Inspiring Women of the Scientific Enlightenment

Most people, even those who are less than interested in history, have heard of The Age of Enlightenment. A particular part of this influential movement was named the Scientific Enlightenment; it signified the shift in people’s attitudes from studying verse and prose, to studying skies, nature, people, anything that could be viewed under a curved glass. Nowadays, the men of the Scientific Enlightenment are all too well known as, for the most part, they were granted more chances than the women at professional education, and later more chances to publish their findings. This does not mean that women in science were inferior or non-existent by any means. It merely took a lot more effort to get their names committed to scientific history.

The first woman I have to mention is Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), who discovered eight comets during her lifetime. Sadly, her astronomical research was hindered by her mother who pushed her towards the domestic arts. Caroline fled to England where she stayed with her brother (best known for discovering Uranus). Caroline was commended for her work by George III, and she continued to bring the world’s star maps up to date.

To quote the New Scientist, “Gottfried Leibniz went to his grave maintaining that he had beaten his rival Isaac Newton in the race to discover calculus, but he freely acknowledged the influence of an English woman – Anne Conway.” She dedicated her house to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and though I do not know why the New Scientist chose to mention that they were possibly intimate (as it’s not relevant to her research), it is fair to say that Conway’s work with her teacher Henry More led to great speculations surrounding both mind and matter.

My final scientific lady of note (though there are indeed many more) is Margaret Cavendish (1623-73). The Cavendish family has been notable in scientific history for centuries; most of it based around the Royal Institute and vast financial donations to the ongoing search for empiricism. What makes Margaret important within this family’s history is, sadly, her gender. She was a novelty brought out at dinner parties, but her ideas were profound; she believed the atoms of the four base elements had different shapes, and had her ideas published by her husband.

Women’s scientific groups were also important. The Blue Stockings were a late-Enlightenment group of women who thrived on the discussion on literature and scientific philosophy. Their dinner parties would demand the attention of women all over Europe in the 18th century, including Marie Antoinette.

These are only a few cases in history of the importance of women in scientific development. Many women were left out of science entirely due to their gender, and those that were included were rarely seen as more than lab-assistants. This is why it is so vital that women today see the opportunities that are supplied to them in the western world of today. STEM subjects were “men’s subjects” until a hundred years ago, and even today, too few women engage in sciences.

At heart I am a poet, though I shall refrain from exposing you all to that too frequently. I shall endeavour instead to give you an insight into the way I choose to live and see things, I hope only that it is an entertaining and thought-provoking experience.

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