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Enlightenment: The Role of Women in Society

As Humanism was evolving during the Middle Ages, so were the women of the elite. In the past, women were expected to assume their roles as mothers, daughters, and wives. During the 14th and 15th centuries, however, a secular movement was allowing some of the privileged women to learn reading and philosophy of the Christian texts. Women like Margaret Cavendish, Maria Merian, and Maria Winkelmann were over shadowed by their husbands, however this didn’t stop them from being noticed and even scorned for being independent thinkers.

During the Enlightenment, women were looked upon as prone to vice, insatiable, and easily swayed. Their opinions meant little and their place was in the home. However, in the wake of the Enlightenment, women were starting to overcome the previous idea that they were a liability and not a voice of reason. Women debaters started to argue that women can use rational thought and can also grow with education. However, little had changed, and men used science to find ways to disprove the theories that women had a place in society. Men were even able to take over the role of midwives; however the midwives were still able to practice with the lower classes, as professionals were not needed to serve these individuals.

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Margaret Cavendish was more of a debater than a scientist. She wrote Observations upon Experimental Philosophy and Grounds of Natural Philosophy, in which, she attacked rationalists and scientists who believed that humans could control nature through experimentation. Margaret was the only woman to have visited the Royal Society, although she was never allowed to be a member.


Maria Merian was an entomologist during the 18th century, which is a branch of zoology that deals with insects and plants. She worked in her father’s workshop learning to illustrate what she observed. She proceeded to embark on a journey to Surinam in South America where she collected samples and documented findings for her published work the “Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam”. What was significant about Maria was that women usually never traveled at this time to do research, only men in colonies. Furthermore, expeditions were not happening at the time, so her work raised some eyebrows. She was able to observe insects in their natural state, directly, which was a far stretch from male scientists that stuck to experimentation within the confines of a lab.

Maria Winkelmann acquired advanced training in astronomy from a self taught astronomer. In 1702, she made the discovery of a comet that her husband reaffirmed. She also worked closely with Gottfried Leipniz, the inventor of Calculus independent of Newton, who praised her as a most learned woman. She was highly qualified for a position at the Berlin Academy; however she was denied the position by the Academy who thought they would raise to many eyebrows.

The Scientific Revolution reaffirmed what men had already knew, that women were still inferior according to new science. Women were meant to be mothers and wives and subordinate to their husbands. Books were even published by a French moralist that conveyed this message, including one passage that remarked a woman was like a gun that was a collector’s item-easy to be admired, but played with sparingly.

Also check out:

The Scientific Revolution Changed The Way Europe Viewed The Universe, Medicine And Thinking

Paracelsius, Vesalius, and William Harvey and their Contributions to Medicine

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User Comments
  1. Kate Smedley

    On February 16, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    The Enlightenment is a fascinating period of history, these women were and are an inspiration. Thoroughly enjoyable and well researched article Lauren, thanks for sharing.

  2. Chris Stonecipher

    On February 16, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Hi Lauren,
    I have read a little on Margaret Scandivish in one of my history classes but I haven’t heard of the other two ladies. These ladies played an important role in shaping our society and they are inspirations. Your article is well researched, interesting and informative. I enjoyed reading it.

  3. Guy Hogan

    On February 16, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    And now women out number men in American colleges and universities.

  4. Joe Dorish

    On February 16, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Still hard to believe women were not allowed to vote until 1920.

  5. Mark Gordon Brown

    On February 16, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    Thank you for showing your appreciation of these great women. I like to see articles where people show gratitude to the efforts of anyone, and so many times the great women of history are overlooked.

  6. Peter Cimino

    On February 16, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    Another absolutely awesome article. It was like sitting in a classroom and hearing a marvelous lecture! Bravo!

  7. Peter Cimino

    On February 16, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    Another awesome educational piece. It was like sitting in a classroom listening to an incredible lecture! Bravo!

  8. nobert soloria bermosa

    On February 16, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    the pioneers….women who help shaped women’s role in our society…stumbled

  9. Lost in Arizona

    On February 16, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    I also love Maria Merian as an artist. It’s funny to think how men once conceptualized women as nothing more than mothers and just wives who provide for the home. It’s curious though, without women, just how did men think the world ;)

  10. RS Wing

    On February 16, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    It was just a matter of time. I cannot understand how men could actually try and use sciece to discredit the abilities and intellectual contributations made by women outside of the “home”. Great article and very well written.

  11. James DeVere

    On February 16, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    I would love to see you write about matriarchal societies . This was truly crisp. Lucid. Thank-you . j

  12. albert1jemi

    On February 16, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    Great share

  13. HatedNation

    On February 16, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    Good perspective Dr Lauren, thanks for writing this up

  14. Diverseblogger

    On February 16, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    A very educational piece. Great share

  15. Brenda Nelson

    On February 17, 2010 at 12:14 am

    its about time!

  16. 8Shei8

    On February 17, 2010 at 1:28 am

    I love women power! Great article in women pioneers.

  17. R J Evans

    On February 17, 2010 at 4:56 am

    Excellent article – I really enjoyed this..

    I have blogged it at

  18. Janet Meyer

    On February 17, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Hi Lauren, I’m back. I enjoyed reading this article. Anything about history is always interesting.
    I submitted a poem (Sestina), but it hasn’t been published as yet. I will be seeing you around here.
    Janet Meyer

  19. Inna Tysoe

    On February 18, 2010 at 12:43 am

    It’s true that women during the Enlightenment were expected to be “accomplished” and that some of the wealthier women saw their educational opportunities increase. And you did a great job presenting the stories of some of those women. However, if I remember my history rightly (and I may not-it’s been a while!) the status of most women actually fell. For example, philosophy was closed off to them. The situation (and again, I may not remember this right) was not entirely different from what happened in Renaissance Italy, especially Florence where while women saw some (select) educational opportunities expand, they saw opportunities as a whole decrease. So you had increased expectations on the one hand due to increased education and decreased opportunities on the other (due to for example the fact that women were precluded from joining guilds and, in Florence–an extreme case, granted–could not due business without the supervision of a male.)



  20. catlord

    On February 18, 2010 at 11:06 am

    “Enlightened” :-)


    On February 18, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    u take the cake ,,,,,,,

    i once requested a very well known person on triond to write about women on top

    the world has its rulers say

    Queen Elizabeth, Geanne of Canada, Sonia Italiann Gandhi of India , the Bangladesh, Ceylon andd many principal Chief ministers round the world r women




    No more laying only,

    please its a role reversal
    welLLLLLLLLLLLL done well done wellllll done

  22. Trakiya

    On February 18, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    Excellent article.Thanks you

  23. J.L. Eck

    On February 19, 2010 at 2:43 am

    Damn Women! LOL… Hey Just kiddin…don’t burn your bra just because I joked…Oh crap here we go again…sorry guys…I shouldn’t have poked the bear;)

  24. MartineP

    On February 19, 2010 at 11:36 am

    Well written. I do feel the role of women in history is often being underrated.

  25. novelist

    On February 19, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    Well-researched and worthy of note.

  26. novelist

    On February 19, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Well-researchd and worthy of note.

  27. 100polish

    On February 19, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    I really liked your article.

  28. Melody SJAL

    On February 19, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    Great article.

  29. speckledlily

    On February 20, 2010 at 2:25 am

    Educational post. Thanks for sharing.

  30. willyonline

    On February 20, 2010 at 4:41 am

    Great writing

  31. Patrick Regoniel

    On February 20, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Wow, a great treatise about women and what they can do. Yes, I do agree women should play a greater role in science. It would be great to hear women scientists making breakthroughs. Nice post!

  32. subhashlaxmin

    On February 21, 2010 at 11:09 am

    Great idea

  33. Jon Weinerman

    On February 22, 2010 at 1:17 am

    congrats on making the top 10!

  34. mikky webs

    On February 22, 2010 at 6:02 am

    Great work indeed. Women empowerment should be seen as a mere task. It should rather be taken seriously and especially in the developing nations.

  35. Adam Henry Sears

    On February 22, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Catchy title, some good points, and plenty of passion-heating information. But I felt that the ending was not satisfactory because you don’t drive home any specific point. Yes, it’s good to illuminate the injustices of the past, insofar as people should learn from them. But should we do that without being aware of the progress that HAS been made from that past up to now, or of the potential of the future?

    Let’s remember that for sinning, God gave a command to Eve, not to all women. Eve simply taught her daughters how to have submissive hearts (which is not altogether a bad thing) and from there the rest of society grew. Of course, it didn’t help that through the ages men regarded such humility as a sign that they should be in control, or that once the scriptures were made known to them they took passages from 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians entirely out of context. There are actually many more passages that expound on the “made as equals” and “treat one another as equals” ethic.

    Personally, I predict that eventually the majority of women will treat men as the inferior gender, in spite of the “equality” they pursue. In fact, you can see evidence of this already.

  36. Lauren Axelrod

    On February 22, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Henry this article is about the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment roles of women. I’m not speaking of progress up until now. I am specifically writing about that time frame. As far as what is expressed here, my history professor called my stance “exceptional”. So to say the last paragraph does not bring it home makes no sense to me whatsoever.

    If you look at from the period of history in which it was written, it sums up what the ideals and positions of society were at that time.

    “The Scientific Revolution reaffirmed what men had already knew, that women were still inferior according to new science. Women were meant to be mothers and wives and subordinate to their husbands. Books were even published by a French moralist that conveyed this message, including one passage that remarked a woman was like a gun that was a collector’s item-easy to be admired, but played with sparingly.”

    “it’s good to illuminate the injustices of the past, insofar as people should learn from ”

    I’m not talking about the present, I’m talking about historical truth. Not what they mean today.

  37. Abunader

    On February 23, 2010 at 10:51 am

    I think It only make sense to Acknowledge that Women have alwayas been Part of history , and we still have more to go

  38. Drona Negi

    On February 23, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Greeks believed women were a curse to mankind, with them, mankind will always fight(I think), without them mankind will be bored.

  39. Uma Shankari

    On February 24, 2010 at 8:43 am

    Great essay on women of substance, Women are as capable as any. Yet, men and women may be as different as apples and oranges; to compare the two isn’t right.

  40. Palitha Ariyarathna

    On February 24, 2010 at 11:09 am

    ‘women go way is Countries go’

    with philosophy of Srilanka women has the best state in society while she is allowed to be queen or house wife or Nun..And whatever social state she wants to achieve. Motherhood is the most powerful social state. Women rights been modern to many countries hence the society leaving them is traditionally believe in creator who has a male hood. Women values are cannot underestimate. women should be treat equally with a man’s rights

  41. Leonardo da Vinci E.

    On February 24, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    The scientific revolution, deformed by being reflected through the perspectives of men whose minds where tarnished by religious superstition (Assigning women a secondary role in society) was merely used to reaffirm what men (thought they) already knew: That women were inferior in science.

  42. Madhuri Shinde

    On February 25, 2010 at 6:05 am

    Very good piece. Nicely put together.

  43. miss suger

    On February 26, 2010 at 5:00 am

    i liked this!!
    i really can’t understand why men in the past thought women are not equal to them?!!! it’s like a joke for me!!!!
    thanks a lot for such a great share, keep going ;)

  44. hfj

    On February 26, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Women, us men can’t live with them or without them..haha A very good and informative article Lauren. Women have come a long way over the years, and these ladies you mentioned in this article were definitely pioneer’s who help pave the way for women to choose the path or career in which they wanted to go in their lives. Well done.

  45. Brian Daniel Stankich

    On April 7, 2010 at 10:46 am

    1500 years before this Jesus demonstrated to women that they were lovely and beautiful in God’s eyes and he showed to men that women were true people and way more significant than the servants they had been relegated to

  46. historigal

    On April 9, 2010 at 4:26 am

    A great read on history. I am inspired. Thank you.

  47. meandu

    On May 27, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Very informative article. Women have come a long way in history.

  48. Telscafe

    On August 22, 2010 at 8:50 am

    Hi Lauren,

    Terrific! Glad I came by after a long while. Love your articles; they are so related to my great thinkers features. Besides, I love the Enlightenment Period, in the footsteps of my fave composer plus other masters. Would love you to guest in one of my websites. ;)


  49. Roe2115

    On October 19, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Great article. Very informative.

  50. Michele Cameron Drew

    On November 7, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    Nice article, lady… blogged it. I hope you don’t mind. It’s good to be back and reading again. I have missed many friends here greatly, especially you, Lauren. I really like the direction that you are traveling in. You have given me a lot to catch up on! =)


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