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ERIC Number: EJ748593
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2005-Feb
Pages: 15
Abstractor: Author
Reference Count: N/A
ISSN: ISSN-0030-9230
Gender, Science and Modernity in Seventeenth-Century England
Watts, Ruth
Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education, v41 n1-2 p79-93 Feb 2005
The seventeenth century in England, bounded by the scientific stimulus of Francis Bacon at the beginning and Isaac Newton at the end, seemingly saw a huge leap from the Aristotelian dialectic of the past to a reconstruction of knowledge based on inductive methods, empirical investigation and cooperative research. In mid-century, Puritan reformers inspired both by the scientific thinking of Bacon and by the educational reforms of Comenius, hoped that educational reform at both school and university level would follow political and religious changes. In 1661, after the restoration of the monarchy, the founding of the Royal Society suggested that acceptance of experimental and practical science at the highest level had been achieved and that this would impinge on education. None of these assumptions can be accepted at face value. Indeed, the whole intellectual and educational history of the seventeenth century is far more complex than often portrayed. Various scientific and philosophical world-views and different methods of scientific investigation jostled for supremacy and major leaps forward in scientific knowledge were often a combination of some of these. The physical sciences still came under the umbrella of "natural philosophy." Nevertheless, this period is seen as the beginnings of a scientific revolution that has profoundly affected, even generated the modern world. Generally such developments have been both hailed and derided as masculinist. Earlier historians usually neither saw nor looked for women's place in scientific development: more recently, feminist historians have both tried to correct the picture and sought to explain the exclusion of women from most of it. Some have seen Western science itself in this period constructing notions of masculinity and femininity that would prevent women participating in the scientific ventures which represent modernity. This article will investigate the position of women within the scientific and educational developments of seventeenth-century England. The development of Baconian science and its effects on Puritan reformers, especially Samuel Hartlib, John Dury and other like-minded scholars, will be examined. It will be shown that their ideals, like those of Jan Comenius whom they admired and worked with, had positive implications for female education. Although, however, some females were affected by the educational reforming impulses of the Hartlib circle, in the changeable political and intellectual world of seventeenth-century England, very little lasting reform was achieved. Generally women were not well educated in this period. They were excluded from formal educational institutions such as the grammar school and the university although these were not necessarily where scientific and educational reform took place. The advent of printing in the sixteenth century and the growth of scientific lectures in the seventeenth enabled upper and some middle-ranking women to take part in some of the intellectual ferment of the day and women naturally had a place in science through their culinary and medical roles. Contemporary research has uncovered some of the scientific work done by women and stimulated significant discussion on what can be counted as "science." In England, female relatives of those who espoused scientific and educational reform were themselves involved in such initiatives. On the other hand, they were shut out from membership of the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, established in 1662, or any other formal institution. Some women were affected by Cartesianism and other scientific theories including those on both natural magic and more occult philosophies. This was a century, however, when unorthodox thinking could meet with frightful consequences and eminent thinkers across the continent fell foul of religious and political authorities. The period was shamed by the highest number of witchcraft trials ever in Central and Western Europe, including England, chiefly against women, albeit mainly the old and the poor. In the second half of the century, longings for stability and peace were more likely to consolidate patriarchical and conservative mores than give way to radical social ideas. Nevertheless, as this study will show, a number of women, chiefly of aristocratic lineage or at least educated above the norm, were able even to publish their scientific ideas. Two of the women mentioned here did so through translation: Lucy Hutchinson, translating Lucretius, and Aphra Benn, translating Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle. Hutchinson particularly revealed her own thinking through the notes she added to her edition. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, chose to pour out the scientific and philosophical ideas she gathered through reading and conversation, in a torrent of unedited publications. Anne, Viscountess Conway, in more measured tones and timing, drew from her private form of higher education to publish The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, which influenced leading philosophers of her day, including Liebniz. Both she and Margaret Cavendish were sufficiently confident to critique Descartes, although Anne Conway's thinking was based on a sounder education. Bathsua Makin was able from her own excellent education and her contacts with the Hartlib circle at home and Anna Maria van Schurmann and others abroad to promulgate an education for girls that would enable them to learn and use a range of sciences and mathematics in an extended female role. Even so, these women were a privileged few and promoted scientific and educational ideas from a vantage point of their own fortunate educational and/or social position. For none of them was this uncomplicated, while for other women, even ones within intellectual circles such as that of Mary Evelyn, their scientific impulses were restrained by gendered notions. Thus it is shown that in both the opportunities offered by new scientific and educational ideas and in their exclusion from the mainstream the position of women was in line with conflicting modern principles that underlay a contested terrain in science for the centuries to come. In addition, this brief exploration of these gendered contradictions of the scientific revolution in England shows the benefits of understanding the large areas of learning which are outside or juxtaposed to formal education, the networks that facilitate leaning and the contemporary context of gendered and scientific beliefs pervading different forms of knowledge.
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Publication Type: Journal Articles; Reports - Descriptive
Education Level: N/A
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: N/A
Authoring Institution: N/A
Identifiers - Location: United Kingdom (England)