On the 30th May 1667 the first woman attended a meeting of the Royal Society, a significant achievement, as women had been barred from the society since it’s creation in 1660.
The woman in questions was Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.
No woman could have divided opinion more, to the famous essayist Charles Lamb she was “the thrice noble, chaste, and virtuous,-but again somewhat fantastical and original-brain’d, generous Margaret of Newcastle’, but to her contemporary Dorothy Osborne there were “many soberer people in bedlam“. Margaret was certainly a break from the mould for women of her period. She published a a vast amount of books and poems relating to philosophy and science under her own name, and is credited with writing one of the first science fiction novels A Blazing World. She was also rather unique in her dress and is noted for painting small black stars on her face, this contributed to her being called “Mad Madge”. Her biographer Douglas Grant argues that she was raised outside of the constraints of her time at her childhood home in Colchester. This meant that she developed a strong imagination as she absorbed the world around her. Like the majority of women in England at that time she had not been particularly formally educated, however, she did not let this stop her from writing about the topics that interested her. She was a feminist and did not retire to the home sphere like her fellow female aristocrats, believing she had a right to the political and intellectual sphere too.
This came to ahead in 1667 when she expressed interest to attend a Royal Society meeting. The Royal Society, much as it is now, focused on scientific research and debate. On the 23rd May a member of the society, Lord Berkeley, mentioned that Margaret wanted an invite to attend a society meeting. This led to a debate among members whether this should be granted, and eventually was granted in Margaret’s favour. She was invited to the next meeting on Thursday 30th May. Her visit was documented by the famous diarist Samuel Pepys…
“in expectation of the Duchesse of Newcastle, who had desired to be invited to the Society; and was, after much debate, pro and con., it seems many being against it; and we do believe the town will be full of ballads of it. Anon comes the Duchesse with her women attending her…The Duchesse hath been a good, comely woman; but her dress so antick, and her deportment so ordinary, that I do not like her at all, nor did I hear her say any thing that was worth hearing, but that she was full of admiration, all admiration. Several fine experiments were shown her of colours, loadstones, microscopes, and of liquors among others, of one that did, while she was there, turn a piece of roasted mutton into pure blood, which was very rare…After they had shown her many experiments, and she cried still she was full of admiration, she departed, being led out and in by several Lords“
Pepys was not her biggest fan, and unfairly called her “a mad, ridiculous, conceited woman” so his account must be taken with a pinch of salt due to his negative bias. However, his entry does give us an interesting example of how her attendance was perceived by some members. He emphasises her admiration, making it appear that she did not offer any philosophical or scientific views during her attendance. Yet another biographer James Fitzmaurice believes there is evidence that she did in fact impress members of the Royal Society. Despite Margaret’s impressive achievement of attending a meeting, she never had a repeat visit or became a fellow of the Royal Society. It was to be centuries before a woman could become a fellow, with scientists Kathleen Lonsdale and Majory Stephenson becoming the first female fellows in 1945.
Margaret was conscious of the criticism levied against her, as she comments in the foreword of one of her books that “I, a woman, cannot be exempt from the malice and aspersions of spiteful tongues, which they cast upon my poor writings, some denying me to be the true authoress of them”. Yet what is so impressive about her, is that she didn’t let this hold her back or prevent her from writing avidly. She had a confident belief in herself and her writings, believing that God had granted her with genius.
By attending the Royal Society, Margaret clearly stated with her actions that woman should be allowed into the intellectual world despite their sex. She epitomised this message by the actions of her life, with her husband immortalising her achievements on her tombstone after her premature death aged 50, “this Dutches was wise, wittie and learned Lady, which her many Bookes do well testifie”.
What do you think of Margaret Cavendish? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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Margaret the First A biography of Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle 1623-167 by Douglas Grant
The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendish by Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle
Oxford DNB Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle by James Fitzmaurice
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton