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A Caricature of a Female Scientist

I hadn’t intended on writing about my Saturday excursion to the theater, even though the play, Legacy of Light, was about two female scientists; the play’s run ended on Sunday. However, I’m so disappointed, and I have to tell you why.The play follows two women: French mathematician and physicist Ém...

I hadn’t intended on writing about my Saturday excursion to the theater, even though the play, Legacy of Light, was about two female scientists; the play’s run ended on Sunday. However, I’m so disappointed, and I have to tell you why.



“Mme du Châtelet, detail of a portrait by an unknown French artist; in a private collection,” via Wikimedia Commons



The play follows two women: French mathematician and physicist Émilie du Châtelet in the last year of her life, 1749, and Olivia, a present-day astrophysicist in New Jersey. Émilie is 42, pregnant, scared she will die in childbirth (having had two difficult pregnancies) and desperate to accomplish as much as she can in what she expects, correctly, are her last months. We follow Olivia, meanwhile, as she has just made the biggest discovery of her scientific career—a new planet being formed—and decides, at the age of 40, that she wants to become a mother.



Émilie is brilliantly alive in this play. She and her long-term lover Voltaire spar over philosophy and science. She has an affair with a much younger man, the poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert. She plans a future with her 15-year-old daughter Pauline in which they will go to Paris together and demand entry to the Sorbonne. She is vibrant, and her death, even though I knew it was inevitable, was tragic.



Olivia is 40, an astrophysicist, likes the song “She Blinded Me With Science” and gets into a car accident one day and decides she wants to have a child with her elementary-schoolteacher husband. But ovarian cancer leads them to look for a surrogate.



Unlike Émilie, though, Olivia is one-dimensional, a caricature of a female scientist. For her, there is nothing more than an obsession with her scientific discovery and this spur-of-the-moment decision to become a mother. She dresses badly and wears sensible shoes, as if to emphasize the stereotype that a female scientist must look as boring as Olivia sounds.



If I gave the little girls in the audience the choice of becoming Émilie or Olivia, I think they would have chosen Émilie. I would. This in spite of her struggles for recognition for her work, the dangers of childbirth in that age and Émilie’s need to marry off young Pauline for her daughter’s own protection, a sad example of a woman’s only option in the 1700s. Émilie was obviously enjoying life much more than Olivia.



Who wouldn’t choose the vivacious women in red silk who could talk about the nature of light while managing two lovers and a husband instead of the dull modern woman who would bore her listeners with jargon? Somehow the playwright made being a female scientist today less attractive than being one in the 1700s. It really is better to be one now (and a lot easier, too).



It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of models for amazing modern women in science. We’ve featured plenty of them in the pages of Smithsonian. They are more than just females who do science. There are details behind the label, and those details are important to understanding who that person is, why they act as they do.



To present a modern female scientist in such a stereotypical way does a disservice to all women in science. They are so much more interesting that that. They are more than Olivia.
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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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