Action at a Distance: A Reflection on the History of Women in Science

This week we were lucky to be joined by Dr Kirsten Walsh from the University of Exeter. Kirsten’s work focuses on the Philosophy of science, in particular Isaac Newton’s early modern philosophy. Newton is well known for believing that women did not have a place in science, and his Newtonian followers started a new type of science book- Men explaining Newtonian science FOR women, since it was not to be done BY them. It was appropriate for women to read about, and discuss popular scientific theories, but they wouldn’t be invited to intellectual gatherings, or permitted to universities for another 150 years, with some exceptions. This view of excluding women from scientific discovery far pre-dates Newton, but he arguably popularised it given the weight he had in the scientific community. Sadly, some of these views have persisted to today, and Newtonian followers influence has been discussed at length in books by the likes of Laura Miller and Patricia Fara.

While not well documented, there have always been women doing science, although they are often not in visible positions or given appropriate credit for their work. Kirsten proposes this theory to help explain the history of Women in science – Action at a distance. While women were doing science and having influence, it was unseen, both at the time due to prejudice and also now, due to the lack of historical documentation. Yet these women had a profound impact on science despite their separation.

The first woman highlighted in Kirsten’s talk was Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673). While not an experimental scientist in the traditional sense, Margaret Cavendish published a number of works in her own name including poetry, plays and natural philosophy. While shy in character, Cavendish became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I before later marrying William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. Margaret had been known for writing down many of her ideas as a child, and continued this into her marriage. While married, she and her husband hosted the so-called ‘Cavendish circle’ – a gathering of intellectuals in their own home. It was not common for women to attend these types of gathering and so by hosting them, Margaret was able to participate in scientific conversation amongst other scholars. Most notably, Margaret Cavendish was the first woman to attend a Royal Society meeting. Her request had initially be denied, however the founders of the Royal Society had never explicitly banned women. She was eventually allowed to go to a meeting, however her ideas were often belittled by her male peers and she was given the nickname ‘Mad Madge’. Her contribution to science has only been fully recognised in the last 50 years and so while not explicitly excluded from scientific circles of the day she was separated from the credit she deserved by a temporal distance.

We then looked at the story of Emilie Du Châtelet, a mathematician and physicist who lived from 1706-1749 in France. She benefited from an indulgent father who encouraged her intellectual curiosity, and the ability to hire tutors for herself in later life. Most of her work is not credited, with many of her contributions thought to have been published in other books. In particular, she is thought to have contributed to Voltaire’s ‘Elements of future philosophy’. She also had an interesting friendship with Francesco Algarotti, who called her “sufficiently skilled” and is thought to have used her ideas in his Neutonianismo per le dame (‘Newtonism for ladies’). Thankfully some of Du Châtelet’s work was credited. Most well-known is her French translation of Newton’s Principia which included her own work on conservation of energy, and is still the standard translation used today. Also published was a physics textbooks she had written for her 13 year old son. The debate following this publication resulted in her becoming a member of the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of Bologna. Once again, while not fully excluded from science, Emilie was separated from her work, this time by not being given credit for her ideas.

Next, the discussion turned to Laura Bassi (1711-1778), who is recognised to be the second woman in the world to earn a PhD, and the first to do so in science. She was later a salaried employee at the University of Bologna, and the first woman employed as a lecturer and then as a professor at a University. Bologna was well known for being progressive in terms of equality, and yet while she was a professor there she was restricted to carrying out a number of ceremonial duties, and was only allowed to lecture once a term. All of these additional, non-scientific responsibilities would have eaten into her time in which she was able to do her science. This is a something many female academics are still familiar with, although today with less compulsory poetry writing. Laura Bassi also benefited from the patronage of the Archbishop of Bologna, later Pope Benedict XIV. It was with his assistance that she was able to earn her PhD and position at the University. He also helped her gain access to academic books, and later funding to start conducting experiments in her own home. Bassi was perhaps the most accepted to the women in science discussed in this session, and yet was still separated from her science and relied upon male patronage to get access to resources. In this case, due to the ceremonial roles given to her, and the compulsory poetry that went along with it, taking her away from the research.

Finally, Kirsten talked about Mary Anning (1799-1847). Anning came from a very different class to the other women discussed, and her family was by all accounts, poor. It is likely that she was not at all educated, but took over the family business in Lyme Regis selling fossils from the Jurassic coast. These specimens were mostly sold to tourists, while some went to experts for collections and studies that will have informed a significant amount of geological science at the time. The methods that Anning developed would go on to be used more widely, leading her to be labelled as the pioneer of early fossil hunting. It is known from correspondence at the time that Anning’s work influenced a lot of science, however she never had any mention in publications, and was completely excluded from scientific circles. It is part luck that we can ever credit this work to Mary Anning – had her brother not been away at a work, or had there simply been another male in the shop, she would likely not have got any credit at all. Anning is more excluded from scientific circles than these other women, due to both class and gender. Despite this, the influence she had on the field of geosciences is profound.

Often when women in science are discussed, we talk of women being excluded from their fields. This is not always the case. As we have seen, a number of these women looked like they were being included, whether being given access to the Royal Society or a professor of a University. However, despite these signs of inclusion, all of these women were separated from their work in one way or another. Kirsten argues that this is a more accurate description – these women were separated from their scientific communities and influences science from a distance. The discussion that followed Kirsten’s talk centred on some of the class divides that these women also faced, and how this often also caused a further separation. It is interesting to think about how some of these separations are still seen today, and I’m sure this will be topic of many conversations in the future.