Monday, April 1, 2013

Rare Blooms - Women Pioneers in Botany & Plant Sciences

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, botany was one of the few sciences that was open to women. It fit in with Romantic & Victorian ideas of womanhood – as educators and as the moral center of the home. Botany could, itself, been seen as a religious experience, as Natural theologians claimed, because people could see evidence of God’s existence by observing nature – in its perfection & design. Botanical knowledge made women better illustrators & embroiderers; it gave them a greater arsenal of natural remedies. All of these aspects made them better mothers and therefore made botany a more ‘acceptable pastime.’ Although they may not have been encouraged by society to follow these pursuits, they were allowed to participate. Today we can find evidence of early female botanists, (some women were even credited for their work!), but who knows how many women are ranked among the anonymous collectors or whose work was ‘adopted’ by men.

One blogger writes:
“Throughout my career as an archivist, I have not cared for one collection that did not contain a woman, a minority, or a child that was just screaming to be recognized. But there she was buried in a pile of manuscripts, some man’s daughter. An unnamed wife, Mrs. Herbert Hoover. Mrs. Finley Calhoun. Some slave, a servant, a mute.”

Botany opened the door for some women to learn Latin and to work alongside supportive fathers and husbands. Women frequently wrote about botanical subjects in "informal forms," in poems, introductory books or essays, novels, or in correspondence. Priscilla Wakefield (1796) wrote An Introduction to Botany which, as Susan Branson says in her article Flora and Femininity: Gender and Botany in Early America, “seamlessly incorporated science study with maternity and domesticity.” Branson also points out that, “[a]uthor and lecturer Benjamin Tucker believed that botany was a suitable subject for women, though other ‘walks of science’ he explained, ‘must be trod by men alone.’”

As botany became professionalized, after 1830, the opportunities for women became fewer and fewer. The status of women in public sciences versus the informal, private study of plants, challenged the masculine sphere of influence. And so the evidence of female contribution became obscured – overshadowed by male contemporaries. Even though they continued to work as “invisible technicians” in the plant sciences, history forgot (or was denied the chance to know) their names.

A few women soldiered on, although the limited number of ‘names’ available to us now is supposed to lead us to believe that they were they exceptions – the rare blooms – rather than the rule. We are supposed to imagine that women stopped questioning, lost interest in the world around them, simply because the annals of history have hidden them from our view. I do not believe this.

This month I will share with you thirty women who made significant contributions to botany and the plant sciences. While the scientific community is more open to women today, I will be focusing on many of the earlier achievements of women in these fields. I hope you enjoy learning about them and come to believe, as I do, that they represent the ‘nameless’ women who also thirsted for knowledge & contributed to our understanding of the natural world.

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