Elizabeth Tollet and her Scientific Sisters
Patricia Fara recounts the moving story of a gifted contemporary of Isaac Newton who came to symbolise the frustrations of generations of female scientists denied the chance to fulfil their talents.
In A Room of One’s Own (1929) Virginia Woolf wondered what would have happened if Shakespeare had had an equally gifted sister, Judith. Such an ambitious young woman might, speculated Woolf, have followed William’s example and run away to the London stage, but she would have encountered a very different destiny – mockery, pregnancy and a lonely suicide. Woolf explained that her imaginary Judith was doubly shackled. Most obviously, she lacked her brother’s education, having been taught the domestic skills her parents felt she needed for attracting a wealthy husband. More insidiously, this phantom Judith had been conditioned from birth into accepting the confining norms of 16th-century society, so that the very act of trying to break free would drive her mad.
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