Willfully oblivious or truly dangerous?

MarineMarine Desage-El Murr is an assistant professor in chemistry at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC) in Paris. As a chemist, her research focuses on catalysis and finding innovative ways towards chemical reactivity. As a woman in the field of science, she likes to promote gender equity, both inside and outside her field. As a westerner living in Paris, she likes to walk in the streets and luckily is not deterred by the weather.

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Facade and closeup of the commemorative plate for Olympe de Gouges, rue Servandoni, 75005 Paris.

It’s a narrow and sinuous street paved with cobblestones, just across the street from the Jardin du Luxembourg. Attracted by its quiet and peaceful atmosphere, the wandering passerby might follow its curve and, if curious enough to look up at the ancient facades, discover a simple marble plate, engraved in deep crimson letters. This plate reminds us that a great woman lived in one of these houses.

Olympe de Gouges (1748–1793) was an intellectual of her time, writer, political figure, and perhaps among the first true feminist activists. Born Marie Gouze, she changed her name upon arriving in Paris from hometown Montauban, drawn to the capital by her strong-willed and unique personality. Her trademark wit, irony and verve, her relentless passion for literature, theater, as well as politics soon established her as one of the brilliant minds on the Parisian intellectual scene. In a time where all things political were the private preserve of men, she wanted to be part of the political debate and set out to let her voice be heard.

Inspired by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen, a founding act of the French revolution published in 1789 proclaiming equality between men, and defining the terms by which they should live amongst each other as citizens, Olympe decided that such bold act of freedom should not be left to men only. She crafted her own Declaration on the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which was presented to the National Assembly just two years after the original that inspired her. This text freely elaborates the rights of women as individuals and as citizens, and is a defining act of freedom for humankind, men and women alike. Bringing women, the forgotten half of the French nation, out of the shadows and back in the political scene was an incredibly daring and courageous thing to do, and dangerous too, as history teaches us. This text was rejected and therefore never achieved law like status. Though condemned to remain a literary piece, only excerpts were made public and its full content was only published as of 1986, which seems an agonizingly long time. Olympe de Gouges advocated divorce, substitution of religious marriage by a civil pact between partners, and laid the foundations for childcare and maternity support; she was by all means an utmost universalist. Critical of the political scene of her time, she was sentenced to death and beheaded by guillotine on November 3rd, 1793.

In an age where women were not considered as significant in the political and societal issues, Olympe stood out as a truly free, and therefore dangerous, spirit.

Only a short walk away and up the Montagne Sainte Geneviève hill, a stone’s throw away from the Panthéon, is another small street, named after another great woman and her husband, rue Pierre et Marie Curie.

Marie Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867 and emigrated to France in 1891. Her early outstanding scholarly accomplishments in physics and chemistry led her to pioneering results in the field of radioactivity. Her research was at the forefront of the scientific community of her time and granted her several awards, prizes and medals. Marie Curie is the first woman to receive a Nobel prize and still as of today the only woman to have achieved the incredible feat of receiving two Nobel prizes, the first one in Physics for the study of radiations and a second one in Chemistry for the discovery and study of the chemical elements radium and polonium.

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Marie Curie (left) photographed with her daughter Irene.

In a famous picture taken on the occasion of the 1911 Solvay congress held in Brussels, she appears as the only woman among an areopagus of famous scientists, and quite strikingly, she is not even looking up to the photographer. Absorbed in a conversation with her neighbor mathematician Henri Poincaré and peering over what seems to be a notebook, she seems blissfully oblivious of the historicity of the moment, she just is truly in the moment. Her down-to-earth approach to the practical applications of her works was embodied in the fabrication of the “Little Curies”, a popular nickname for vehicles having built-in radiographic equipment which were used on the battlefields during World War I, allowing quicker and better treatment of the injured soldiers. Marie Curie even learned to drive a car so that she could be part of the action.

Still, despite all her achievements, she suffered discrimination in a male-dominated scientific field. Her name was not on the original proposition made to the Swedish Nobel committee and it was not before her husband intervened that she was finally listed as co-recipient of the prize. She failed to be elected at the Académie des Sciences in 1910, just a year before being awarded her second Nobel prize. Nevertheless, she led an incredibly active scientific life and specifically came to terms with the gender-based discrimination that she knew all too well by hiring many other women in the various research laboratories or institutes that she directed.

The surrounding streets of the Panthéon, famously dedicated to the great men of the nation, and where she quite ironically lies for eternity, abound with testimonies of her legacy: the nearby Institut Curie, together with the Institut du Radium, is devoted to treating cancer patients, and the Musée Curie is a keepsake perpetuating the legend.

Living and working in Paris, I was inspired by the destinies and works of these two women, one a writer and an activist, the other a scientist. While these two examples lie in the past, they are and should be sources of continued strength and inspiration for the women and battles of today. Willfully oblivious of gender barriers, both these women stand out as firm believers that the dissymmetric biology that makes men and women different should not stand in the way of equality, that this should neither explain nor vindicate limitations imposed on a simple gender basis, and that their place in the world should be defined in inclusive rather than exclusive terms. That legacy alone should stand and be the foundation on which to build a shared and equal future, as it is the one truly defining act of what men and women should be.

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Frontispiece of the Radium Institute, rue Pierre et Marie Curie, 75005 Paris


A dangerous woman is a daring woman, willing to pursue, carve out if need be, her path and prepared to take actions towards her goals, regardless of the limitations imposed upon her by society.

Dangerous they say, daring we propone. Better yet, truly oblivious.