Women and the Writing of Science

This seminar course will consider the role of women in early modern and Enlightenment science from two perspectives: first, women as the often eroticized objects of scientific inquiry and second, women as scientists or natural philosophers whose work was frequently derided or obscured behind the names of fathers or brothers. We will read primary texts in the anatomical, astronomical, mathematical, and physical sciences, along with contemporary theory on gender, science, and the cultures of pre-1800 Europe.
The course is divided into two major segments: women as the objects of science and women working in science (NB “science” is used throughout to denote the myriad practices and texts that fell under the rather large rubric of “natural philosophy” up through 1700 and differentiated into the various physical science disciplines during the course of the eighteenth century). In the first section on women as the objects of science, we will consider the ways in which the science of witch hunting and possession used women as the locus of investigation and its connection to early theories of female psychology and the ways in which early modern anatomy eroticized the anatomical sciences and literally opened up the bodies of women for investigation. In the second section, on women natural philosophers, we will consider the women astronomers in the Hevelius family observatory, the coteries and extensive natural philosophy writings of noblewomen such as Lady Margaret Cavendish, Lady Anne Conway, and Princess Caroline, and a sampling of midwifery texts published by or on behalf of women before 1800. Using contemporary feminist approaches to the history of women and science, the course will consider the unacknowledged contributions of women, both in terms of their bodies and their bodies of work, to early scientific theory and practice.

See our final project posters

Our course objectives are:

  • To provide an introduction to the historical contributions of particular “early modern” women to scientific practice and tradition;
  • To explore how early modern scientific disciplines constructed gender and studied women;
  • To examine the consequences of the representations of women as objects of science and as scientific
  • practitioners for their participation in historical scientific communities and;
  • To dispel the sense that women existed only at the margins of early modern science, as well as to understand how and, perhaps, why such a myth has been so pervasive.
  • To develop the written and verbal skills needed in historical and literary research.
  • Texts include
    The Malleus Malificarum
    “Fugitive Anatomical Sheets”
    Cavendish, Margaret. Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader. Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson, Eds.
    Hutton, Sarah. Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher
    Newman, Karen. Fetal Positions: Individualism, Science, Visuality (Writing Science)
    Vesalius, Andreas. De Humani Corporis Fabrica
    Zissner, Judith. Emilie Du Chatelet: Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings

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