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Women in Science DBQ


Women were rarely acknowledged if they chose to participate in scientific research during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Science had been a predominantly male field of study over the centuries and there was a certain stigma present for those women who chose to make inroads into this field. Women were thought to be incapable and stepping out of their place—beauty and housework. Reactions and attitudes to women working in the sciences varied, but most were negative. Men frequently oppressed women due to their belief that women were inferior, and women frequently oppressed other women because they believed that to study the sciences was to act out of place for their gender. However, there was some acceptance and acknowledgement of women working in the higher sciences.

Women frequently were excluded by men from the higher circles of scientific study in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries because the attitude of the time was that women had only certain faculties they could possess skill in, such as housework and beauty, and that they lacked the intelligence to learn science. Others were excluded because attitudes of the time thought they were incapable. Samuel Pepys, an English diarist, wrote in 1667 that the Duchess of Newcastle, an author who wrote a book entitled A World Made by Atomes, wished to be invited to the meeting of the Royal Society of Scientists. She was allowed to attend after a great deal of debate, many arguing against her coming. He ends his entry by saying that “The Duchess hath been a good, comely woman, but…” and proceeds to describe his negative opinion of her appearance. He clearly misses the point of her presence. She was not there to look pretty, but to learn. Pepys was likely to be more honest because he is writing in a diary entry that isn’t meant for others to read. Similarly, a Gottingen newspaper article reported that those women who learn the higher sciences will have “neglected” their clothing and their hair will be done in an “antiquarian” fashion. The article continues to describe a woman who was an exception to this stereotype, who also took care of what were thought of as womanly concerns—sewing, knitting, and household economy. The article expresses the opinion that women who gain skill in science are not proper women. And this isn’t just the view of the author of the article which is being expressed here, because a newspaper would be very likely to report with mind to the opinions and attitudes of the audience which reads it. Others like Johann Junker, head of the University of Halle, thought that women were not intelligent enough to delve into university level learning. Junker relates that when a woman attended a university, and received a doctorate, she gained a great deal of attention. He then goes on to say that the “legality of such an undertaking [of receiving a doctorate] must be investigated.” Junker is implying that women are not capable of receiving doctorates. Junker, as head of a university, would have come to know many types of people, and that he of all people held a stereotype of women as being inferior says a lot for the common attitudes of his time. Some acted with this common belief as their guide. Johann Theodor Jablonski, secretary to the Berlin Academy of Sciences, said in his letter to the Academy president that their observational calendar should not be worked on by Maria Winkelmann, because the Academy would be ridiculed if a woman worked on it. Jablonski does not mention anything about whether or not Winkelmann was capable. Instead he matter of factly states that “It simply will not do.” Women clearly suffered from the attitude of men that they lacked intelligence and should focus only on “womanly” concerns such as beauty and domestic matters.

Women scientists were also victims of other women who held beliefs that they should stick only to the limits of what were considered to be womanly studies. Marie Thiroux d’ Arconville, a French anatomical illustrator, wrote in 1775 in a preference to the book Thoughts on Literature, Morals, and Physics that women should not study medicine and astronomy, and should be content with the power of having grace and beauty. Marie d’ Arconville was likely to have written her preference to the satisfaction of the presumably male author of Thoughts on Literature, Morals, and Physics, but placing that segment in there was a discouragement to women who read that book who had science in mind. Marie Meurdrac, a French scientist, who wrote a book entitled Chemistry Simplified for Women, related in her foreword to that book that it was not a woman’s place to teach. She says she was only able to convince herself to publish her book by reminding herself that she wasn’t the first lady to have something published. Meurdrac, though she meant well by publishing her book, contributed to the continuation of the concept of the lesser sex by first the title of her book, which implied that chemistry was too difficult a subject for a woman to understand, and therefore must be simplified, and secondly, by reminding the reader that a woman’s profession is not to teach, but to “remain silent, listen and learn.” How could a woman contribute to the sciences, let alone be recognized, if she must not teach, and must remain silent? Some women were clearly unsupportive of other women who chose to learn.

Though women faced many forced stereotypes and bigotry if they chose to work in the sciences they often worked quite hard and contributed to the sciences, and most of the time received recognition for their efforts. Johann Eberti described the German astronomer Marie Cunitz, whose work clarified the work of Johannes Kepler, a famous astronomer who discovered the three laws of planetary motion, and more importantly proved the heliocentric theory of the solar system, as becoming so absorbed in astronomical speculation that she “neglected her household” and spent the days in bed since watching the stars at night had tired her out. Eberti realizes Marie Cunitz possessed a dedication to the sciences or else he would not have noted that she was focused completely on astronomy. Dedication to the sciences was also shown by Maria Merian, a German entomologist, and Marquise Emilie du Chatelet, a French aristocrat and scientist. Maria Merian says in her book Wonderful Metamorphoses and Special Nourishment of Caterpillars that she studied insects since her youth, but “withdrew from human society and engaged exclusively in these investigations” when she started to study the metamorphosis cycles of different kinds of caterpillars. Merian is likely to not be exaggerating her accomplishment because her book was published in 1679, during a time when there was a great deal of bigotry against women in the sciences. If she had exaggerated it most likely would have been found because a woman publishing a book during that time probably came under a lot of scrutiny. Marquise Emilie du Chatelet writes in a letter to the Marquis Jean Francois de Saint-Lambert in 1749 that she should not be reproached for her work on translating Newton’s Principia. She tells how she wakes up at nine, works straight through until three, and then begins work at four and continues till ten, then breaks for two hours, and then goes back to work until five in the morning. Marquise du Chatelet’s translation of Principia was so well done that it is still the translation used to this day. Furthermore she will not accept the criticism her letter implied that Marquis de Saint-Lambert gave her. Marquise du Chatelet’s letter is written from the point of view of a woman scientist, so she writes to defend her work. A German astronomer named Gottfried Kirch said that his wife Maria Winkelmann had found a comet in the sky which he had missed during his observations. He recognizes the fact that his wife had discovered something in the sky which he had not, and did not deny her the credit. Recognition was also given to Elisabetha Hevelius when she was pictured collaborating with her husband on astronomical research using a sextant. The picture was shown in Johannes Hevelius’ book The Heavenly Machine. Johannes Hevelius was likely to have an attitude of acceptance of women in the sciences or he would not have allowed his wife to be pictured with him in his book, which others would view and make judgments of him from. Another man with an attitude accepting and even encouraging of women participating in scientific research was Gottfried Leibniz, a German mathematician and philosopher. He wrote in 1697 that “women of elevated mind advance knowledge more properly than do men.” Gottfried likely gave the matter much thought because he was a philosopher.

In short, reactions and attitudes to women researching sciences during the 1700’s to 1800’s were different, but most were oppressive, regardless of gender. Men reacted by oppressing women working in the sciences because of their attitude that women were inferior and belonged working on their beauty and the household. Women oppressed women working in the sciences because they believed that scientific study was both above them and unwomanly, due mainly because of the attitudes of their times. But others admired the dedication and skill of some women who worked in the sciences and had an open attitude towards them, and gave them recognition. It was these women and men who opened up the path for women to study the sciences and if it weren’t for their dedication women might not have the place in science that they have today. Inevitably, however, the path would have been found and taken.