Women in Science: a Steampunk Perspective

Sommerville and Lovelace

A depiction of Mary Somerville and Ada Lovelace in the webcomic, 2D Goggles: Dangerous Adventures in Comics.

I don’t think I’ve hidden my passions for Science or Feminism, or my admiration for any woman trying to make her way into the scientific establishment in the Victorian era. Science was considered a masculine field of endeavour, as women were not supposed to have rational or logical minds, and were considered too frail to cope with the rigours of Science (sad to say, we still have echoes of that viewpoint around today). So not only was any woman successful in the scientific field considered something of an oddity, she had to be tough as well.

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville

I have previously mentioned Ada Lovelace. Her tutor was the Scottish woman, Mary Somerville, nee Fairfax, who was a respected mathematician, astronomer, and a science writer. Mary Somerville’s second husband was certainly a free-thinker, because Dr William Somerville, a member of the Royal Society (which was rather a gentlemen’s club at that time), encouraged his wife to follow her interests. She went on to write popular textbooks on science, one of which was edited by Arabella Buckley, another woman science writer. Somerville was renown for the clarity of her writing style, as well as her enthusiasm for her topics, which is why she was – and still is – so popular. It is easy to see why Ada Lovelace was so well educated, with a polymath for her tutor.

Mary Somerville was so well thought of that she was one of the two first women to be invited to join the Royal Astronomical Society, and she was awarded the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society – which is awarded for conspicuous merit in research in Geography. In Brisbane, Australia, a well-thought-of school is named after her, Somerville House. There is a Somerville College in Oxford. She is a rare example of a woman who was both successful and respected in the field of Science. In her final years, she supported the Suffragette movement.

'The Fairyland of Science' by Arabella Buckley

‘The Fairyland of Science’ by Arabella Buckley

Arabella Buckley was also a science writer, but her books were aimed for a much younger audience than Mary Somerville’s text books. Buckley worked as a secretary for the geologist, Charles Lyell, from the age of 24 until Lyell’s death 11 years later. During that time, she obviously mixed with his colleagues and associates, because Charles Darwin considered her a friend, and she went into bat for the naturalist Alfred Wallace when he was in need of a pension. She was a great supporter of Darwin’s and Wallace’s theories of natural selection, and this support showed in her science books for children. As mentioned, she obviously was a colleague of Mary Somerville.

Her books were factual, though they did overemphasize the idea that morals and spirituality evolve along with the ‘higher’ animals; no modern biologist would say human beings are more evolved than a whale or a camel. She was the daughter of a reverend, and both her mother and her friend Alfred Wallace encourage her interest in Spiritualism. However, to her credit, her books still favoured scientific theory, even though they may seem twee to modern eyes, with her use of ‘fairies’ as metaphors for invisible forces like gravity. You are able to find some of her books online – don’t you just love the internet?

From my research, I can see she wasn’t as respected as Mary Somerville, but her opinions still held more weight than the average woman. She married in middle age (to a New Zealander from Christchurch, go Steampunk Christchurch), and her husband died after a decade of marriage. She continued writing using her maiden name as her pen name, which would have been quite a scandalous thing to do during the Victorian era. Arabella Buckley obviously wasn’t as sweet as her writings might indicate.

Not all woman writers were so well treated by the scientific establishment. Before she went on to write her children’s books, Beatrix Potter was a talented naturalist in her chosen field of British fungi. However, she became disheartened with the constant belittling of her research, to the point she wasn’t even allowed a student pass into Kew Gardens because she was a woman … even though they gratefully accepted all her samples and findings. Poor Beatrix. Her art developed because of her scientific interest in illustrating fungi and mushrooms, she made accurate and meticulous painting of specimens. At least she was able to find a financial reward for her art in the end.

I was tempted to call this article ‘Burning the Bustle: Part Two’. These women, Ada, Mary, and Arabella, were exceptions rather than the rule in an era when women were actively discouraged – like Beatrix Potter – to enter the field of science. Steampunk is a Science Fiction genre, and though it is set in a Vicwardian-like era, this doesn’t mean women characters have to confirm to the cultural expectations of the historical Victorian/Edwardian eras. A powerful woman scientist or science writer can be based on women like Ada, Mary and Arabella, but they don’t have to be lone intellectual amazons in a field of fussy men in frock coats. However, these women were all still quite feminine WHILE remaining true to science. They were feminists on their own terms, wearing bustles AND being outstanding in scientific arena.

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3 Comments

Filed under Characterization, Feminism, History, Science, Steampunk, Stereotypes, Women in Science

3 responses to “Women in Science: a Steampunk Perspective

  1. insanemapboy

    Yay Mary Somerville! I like to think of her as a Geographer first and foremost. Her 1848 book ‘Physical Geography’ was as good as it gets. I’m currently trying to shoehorn her into my nineteenth-century New Zealand novel…

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