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Prior to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuriest, women were ridiculed and scrutinized if they chose to participate in the sciences.
Men dominated the sciences, and so, when women attempted to insert themselves into this field there was a certain stigma against them. Traditionally, a woman’s role was thought to be in the home and in the kitchen. Women were expected to be nurturing and child bearers rather than scientists and astronomers. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were various attitudes and reactions both against and for women in the sciences. Often times men’s attitudes were that women were inferior and women’s attitudes were that these women were out of line. Furthermore, some of the reactions were negative towards women while others believed they were defying the status quo and supported them.
Throughout the course of time, women have been told to stay in the house and care for children rather than work. However, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some women decided to go against this assumption which resulted in men attacking them and women disapproving them.
Men have long regarded women as inferior and argued that they had nothing to contribute to society. Samuel Pepys, an English diarist, talked about the Duchess of Newcastle and said she was good woman, but once she started to talk about science he disregarded everything she said since she was indeed a woman. (2)
By writing this in his diary, Samuel shows his non-biased opinion and shows that he really felt that women were irrelevant in terms of the sciences and contributed absolutely nothing.
This stigma and thought process angered many women, one in particular was the duchess herself, Margaret Cavendish. Cavendish, through her many articles such as Observation upon Experimental Philosophy and Grounds of Natural Philosophy, attacked men and argued that theology is outside the boundaries of scientific inquiry. Furthermore, many man felt that women could only stick to one job and that was caretaking. As Johann Eberti discussed when describing Marie Cunitz, women who stay up at night to stargaze often times neglect their household duties out of exhaustion. (1)
Men believed that when women tried to participate in the sciences they would disregard their household duties and would fail to do what they were supposed to. Now, despite the fact that most men during this time period had negative attitudes towards women in the sciences there were a small handful who supported the women. For example, German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz argued that even though participation took women away from the household it was good because they had nothing else to do. Leibniz felt that women should be allowed to participate since they were not burdened with other societal affairs. (4)
On top of the many different attitudes from men during this time period, women also had various attitudes. Women knew that there were a lot of people who doubted them and their ability to participate in the sciences. Thus, they believed that they had to work ten times harder in order to be successful. This is evident in Maria Sibylla Merian’s work, “The Wonderful Metamorphoses and Special Nourishment of Caterpillars.” Merian was a German entomologist who had spent her whole life studying insects. Fascinated by caterpillars, she often withdrew from society in order to study them and their metamorphosis. (3) Also, we can see this same idea in Marquise Emile du Chatelet who was a French aristocrat and scientist. She wrote a letter to the Marquis Jean Francois do Saint-Lambert saying that she puts just as much work in as men so don’t discredit her or her work. She talks about how she works long hours with little sleep just to keep up with the men. (7) We can see through both Merian and Chatelet that women in the sciences had the impression that they had to do more and be more dedicated just to keep up with the men. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were varying attitudes and levels of support both for and against the participation of women in the sciences.
Once women started to become more and more involved in the sciences, it spurred various reactions from both men and women. Men had negative reactions but shockingly some women did as well. There were also those who supported women and their quest to participate in the sciences. Johann Theodor Jablonski was a secretary to the Berlin Academy of Sciences who, in a letter to the Academy president, opposed Maria Winkelmann’s application for membership. Jablonski explains that the Academy was ridiculed due to the fact that their calendar was prepared by a woman and he feared that if this were to continue any longer, that the university would greatly suffer. As a secretary, he saw firsthand the success of the academy and he didn’t want to be the one to also see its downfall. As a business, the academy needs good attendance in order to maintain a good reputation. Without enough students applying, their reputation could diminish and they could ultimately go out of commission. Thus, Jablonski believed that by reject Winkelmann’s application he would save the academy from closure. (5)
We can see here that many Europeans felt that women should not participate in the sciences and believed that anyone or anything that supported them was unreliable. Furthermore, we can also see a negative reaction from the women’s perspective. Women grew up with the preconceived notion that they could only help society from behind the scenes and in the kitchen and for some this was fine, but for others they wanted more. For those women who were fine staying in the shadows, they felt that when women tried to participate in the sciences they were changing the roles of women. Dorothea Erxleben was the first women to be granted a German M.D. from the University of Halle and as the first she was constantly scrutinized. Men scrutinized her because they felt that she was below them and women scrutinized her because they thought she believed she was better than them. In regards to being the first to do something Erxleben was hit from all sides. The ones who didn’t want her to be successful started to belittle her and the ones she thought would support her, turned their back on her. By challenging the traditional domestic role of women, Erxleben felt the pressure and ridicule but she did so because she wanted to express her passion which was medicine. (6)
This also goes back to Maria Merian and her study on caterpillars. Merian knew that she had all the odds stacked against her when she conducted her study but she still did it. She did it because it was her passion, it was what woke her up in the morning, and what made her lose sleep at night. Both her and Erxleben defied the status quo because they wanted to do what they loved and they didn’t care what others had to say. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, everyone had an opinion on whether or not woman should participate in the sciences and as we can see some of these opinions are not what we would’ve expected and others are exactly what we would expect.
The attitudes and reactions toward women’s participation in the sciences varied but overall, we can break them down into two spectrums. Those who opposed and those who supported. Men responded by oppressing women due to the fact that they deemed them inferior and belonging to the household and children. Woman oppressed because they felt that those women were acting out of their traditional domestic role. On the other hand, others had an open attitude towards women in science and admired their dedication and drive. We can compare the drive of the women in science to the LGBTQ movement. Both groups were oppressed by their peers and were searching for equality and the ability to have the same rights as their peers. The LGBTQ movement strived for compromise just like the women did with their peers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the end, it would seem as though both groups got more equality than what they started with but they both have a way to go before they reach overall equality.
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