More Scientist than Woman

Submitted into Contest #137 in response to: Write a story about a scientist.... view prompt


Fiction Inspirational Teens & Young Adult

“I really like this tune,” said Marilyn

“Me too, it just has a certain something doesn’t it?” replied Joanna.

Chopin’s Waltz No.1 in A Minor (Op. Posth. 69) echoed through the small bedroom while the pair sat on opposite sides of Joanna’s bed. The only light source was her desk lamp which illuminated them softly and made their grey shadows on the wall overlap. The atmosphere was weirdly tense, the air full of uncertainty.

“Who is it by?” asked Marilyn

“Chopin. He is my favourite. He just has a way with harmonies that is, well, genius.”

“I get what you mean, though I must admit I personally like Debussy more.”

“I suppose you can’t argue with Debussy’s brilliance. Does that mean Impressionism is your favourite art movement too?” 

“Yes, Van Gogh, Morisot, I am enamoured with their work.”

Joanna exhaled heavily as she was thinking of the next intellectual thing she should say in order to impress Marilyn. She loved the pretentiousness of the vocabulary they used with each other. She knew that if anyone heard their conversations they would call them snobs but she kind of loved that. Just as she was shakily clasping her phone and trying to select an equally good song from her playlist, Marilyn suddenly uttered:

“So, do you have any from the greatest female composer of all time?”

Joanna felt slightly taken aback by the comment. “Female composer?” she thought, “Who in their right mind asks to hear music by a female composer and the greatest one at that?” She subtly opened google and searched “Greatest composers of all time.” hoping that google would auto suggest the one she was looking for. She scrolled endlessly only to find no sign of her anywhere. “Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, okay, okay, don’t panic just yet I am sure she is here. Brahms, Wagner, Haydn, Tchaikovsky.. Okay shit, this is bad, maybe if I only search for females.”

“Are you okay? Marilyn asked with her eyebrows raised, bringing Joanna back to reality.

“Yeah, I’m sorry I just.. I am not sure who you mean when you say the greatest female composer.”

“It was a trick question. The answer is that there are none. I just wanted to see you freak out as you predictably did.”

“Oh.” Joanna hated how she always managed to embarrass herself when she was alone with Marilyn even though she always tried so hard to appear relaxed.

“It’s depressing isn’t it? Everyone says that Beethoven and Mozart were geniuses whose existence has been a blessing for humanity because they created all these pieces of music that no-one other than them could conjure up. Do you realise how many women in history wanted to compose music? How many of their voices were lost? Maybe they could have been better than Beethoven or even equally good. We will simply never know. And it’s not just in music you know, it’s in philosophy, art and science too. No woman has ever reached the ‘Aristotelian quality’ men in history have.”

Joanna was immensely attracted to Marilyn’s feminist monologues. She had often been a witness to them since they met six months ago. They happened in any setting, from the dance club, to the ethics class they took together once, to the dinner party she hosted that one time. No matter the location, the only thing that never changed was Marilyn’s fierceness. 

“I suppose I had never thought of that before. Though I will say that regardless of if some females are lesser known, I think they are equally famous. Like Frida Kahlo.” said Joanna skeptically. Marilyn seemed almost let down by the comment.  

“If I show the average Joe a picture of the 'Mona Lisa' and 'Starry Night' and then I show them Frida Kahlo’s work, who do you think they will recognise?” She responded. 

“Probably not Frida. But for example, you can’t deny that everyone knows Marie Curie.”

“Of course people know Marie Curie but that’s the problem, they only know Marie Curie. For example, let me ask you now. Name four important male scientists.” Marilyn said in a snarky tone.

“Okay, Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Newton and Edison.” Joanna replied without much delay. 

“Cool, and if I had asked you to name more than four how many do you think you could have said?”

“Probably ten or more.” Jonna replied, afraid of the next question she knew Marilyn would inevitably ask. 

“Okay, now name four important female scientists."

“Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin and.. Um.. the ladies that found CRISPR.” 

“Yeah, just let that shit seep in, the two women that won a Nobel two years ago for arguably one of the greatest genetic discoveries of all time and you can’t even remember their names. We literally NEED the internet to find female scientists. And trust me there have been some important contributions from some of them, but we didn’t even have the decency as a society to retain their names.”

“At least I remember their work, regardless of if I know their names. Is that not important?” Joanna said quietly.

“It is, but to most people, me being one of them, acknowledgement for what one does is important. Like Banksy. His work is immaculate and his alias is so famous it has become a brand name at this point. I am sure that whoever he is, he must feel good about that.” 

Joanna felt self conscious. How come she had never had these thoughts before? Science was always her favourite subject. She had never realised how alienated she had felt from it until this moment. 

“Let me just ask you this, why did you decide to not pursue a science degree? You have told me so many times you always were good at it and loved it. Why did you choose fucking journalism?” Marilyn asked in a way that warned the question was rhetorical.

“I will tell you why. In my Social Psychology course we learned that women make up less than 50% of degree holders in STEM disciples. We also learned that women are systematically discouraged from pursuing STEM from the time they are five years old. Could it be maybe that even you have been brainwashed into thinking you don’t have anything to contribute to these fields?”

Marilyn spoke with the kind of intensity she usually kept for misogynistic jocks and lame divas. She herself was surprised at how angsty this conversation had made her. 

“I am sorry for being so loud, I just care about what you think. I want you to have good opinions on things, I don't want to leave you behind.” She said, calming her tone down.

“Yeah, it’s okay, I actually feel that this whole conversation has helped me to decide on a topic for my next assignment.” Joanna said while looking anywhere other than Marilyn’s eyes.

“What is the assignment about?” 

“We need to write an article about someone we deeply admire and about the social significance of that person. I was going to write about Chopin, hence why I have made you listen to him with me for the past hour. But now, I am not so sure I want to write about him. Could you help me find someone else?”

Two hours later the girls sat on Joanna’s desk, their knees slightly touching as they leaned over the laptop jotting down notes from the seventeen tabs they had open at once. 

They decided on one woman in particular. Her name was Cecilia Payne and she was one of the most important astronomer-astrophysicists of all time. 

“Goddamn, even someone as amazing as her was robbed. Look at this, Henry dickhead Russell whose name even I remember from high school physics, literally stole her thesis idea after initially discrediting it and calling it too controversial for opposing the accepted theories of the time, only to reach the same conclusion four years later, and get credited for her work.”

“That is all kinds of screwed up. How could he only briefly mention her in his paper?”

“That is the way the world works, men get their name in our high school textbooks and we get nothing for figuring out the elemental composition of the sun.” Marilyn seemed tired as she spoke. The research process had fueled her anger but also made her deeply sad. Many thoughts ran through her mind, like getting a tattoo of Cecilia’s name on her arm or hosting a rally in her honour, but somehow nothing really made her feel better since Cecilia was dead, and so was Russell. The worst thoughts she had were that to Cecilia it must have been normal to get her ideas rejected and then published without her consent or her name. It must have been normal and expected that she would not receive an actual degree after finishing all her studies and writing her thesis. She must have expected to never be recognised no matter how hard she tried.

“I almost want to hold Cecilia’s hands in mine and thank her for being who she was. Shit, I might just quit and become an astrophysicist for her. I have the chance nowadays so I should do it, no?” Marilyn said after reading yet another paragraph of Cecilia’s biography.

“Actually, I don’t think you should.” Joanna replied after convincing herself she should stand up to what Marilyn had said.

“Why not?” 

Joanna took some moments to collect her words before answering.

“I think many people just want to do what they want to do, they aren’t looking to be a martyr or to become an idol. They just love their job and they wanna be excellent. I think Cecilia was brilliant and we should look up to her not because she was a woman but because she was a scientist, and one that contributed to everything that we take for granted now," She seemed to struggle initially when speaking but soon she became louder. Spit exited her mouth as she spoke.

"Stop looking at her as a woman. I mean, it is important that she is one, and as outraged as I am that so many women have been lost to history, I am not going to single out the one that made it. She must have been viewed in a derogatory light her whole life. She deserves better than to be labeled as her gender once again by fellow women nonetheless. She deserves to be labeled as a scientist damnit!”

By the time she spoke her last sentence her face had become red and agitated bringing her speech to a crescendo.

Marilyn looked at her feeling speechless, she always believed that Joanna was the type of person that needed saving because she never thinks for herself. She believed that people that were quiet never thought much. She had never felt more aligned with Joanna then this moment. Joanna had stood up and was pacing. Marilyn got up and stopped her by hugging her tightly. Joanna immediately began to cry. She cried for her younger self whose name she had forgotten. She cried for all the women in history whose names she will never know. Marilyn cried with her. They joined foreheads and softly kissed with tears getting tangled in their lips. 

“We know each other's names and now we know Cecilia's.”

The next morning while Marilyn was still sleeping in her bed, Joanna smiled and looked outside. 

Her piece titled: “Cecilia Payne, more scientist than woman.” was her best one yet.

March 18, 2022 20:27

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Michael Regan
18:52 Mar 24, 2022

I enjoyed this on so many levels. I am ashamed to admit I had to look up Cecilia Payne. I recognized the name, but couldn't remember why. Heading my list of overlooked women scientists is Ada Lovelace (I am a computer nerd.) In my first story, "Relative Dimensions in Space", Dr Jane Seymour becomes only sixth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. 😀


Niovi Tupay
17:08 Apr 08, 2022

Thank you so much for your comment! I am glad you enjoyed my story. I will be sure to check out your story too.


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