“In many different genres – essays, treatises, poetry, romance, orations, and plays – Cavendish brought intellect and awareness to analyzing the implications of the new science for nature and women. Historians lament the absence of female voices in the past, but sometimes a single voice reveals common experiences and concerns.”
Not many people have heard of her but Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623–1673) – an aristocrat, philosopher, scientist, writer of poetry and prose and plays – achieved the feat of being the first woman to attend a meeting at the Royal Society of London (in 1667) and confidently interacting with figures like Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes and Robert Boyle. She copiously wrote and published on a wide range of topics – gender, power, manners and the scientific method. It is believed that she was also an early opponent of animal testing.
Lisa Sarasohn of the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University – a specialist in Early Modern Intellectual History and the History of Science – has closely explored her life and mind in The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy during the Scientific Revolution (2010).
I will quote two passages that discuss Cavendish’s view of women’s status in society. Sarasohn writes:
Because they are denied education and not allowed to develop their higher faculties, Cavendish argued, women become bestial and irrational: “We are become like worms that onely live in the dull earth of ignorance.” Here is a monstrous change indeed; categories are blurred, and unnatural hybrids are created. “What ever did we do,” asks Cavendish, “but like Apes, by Imitation?” The oppression of men “hath so dejected our spirits, as we are become so stupid, that Beasts are but a Degree below us, and Men use us but a Degree above Beasts.”
The result of the dehumanization of women, according to Cavendish, is that most women have indeed become stupid, caring for nothing but frippery and fancy: “Neither doth our Sex delight or understand philosophy, for as for Natural Philosophy, they study no more of Nature’s works than their own Faces…and for a Moral Philosophy they think that too tedious to learn, and too rigid to practice.” Sounding more like a Puritan preacher than a social critic, Cavendish indicts most women for embracing the role society has defined for them. Thus, her singularity is not only a tool in establishing her position as a natural philosopher but also a statement of moral rectitude. Cavendish recognized that gender characteristics were the result of cultural practices and beliefs, but she nevertheless often condemned women from adhering to such norms.
Explore the brilliant and controversial Margaret Cavendish further by checking out her book The Blazing World – a blend of Utopian narrative and feminism – also one of the earliest examples of science fiction.
Featured Image: Portrait of Margaret Cavendish, lady Newcastle, from the frontispiece to her ‘Poems and Fancies’, 1653, W
Preview The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy during the Scientific Revolution by Lisa T. Sarasohn.