Historical Female Scientists?

One of the aspects of how my book (Not Just for the Boys: Why we need more women in science) has been received which surprises me the most, is the interest shown in the chapter on women who managed to be active in the scientific arena in centuries past. As an example, this came up in the interview I did for Nature Podcasts. I felt it was necessary to include these early women as a backdrop to the more recent past and to examine how matters have evolved, but there seems more enthusiasm for discussing these historical figures than I expected. That is all the more interesting to me as an early (pre-publication) reader said the chapter should be removed completely, as either not containing enough information or too much.

I have written previously about how I got introduced to Mary Astell, who features strongly in this historical chapter. Known as an early feminist and philosopher, who moved in the literati circles in late seventeenth century London, I was fascinated to be offered a chance to take a peek at her books and accompanying marginalia in Magdalene College’s Library, from which it was clear she had an unexplored interest in the science of the day. One of the post-publication interviewers asked me, on the back of this, whether I thought that there were many such scientifically active, or at least scientifically interested women who we know nothing about, but who are still waiting to be ‘discovered’.

Sadly, I suspect the answer is no. Whereas, as I have also written about before, it would seem that more and more female composers from past centuries are being unearthed and their music given due prominence in concert and media playlists, I don’t think significant numbers of female ‘scientists’ (bearing in mind that term only came into being in the nineteenth century) are likely to be rediscovered in the same way. Even if, lurking in some bibliophile’s library, or an august institution’s collections, are additional books with annotations which some gentlewoman had penned, similar to the sort Astell had engaged in, how likely are they to be identified and put into wider circulation, particularly if they are not part of a wider group of books of known provenance.

Furthermore, had there been such books, even if in small numbers, it seems to me they are likely to have been long since disposed of, if the woman in question was not a personage of some stature: a duchess perhaps, or the wife of someone who is well known today. But so many women of the seventeenth and eighteenth century would have had educations that ill-equipped them for forays into tomes relating to science, particularly as much would have been written in Latin, or as in Mary Astell’s annotated copy of Descartes, French or another foreign language. There may have been women who discussed scientific matters of the day with male family members in their homes, but I’m not convinced they would they have had the (foreign language) literacy and sufficient freedom from domesticity to have the time and space needed to delve into such books and write their comments?

Education for girls along these lines would have been uncommon, as not likely to lead to a good marriage and a robust financial position. Blue-stockings and salons were not a feature of the general squirearchy or wider middle classes and educating women in scientific matters would probably have been limited for most to a smattering of botany, aided by some gentle painting in watercolours of the plants they found. As an aside, I cannot imagine how young girls didn’t get completely stultified by a diet of sewing samplers, toying with the harpsichord/pianoforte and a gentle walk around the shrubbery (or perhaps I have been reading too much Jane Austen or, after a bad day at work, the lighter tales of Georgette Heyer).

Come the Victorian era, of course, things began to change, with schools that actually educated young women opening up, rather than one of the kind harshly depicted in Jane Eyre which was little more than a place to dispose of inconvenient children. Myself, I went to a school founded in 1871 for girls. And the fact that it was called Camden School for Girls (still a very good school) is indicative of its market: tradesmen’s children, as opposed to its sister school also founded by Frances Mary Buss, North London Collegiate School for Ladies. Interestingly, whereas the former has left its name unchanged since its foundation, the last word in the name of the latter has disappeared from public view. The school founded by Buss’s school contemporary Dorothea Beale* retains that same word in its name: Cheltenham Ladies College. To some, these distinctions matter, now as then.

In my book I identified a few women who had – for instance through virtue of family connections (Caroline Herschel) or place in society (Emilie du Châtelet) – been able to make inroads into the world of science. If you want a wider diet, I would point you towards books like Patricia Fara’s Pandora’s Breeches. In this book she refers to Bathsua Makin, a woman who taught the Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of Charles I. She was ardent in her calls for educational reform for women. She noted that being a housewife required many skills that might be deemed ‘scientific’. As Fara quotes from Makin:

‘To buy Wooll and Flax, to die Scarlet and Purple, requires skill in Natural Philosophy. To consider a Field, the quantity and quality, requires knowledge in Geometry, To plant a Vineyard requires understanding in Husbandry. She could not Merchandise without Knowledge in Arithmetick…’

In many ways those statements are as true in the modern world as when Makin wrote them in the seventeenth century. You’re not going to get very far in any field without ‘Arithmetick’, hence Rishi Sunak’s desire for everyone to study maths till 18. Perhaps less obviously, but relevant to getting on in today’s job market, if you are stuck at home with domestic ties such as small children, you are undoubtedly going to get better at multitasking, creativity (think Blue Peter and one hundred things you can do with a loo roll and some string) and (small) people management. These things may be hard for a woman to put in a job application, even allowing for a so-called Narrative CV, but they are nevertheless invaluable skills you may be harder pushed to pick up in a lab setting. Being a good scientist is not all about expertise gained at the bench.

*Celebrated in the anonymous poem I well remember from my school days:

Miss Buss and Miss Beale
Cupid’s darts do not feel.
How different from us
Miss Beale and Miss Buss.

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