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Pandora’s Breeches: a book review and event announcement

pandora bookPandora’s Breeches: Women,Science and Power in the Enlightenment By Patricia Fara

This book examines the roles women played in science in the period of about 1600 till 1830 by a clever use of woman-man pairs. The pairs acting as bookends at the beginning and end of the book are authors (non- scientists, as it happens) with fictional characters: Francis Bacon with ‘Lady Philosophy’ and Mary Shelley with Frankenstein. The eight pairs giving rise to a chapter each in between are women corresponding with influential scholars, women who translate science either into other languages or for broader audiences and women who assist their men (husbands, brothers) in doing their research at home. Women are also discussed in their role as patrons of scholars but not to the extent that they get their own chapter. It is telling that Queen Christina of Sweden, who invited René Descartes to Stockholm (where he died), has to make way for his correspondent Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia to make up a pair.

I really liked the idea of re-examining historical evidence such as pictures and surviving letters and learning about women I hadn’t heard much about before (especially apt on Ada Lovelace Day). The book is great at debunking heroic versions of scientific history, which annoy me as I see science as such a collaborative effort at its core.

Society was markedly different in the 200 odd years described and more unapologetically patriarchal from what it is today. But I was wondering whether there is still something to learn from these women that is recognizable today? Maybe it is the difference in the women’s own attitude. Both Elisabetha Hevelius and Marie Paulze Lavoisier appear to have determined their own destinies, by choosing established scientists as spouses and carving out their own niches alongside them. In contrast Caroline Herschel “seemed determined to be miserable” and “colluded in her downtrodden state”. After all, our own actions and attitudes are all we have control over.

Patricia Fara will speak at the Cambridge AWiSE Festival of Ideas event asking “Is it a feminist position to encourage women to work and study in male dominated fields?” on 28 October 2013, 19.30, Lucy Cavendish College. Other speakers include Jenny Koenig, founding chair of Cambridge AWiSE and CUSU’s Lauren Steele who organised the campaign “I need feminism because” which went viral and proves that new generations still have an apatite for feminism! Come and join us to debate, inform and be informed. I am definitely looking forward to it!

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