Although it would be presumptuous to say that women appeared nowhere in the Scientific Revolution of 1550-1700, there surely is an overwhelming majority of well-known male scientists. Some of the most well-known names in science come from this time period: Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, and Newton all spring to mind. However, what about Virginia Galilei, the famous Galileo’s daughter, who was rumored to be as intelligent as her father? We certainly have heard and read about her father, who has an entire section in The Scientific Revolution by Michael R. Matthews devoted to himself and his theories, but who has heard of her, or any of the other women interested in the sciences during that time period?
Although she was touted to have the same great mind of her famous father, Virginia Galilei spent her life in a poor convent in Florence that her father admitted her and her younger sister to when they were both teenagers, a common occurrence of the time. People of means often sent their daughters to convents when they reached teenage years, so they could learn skills such as sewing, cooking, cleaning, music, and were taught religion until the day when their parents arranged a marriage for them and they were swept away to a new household. Unfortunately, this was not the case for Virginia, who ended up dying at a relatively young age due to weak health. However, the letters she wrote to her father have survived her, and we have records of a bright young woman who undoubtedly could have flourished in the scientific world if given the chance, which just wasn’t done. In a letter from 1623, she writers to her father… “Moreover, I beg you to be so kind as to send me that book of yours which has just been published, so that I may read it, for I have a great desire to see it.” The book that she writes of was The Assayer, and she would have undoubtedly had her own opinions and ideas of her father’s work. It’s inferred from her letters that she had the intellectual capability to think and work on a level comparable to her father’s, but she was never given the chance. A book has recently been published with many of Virginia’s letters to her father, and focuses on her own tremendous talents, a Rice college has started a project on Galileo’s life, a large part of which focuses on his eldest daughter, the website from which this quote of hers was taken.
A similar tragedy is seen in another letter, this one written by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, who was a woman of scientific mind interested in becoming a member of the newly-founded Royal Society in England. She writes, “I cannot publicly preach, teach, declare or explain (my work) by word of mouth, as most of the famous philosophers have done, who thereby made their philosophical opinions more famous than I fear mine will ever be.” Here we see that Cavendish is remarking on a fact of her time: that women were not regarded on an equal plane as men when it came to matters of the mind. Although this way of thinking no doubt stilted a great many accomplishments that could have been achieved had women been given a chance publicly to practice in the sciences, Margaret Cavendish did well for herself. She went on to write 13 novels, some of which focused on science, with an emphasis on atoms and matter in motion. She also published under her own name when most women who dared to write about the sciences published their works anonymously. Cavendish never did become a member of the Royal Society, but she was friends with many male members.
In just these two examples, we can see that it is not the fact that there were no women interested in the ground-breaking science of the time, it’s just that they weren’t allowed or even encouraged to have such a hands-on role. For the time, it would have been scandalous and considered taboo for a woman to seem to be as intelligent as a man or show similar interests or ideas, and for this, we have lost a great many opportunities for brilliant women to let themselves shine.
1.) Rice College and the Galileo Project’s Website devoted to Virginia Galilei: http://galileo.rice.edu/fam/maria.html
2.) Iowa State University’s record of women in the Scientific Revolution, a section of which is devoted to Margaret Cavendish: http://www.public.iastate.edu/~hist.380/revolution.html