On an Educational Agreement

Hearing the news in late 2022 that the conservative government of Afghanistan has banned women from pursuing university degrees reminded me of a story I’d read a few years ago. We in the west take it for granted that anyone can go to college if they wish–or not. Choice is one of the major benefits of our western political-economic systems. We often forget that, even in the western world, women attending a university was an extremely rare thing even one hundred years ago.

This story is about a pair of sisters in central Europe in the late 1800s who desired to study in a university. Their family wasn’t wealthy, but they were from solidly middle class stock. Despite having some funds, they still lacked the money for university tuition. Add to this impediment was the fact that women were often denied any post-high school education for many of the same reasons the Taliban is now using in the modern era. So, these sisters, Mania, the younger one, and Brania, the older one, entered a secret university in their country called The Flying University. This institute of higher learning provided affordable co-educational opportunities in an era where such a thing in that part of Europe was practically unheard of.

However, the Flying University provided only a limited opportunity for the area of study the sisters desired: Science, specifically medicine and physics. So, they devised an agreement. Mania agreed to work as many jobs as she could in order to pay for Brania’s education in France, a nation that allowed women to attend classes and receive scientific degrees. Then, when Brania’s education was finished, it would be her turn to work and support Mania as the younger sibling worked on completing her degree.

Mania worked as a tutor for younger students and, eventually, she moved in with a family of nearby relatives and worked for them as a governess. The agreement seemed to be working as Brania’s medical studies progressed. But, one thing intervened that the sisters didn’t foresee. The older sister fell in love. She met and married a fellow student in Paris, and her plans to work while Mania was in school were put on hold. The best she could offer was to have Mania come live with the newlyweds in Paris in order to save money. Now, you might think that this was incredibly unfair, and that Mania would have every right to be angry after working for two years and Brania not living up to her side of the bargain. However, Mania was absolutely thrilled for her beloved sister, and she took Brania up on the offer of a place to stay for a time in Paris while she sorted her school situation.

As much as Mania had worked while Brania was in school, she doubled her efforts to work and pursue her own degrees. She moved into a one room apartment nearer the school, continued tutoring, and often went without eating in order to save money for tuition. Her hard work paid off. She not only completed one degree, but she also achieved a post-graduate degree and received a scholarship to assist her with funding. The university in Paris recognized her exceptional ability and rewarded her work and effort.

It was after her degrees were completed that Mania went looking for space in Paris where she could continue her research. A fellow scientific researcher named Pierre offered a small space where Mania could begin her work. On meeting each other, they each later reported that a strong attraction was felt. Pierre eventually offered marriage, and, after weighing how much a marriage would have an impact on her research, Mania agreed. The pair was married in 1895. So, Paris brought Mania the education she sought and a life-partner (and research partner) she never knew she wanted or needed.

Of course, Mania was the nickname her family called her. You know her by her married name in France.

Marie Curie.


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