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.
Image via Wikipedia
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: