Changes in Myths of Gender over Time: The 19th Century

Narin Hassan. Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present. Editor: Sue V Rosser, ABC-CLIO, 2008.

The Industrial Revolution, the expansion of empire and national progress, and the rise of institutions were conditions that made the 19th century a period of immense ideological, social, and cultural change. The Industrial Revolution impacted not only the kinds of work people did but also where and how they did it. The transformation of the landscape; the shift to an urban from a largely agrarian culture; and the rise of a new, largely professional middle class created sharper divisions between the public and private realms that affected gender roles significantly since women were largely responsible for maintaining domestic harmony in an increasingly active, male-dominated public world. This division of public and private made it a more challenging time for women to enter the world of science since the ideals of femininity often required women play the role of wife and mother during this time when the family was becoming restructured as a symbol of middle-class life. Thus, while science was becoming more institutionalized and connected to largely male-dominated universities and professional societies, domestic roles were ascribed to women, and family life was itself increasingly socially structured and monitored.

Within this period of rapid growth and change, the nature and representation of scientific work was shifting. Formerly, science had been a domain open to the privileged “gentlemen of science,” but the popularization of science and the growth of new fields began to develop a broader and more complex population of scientists; increased cultural interest in science meant that new debates about what constituted science and what it meant to be a scientist were being heard. During this period, the growth and expansion of the publishing industry encouraged the production and dissemination of a range of new written documents. The industrial revolution and progress in paper technology, printing, and marketing allowed for a new mass market of texts and a much broader literate audience. Conduct manuals, medical guides, scientific treatises, garden magazines, novels, and newspapers flooded the marketplace and presented the increasing numbers of literate individuals with a range of material both representing and constructing new images of science and technology. Newspapers and weekly journals allowed individuals to learn about the global, political, social, and cultural changes taking place, and these textual forms meant that scientific knowledge could be distributed much more widely and rapidly. Thus, scientific authority progressed with the rise of a broader reading culture. With the increased urbanization and industrialization that took place in the 19th century, reading became a central mode by which a rising middle class could gain knowledge, and books shaped 19th-century understanding of the role of the individual in an increasingly fast-paced, global, and more modern world.

The growth in publishing also resulted in couplings of science and literature; a range of 19th-century texts engaged questions about the nature of scientific work, and as the century progressed, novels not only represented the shaping of new scientific fields but also took on a more scientific form through their intensely empirical and realist attention to detail and use of scientific metaphor. Such examples include George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871), a novel tracing the career of an ambitious doctor that reveals shifts in the field of medicine, and Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower (1882), which features a central character with a passion for astronomy.

The growth of new scientific disciplines and specializations, and of related disciplines including anthropology and sociology, had a cultural impact on gender roles. Science served as a tool to both manipulate and identify roles for men and women, and as scientific discourse gained influence within the period, it merged with larger political, social, and cultural dialogues surrounding marriage, education, women’s work, and appropriate behaviors for men and women. What was termed in the 19th century “The Woman Question”— a range of debates, representations, and concerns that dominated discussions of gender within the period—intersected quite often with the scientific and medical knowledge that flourished during this time. Within this exciting culture of change and newness, women both gained and struggled; progress brought new opportunities for women on the one hand and stifled them further on the other. Scientific discourses provided multiple ways to imagine women and men, but with the growing institutionalized nature of fields like medicine and with stronger divisions between the public and private realms, women were often relegated to the private sphere as the domestic ideal of angel in the house. This term, which appeared initially in a British poem by Coventry Patmore, became a common phrase describing the unrealistic and often unattainable ideal for 19th-century women.

The Early to Mid-19th Century: Romantic Ideals, Nature, and the Growth of Scientific Inquiry

In Western Europe, a rising intellectual and philosophical movement termed Romanticism originated in the 19th century as a countermovement to the Enlightenment. Understanding nature and recognizing the human relationship to nature were central to this movement; in this way, Romanticism challenged a more mechanical approach to science and embraced an immersion in the understanding of the natural world as the path to scientific knowledge. Central figures of this period included Friedrich Schelling (1775-1844), who in Naturphilosophie first defined a Romantic conception of science as the union of man with nature, and Jean Baptiste Lamark (1744-1829), who began to establish the science of biology as an independent discipline. Lamarck studied botany and medicine and was one of the early figures of the period to develop evolutionary theories. His Philosophy Zoologique, published in 1809, examined the gradual change of organisms as they began to interact with and become adapted to their environments; Lamarck set forth the idea that organisms slowly but constantly “improved” from one generation to the next. While Lamarck was establishing this evolutionary theory in France, Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) was exploring similar work in England and had already published his first formal theory, Zoonomia, or, the Laws of Organic Life in 1794-1796. The interests of Romantic intellectuals in the science of nature allowed for the fields of cosmology, geology, mineralogy, and biology to emerge and flourish during this period.

This era of Romantic inquiry also allowed the birth of what we would now consider pseudo-sciences, including, for example, phrenology and physiognomy. These popular fields often opened up questions about what actually constituted science, since they became quickly popular and accessible to the public. Further, interest in the nature and origins of life produced popular literary works that examined the relationship of scientific discovery to humanity. The most notable of these, written by Mary Shelley (1797-1851), is Frankenstein (1818), a work that stresses the importance of human responsibility in light of scientific progress and raises questions about the relationship of science to religion. Although Shelley was not trained as a scientist herself, her novel addressed natural philosophy and the romantic interest in chemistry, electricity, and anatomy. Other women writers of the period who engaged with new scientific ideas of the period were Jane Loudon (1807-1858), the wife of John Claudius Loudon who was a well-known botanist and gardener. Jane Loudon became a well-known naturalist, illustrator, and writer herself, producing botanical manuals and gardening guides for women. In her popular narrative, The Young Naturalist’s Journey (1840), a fictional young girl and her mother explore the British Isles discovering and learning about exotic animals. Barbara T. Gates has argued that through this narrative, Loudon gave readers an opportunity to learn the thrills of natural history, discover wider worlds, and examine animal adaptation. Loudon also produced an early science fiction novel, The Mummy, which explored new scientific and technological ideas by representing the reanimation of a mummy with a galvanic battery. Set in the year 2126, Loudon’s novel introduced readers to an imaginary future filled with the wonders of expanding technology. While these scientific ideas colored Loudon’s fictional work, she was also recognized for her authoritative botanical treatises that included Ladies Flower Garden of Ornamental Annuals (1840) and British Wild Flowers (1846).

A number of political revolutions marked the rise of the Romantic period. The French and American revolutions of the late 18th century produced philosophical works that increasingly examined the “rights” of people and questioned the “natural” generational shifts of political power within monastic systems. Thus, political and social writers were, like scientists, interested in interrogating the natural order of things. Questions surrounding the rights of individuals, particularly women, within this new Romantic era had been raised by figures including Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin (who were Mary Shelley’s parents). Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which had been published in 1792, questioned the limitations of women and argued that women were not naturally inferior to men but simply lacked the education and resources available to men.

By the mid-19th century, John Stuart Mill, among others, built on the ideas initiated by figures like Wollstonecraft to argue that gender was largely a social category, not a biological one. In his Subjection of Women (1869), Mill claimed: “what is now considered the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing”—nurture shaped character more than nature ever could (148). This was a sharp challenge to 19th-century patriarchal society, and Mill’s argument spurred responses by scientists, most notably Charles Darwin (1809-1882). At the time, Darwin was at work on The Descent of Man (1871), which emphasized that male and female nature was rooted in biology. Darwin emerged as one of the most influential scientists of the period, shaping the field of science to engage the question of “man’s place in nature,” which involved establishing hierarchies in nature based on both gender and racial categories. Natural and sexual selection were central to Darwin’s understanding of evolution. Darwin, born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, was one of six children and the son of a wealthy doctor and financier. He became interested in natural history when he went to medical school in Edinburgh, but instead of following a traditional path of medical education, he became involved with the Plinian society, a student group that studied the natural history of figures like Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin. Darwin spent some time at a clergymen’s college but eventually gained a position as an unpaid naturalist on the HMS Beagle that was beginning an expedition to South America. It was during this five-year voyage that Darwin began to examine the geological features, animals, and peoples he encountered during the voyage, and his notes from this study (from 1831 to 1836) formed his published journal, The Voyage of the Beagle. His contact with native peoples aroused interest in both race and sex and helped shape the ideas surrounding evolution and sexual difference that appeared in his later work, Descent of Man. The most popular of Darwin’s work alluding to evolution, and the publication that put him in the spotlight as a premier scientist of his age, was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (published in 1859 and abbreviated as The Origin of Species). This publication was popular not only with the scientific community but with the public as well, and it sparked a range of debates and dialogues surrounding the nature of man. It impacted Victorian popular social, cultural, and scientific ideas and placed scientific writing alongside other popular texts and discourses. Other prominent figures who addressed the questions of evolution and inheritance and dealt with the field of natural history during this time included Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) in England and the German-born Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884).

While Darwin’s scientific texts emerged as some of the most influential and debated of this age, the question of woman’s nature was explored in a number of textual forms. The domestic manual, or guide to household management, became a popular form engaging questions of gender, as did the health guide, which often traced the cycles and natures of male and female bodies. Manuals for women increasingly focused on the phases of femininity based on biology. For example, Albert Naphey’s Phases of Womanhood established, as the title suggests, femininity through cycles of puberty and adolescence, marriage and motherhood, and menopause. Thus, through such manuals, the female body was represented more and more through biological norms and conditions such as motherhood. The increasingly frantic nature of the public world (associated with masculinity) was then imagined to be calmed and tended by a private, domestic world relegated to women. This division of spheres that marked much of the culture of mid-19th-century Western Europe and the United States was upheld through a number of literary and social guides that established women as “angels in the house.”

Gender and the Rise of Professional Medicine: Nursing and the Pioneers of Female Medical Education

In this environment, women with ambition had to seek avenues to challenge the idea that femininity was best suited for domesticity. They sought to build occupations for women highlighting women’s roles as caregivers that would make them suitable for certain professions. Many women became involved in charity and reform work that involved helping the poor in the growing slums or aiding the victims of disease outbreaks. In the mid-19th century, although respectable categories of work outside the home were almost nonexistent for middle- and upper-class women (women of these classes who needed to work would often gain positions as governesses and teachers), one figure who clearly built a new field based on natural “feminine” modes was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). Born into a well-connected and wealthy family, Nightingale was inspired to pursue nursing by what she called a “divine calling”; although she was driven by a religious passion to help others, her parents forbade her to pursue nursing and instead encouraged her to seek marriage and build a family. Resistant to this plan, Nightingale announced that she would enter nursing in 1845—a time when the field was filled with poorer women and in need of reform. Nightingale received her nursing training in Germany and then returned to London where she worked at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen; she received some financial support from her family during this time that allowed her to live comfortably and decline proposals for marriage, which she believed would interfere with her work and pursuit of a career in nursing.

Nightingale redefined the field of nursing and gained much recognition for her work during the Crimean War when she worked with a staff of volunteer nurses and cared for wounded soldiers under horrific conditions. It was here that Nightingale began to establish her ideas about sanitation and ventilation that would mark a huge transformation in nursing. She recognized that poor ventilation in hospitals, generally poor living conditions, and the lack of sanitary supplies and foods for soldiers impacted mortality rates. When Nightingale returned to Britain she contributed to the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army and was recognized for her work with the development of a Nightingale Fund to support the training of nurses. Her biographer, Cecil Woodham-Smith (1951), claims that her 1859 book outlining the importance of higher standards of cleanliness and sanitation, Notes on Hospitals, “was a success; it went into three editions, and after its publication she was constantly asked for advice on Hospital Construction” (226).

Nightingale built a legacy around her work in nursing—she reshaped what had been a largely disorganized and unrecognized field to a more professional and respectable one—but she also impacted the debates surrounding women’s work in general. Along with her Notes on Nursing (1860), her treatise on the methodologies of the field that highlighted the importance of sanitation and ventilation, Nightingale also published Cassandra, which highlighted the constraints many women felt because of the “separate spheres” that relegated women to be domestic angels. She argued that such confinement resulted in helplessness, illness, and invalidism. Further, Nightingale’s own position as traveler and nurse (she visited not only Germany and the Crimea but also Egypt, publishing her journal entries and letters about this Middle Eastern country) provided women a model of female mobility that challenged the domestic ideal for women in the period.

While the emergence of figures like Florence Nightingale impacted the interest of women in medical fields, the area of medicine itself was being reshaped during this time to establish the doctor as the authoritative voice in medicine and the hospital as the center for medical care. This new medical model was established in France, which became a center for medical education and patient care based on a clinical, administrative model. John Harley Warner and others have shown the importance of Paris in attracting doctors and medical students from the United States and European nations during this period; Paris emerged as an exciting and dynamic center for medicine. A number of shifts occurred during the 19th century that professionalized medicine and the place of doctors in it. Emerging specializations, including gynecology, obstetrics, and surgery, created new standards for care; new technological tools and instruments, such as the speculum, developed and gained popularity; new discoveries, such as chloroform and anesthesia, changed the nature of medical care; and an increasing number of medical societies and associations—populated largely by men—became venues where medical ideas were shared and shaped. A number of scholars, including Ornella Moscucci, Barbara Ehrenreich, Dierdre English, and G. J. Barker Benfield, have shown how the rise of specializations like gynecology and obstetrics impacted not only medical practice but also the culture of women’s health and reproduction. In the past, midwives had been the primary caregivers of women and dealt with issues surrounding pregnancy in the home—largely passing on knowledge through practice and oral tradition. In the 19th century, however, such events in women’s lives were increasingly managed and monitored by doctors; knowledge was received in medical institutions and distributed through written medical manuals. Further, a shift occurred so that the emphasis on women’s health was not through touch and interaction (a model that dominated traditional midwifery) but through an increasing focus on the visual and observational nature of scientific inquiry.

In the United States, one of the central figures responsible for shaping the field of gynecology and obstetrics was J. Marion Sims (1813-1883). Born in South Carolina, Sims built his career in Alabama through a range of innovative surgeries and tools that he developed through work with his patients, many of whom were slave women and Irish women who were operated on in his backyard without their consent. As Terri Kapsalis and other critics have noted, Sims’s legacy is thus intertwined with the legacy of racism and slavery. Sims earned the title Father of Gynecology through his invention of the speculum, a tool he developed through his experimental surgical procedures. He moved to New York in 1853 and established the first hospital for women in the United States.

Sims gained the attention of a then-emerging woman doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910). In a letter to her sister, she wrote that she wished to learn more about the special treatments developed by Marion Sims and hoped he would help her pursue work in the field of gynecology and obstetrics: “He seems to be in favour of women studying medicine. I think I shall help him in any way I can” (Blackwell 1895, 201). Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849 from Geneva Medical College in New York State. She was born in Bristol, England, and her family moved to the United States when she was a child. She became interested in medical education, but since no models existed for women to pursue such a field, she convinced family friends who were physicians to allow her to read with them. She applied to several medical schools and gained admission to Geneva Medical College in 1847 after the faculty asked the all-male student body to vote on her admission. They voted “yes” largely as a joke, thinking it was impossible that she would really attend, but she received her M.D. degree two years later. Blackwell also studied and worked in clinics in Paris and London, and then returned to New York where initially she struggled to build a practice. Her efforts to expand female medical education and support women’s health were achieved when she, with the help of her sister Emily Blackwell, established the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857. The institution included a medical college for women and provided practical training for its students through the infirmary. Blackwell influenced other new female physicians, including Maria Zakrzewska (1829-1902), who helped her organize and build the New York Infirmary. Born in Berlin, Zakrzewska emigrated to the United States in the 1850s. She had already received practical training as a midwife—a field in which her mother was trained—and wanted to pursue medical training. She was admitted to Cleveland’s Western Reserve College in 1854. After graduating and working with Blackwell in New York, she eventually gained a position as professor of obstetrics at New England Medical College.

While these and other women in the United States were struggling to establish themselves in the male-dominated field of medicine, they had more freedoms and opportunities than their counterparts in Britain; it would take another decade, and much debate, before women in Britain could gain admission to medical programs. Prior to the 1860s, British women, restricted from medical education in England, traveled to the United States or France to study and practice. In 1865, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) passed the examination of the Society of Apothecaries and became a central figure in the move toward women’s admission to medical programs. Garrett Anderson, the sister of Millicent Fawcett (an important figure in the British suffragette movement), was refused admission to medical schools and not allowed to sit for medical examinations after private study, but she was able to gain a license for apothecaries that placed her on a medical register. In 1873 she gained membership in the British Medical Association. She worked tirelessly to develop medical programs for women and build hospitals in London. Like her sister, Garrett Anderson was active in the suffragette movement and also a lively contributor to dialogues surrounding female education.

The Fortnightly Review of 1874 records a debate between Henry Maudsley of the University College of London and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson that exemplifies arguments both for and against the education of female doctors. This pivotal debate over medical education reveals Victorian engagement with categories of biological difference and displays the perplexity and instability with which the categories were sustained. Garrett provided published responses to Maudsley’s claim that women were biologically unfit for medical work and needed to devote their energies to maternity. Several other medical journals of the period were questioning the role of women in medicine and focused largely on popular ideas regarding femininity to argue that medicine was a male field. These anxieties were not limited to Britain; Regina Morantz-Sanchez (1987) has pointed out that throughout the 1850s the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal published articles opposing the entrance of women into the profession. Quoting from the journal, she describes the belief that women’s “physiological condition, during a portion of every month, disqualifies them for such grave responsibilities” of medical work (58).

Thus, although women had been traditionally viewed as healers and commonly prepared home-based remedies, their professional entry into medicine was viewed as unnatural and unnecessary. Although, as Catherine Judd (1998) has argued, in England and the United States, “hygiene was symbolically, and often literally, a female province,” medicine assumed an increasingly distinct, less domestic, and more administrative space during the 19th century (20). The rise of hospital-based care, available even for the middle classes, prompted the shift of medical practice from domestic to public spaces. As medicine gained institutional authority during this period, it incorporated rigid domestic ideologies and was associated with masculinity in a number of ways. The association of medical practice with “rational,” scientific ideas and the growth in various forms of experimentation increasingly separated professional medical practice from popular home-based notions of healing. Large anatomical theaters, the dominant sites for medical training with their structure as public performance spaces, were seen as potentially dangerous and improper spaces for female viewers, as was the work of surgery and the structure of medical knowledge with its increased focus on concepts of vision and experimentation. Medical discourses and practices often positioned the male doctor as viewer and female patient as the subject of study.

Within this period of struggle, Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1930) emerged as a pioneer. Influenced by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and motivated by her vocal and practical efforts at reform, Jex-Blake was accepted into the University of Edinburgh as part of a small group of women who formed the first generation of women seeking medical degrees. They were consequently denied actual degrees and offered “certificates of proficiency.” Jex-Blake then received her medical degree in Berne and became licensed through the College of Physicians in Ireland (Porter 1999, 358). Eventually, the Medical Act of 1876 enabled women to receive medical licenses and facilitated the admission of women to the University of London. Edith Petchey was another woman doctor who studied with Jex-Blake in Edinburgh; she eventually traveled overseas to practice medicine and opened one of the first women’s hospitals in India.

Venturing abroad became increasingly common for women seeking professional opportunities. For women who were eventually allowed to receive medical training, one of the biggest obstacles was the lack of clinical training. It became easier for women to gain admission to programs, study from medical textbooks, and sit for various examinations, but they lacked practical medical interaction with actual patients because of continued anxieties about women as practicing physicians. The absence of clinical study in Britain prompted women to see foreign countries as offering an access to clinical practice and opportunities to enjoy more professional freedoms than they would have at home. In this age of imperial expansion, women could serve larger colonial interests and form specific relations with native subjects that were not possible for male doctors because of cultural and/or religious traditions that often segregated men from women. Thus, the 19th century, with its technological advancements, improvements in travel, and imperial interests, opened up opportunities for women to seek a wider sphere for their medical ambitions.

Mary Scharlieb (1845-1930) was one of the first women to take advantage of her role outside Britain and impact women’s health in India. She was admitted to the Madras Medical College in India—the first female allowed to do so—and then, upon her return to England in 1878, she studied at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s new London School of Medicine for Women. Scharlieb was especially interested in the field of gynecology because native women in India often refused to be seen by male doctors. She was encouraged by Queen Victoria to continue her involvement in Indian health care for women, and she became active in the development of women’s clinics and hospitals in India. Scharlieb developed a successful practice in London and also gained a position as a chair of gynecology and midwifery in the Medical School. She produced a number of publications including The Seven Ages of Woman (1915) and Motherhood and Race Regeneration (1912); the latter presented her ideas about eugenics and population control.

Gender and Nature: Botany, Geology, and Natural History

In the case of nursing and medical care, women could argue that their roles as caregivers within domestic realms provided the ideal background for pursuing medical work. In other areas of science, women needed to articulate ways that scientific knowledge was compatible with the ideals of femininity. One area where women progressed during the 19th century was scientific botanical culture. Once again, the expansion of empires and of a more modern, global culture encouraged this field of scientific inquiry; increased travel and colonial expansion allowed scientific specimens from all over the world to be brought into Europe and the United States. Through their exhibition, individuals could see, read about, and interact with the wonders of nature.

The fields of botany and geology grew as sciences in the 19th century, and while scientific expeditions pursued by men provided the groundwork, women’s interest in geography and natural history also flourished closer to home. Thus, the gardening manuals produced by women like Jane Loudon enjoyed popular readership, and since activities like gardening could be pursued at home, many women became amateur botanists while others were recognized for their work in this realm. Botany became viewed as a respectable pastime for women. Some of the notable botanists of the 19th century include Anne Pratt (1806-1893). She authored the five-volume Flowering Plants and Ferns of Great Britain (1889) and several botanical books for women including Wild Flowers (1852). Thus, Pratt, like the well-known children’s writer Beatrix Potter, combined her knowledge of flora and fauna with the publication of books for children—incorporating the scientific with the domestic and introducing natural history in children’s education.

While the study of botany and the practice of botanical illustration became an increasingly popular and respectable pastime for many women, it also encouraged some to expand their interests to a more global pursuit of scientific knowledge. Going beyond the borders of home, women could often establish themselves as European authorities in native lands—this way they gained the respect often afforded exclusively to men. Marianne North (1830-1890) is the best-known British woman who traveled the world extensively to discover plants and paint them. Her autobiography, Recollections of a Happy Life, reveals how escape from the confines of Europe provided her with the energy and freedom to research flora and fauna and record them through her art. Although North was not trained as a botanist, she formed friendships with figures including Charles Darwin, and her detailed, highly realistic, and scientifically accurate paintings contributed to readers’ understanding of the natural world around the globe. North’s travels took her to Java, Borneo, Brazil, South Africa, the United States, India (where she spent a full year), and Australia and New Zealand (at Darwin’s suggestion).

Illustrations were also crucial in the books produced by Charles Lyell (1797-1875), whose Principles of Geology (1830-1833) helped to establish him as the premier British geologist of his time. Lyell was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and supported much of his work. As Barbara Gates (1998) has noted, “like Darwin’s, Lyell’s work was highly visual, but its sights were set less on detail and more on the larger picture. Lyell liked to envision the scope of things, to play with images that worked as museum-like panoramas or cross sections, sending the reader’s eye back through time or downward through the unseeable layers of the earth’s crust” (53). Readers, then, were observers of Lyell’s broad scientific vision of geology that most importantly set forth his notion of Uniformitarianism—the idea that the shape of the earth was formed by forces slowly over time—unlike the biblical idea of earth coming to being through sudden, cataclysmic events. His secretary, Arabella Buckley (1840-1929), became well known for her work after Lyell’s death in 1875. She wrote the scientific entries about him in the Encyclopedia Britannica and published books including A Short History of Natural Science (1876) and The Fairy Land of Science (1879) in which she instructs children in the wonders of science (Gates 1998, 51-52).

Eleanor Anne Ormerod (1828-1901) was another British woman enticed by the wonders of nature. She was born in Sedbury Park, Gloucestershire, on an estate that gave her ample opportunity to nurture her interests in insect life. In 1868, when the Royal Horticultural Society was collecting insects from her farm, she became involved with the project and began writing pamphlets on pests and injurious insects. Her work captured attention from both the Royal Horticultural Society (she earned the Flora medal) and the Royal Agricultural Society. She was appointed a consulting etymologist to the latter and eventually built a career around lecturing and writing, Her published works include The Injurious Insects of South Africa (which gained her acclaim outside England) and Handbook of Insects Injurious to Orchard and Bush Fruits (1898).

Women in the Fields of Astronomy and Mathematics

While medical work and natural history dominated the areas in which women pursued scientific interests, two important figures emerged in the expanding fields of astronomy and mathematics: Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) and Sofia Kovalesky (1850-1891). Maria Mitchell was the first American woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the first woman member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the first woman professor of astronomy. As these honors reveal, she managed to cross the barriers that often hindered women from entering the professional institutions of science in the 19th-century United States, becoming a member of numerous male societies. Part of Mitchell’s introduction to scientific education was through her father, William Mitchell, who was an active observer and calculator in Nantucket and who introduced her to astronomers at Harvard. Mitchell received recognition for her work quite early in life; in 1848, she was cited by Lucretia Mott at the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention—this was soon after she had discovered a comet in 1847. Of this discovery, Sally Gregory Kohlstedt (1987) has noted, “her calculations of its exact position at the time of discovery brought her a gold medal from the King of Denmark and led to her membership in the American Society of Art and Science ‘in spite of being a woman’” (130). Mitchell believed that scientific education was central for women and gained a position at Vassar where she worked to advance women’s higher education and build opportunities for women in science.

Sofia Kovalesky was born in Moscow, Russia, and was educated in Berlin, Germany. She was the first major Russian female mathematician and established an international reputation, winning several awards and honors. Among these were the Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Sciences, the Oscar Prize of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, and an academic position at Stockholm University in Sweden, where she became the chair of her department. She grew up at a time when social and political reform in Russia opened up questions of equality and produced a range of efforts to build women’s rights. This, along with family support (her father provided her with a mathematics tutor) for her ambitions, allowed her to develop her natural talent for mathematics and the natural sciences to her full potential. She received her Ph.D. at the University of Goettingen in 1874, and her research involved applying the theory of differential equations to the study of the shape of the rings of Saturn. Although Kovalesky led an unconventional life, she did marry and have a child—although her marriage with her husband, Vladimir Kovaleski, has been termed a “fictitious marriage”; it was largely a way for her to obtain freedom to travel since at the time women could obtain passports only through their fathers or husbands, and she spent some time living apart from her husband.

Kovalesky’s experience of negotiating family life with a career reflects what was a common conflict for women in the 19th century. Many women who succeeded in building their careers did so by avoiding the cultural demands to build a family; the roles of wife and mother were often seen as incompatible with the desire to work, and for much of the 19th century women continued to be defined not through their own successes but through their positions as wives, mothers, and daughters. Much of the literature of the period reflects the struggles of women who chose to work. Nineteenth-century American novels representing the desires and struggles of women as doctors or scientists include Elizabeth Phelps’s Doctor Zay and Sarah Orne Jewett’s A Country Doctor; several British novelists, such as Charles Reade and Arabella Kenealy, built their plots around the woman with scientific ambitions. In the works of these two writers, women pursuing science are often imagined as being “unsexed” spinsters. As issues of sexuality became a part of the public discourse and as increasing debates about women emerged (along with increased publicity around women who pursued careers), one way to imagine these women’s successes was to represent the women themselves as less feminine.

The Late 19th Century: The Rise of Sexology and Psychology

Michel Foucault has argued that although the 19th century appears to be a period of repression around issues of sexuality, it is instead, ironically, the period in which discourses of sex flourished; thus, while notions of respectability and Victorian prudery may have reigned in certain contexts, the period was deeply invested in shaping and defining ideas about sexuality through new professional and scientific discourses. In his book, The History of Sexuality, Foucault (1978) describes the “great archive of the pleasures of sex” that was built during this period (64). A number of prominent figures in the late 19th century built their careers in the field of sexology and established a professional vocabulary around the nature of sexuality. Among these early scholars of sexuality, Henry Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) and Richard von Kraft-Ebbing (1840-1902) were the most influential and representative, although they often had contrasting viewpoints. Kraft-Ebbing was born in Mannheim, Baden, Germany, and was trained in psychiatry. His Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) concentrated on exploring conditions of perversity and abnormal sexuality as distinct from so-called normal sexual phenomena. He is recognized for coining the terms sadism and masochism and for establishing the concept that sexuality that did not lead to procreation was “perverse.” Much of his research also explored the nature of homosexuality; he suggested that it originated in a biological sexual inversion of the brain.

Although Kraft-Ebbing’s title and his use of scientific terminology was aimed at physicians and specialists, his book became highly successful and popular with the reading public; thus his text revealed how scientific and professional writing on matters of sex dominated the understanding of these aspects of identity and became part of the larger culture. Scientific constructions of sexuality replaced other popular myths and conceptions of sexual desire and activity. The confessional letters and testimonials that Kraft-Ebbing received after publication also revealed the public’s engagement with the text and the need for individuals to share and reveal their own relationship to sexuality.

One of the most important English responses to his work came from Havelock Ellis in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1898). Ellis reorganized Kraft-Ebbing’s categories of “abnormal” sexual behavior to establish a broader spectrum of “normal” sexual activities; thus, while he recognized that abnormal behaviors existed, he liberated some of the aspects of deviancy that formed Kraft-Ebbing’s theories and superimposed aspects of the abnormal on the normal. Unlike Kraft-Ebbing, Ellis aimed to uncover hidden truths regarding sex for the public and the common individual. He addressed homosexuality in Sexual Inversion, a study co-authored with John Addington Symonds. His approach was more sociological, and by discussing a broad range of examples and cases of homosexuality he suggested that homosexuality was not a diseased or criminal condition. Both Kraft-Ebbing and Ellis contributed to dialogues regarding female sexuality and the nature of women in contradictory ways, since for both the issue of a female sexual drive did not coincide neatly with Victorian mores of male and female behaviors.

It is apt that studies regarding sexuality and psychology increased in popularity during the late 19th century and engaged issues of gender, since during this period the concept of the middle-class family and the conditions of the individual had become part of the social imagination. While the ideals of the middle-class household and roles of men and women within it had been established by the end of the century, an interest in the conflicted nature of the relationships within this nucleus and the ongoing tensions between the social and biological conditions of such relationships could be merged through these new fields.


The 19th century was a crucial era in the development of scientific ideals. Throughout this period of invention and progress, there emerged a desire to understand and explore the “newness” of things, their natures, and their relationships. Within this era, a continued struggle between a biological basis for the nature of individuals—particularly in terms of gendered and racial identities—and a social understanding of them continued, and science became immersed in the cultural debates surrounding these issues. By the end of the century the enduring “Woman Question” had to deal with the “New Woman,” a figure shaped by the new educational and professional activities opening to women. Although, by the end of the 19th century, men still dominated the sciences, an influential legacy of women’s work allowed for a new set of role models to emerge; dialogues about sexuality and female biology forced the public to complicate its vision of ideal masculinity and femininity. As the century progressed, women participated increasingly in the scientific culture that had become part of everyday life, and while the women highlighted here stand out as the exceptional pioneers in the expanding fields of science, many women, yet undiscovered, played crucial roles as educators, observers, and explorers of scientific knowledge.

By the end of the 19th century, life had changed drastically because of the scientific developments that emerged and the ways scientific knowledge could be read, viewed, and analyzed. New technological innovations, including photography, x-ray, and a vast range of new tools and instruments, changed the nature of scientific work and the way it was recorded. Thanks to such innovations, the progress of this period can continue to be analyzed and interpreted. Perhaps what is most significant about this period of scientific growth is that the models of empiricism, objectivity, and truth that are so embedded in science were built into not only the scientific professions that emerged but also the culture itself. It is here that the 19th century may have produced its most potent and enduring mark, since our visions of science continue to be influenced by the discourses produced at this time and we continue to address many of the debates that so deeply engaged 19th-century readers.