Women And The Sciences In The 17Th And 18Th Century

Women's roles were the subject of change in the 16th and 17th century, as they began to actively participate in scientific research and discussions. This change did not happen easily because a great deal of men were still reluctant to acknowledge any sort of equality. Many women proved their ability by earning doctorates like Dorothea Erxleben, who was the first woman granted a German M.D. at the University of Halle. She spoke openly about the discrimination facing her and explained how many felt that she was declaring war on men by practicing medicine, or at least attempting to deprive them of their 'privilege'. Erxleben also felt that many other women were upset by her actions because they felt she was placing herself above them.

Those sentiments were in fact complete reality at the time. Johann Junker, the head of the University of Halle in 1745, firmly believed that women should limit their studies to music and the arts. Anything more than that, like attending university and perhaps receiving a doctorate, would simply attract to much attention. He even went the distance as to say that the legality of such an undertaking (women receiving a doctorate) should be investigated. Another Johann, Johann Theodor Jablonski, the secretary to the Berlin Academy of Sciences also shared the same belief as Junker. He was upset by the fact that a woman, Maria Winkelmann was permitted to work on the official calendar of observations for the Academy. He insisted that the Academy would be ridiculed because of her, and that 'mouths would gape' if she continued on in such a capacity. A fine example of the discrimination women faced if they attempted to pursue a university career.

Those women who did succeed were faced with ignorance of the lowest levels. It was commonly believed, and sadly enough, even published in print, that women who advanced into the study of higher sciences would undoubtedly lose their femininity as their 'clothing will be neglected', and their 'hair will be done in antiquarian fashion'. Samuel Pepys, an English diarist once attended a meeting of the Royal Society of Scientists, and commented that the Duchess of Newcastle, who had been invited to the Society, had been "a good, comely woman", but that her dress had been "so antique and her deportment so ordinary, that I do not like her at all." She had been invited as a scientist, not as a model of current fashion, an obviously even the most educated of men could not see past her plain appearance and truly listen to what she had to say. As weak and superficial as these comment may seem to us, they really did hold ground then because the way a women presented herself was a big issue, and it seemed to justified men disagreeing with women's right to study the higher sciences.

Men were not the only discriminators though. As Dorothea Erxleben explained, other women also felt threatened. Marie Thiroux d'Arconville, a French anatomical illustrator at the time was one of these women. She like many others believed that women should not study medicine and astronomy. She maintained that these subjects were beyond women's "sphere of competence", and that women should be satisfied with the power that their "grace and beauty" give them. Quite a hit, coming from another woman, and unfortunately she was not alone. Marie Meurdrac, a French scientist, started out with similar feelings and convinced herself that it was not the profession of a lady to teach, and that she should remain silent, listen and learn, without displaying her knowledge.

As there were those against, there were also those who were for the higher education of women. In such and "enlightened" period, fortunately, there were those who were enlightened in this area as well. Maria Winkelmann's, husband, an astronomer, realized that his wife had an understanding of the cosmos and could be of much help to him and his studies. Johannes Hevelius, author of The Heavenly Machine, 1679, collaborated on astronomical research with a woman, his partner, Elisabeth Hevelius. These were men who treated women as equals, and who were ahead of their time in understanding that women were capable of such understanding. Another respected individual who wasn't afraid to support women was Gottfried Leibniz, a German mathematician and philosopher. He believed that "women of elevated mind" were able to advance knowledge more properly than men. Acknowledging therefore, again, that women were in fact capable of understanding the complexities of medicine and astronomy.

There was still much work ahead before it would become remotely acceptable for women to study the higher sciences of medicine and astronomy, but with ideas like that of Marie Meurdrac, progress would come eventually. She stated in the forward to one of her publications, "Minds have no sex, and if the minds of women were cultivated like those of men, they would be equal to the minds of the later."

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