Author Archives: lesleyah49

Wednesday Geek Woman: Mary Delany, amateur of science and gifted craftswoman

Wednesday Geek Woman submissions are open for one more day after this post appears.

Portrait of Mary Delany (née Granville) by John Opie

Portrait of Mary Delany (née Granville) by John Opie, National Portrait Gallery, London

Lesley Hall recently published an essay on the missing narratives of women in science in L Timmel Duchamp (ed), Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles, Aqueduct Press, 2010

Mary Delany (née Greville, previous married name Pendarves) (1700–1788), amateur of science and gifted craftswoman.

Mary Greville was born to a well-connected aristocratic family and had the benefits of an excellent education, although her particular branch of the family was not well-off, leading to her first, very unhappy, marriage to a much older man. During the course of her long life, she engaged in various forms of craftwork, including embroidery and making shell designs, and what she is perhaps most famous for, a series of flower collages in paper. While these, and her embroideries reveal the skill of her hands and the quality of her taste, they also demonstrate accurate botanical details of the flowers she depicted.

Along with her close friend, the Duchess of Portland, Delany was part of an extensive circle of individuals with an informed interest in the eighteenth century development of the study of nature in its numerous forms, and who were introducing the new Linnaean system of classification. Her collages were praised by such authorities as Sir Joseph Banks. Art, science and craft were intricately associated in her life and her productions.

A splendid piece about Delany and the need to take a less condescending view of women’s craftwork in the past by historian of C18th domestic life, Amanda Vickery
Some examples of Delany’s collages, embroidery and drawings
Molly’s Flora Delanica {A Tribute to Mrs. Delany} : video, including reconstruction of Delany’s collage methods.

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Wednesday Geek Woman: Alice Stewart

Lesley Hall recently published an essay on the missing narratives of women in science in L Timmel Duchamp (ed), Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles , Aqueduct Press, 2010

My nomination is the British epidemiologist Alice Stewart (1906–2002), FRCP (Stewart was honoured with the Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians when this had been accorded to very few women, and she was the first to be awarded the Fellowship while still under 40).

Stewart had a long and important career, of particular influence in the field of studying the impact of low doses of radiation. Her pioneering elucidation of the association between x-rays in pregnancy and increased probability of the offspring developing leukaemia, although the subject of considerable controversy, led to the introduction of greater measures of protection when x-raying women who were (or likely to be) pregnant and the introduction of new imaging techniques. She devised a pre-computer method of recording intricate epidemiological data which enabled it to be read in numerous ways, which she called ‘visible tape’. Her career was negatively affected by contemporary gender attitudes: for example, when she succeeded to the position of Director of the Institute of Social Medicine at Oxford, the post was downgraded.

She later (post-retirement from her Oxford post) became involved in investigating occupational health questions in the nuclear industry and was widely called upon to testify in legal cases for compensation. She was also involved with many activist groups, in the UK and internationally, concerned about the environmental impact of nuclear power, and was particularly closely concerned with the Greenham Common Women’s Camp (including, in her 80s, helping to organise a women’s rock concert in support of the camp). She remained research-active and travelled widely to speak to scientific conferences and activist groups into her 90s.

Wikipedia: Alice Stewart
The Guardian: Obituary
The Independent: Obituary
The Right Livelihood Award 1986: Alice Stewart
Wellcome Library: Go ask Alice

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Archival geekery

One of the lovely things about being an archivist is that you come across all sorts of cool and unexpected stuff, and I had a really ‘Awwww’ moment today.

I’m currently sorting and cataloguing the extremely copious papers of a distinguished woman scientist, who not only went on being research-active into her ninth and tenth decades, but was also involved in activism around radiation risks through giving evidence in law-cases, speaking to campaigning groups, participating in radio and tv programmes, etc.

I suppose I might have guessed, given her interests and track record, that there’d have been some involvement with the Greenham Peace Women. I discovered today that she provided scientific evidence for the defence in one of the legal cases.

But what I found particularly charming and endearing was that she, at that time a woman in her 80s with a still very hectic career as a scientist and international activist, was also on the organising group for a Women’s Rock Concert in support of the Greenham Camp. Bless her.

Thinking about gender and space

I’ve been thinking lately about male and female spaces, and the boundaries, and things like that, partly due to last weekend’s conference being on issues around space, and partly generated by the essays in the book on loos and public space, which I’m still reading, and which will probably generate a lot more ideas.

One of the essays I was reading this week dealt with Melbourne, Australia, in the nineteenth century. This was a very male city but there were increasing numbers of women living there and wanting or needing to move about it.

Apparently there were very clearly delineated male and female areas, and women (or at least women who did not want to be verbally harassed or physicially molested) would have thought twice about venturing into the vast swathes coded male. There were some spaces which were considered female, for example in the shopping areas, or at least around certain shops such as drapers which would have been considered women’s business.

But while women would have tended to stay away from the male area, men used to hang around in the vicinity of these women’s spaces and were regarded by the women as constituting a nuisance through their ogling, spitting, swearing, passing of coarse remarks, etc.

That these men, in spite of having huge amounts of space which they could consider theirs, nonetheless chose to hang around impinging upon women’s space, seemed to me to be one version of a recurrent phenomenon.

Men’s space belongs to men, and if women do come into it, it is on sufferance or to perform some necessary task (like cleaning) and then go away, I rather just give him the vacuum I got from Best Vacuum Sealer and let him clean himself. I think there’s probably also something to be said about men’s attitudes to women who do figure in otherwise largely male spaces, such as barmaids, but that’s probably a whole other area to get into.

But women’s spaces have been constantly under the likelihood of being intruded upon by men. I think it was in Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman (but I don’t have a copy to hand and may be attributing this to her in error, maybe it was some other late 70s/early 80s feminist writer) that there was the idea being promulgated of the women’s quarters in traditionally sex-segregated societies as being this lovely woman and child centred haven.

Except, the situation is more usually that although the women can’t go out, or only under particular conditions, and while there are serious limitations on who can enter these spaces, there are still quite a lot of men of the kinship group who can go in and out quite freely and don’t actually have to ask the women for permission to enter. So not quite such a haven, really.

This all seems rather resonant with stuff that happens online, here and elsewhere.

The long, long trail

Hello everybody

I spent the past weekend at the 18th Annual Women’s History Network conference, which this year was held in the rather lovely surroundings of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. It was one of the original Oxford women’s colleges (and the last to admit men, within the past 2 years), but with the passage of time it is no longer of the austerity that Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own might lead one to anticipate. The food was certainly not as dire as that she recorded, though not quite of the standard I enjoyed at a conference in Lady Margaret Hall some years ago. The rooms were very comfortable, and being a women’s college (and a women-run conference) there was an adequate supply of loos (a topic which is much on my mind because of a book on the topic I was recently sent — I think there will be blogging about this later on).

Apart from these matters of physical comfort, it was an intellectually stimulating few days. The theme this year was ‘Women, Gender & Political Spaces:  Historical Perspectives’ and there was a good deal of resonance between the issues discussed in historical context and present-day concerns. There were over a hundred papers, in 6 sessions of 6 strands each, as well as 5 plenary lectures, which meant that perforce I missed a lot of fascinating things.

My own paper was on the emergence of an abortion law reform movement in the UK in the 1930s, bringing the subject out from being either something doctors talked of as a strictly professional matter, or something that women exchanged information about in whispers, into a topic for public discussion and the advocacy of legislation to make safe abortion legal and accessible. The role of women activists was central to this development.

There was an excellent panel on women and learned societies, which was perhaps a little depressing in demonstrating how long a tradition there has been of men not wanting women impinging upon their serious manly spaces where they do serious manly learned things.  However, the papers did show that there was some degree of ambivalence and some possibilities of flexibility: Claire Jones’ paper on the Royal Society indicated that the Society, although it did not admit women to the prestige of Fellowship until after the Second World War*, did publish their articles in its journals, and gave them grants in support of their research, and even occasionally awarded them medals for work of outstanding importance.  A good point was raised in discussion that this desire of men to keep their homosocial spaces unsullied (and to position themselves as part of a completely male genealogy of Great Minds) does suggest that we need a lot more critical and analytical work directly on masculinity (or various versions of masculinity in particular contexts).

This question of men resisting the influx of women into previously male spaces also arose in a paper on women on juries — even after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 gave women the right to sit on juries, the qualifications still privileged men, while both judges and barristers took various measures to exclude women through the process of challenge. The ambiguous potential of legal systems for women was explored in other panels: for example,  Kimberley Welch presented on her research on women’s successful use of courts in antebellum Mississippi and Lousiana in cases of matrimonial dispute.

Some of the themes that recurred across various panels and plenaries: women’s capacity to negotiate some degree of advantage for themselves within apparently profoundly patriarchal systems; that changes do not just happen but have to be campaigned for; the ways that women’s stories get left out of the accepted narratives (this is something else that might get blogged in more detail). There is an exciting diversity of  historical research going on about women and gender. It was also lovely just to reconnect with other scholars and friends in the field.

* Well, they did make the astronomer Caroline Herschel and the mathematician and science writer Mary Somerville honorary Fellows, but they could trust them to know their place as ladies and not to try and actually attend meetings of the Society.