Women on the Verge of Science: Gender and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (seminar)

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For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a late-spring 2003 seminar.

What roles did women play in the transformation of knowledge and the development of new understandings of nature in the age of the Scientific Revolution? Traditional narratives of women's participation in early modern intellectual life have presented women as existing on the margins of intellectual communities in relative isolation from their male contemporaries and from each other. Research of the past fifteen years, however, has considerably complicated this standard account and made a wide variety of women's philosophical, scientific, and medical writing available to a modern audience. A body of scholarship has also documented women's role in the republic of letters as patrons, brokers, and scholars, and it has studied women's relationship with institutions of learning and culture, and as observers, translators, experimenters, and practitioners. Building on this scholarship, this seminar explored questions of gender in a scientific and medical context, looking at its place in medicine and natural history in the early modern period. It offered a close look at the writings of well-known figures such as Elizabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Émilie du Châtelet, and Laura Bassi, and their engagement with new developments in natural philosophy in the age of Descartes, Locke, and Newton. It invited participants to contribute their own research on less well-studied figures in relationship to this emerging story. How and why did women contribute to intellectual debates? How might a closer look at their reasons for philosophizing and experimenting offer new perspectives on questions of knowledge at this time?

Director: Paula Findlen is Professor of History and Director of the History of Science and Technology Program at Stanford University. She is the author of the award-winning Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (1994). She is currently at work on The Women Who Understood Newton: Laura Bassi and Her World.