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No. 392:
Margaret Cavendish

Today, a lady helps begin a revoluton. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, was born in 1623, just as a great scientific change was taking place. Scientists had been using a system of logical speculation to learn about nature. Now they were starting to use a mixture of thought and controlled experiment. Modern scientific method was taking form. Change brings opportunity, and Cavendish helped pioneer a new role for women in this changing world.

Historian Lhonda Schiebinger tells how she created an English version of the salon, where French women were building their place in science. The salons were really formal domestic study groups. Influential women ran them, and they drew in the cream of male thinkers. Those women usually acted as referees and questioners - as arbiters of thought. It was a strange role. They were both subordinates and intellectual power-brokers at the same time.

Cavendish wanted fame - she made no bones about that. She was untrained; but that, she pointed out, came with the social order. It didn't reflect on her ability to think.

She created what she called a "semy-circle." It was a study group largely drawn from her own household. She tried with limited success to correspond with the great intellects of her day. She began writing books on natural philosophy.

Many of her stands were pretty traditional. She didn't like the new experimental science. Human sense is flawed, she said, and human instruments are even worse. Then we find that her husband collected the new telescopes, which were so radically altering human vision. He owned seven of them.

If she was at odds with her husband on this matter, you can't tell it from her writings. She called him her "wit's patron," and she took a traditional view of women's domestic role. First she wrote that women's minds are too soft for hard thought. Then, as though to give herself place at the table, she added that "some women are wiser than men."

She found ways to be dramatic and outspoken enough to be noticed. She theorized that matter is made up of intelligent atoms and that God is not needed to animate nature. She found grounds for challenging Descartes. She upset that male scientific preserve, The Royal Society, by visiting it in 1667.

Margaret Cavendish was neither one of the great thinkers nor one of the great revolutionaries. Her story is a story of women seeking out a new place. It reminds us how difficult travel is when we have no roads. Only when we see that do we begin to see the boldness and originality of her claim to a place in the life of the mind.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Schiebinger, L., The Mind Has No Sex? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.