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Sisters in Science

Patricia Fara calls for a more inclusive, and realistic, history of Science.

In her novel A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagines a scenario in which William Shakespeare has an equally gifted sister, Judith. Woolf explains that such a sister would have been doubly shackled. Most obviously, Judith lacks her brother’s education, having been taught domestic skills to attract a wealthy husband while William goes off to school. More insidiously, she has been conditioned from birth into the norms of sixteenth-century society, so that the very act of trying to break free drives her mad.

 

But suppose Newton or Descartes or Darwin had had a clever sister? Woolf conjectured that frustrated female geniuses became lonely, half-crazed recluses, mocked and feared as witches with extraordinary powers. Maybe some of them did. However, intelligent women could find ways to accommodate their interests within conventional lives. Evidence about such women is hard to retrieve, but their ghostly presence in the surviving records yields tantalising hints of their very substantial real-life existence.

 

Well into the nineteenth century most scientific activity took place in private homes. This meant that, although women were excluded from universities and academic societies, they did become involved in science. Before science became a professional career option, experimenters struggled to earn a living. The women in the household provided a free source of labour, and much evidence testifies to their involvement, such as references in letters, the occasional tribute in a preface, or even an illustration.

 

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