561 awards, or it is about 5 % of the winners or 8 % of the total number of awards.
It is apparent that a comprehensive understanding of gender misrepresentation in the Nobel Prize canon and its selection standards requires a more detailed study. And that study can involve myriad issues, such as for example, data on the number of nominated women or data on general position of women in the sciences. However, even a simple outline can still provide understandings on various issues which are essential to gender studies.
Why are canons (still) predominantly male? Are women really less capable of exceptional achievements in arts, sciences, and culture, or rather we’re talking about their (in)visibility in the public eye, unequal opportunities and access to resources and possible biases in their nomination and remuneration? What are the standards that contribute to the marginalization of women in arts, sciences, culture, politics, and society?
The case of Marie Sklodowska – Curie (1867-1934), can be a particularly important contribution in challenging such a discouraging and grim reality. She is the one who is remembered in Nobel Prize and world history not only as the first female winner of the Nobel Prize, but as the only woman to receive the award twice, as well. Also, she is the only person to receive two awards given in two different categories; she was the first female professor at University of Paris; and due to her personal merit and many years after her death, in 1995, she was the first woman buried in Pantheon in Paris.
As a result, a conclusion can be made that Marie Sklodowska – Curie, in addition to her significant contribution to the advancement of physics and chemistry, had almost equally valuable influence in the field of social and gender studies with her work and courageous life. In her struggle for implementation and promotion of her scientific achievements, Curie had to fight the barriers that were imposed to her just because she was a woman, both by the members of the French Academy of Sciences who never accepted her in their ranks as their member nor intended to nominate her for the Nobel Prize, and by the male dominated society in which she lived at the time.
In that light, “The Radiant Love of Maria S.C.”, the new play written by Macedonian writer Mimoza Ristova, is simply captivating owing to its poignant story about this great woman scientist based on her personal and intimate life and struggle. Furthermore, “The Radiant Love of Maria S.C.” attracts readers’ attention not only as a dramatic presentation of Marie Curie’s extraordinary biography and/or as evidence of her pioneering contribution in the process of breaking the deep-rooted male canons. This play is also an important catalyst in opening a much needed discussion on the issues addressing gender discrimination in the sciences and society as well, both at the time of her life and nowadays.
The play itself, or as the playwright calls it "phantasmagoric theater essay in 15 steps" is based on her comprehensive knowledge and understanding of actual events in Maria’s life and scientific work. As a result, Ms. Ristova stresses and reveals overtly less known intimate details of Maria Sklodowska – Curie’s life and work. That is, she reveals her personal struggle against prejudice and stereotypes in the society in which she lived then and by association in society in which we live today. In fact, Mimoza Ristova (as a physicist, university professor, and as a woman and mother) shares most of Maria’s sentiments, efforts, and challenges herself. That’s probably why she easily manages to utilize her own insights and experiences in creating her leading character. That approach enriches Maria’s character with a valuable dose of warmth and striking emotional palate. Moreover, it adds a deep and sensitive human dimension to her script. That is, as a matter of fact, it’s unique additional value.
The story of the play follows Maria’s life from her early youth to her mature and old age. At the beginning it unearths Maria’s unrequited love, and her break up with Kazimir Zorawski, the man who betrayed her, who favored his parents’ approval to marry her, and who preferred financial security of an arranged marriage with another woman over their feelings for each other. Then, the drama introduces Maria Sklodowska-Curie as a woman in love, a woman who despairs her own failure to beat the social chains that hinder her love. However she is proud and honest enough in her pain to not accept offered role of mistress and concubine as a "comfort prize". Although deeply hurt and determined to repudiate her feelings forever and to commit herself exclusively to her education and work, Maria falls in love later again. As a matter of fact, she rediscovers love and falls in love with her Pierre. With him she shares more than a common love. It is mutual understanding, lasting friendship, true partnership and passion for science that they share. As a result, their marriage and their collaborative work are apparently prosperous and fruitful. They give birth to two daughters and their research and scientific discoveries is acknowledged. However, on a long run their success does not protect them from severe attacks by the hypocrites and by the repressive patriarchal environment. And that abrasive attitude does not fade out. On the contrary, it intensifies.
In that light, the play also unearths the events surrounding Maria Curie’s first Nobel price nomination. Biased members of the French Academy intentionally leave out Maria from their joint Nobel Prize nomination, although her merits for discovery of radioactivity are equal, if not greater than those of Pierre and their associates. However, with a support of her husband and prof. Mittag-Leffler of the Swedish Royal Academy, yet another man who is not afraid of the truth that women are able to "penetrate into undiscovered nature of matter" (Ristova: 27), the justice is finally served and Maria becomes the first woman justly awarded the Nobel Prize. In that way she righteously steps into the world previously reserved exclusively for men.
However, after receiving her first Nobel Prize, Maria remains aware that despite the fame, money and recognition, the "shallow minded, stealing society" (Ristova: 31) does not understand the value of science and education as the foundation of any human progress. And significantly enough that is a belief resolutely shared by the author of the play herself.
As Ristova justly reveals in her play, crafting several self-reflective passages outlined throughout out the sound dramatic structure and developing remarkably depicted characters, that was not the first time Maria that confronted injustices of society. Quite the opposite, she was only 15 years old when she faced a ban for girls from Warsaw to be educated in their own language in their own country. That made her aware that education and science are her way to freedom for the rest of her life. Sklodowska-Curie continued to dedicate herself to her research persistently and passionately, no matter that the challenges this woman faced increased. That becomes particularly true after the accident in which Pierre dies, leaving her alone to struggle with her pain and depression due to the irreplaceable loss.
One of the key episodes in this well documented drama is the one that happens five long and miserable years later, when her grief and loneliness gradually open up a place for the passion still burning inside this woman. She falls in love with her young associate Paul Langevin, who to some extent can be interpreted as some kind of imaginary alternative to Pierre. The climax of the drama is the scandal provoked by the publication of their intimate correspondence and the disclosure of their love affair; a scandal that overshadowed the second Nobel Prize Maria gets at that point. The incidents that followed, such as journalists’ allegations and public attacks, are nothing but a representation of double standards used against her. That as well shows false public morals, a community that acts extremely unfair and condemns her for her (im)moral behavior although she had been a widow for a long time. However her lover who is married at the time was no condemned. Those are unfair moral rules by which it is acceptable for a man to have an extramarital relationship, but a woman immediately gets a label of whore who should be stoned because she dared to cheat on her dead husband, as paradoxical as it seems.
Ristova uses direct and straight forward language in her expressive dramatic piece, and it becomes clear that she openly condemns this inappropriate and rude behavior towards Curie, who has experienced insults and attacks because of her "moral values" and because of the way she lead her private life. Moreover, it was the fact that she as a woman was subjected to different standards. Instead of being placed on the pedestal in society as a winner of two highest awards she was ruthlessly judged.
Apparently, in terms of Marie Curie’s intimate story, a great truth is hidden in the words of her maid – what is the benefit of these awards that brought her only misery and bad luck?! (Ristova: 43) Indeed, this great woman, as we know her from the history, and even more as she is brought to us closer by Ristova in this play, has no other choice but to be unhappy because of the harsh circumstances imposed on her. She is tired of fighting windmills her entire life, fighting against the unjust system of values in society, against the mechanisms of exclusion based on social, ethnic and gender bias, against men privileges and barriers to advancement of women that have no other root than biological determinism. Thus, her howl is understandable. “I‘ve had enough of exhausting questions about uranium, radium, polonium, measuring their activity, caring for small children, getting Nobel prizes, suffering reporters and photographers, and enraged xenophobic crowds! I am bloody tired of all that; lectures at the Sorbonne, Paul Langevin, Kazimir Zorawski… I am just plain exhausted! Especially of you and your too-early departure, leaving our world! That’s the end!” (Ristova: 47). And it is clear that there must be consequences, that such fight for one’s own mission, but also for one’s own truth, result in exhaustion, misunderstanding and bitterness, which ultimately lead her to impaired mental health and the need to seek peace in a psychiatric institution. These hallucinative parts of the play that are set in the sanatorium of Sansellmoz in the small town of Haute Savoie in the French Alps, which are written in form of Maria’s monologue metaphysical reflections, sound like a poetic and lyrical passages with expression that not only emphasizes its phantasmagoric effects, but also makes the text feel like a compact prose work. Without a doubt, it is a great compliment to a dramatic text that it can function by itself quite expedient, independent of its possible theatrical staging.
As of the outcome of this tragic drama, although it can apparently shake the faith and the intention of this fight, we have no doubts that each individual investment is an important and necessary contribution to the broad depiction of sensitization of society on gender issues. That is the vital message that “The Radiant Love of Maria S. C.” by Mimoza Ristova sends, and that the exemplary case of Sklodowska – Curie proves that personal and social responsibility of every woman, as well as women taking an active role in science and in reducing the discriminatory canons, can contribute to advancement of the interests and rights of women in society as a whole.
To that end, we’re looking forward to see this play put on stage. We are assured that apart from its thematic and aesthetic enrichment of theatrical art, its impact can and must be placed in a wider social context. All of us who fight these battles today, many years after Maria Sklodowska’s death, under changed circumstances to a certain degree, but not really entirely, presentations of such strong women in arts can only help us and inspire us to enhance the struggle for the democratization of society and promote policy of gender equality in all fields.