Today, a lady helps begin a revoluton. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Margaret Cavendish, the
Duchess of Newcastle, was born in 1623, just as a
great scientific change was taking place.
Scientists had been using a system of logical
speculation to learn about nature. Now they were
starting to use a mixture of thought and controlled
experiment. Modern scientific method was taking
form. Change brings opportunity, and Cavendish
helped pioneer a new role for women in this
Historian Lhonda Schiebinger tells how she created
an English version of the salon, where French women
were building their place in science. The salons
were really formal domestic study groups.
Influential women ran them, and they drew in the
cream of male thinkers. Those women usually acted
as referees and questioners - as arbiters of
thought. It was a strange role. They were both
subordinates and intellectual power-brokers at the
Cavendish wanted fame - she made no bones about
that. She was untrained; but that, she pointed out,
came with the social order. It didn't reflect on
her ability to think.
She created what she called a "semy-circle." It was
a study group largely drawn from her own household.
She tried with limited success to correspond with
the great intellects of her day. She began writing
books on natural philosophy.
Many of her stands were pretty traditional. She
didn't like the new experimental science. Human
sense is flawed, she said, and human instruments
are even worse. Then we find that her husband
collected the new telescopes, which were so
radically altering human vision. He owned seven of
If she was at odds with her husband on this matter,
you can't tell it from her writings. She called him
her "wit's patron," and she took a traditional view
of women's domestic role. First she wrote that
women's minds are too soft for hard thought. Then,
as though to give herself place at the table, she
added that "some women are wiser than men."
She found ways to be dramatic and outspoken enough
to be noticed. She theorized that matter is made up
of intelligent atoms and that God is not needed to
animate nature. She found grounds for challenging
Descartes. She upset that male scientific preserve,
The Royal Society, by visiting it in 1667.
Margaret Cavendish was neither one of the great
thinkers nor one of the great revolutionaries. Her
story is a story of women seeking out a new place.
It reminds us how difficult travel is when we have
no roads. Only when we see that do we begin to see
the boldness and originality of her claim to a
place in the life of the mind.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds