Is it really that surprising to discover that there’s sexism in science’s history?
Some might say yes. Others might say no. Here I’m going to write (or rant, you decide) about one aspect of scientific history which arguably demonstrates patriarchal views at their finest. Hurrah.
The other day I was in the car with my brother, on our way back from a rather excellent spot of suit shopping. All was well. “But where does the phrase ‘Mother Nature’ come from?” He pondered out loud. I turned and smiled at him. “Funny you should ask that…” Don’t you wish you could share car journeys with me when the conversation is that thrilling?
Mother Nature is a concept which we are all familiar with. When the tulips begin to bloom we sigh lovingly and say “isn’t old Mother Nature doing well?” When there’s a storm which uproots trees we tut and mention that Mother Nature might not be in a good mood. Heck, there’s even a series of television adverts where Mother Nature is personified as being the demon of menstruation which only a certain product is wonderful enough to outsmart. Consumerism at its finest, people.
The point is this: who exactly IS this bountiful and perfect Mother Nature? Just where does she come from? The answer isn’t exactly known, but it is thought that she was referenced as early as Ancient Greece and Rome. Venus is again a concept which today is linked with consumerism and femininity – I bet you can also think of the advert I’m thinking of. Others have likened the origins of Mother Nature to Eve in the Garden of Eden. Whilst the actual origin of Mother Nature is unknown, it is arguably the 17th and 18th centuries where the idea began to take a stronger holding.
This so called Age of Enlightenment was a period of progression, where thinkers moved away from religion towards nature and philosophy and reason. This was tied with a scientific revolution going on at around the same time. It was a time of new discoveries, new orders, new concepts. Of course, being the 17th and 18th century, this was all largely a brave new world explored and crafted by white European men. How utterly diverse. During this period many new concepts were put forward: the Encyclopaedia compiled alphabetically and not according to a religious hierarchy; the classes of nature as pioneered by Linnaeus (now there’s a guy I could do an entire post on if people would like me to – there’s a lot to be said about his contribution to gender roles too); even theories regarding disease and illness (remember my hysteria post where I demonstrated how experts of the time believed a ‘wandering womb’ was to blame?)
We must remember that this was a period of increasing liberal views. The French Revolution was at the end of the 18th century. Now, this may not seem like a bad thing. It is arguably not. I am all for increasingly liberal views. Do you know who is not for increasingly liberal views? White men. Goodness, not much has changed has it? Let’s consider this for a moment. In a world where some (middle-class) women were proving themselves to actually be quite intelligent, and maybe even capable enough to do things like (gasp) voting, how do you, a white European man, react? By putting a stop to this ridiculousness, of course!
Obviously, there is no certainty that the increasing emergence of femininity tied to nature during this period is linked to the increased calls for empowerment of women. But there is no denying that the two go side by side. Front covers of natural publications such as my favourite person Linnaeus’ Fauna Svecica depicting Diana in all her glory from this period are nods to a great nurturer, a mother of nature, if you like.
Look at the full, perfect breasts filled with milk to nourish the masses! Look at how she is surrounded by symbols of fertility to give new life to the world around her! Look at how everything bows down before her and submits to her care!
That’s great, surely? Thanks to images like this, Mother Nature is a powerful figure who rules over all. A matriarchal figure who all can thank and appreciate for the joys and beauty she provides. Well, yes. There are positives in seeing a female placed so highly. It gives women a sense of sisterhood and pride in knowing that they are female like the almighty provider of all things natural. It allows them to see themselves in a famous (albeit fictional) figure when there has been little representation.
Alas. There’s another side. By these wonderful men of Enlightenment placing a woman as the mother of nature in a time when these new and exciting scientific and philosophical views were becoming well-known, they also handily associated women with some key themes. Motherhood. Nourishment. Service. For what does Mother Nature do, exactly? Her perfect milk from her perfect breasts provides the nourishment which the Earth needs to continue. She looks after the pretty little animals and flowers. What Mother Nature does not do is get up and make any fabulous discoveries herself. So why should women? Their place is clearly having the children and being of service to the men who desire families and heirs to their knowledge. Stop asking for votes, you vaguely educated middle class women, and start nursing children instead.
That’s right, folks! By including more of these feminine beauties in their studies of nature, these men of Enlightenment had arguably created the poster girl of the day for women. Nowadays poster girls (usually altered by a still primarily male-driven business world) are designed to make women want whatever product is being advertised to give them the perfect body. Back then it was just the same. “Hey ladies, look at these perfect milk-filled breasts which nature has given you to provide sustenance to children! Get using em, darling!”
Like I have tried to stress throughout, there is no concrete proof that men of this period deliberately sat together and decided “right boys, how are we gonna make those pesky women realise that it is we who can pretend to be liberal while they sit pretty at home and pop us out some children?” It is merely an interesting thing to look into, and I do hope that you as readers also think that a little critical historical analysis of science is also rather intriguing (let me know on twitter, why don’t you?) But next time you find yourself seeing a reference to good old Mother Nature in the media (or maybe even your sibling will ask the question aloud in a car journey), just have a little think to yourself about whether you think being the poster girl of fertility is a promotion or a demotion.