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  • Adjusting the Lens:Locating Early Modern Women of Science
  • Nina Rattner Gelbart (bio)

“I feel the full weight of the prejudice which so universally excludes us from the sciences . . . there is no place where we are brought up to think,” wrote the physicist Madame du Châtelet in 1735. “I would reform an abuse that retards so to speak one half of the human race. . . . I am convinced that many women are either unaware of their talents for lack of education, or that they bury them . . . for lack of intellectual courage. I experienced this myself, which confirms it. Chance made me acquainted with men of letters who became my friends. . . . I started then to believe that I was a being with a mind.”1 Mary Wollstonecraft, writing more than half a century later, voiced a similar lament. She wished that women would “not waste their time in following the fashionable vagaries of dress” and instead “attach themselves to a science, with that steady eye that strengthens the mind.”2 These sentiments seem to suggest the futility of a search for early modern women in science. But if we go about it differently, if we define science with more elasticity to take into account the many unconventional places and spaces where women did research into the workings of the natural world, if we bring margins to the center, then numerous scientific women come into focus. As Meredith Ray puts it, “It is not women who are missing from the picture; it is our lens that must be [End Page 116] adjusted to perceive them.”3 In fact, women in many countries were overcoming barriers and transforming their curiosity into discoveries.

One of the first to explore this subject was, interestingly, an enlightened Catholic priest who took the pseudonym H. J. Mozans to write Woman in Science: With an Introductory Chapter on Woman’s Long Struggle for Things of the Mind (1913), a history of the many women who had contributed to numerous scientific fields through the centuries and whose biological capacity for such work was, according to the author, clearly equal to that of men. There was then a lull in attempts to unearth the hidden history of such women, until with 1970s “second wave” feminism the search resumed, energetically, and has not abated. While there were a few exceptional female scientists in antiquity and the medieval period, the pattern seemed to be, in line with Joan Kelly’s perceptive question—did women have a Renaissance?—that there was relatively little participation of women in science until the seventeenth century.

For this essay, I am excluding the fascinating realm of medicine, although some practitioners like the celebrated midwives Louise Bourgeois and Mme du Coudray wrote textbooks on obstetrics that went far beyond common practice and enhanced anatomical understanding.4 My focus will be on natural philosophy as it was called, but also the crafts and inventions to the extent that they were based on empirical findings and research, because scholars have recently shown that during our period theory and production worked together with “mindful hands,” and that the age-old head/hand binary obscures multiple, widespread common connections between the learned and the worker, between scholar and craftsperson.5 Much science was done by women in different venues, not in the public universities and academies to which they were denied access, but in domestic spaces—kitchens and dining tables, improvised dissecting rooms, salons, private studios, apothecary stores, workshops and laboratories—so our [End Page 117] search must include such spaces.6 And we must also include alchemy, which was understood not narrowly as we do now but as an all-encompassing approach to natural knowledge.7

Which ideas got attention, whose studies of the natural world were heard and approved? Throughout history custodians of scientific activity have excluded women, believing that their knowledge does not count. As sociologist Ruth Watts shows, most of those who have exposed and critiqued this systematic ignoring of what Foucault called “subjugated knowledges” have been women: Margaret Rossiter, Carolyn Merchant, Londa Schiebinger, Dorinda Outram, and Ludmilla Jordanova, among others. Watts provides an excellent overview of these scholars who have theorized rather than merely described the barring...


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pp. 116-127
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Archived 2021
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