The scientific revolution is generally considered part of the broader intellectual revolution that began with the Italian Renaissance and the rediscovery and translation of the classical writers, particularly Aristotle, sometime during the fourteenth century. It is only in retrospect that one can understand broad movements, such as this, but one can assert with confidence that the scientific revolution resulted from a confluence of several factors, most particularly the rejection of the Ptolemaic model of planetary movement combined with an increased interest in Aristotelian science (Grant, 1996). Thus, the scientific revolution, insofar as it was a “revolution” rather than a developing, continuous process, may be claimed to have begun in 1543 with the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, though establishing this as a boundary is as much a matter of convenience as anything else (Linton, 2004). As an intellectual and cultural phenomenon, the scientific revolution continues to the present, moving through such advances as Newtonian mechanics, the experimental method of chemistry, advanced in anatomy and medicine, Darwinian evolution, relativity and quantum mechanics, with myriad offshoots at every stage along the way of this development.
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At the present, there is much dispute about how, or whether, the scientific revolution will end: some think it will continue forever, while others believe it will culminate with grand unification, a theory of everything that explains both gravity and subatomic forces, in effect capable of describing all phenomena (Westfall, 1971). That woman have played pivotal roles in the advancement of science is undeniable; as with male figures, it is possible to isolate selected examples of women who made significant contributions. There is no reason to believe that such contributions were made because of their gender, but given the nature of society at the time of the scientific revolution, one may assert that the contributions were made in spite of their gender. As the scientific revolution may be said to continue to the present day, so too, does the gender bias in the sciences, though there is evidence this is getting better.
Women in the Scientific Revolution – Margaret Cavendish
Perhaps Margaret Cavendish is the best example of such a woman in the midst of the scientific revolution. While biographies of her once concentrated on her eccentric behavior and the more florid aspects of her life (Grant, 1957, Whitaker, 2003), we are the beneficiaries of a recent flurry of scholarly interest in her philosophical and scientific undertakings. She engaged with, and apparently held her own against Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, René Descartes and others in the early Royal Society, though she herself was denied fellowship in that exalted body (Walters, 2014). Margaret Cavendish rejected Aristotelianism and the mechanist philosophies that prevailed through much of that time, adopting a vitalist view instead, holding that living things are different from nonliving things in that they possess a spark of life that subjects them to different physical rules; this is now an obsolete scientific theory (Sarasohn, 2010). O’Neill in Cavendish (2001) characterizes Cavendish’s natural philosophy as an outright rejection of Aristotle while adopting stoic doctrines; O’Neill (2001) also notes that while women rarely wrote on scientific matters at this time, Margaret Cavendish published six scientific books, two of which are currently in print; it is also worth noting that Margaret Cavendish was a duchess and, as such, had certain social and economic advantages most other women would not have shared.
Cavendish’s main scientific work was Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy (2001), written in the vernacular, rather than the Latin that was typical of scientific books until well into the nineteenth century, which itself reflects the scientific revolution’s origin in the Greek and Latin classics. She had already undertaken earnest study of contemporary scientific and philosophical works and this book of hers clearly shows the influence of Thomas Hobbes, who had instructed her brother Sir Charles Lucas in philosophy; in fact, she was one of the few of her time who accepted Hobbes’ ideas that incorporeal souls do not exist in nature (Sarasohn, 2010). She certainly expresses herself well in her book, even discussing in the preface whether her excessive writing is a disease (Mendelson, 1987), a question that still plagues modern practitioners (e.g., Flaherty, 2004). As she points out, she wrote primarily for herself and if it was a disease, then it was a wonderful disease suffered by Aristotle, Homer and Cicero, among others (Cavendish, 2001).
Women in the Scientific Revolution – Maria Winckelmann
In Germany, circumstances for women in science were different; few independently pursed their scientific interests. The astronomer Maria Winckelmann Kirsch is perhaps the best and certainly the best remembered example. She married the astronomer and mathematician Gottfried Kirsch and while they functioned as equals, the prevailing attitude of their time was that she was his assistant; Kirsch himself was a product of a scientific family and there is no reason to believe he did not appreciate his wife’s collaboration. In any event, we know she wrote of the conjunctions of the planets and, in 1702 became the first woman to discover a comet; she also published the most erudite observations of the aurora borealis to that time (Schiebinger, 1987). Unfortunately, Maria Winckelmann Kirsch has yet to benefit from a revival of scholarly interest in her life and activities that has benefited Margaret Cavendish.
Women in the Scientific Revolution – Maria Gaetana Agnesi
In Italy, traditionally regarded as the birthplace of the Renaissance, the situation for women was different still, and is best exemplified by Maria Gaetana Agnesi, who, like Margaret Cavendish, had the advantages of wealth and social position and also pursued her interests independently. Her father was a professor of mathematics at Bologna and Maria showed intellectual gifts from an early age (Osen, 1975). Throughout her life, he was a very religious person and constantly found herself in the verge of spiritual revelation; fortunately for the history of science, she was a person of rare intellectual energy and she undertook the study of calculus when that was still cutting edge mathematics. Her most important work is Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana, which uncharitably translates to Analytic Institutions for Use by Italian Youths – an excellent introduction to Euclid and the first work to include both differential and integral calculus; in fact, Struik (1987) refers to her at the first important woman mathematician since Hypatia, some thirteen centuries before; Struik (1987) also calls this work the model for all subsequent calculus textbooks. As it was intended as a textbook for use by students, like Cavendish, Agnesi wrote in the vernacular Italian, and wrote very well, though lacked the Margaret Cavendish’s literary charm. Agnesi became a professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna, the first woman to achieve this, anywhere. As noted, she spent much of her life in religious contemplation, though it should also be noted that she devoted much of her she considerable wealth to helping the poor and infirm, to the point that she converted at least part of her home into a charity hospital. She was recognized in her lifetime and was praised by many, including Pope Benedict XIV, himself no intellectual lightweight (Mazzotti, 1987).
If Maria Agnesi is remembered for anything now, curiously it is for something she did not discover: the Witch of Agnesi, a curve whose mathematical properties lie somewhat outside the scope of this paper. While others had previously considered this curve, Agnesi was the first to give it a rigorous analytical treatment in her textbook; that it is called a “witch” is the product of an unfortunate early mistranslation into English that stuck. The curve, however, has one property worth mentioning: it almost exactly resembles an isolated water wave (Mazzotti, 1987).
These three are just examples of women who took part in the scientific revolution. There were many others worthy of mention and many others still whose contributions are either lost or unrecognized, in some cases, to this day.
The Status of Women in Science Now
It is safe to say that of all the scientists ever, an overwhelming percentage are professionally active now, and among there, there are more women than ever before. This notwithstanding, women face serious obstacles in the sciences. Statistics indicate that women do less well than men in terms of degree, tenure and salary. In a field such as nursing, that has traditionally been dominated by women, men hold four percent of the professorships; by contrast women have never held as much as four percent of the professorships in any field dominated by men; even in psychology, were women obtain the majority of doctorates, women do not yet fill the majority of professorships (Schiebinger, 2001). Even so, there have been many noteworthy women scientists at present.
To cite just one such example, the American Barbara McClintock discovered the transposition of genes and this explained how certain physical characteristics are turned on or off (Comfort, 1999). For this, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1944 and in 1983 won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine and, in fact, remains the only woman to win that prize, unshared. There is some contention over the exact nature and precedence of her discoveries, but even her critics concede her pivotal role in genetics research (Comfort, 2001).
Reducing Barbara McClintock and her contributions to a single paragraph is hardly fair to her, or to women in science today. It is, however, important to recognize that woman have made important contributions to science from the earliest times and while many of these contributions remain unrecognized, this is finally being addressed. Given current demographic and educational trends, it is clear that the influence of women in science will only increase with time.
As noted, women have played important roles in science from antiquity to the present, though their roles and their contributions have often been lost or gone unrecognized. This paper has examined three such figures from the time of the scientific revolution, as well as one from the postwar era in the United States to demonstrate that their contributions can be meaningful and as important as those of their male counterparts. It is to be understood that if science is to be a truly democratic and fair institution, it must welcome contributions and criticism from everyone and while tremendous strides have been made, the institution of science as a whole still has a long way to go to achieve this egalitarian goal.
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Struik, D. (1987). A Concise history of mathematics (4th rev. ed.). New York, NY: Dover Publications.
Walters, L. (2014). Margaret Cavendish: Gender, science and politics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
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Whitaker, K. (2003). Mad Madge: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, royalist, writer and romantic. London: Chatto and Windus.
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