The “Age of Enlightenment” began in late-17th Century Europe. It was a far-reaching cultural movement and a revolution in human thought that emphasized reason and individualism over tradition. The intellectuals behind the Enlightenment hoped to reform the then-current society via reason, challenge widely-held ideas based in faith and tradition, and advance knowledge via scientific method.
“Enlightened” Yet Exclusionary
Despite the supposedly forward-thinking spirit of the era, women were still excluded from science at every turn. Scientific universities, professions, and societies uniformly refrained from accepting women into their ranks. Women’s only options for scientific learning were self-study, paid tutors, or, occasionally, instruction from their fathers. The few learned women of the time were primarily found among the elite of society.
Restrictions against female involvement in science were equal parts severe and ridiculous. Women were denied access to even the simplest scientific instruments; midwives were forbidden to use forceps. Scientifically-inclined women, as well as any women interested in higher education, were often ridiculed for neglecting their “domestic roles.”
Though this exclusionary attitude toward women in science was nearly universal, some women did manage to make significant scientific contributions during the 18th century.
Laura Bassi received a PhD in physics from Italy’s University of Bologna, and became a professor at the school in 1732.
For her contributions to agronomy, and specifically her discovery of methods for making flour and alcohol from potatoes, Eva Ekeblad was the first woman inducted into the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1748.
Through a personal relationship with Empress Catherine the Great, Russian Princess Yekaterina Dashvoka was named director of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg in 1783. This marked the first time in history that a woman served as the head of a scientific institution.
After serving as an assistant to her brother, William, Germany’s Caroline Herschel became a noted astronomer in her own right. She is best known for her discovery of eight individual comets, the first of which she identified on 1 August 1786, as well as for creating the Index to Flamsteed’s Observations of the Fixed Stars in 1798.
In addition to collaborating with her husband, Antoine, in his laboratory research, Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze of France translated numerous texts on chemistry from English to French. She also illustrated a number of her husband’s books, including his famous Treatise on Chemistry from 1789.