Some women are remembered for their contribution to science, despite the obstacles placed by society, philosophy and a gender-biased historical view.
It has never been easy for women to shake off the role of caregiver and seek intellectual enlightenment. An idea of the kind of struggle that women have always faced and the attitude that restrained them can be had from the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the leading philosopher of the Enlightenment, who wrote, “The education of women should always be relative to that of men, to please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young to care of us when grown up, to advise and console us, to render our life easy and agreeable. These are the duties of women at all times and what they should be taught in their infancy.” So much for his philosophy.
This is a talk on how some women, despite these obstacles, have been able to make such contributions to scientific progress in fields including astronomy, chemistry, medicine and botany that keep them alive in the memory of people even today. Even though ancient cultures, whichever they be, hold up stories of learned women, the discourse that stretched into modern times, fuelled by the patriotic middle ages, was built around a telling statement: learned women are a possibility.
Karen O’Brien, Professor of English at the University of Warwick, describes the period of enlightenment as a movement of ideas with dual focus. “One was on individual rational autonomy and the other was on the potential for social progress. In relation to rational autonomy it drew from Descartes that the mind had no constraints and this could be also understood as that the mind was not constrained by gender… also upon the ideas of John Locke that we come as a blank slate and we collect knowledge from experiences through our senses. In terms of social progress the questions addressed were to find civilised processes for disagreement, to find ways of having public conversations.…this was also the time of the growth of printing and therefore dissemination of ideas.”
Patricia Fara, senior tutor at Clare College, Cambridge, adds to the conversation about dissemination of ideas saying it depended largely on the field of study. Newton was not interested in communicating to the masses, while the discovery of electricity spread like wildfire. It looked like magic and so was entertaining and also promised to be useful. So it was popular to the extent that women were inviting demonstrations in their parlour. She refers to the Leyden jar which was the first major instrument in which static electricity could be stored. “…this revolutionised the way people looked at scientific research…it was more than just laboratory work, it also had the potential to be useful to human life.…”
Judith Hawley, Professor of 18th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, says, “In that period, there was no mass education and also the scientific activity that was taking place was often inside people’s homes, and that is how women got interested. They helped their father, brother, husband…but their contributions were not recorded. Study became a leisure activity…the scientific revolution made it respectable for gentlemen to work on scientific education by working with scientific tools…or else only labour worked with their hands…like telescopes for example. Women could access intellectual material, even as informal discussions as hostesses, but no formal college.” She also gives an idea of how many women moved into the professional arena by default…as in brewing, baking, printing, or stepping into the dead husband’s shoes.
The talk goes on to profile some women of the period whose story is inspirational, like Lady Montagu, Lavoisier’s wife Marie-Anne Pierrette, Caroline Herschel, Flamstead and others.
The talk gives us the idea that women rose professionally because seeing qualified women was as close as one could get to seeing a strange phenomenon outside the zoo.
There are also incidences of women friends known more as mistresses rather than for their cerebral contribution to a friendship. Whatever the case, even though women contributed enormously, it was not acknowledged publically, except through correspondences of the time.