Burning Bustles instead of Books: the Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective

Chained Books

“Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days.” A comment made by Mary Somerville’s father to her mother, worried about the teenaged Mary’s passion for maths and science.

 When I was at high school, it wasn’t unusual for the girls to go off to do a parenting course called ‘Mothercraft’ while the boys were given an extra session of technical drawing. We were always separated by gender for domestic science and technical drawing. Too bad if you were a girl like me, who would have preferred to do tech drawing, and couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a subject called ‘Fathercraft’. Even now, girls and women are discouraged by lack of support and female role models in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths). Yesterday, I attended an Ada Lovelace Afternoon Tea, followed by a lecture that was discussing just this topic. Often girls drop out of STEM courses because they are outnumbered by the male students, and subtly (or not so subtly) are made to feel like they don’t belong. This is happening in the 21st century, so imagine how much harder it was for a women in the 19th century.

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville

We look back at Mary Fairfax Somerville and see her awards and achievements, and know she was respected in her chosen field. The word missing in that sentence is ‘eventually’. Mary Fairfax, as a child and young woman, was not supported in her studies in the same way that Ada Lovelace was. Her father was convinced her brain would overheat and she would go insane; this attitude worsened when Mary’s sister died and her death was partially attributed to too much studying. In fact, her first marriage was arranged by her parents to discourage her unnatural passion for learning about maths, science, astronomy and geology. As her husband’s chattel, Mrs Samuel Greig wasn’t allowed to pursue her research and it was the unhappiest time in her life.

It might sound cold, but her widowhood was the making of Mary. She went on to marry for love, to a William Somerville, who admire her vivid intellect and encouraged her in her studies. I cannot stress how unusual a man William was, a well-educated man who trained as a surgeon, who wasn’t indulging his wife’s interests as a doting husband, but supported them because he treasured Mary’s brilliance. At the same time, Mary became acquainted to many distinguished intellectuals and her reputation grew as she consolidated her studies by translating foreign science books, and by writing and publishing  science textbooks. It was through her friendship with Charles Babbage that she became Ada Lovelace’s mathematics tutor.

This was all achieved in an era when women were solely to function as wives and mothers, keeping house, raising children and given the occasional opportunity to socialize with other women. Women were not encouraged to obtain tertiary educations. With no women mentors or role models, Mary managed to glean her the start of her mathematical education from her brother’s math tutor, and from her painting master who introduced her to the mathematics of perspective, and this lead her to read Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. Which she read for fun. And she still managed to have a stellar career while living through two marriages, two widowhoods, six children and being considered potentially insane by her parents.

So, if you decide to have a women scientist in a Steampunk narrative, you have to make sure your woman isn’t easily discouraged. She can’t be the sort of person that would give up at the first hurdle. She has to be a goal-setter, a go-getter, able to shrug off opposition and still fight on. She can still be a perfect lady, but under that lace dress is a soul that is as hard as steel and as flexible as a willow wand. She wouldn’t be content to have someone take her books away and try to make her conform to any role other than the one she chooses for herself.



Filed under Characterization, Feminism, Historical Personage, Steampunk, Women in Science, writing

2 responses to “Burning Bustles instead of Books: the Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective

  1. Of course some people side-step the issue by removing the sexism from their societies. I guess it’s a valid approach for writing entertainment but personally I prefer to keep society as real as possible.

    From a practical “story” viewpoint if you remove sexism you’ve removed an excellent source of conflict. But I also have this nagging feeling that it is an insult to all those women who suffered – particularly if the writer is a man. (As, indeed, I am.)

    (Though a website which tries to determine gender from sample text tells me I “write like a girl” – which is fine by me.)

  2. Reblogged this on Cogpunk Steamscribe and commented:

    Let’s revisit with one of my favourite historical personages.

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