American Women of Letters and the Nineteenth-Century Sciences: Styles of Affiliation, and: Out of the Dead House: Nineteenth-Century Women Physicians and the Writing of Medicine, and: Bodily and Narrative Forms: The Influence of Medicine on American Literature, 1845-1915 (review)
- University of Nebraska Press
- Volume 20, Number 1&2, 2003
- pp. 217-219
- Additional Information
Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 217-219
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Nina Baym's controversial assertion in her 1978 book, Woman's Fiction, that she had not discovered a lost female writer equal to Hawthorne in some ways anticipates findings in American Women of Letters and the Nineteenth-Century Sciences and in Susan Wells's Out of the Dead House. Both books participate in the project of reclaiming women's writing yet neither finds an individual lost female scientist or physician that might fundamentally change our understanding of nineteenth-century science or medicine. But in the same way that Baym's earlier work established the rich variety of nineteenth-century women's fiction and outlined a culture of [End Page 217] women writers that did fundamentally change our conception of the literary landscape, these two books reject any sense that "woman scientist" was a nineteenth-century oxymoron. At the same time, neither book uncovers a distinctly feminine or feminist voice in science or medicine that might reveal a direct challenge to the masculinist biases of science.
Baym explicitly argues that she does not find any evidence among her texts to support late twentieth-century feminist historians' critiques of science. What she does find, however, is good evidence of men's dismissal of women's scientific abilities and ample evidence that women themselves often accepted such assessments. Her concern is less with a critique of science or scientific practice than with examining how women began to work in and with professional science. She explores the history of women's scientific education, examines the different routes that women took into "doing" science, and outlines the debates in women's writing (in many genres) over what role women could play as scientists. She then reads these controversies over gender and scientific practice against the cultural contexts of professionalization and technological progress. What she concludes is that although there were several different "styles of affiliation" that women took to enter the sciences, they most often combined a generally conservative gender position (women are not capable of scientific genius; women are aesthetic and ethereal rather than rational and physical) with a kind of Republican Motherhood to assert that women needed to be involved in science, but more as popularizers than as practitioners.
The largest part of Baym's book is a survey of women's scientific writings in the nineteenth century, which tend to be textbooks for the young, a genteel lady's guide to understanding her country estate from a scientific standpoint, or memoirs of a life in science. She also examines the work of the century's few female scientific exceptions—Maria Mitchell, the astronomer, and Mary Putnam Jacobi, the well-published physician—and of women who used science in unusual ways to assert new spiritual practices—like Mary Baker Eddy and Ellen G. White. The most interesting chapter, however, is one in which she examines Emily Dickinson's relation to science. She argues that a substantial number of Dickinson's poems use science to critique the Natural Theology then in vogue in the seminaries in Amherst. Baym examines the theories of local intellectuals who tried to use science to shore up their religious beliefs and reads Dickinson's poems as anti-patriarchal attacks on a logic that attempted to find a scientific basis for faith. Baym concedes that Dickinson's might be the most radical female voice in her study in her...