The heirs of Nawojka: Women’s Section of the Polish Physical Society

By Lidia Smentek

Founding PPS web

Founding members of the Women’s Section of the PPS (from left): Aleksandra Leliwa-Kopystyńska, Elżbieta Czerwosz, Małgorzata Suchańska and Teresa Grycuk (from the first meeting of the newly established Executive Committee, Warsaw, November 15, 2008).

There is a grain of truth in every legend. One of those legends is the story of Nawojka, who is a good example to follow for young girls with academic inclinations. Nawojka is considered to be the first female student and teacher in Poland. It was about 1407 when she, disguised in boy’s clothing, entered the Kraków Academy in violation of all rules, laws, customs and tradition; defying everything that was expected of women at that time. This fact was recorded about 1429 by Martin of Leibitz, an elderly abbot of the Benedictine order in Vienna.

Nawojka was very talented, hard-working and serious, but nobody knew why this student remained rather distant. After two years at the Academy, he/she graduated with a degree in teaching. There are several accounts of how it was discovered that in fact this student was a girl. According to one, when she became ill, during an examination a physician discovered the truth. Other sources say that she was offered a position as a servant in a professor’s home and his/her duty was to go with the master to a public bath... Regardless of which one is true, when the crime was disclosed (at that time it was forbidden for girls to attend the university) she was brought for judgment to the bishop’s court. It was assumed that as punishment for the violation of the moral and ethical rules she would be burned at the stake. However when the bishop asked her why she had committed such a deadly sin, she answered: out of love for learning.  Because of this honest answer the bishop mellowed and, out of mercy, she was spared from burning. Instead, per her request, she was allowed to spend the rest of her life in a convent where, as a good and educated scholar, she taught the other nuns how to read and write.

Although the beginning of academic careers for women in Poland goes back to medieval times, the development of equal opportunities for both genders was rather slow over the ages. Women have been admitted to the Jagiellonian University only since 1897 and allowed to hold an academic position since 1906. The first dormitory for female students, obviously named Nawojka, was opened in Kraków ...three decades later.

It was in 1911, not the 15th century, when a scandal broke in the French press about the relationship between Madame Curie and Paul Langevin. Although Madame Curie at that time was single (widowed since 1906) and Langevin was married (in fact with serious, long-standing marital problems), it was her reputation that was ruined and in addition, her scientific career that was almost destroyed. The drama developed to the point that the question “… can she still remain a professor at the Sorbonne?” was published in a serious newspaper. It culminated when, after learning of her Nobel Prize in Chemistry, she received a letter from Svante Arrhenius, a member of the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm. He asked her to send a cable that, in light of the turmoil, she would not attend the ceremony, and not accept the award until the accusations were cleared up and proven to be untrue. Instead, standing up to defend herself, she replied “I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life... I cannot accept the idea in principle that the appreciation of the values of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning a researcher’s private life”. She accepted the prize in person, the second Nobel Prize of her career.

These and other stories provide a historical background for recent activity in Poland to improve the plight of women scientists. Unfortunately statistics still demonstrate the challenges and barriers that are faced by women physicists (in particular) on the professional path to promotion. And the idea is not to have a better chance or be more easily promoted because of other roles in life that are assigned to women by Mother Nature. The main issue is to have expected and required the same standards, results, and quality of performance of the scientists no matter what their gender. There are still too many examples of women scientists who have been mistreated, under-evaluated, and blocked in their promotion, while at the same time male scientists (quite often from the same institution) with poorer achievements are rewarded and promoted. Women in science are still being judged not on their merit but their gender, as in the drastic case of Madame Curie.

In the early spring of 2008, a new idea was born to create a separate section of the Polish Physical Society (PPS), which would be devoted to all gender issues in science. The mission of the section is to monitor and defend victims of the violation of equal opportunity and of rules, which are inconsistently interpreted and applied only in the case of women. Unfortunately we still have a long way to go  to reach a situation in which scientific merit, not gender, counts in all professional evaluations for promotion.

Although the Section was born as a result of discussions of its charter members Elżbieta Czerwosz and Aleksandra Leliwa-Kopystyńska with Professor Barbara Sandow, the chair of the Women’s Section of the German Physical Society, it is not formally connected with any other organization. However, the first result of cooperation with the section of the German Physical Society was the invitation (financially supported) of charter members to take part in the third International Conference on Women in Physics organized by IUPAP in Seoul in September 2008.

The statement “Because equity is still an issue” served in 1881 as a strong motivation for 17 enthusiasts joined by the common experience of a university education to establish The Association of Collegiate Alumnae, forebear of the American Association of University Women. Unfortunately in spite of all these years that have passed since the beginning of this activity, still equity is an issue in the scientific world. The AAUW is now a powerful network of more than 100,000 members, with 1,300 branches and 500 college and university partners. “The organizations are to allow ordinary people to do extraordinary things” was said by one of the founders of this women’s original movement; we hope that the Women's Section of the Polish Physical Society will soon become one of such organizations that provide a strong advocacy for equity in academia.

Lidia Smentek is a member-at-large, FIP APS Executive Committee


On April 20, 1995 the bodies of Madame Curie and her husband were moved from a cemetery outside Paris to the Panthéon. Madame Curie is the first woman, who due to her own merit, is laid to rest in this famous place; “in order to finally respect the equality of women and men before the law and in reality”, as said by President  François Mitterrand.

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Editor: Alan Chodos

August/September 2009 (Volume 18, Number 8)

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