Because there isn’t a clear, written tradition of what it is to be an excellent married woman, examples of great wifery are hard to come by. That’s why Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze, wife of pioneering chemist Antoine Lavoisier, earned her place as the “poster wife” for Experimental Wifery.
When Marie-Anne was thirteen, the almost-forty-year-old Count d’Amerval asked for her hand. He even tried to pressure her father into the ill-conceived match by threatening his job. To save both his daughter and his livelihood, Marie-Anne’s father offered her hand to a younger man and respected colleague, Antoine Lavoisier.
Marie-Anne was every bit as interested in chemistry as her more famous husband. She sought out formal training from some of the greatest scientific minds of her day so she could work as her husband’s assistant. She used her classical art training to draw and engrave illustrations of his equipment so other scientists could replicate and verify Antoine’s findings. She edited his writings. She even translated scientific works for him from English and Latin into French.
In 1794, when Antoine was labeled a traitor during the Reign of Terror, Marie-Anne visited him almost every day. She was the loudest voice for his release up to the day he was executed.
With all of Antonie’s money and property confiscated, Marie-Anne was thrown into bankruptcy. But even without his equipment and notebooks, she organized the publication of his final memoirs.
So what does Marie-Anne have to teach us about wifery?
- Great wives are smart. Understanding chemistry and translating Latin are impressive feats of intellect, but it isn’t what Marie-Anne knew as how she used it. Marie-Anne took what she already knew and adapted it to a useful purpose in her marriage. When she didn’t understand something that would be helpful to her husband—namely chemistry—she educated herself about it.
- Great wives are half of a team.Marie-Anne would not have been a bad wife had she kept to herself as a homemaker. But the Lavoisiers’ marriage is exemplary because she and her husband worked together to accomplish something great.
- Great wives guard their husbands’ honor. Marie-Anne fought hard to exonerate her husband. When the French government eventually returned Lavoisier’s equipment and papers, they enclosed a note—“To the widow of Lavoisier, who was falsely convicted.” Her dedication to his memory is part of the reason we now recognize him as the “Father of Modern Chemistry.”
- Great wives don’t always get the credit they deserve. Before I started my search for exemplary wives, I had never heard of Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze Lavoisier. Even though she was instrumental to Lavoisier’s work, she isn’t the one who went down in history books—he is. But even a lack of recognition never stopped her from doing the right thing.
Where else do you see wifery in action? Let us know in the comments.