Women as Natural Philosophers: Choosing to Challenge

When the Royal Society was founded in 1660, its first Fellows would have been known not as scientists, but as natural philosophers. Science and scientists were words that came into common parlance only around two hundred years later. So, the Isaac Newton’s and the Robert Boyle’s of the day would have been happy to be thought of as philosophers; it wasn’t felt necessary for there to be distinctions between different branches. Early meetings covered a wide range of issues ranging from pendulum clocks, to birds, from the flames of candles to fermentation, and experiments were regarded as crucial. The Royal Society, after all, took as its motto Nullius in Verba, usually translated as ‘take nobody’s word for it’: no more arguing, theoretically, about how many angels danced on the head of a pin.

However, implicitly, philosophers were men. Women weren’t expected to engage in these activities. Yet there were women who wanted to venture into this territory. Who knows how many? There is little written record to give an indication. One woman, Margaret Cavendish, ventured in to a meeting of the Society (then housed near High Holborn in what is now Gresham’s College) in 1667. She was not impressed – and nor were the Fellows. Richard Holmes describes the event in his book The Long Pursuit. According to this account Samuel Pepys remarked

‘that I do not like her at all, nor did I hear her say any thing that was worth hearing…’

The woman, nicknamed Mad Madge, was well aware that women weren’t welcome, herself in particular. She was regarded then, and indeed much more recently, as particularly hostile to Robert Hooke and his works on microscopy. She certainly did criticise microscopy but her reasons for doing so were not inherently ‘anti-science’ but based in part on her own experiences of using microscopes, which in those early days were often extremely imperfect in their manufacture, giving rise to distorted images. Additionally she recognized the problem, so familiar to microscopists such as myself, of knowing what is the ‘typical’ image. How was an observer to know what was ‘true’.

Nor was she alone amongst her contemporaries of having such concerns, it was just that she was the only woman expressing them, and clearly quite stridently. (An extended analysis of her relationship with the scientists of the Royal Society can be found here.) She considered the Fellowship as damagingly male (to quote Holmes) and saw them as anti-Nature, views expressed in her poetry and prose. She herself was viewed consequently as anti-Baconian. Cavendish was the first and, for a long time the only woman to set foot in the Royal Society’s august building (albeit the building itselfmar changed over the centuries).

Margaret Cavendish had standing (she was the Duchess of Newcastle) and a voice through her writings. Few women had the same opportunities and so – as Virginia Woolf so eloquently expressed in a different but not unrelated context of A Room of One’s Own – we know little about their attitudes towards science. There were other female philosophers in the seventeenth century, but by and large they kept away from ‘natural’ philosophy. No doubt society conveyed then (as in some senses still too often it does today) that science was not a suitable subject for a young lady and the wherewithal to study it would not have been available to them.

One female philosopher of around this time was Mary Astell (1666-1731, so born shortly after the founding of the Royal Society). I must admit hers was not a name I’d come across until a few weeks ago, although Melvyn Bragg recently devoted a whole programme of In Our Time to discussing her philosophy and her attitude towards religion and feminism. Amongst other publications Astell wrote a book advocating a college for women (A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest, published anonymously in 1694) and was very clear that women should be encouraged to look beyond mother and nun as career alternatives, despite being high Church (and strongly royalist) herself. However, relevant to Cavendish is the fact that Astell turns out to have studied some science really rather seriously.

She was brought to my attention by the Deputy Librarian at Magdalene College (Cambridge), Catherine Sutherland, who has discovered numerous of her books lurking un-noted and uncatalogued in their collection. Some of these books are extensively annotated, demonstrating the range of interests she had, and one of these is Les Principes de la Philosophie de Rene Descartes (in French), a book that discusses issues ranging from his ideas of the laws of motion to the nature of light. This is not a book that one typically might have expected women of the day to get their hands on. However, Astell was certainly serious about her science: she spent five months in 1697/8 as an ‘assistant’ to John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, the only woman in the over one hundred assistants who worked with him.

I was approached by Sutherland to look at these annotations in Descartes’ book (unfortunately – as contact is impossible – only as photographs, which meant they were sometimes hard to decipher) and to comment on them. They were certainly intriguing. Sutherland’s has written an extensive commentary on her discoveries in the Magdalene Library, still to be published, and there is a features piece on the University website published here. From my perspective, several things struck me. Firstly, it was interesting to note that she must have had access to Royal Society journals: she makes a specific reference to a 1688 paper of Edmond Halley’s on evaporation published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. How did she get access, given she certainly couldn’t have visited the Royal Society itself and her link with Flamsteed (who was an FRS) was yet some years in the future?  Secondly, it is clear how carefully she had studied the Descartes text, with extensive notes at the end of the book as well as the marginalia dotted throughout. Finally, she wasn’t afraid to analyse things for herself: a couple of times she writes ‘False’ in the section on Descartes’ Laws of Motion and, as far as I can make out, this is in the places where he did indeed get things wrong.

Whether she ever discussed any of this with her circle of friends of course we cannot know. Indeed, who could she have discussed such a text with? It isn’t clear that the circles she mixed in – aristocratic in part, but not necessarily plugged into the world of the male natural philosophers frequenting the Royal Society – would have had any other members who would have been interested in following this particular bent in natural philosophy. Her published writings were all concerned with religion, education and politics, still not usual topics for women to entertain. (A thorough account of these aspects of her life and writing can be found in a chapter by Ruth Perry Mary Astell and the Enlightenment appearing in Women, Gender and Enlightenment.)

As any researcher knows, there comes a point in one’s development when the light first dawns that something published might be wrong. It takes confidence to recognize this. I can well remember one particular student of mine who was completely thrown to realise publication does not mean a statement or result is necessarily right, just because it’s in print. It took a lot of reassurance for them to believe their analysis (of the published data) was right and there was just some simple mistake in the paper that had slipped through the refereeing process. I am impressed that Astell had that confidence, to look at the printed word of Descartes book and say ‘False’. It demonstrates that she believed in her ability to tackle this natural philosophy, even if she kept that knowledge to herself. Or, that she had found a convivial group to discuss this with and had been able to thrash it through together. It is unfortunate that, since her interest in science does not, until now, seem to have garnered much interest, we don’t have evidence as to who that grouping might have been. I’d like to think it was her own quiet prowess that enabled her to spot the faulty logic, to her own satisfaction, so that she could jot down that ‘False’ with confidence, choosing to challenge, even if rather quietly.


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