Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes, for physics and chemistry. Most people know that. But few know about her efforts to resist the Russian Empire’s control of a region in partitioned Poland in the nineteenth century. Her activism revolved primarily around the preservation of the Polish language, under threat from Russian imperialism.
Throughout history, one strategy of colonization has been the erasure of native languages and replacement with those of the colonizers. Removing a people’s language takes with it their culture, history, identity, and future. Assimilation is only complete when the occupied nation’s children are trained to accept it, ensuring long-term, generational compliance. Marie Curie, then Marie Skłodowska, did not comply.
In 1886, Skłodowska went to work for the wealthy Zorawski family as a governess, or female private tutor, for their children. Both an educator and Polish nationalist at heart, she refused to let any child within her reach pass through their childhood without being competent in the Polish language. She taught Polish reading and writing not only to her official charges, but to the children of local peasants and factory workers as well. At one time, she was instructing as many as eighteen pupils under her employer’s roof, with their full knowledge and blessing, as they shared her Polish nationalism, and supported this small but significant affront.
It was very much a clandestine operation. As Marilyn Baily Ogilvie writes in her Marie Curie: A Biography, “The Russian government would not approve of such an activity and it was even dangerous because she [Curie] circulated Polish books to the children’s parents.” Curie was taking an enormous risk, effectively disobeying the dominant political regime with chalkboards, pencils, and textbooks. If she had been caught, her fate might have been that of a treason-committing prisoner, or an exile in Siberia. Luckily, she became neither: her employers’ high status, the isolation of their estate, and the discreet manner of secret education ensured her safety.
This was not Curie’s first experience participating in undercover schooling. Before defying the Russian government as a teacher, she defied it as a student. From 1883 to 1905, the capital of Warsaw was the host of a secret organization known as the “Flying University,” a unique institution that gave young Marie and her older sister Bronia an opportunity to soar. At the “Flying University,” the sisters were able to embark on an informal but rigid course of study in preparation for their future career training at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. Bronia would go on to become a medical doctor, while Marie, as we know, became a ground-breaking scientist and professor.
According to The Wilson Quarterly’s report on the mysterious school, its underlying purpose was to “reserve Polish as the medium of instruction and to teach the language and literature in elementary and secondary schools.” It also challenged the empire’s policies towards its womenfolk. Under the imperial doctrine, women were meant to be in the home, taking care of domestic matters and producing children to maintain the state’s population and ideology. They were not meant to pursue anything further, especially not higher education. Men were expected to enforce these rules, but Curie’s own father Władysław Skłodowski encouraged his daughters’ activities. He had his own agenda against Russia, and likely relished this taste of revenge in the form of his children’s quiet mutiny. According to Roger M. Macklis, Władysław and his wife Bronisława Skłodowska had been teachers “whose careers were stymied by the prevailing bias toward Tsarist ‘Russi-fication’ of the Polish educational system.” Simply enrolling in the Flying University, receiving her lessons in Polish, and learning, Curie succeeded as a minor revolutionary.
As Marie Curie, a married woman and later a widow, she would pass on both her Polish pride and attitude towards women’s education to her daughters, Irene and Eve. Curie would make it a priority to instruct her own children in the Polish language, and instill in them the importance of having their own careers as women, continuing her family’s legacy of anti-imperialist opposition. Curie lived to witness and celebrate Poland’s liberation from Russia and the establishment of the Second Polish Republic that lasted from 1918-1939. She died only five years before Poland fell, through invasion, back into both Russian and German hands.