When the Royal Society celebrated its 350th birthday there was an historic absence of women scientists in the various seminars, exhibitions and publications as part of the celebrations. An example of one such historic scientist was 38-year-old Caroline Herschel who was the first woman in history to have discovered not one, but two new comets.
Having being founded in 1660, the Royal Society did not permit women to become fellows until 1945 despite the fact that women had the vote since 1918. The Académie des Sciences in France waited until 1962 before allowing women to become Fellows. One historic female namely Marie Curie was rejected for membership in 1911, the year she won her second Nobel Prize.
In fact, it was female scientists who first recognised the rights of animals in relation to laboratory testing. Furthermore it was a young teenager called Mary Shelley who was inspired by Sir Humphry Davy after attending his lectures to write the science fiction novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
It was Mary’s creation that proved how important it is for the sciences to engage with public fears and fantasies. Undoubtedly she was encouraged and inpired by her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who advocated equal rights for women and access to education. Her ideas were written in the seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).
A woman named Aphra Behn sailed to Antwerp in 1666 to spy for King Charles II of England. However, he refused to pay her for her services and she ended up in debtors’ prison. Once released, she earned her living writing for the next 20 years. As her plays were considered too risqué she became known as the Restoration’s equivalent of Jackie Collins. In addition to her plays and poetry she produced what many consider to be the first English novel entitled Oronoko (1688), the tragic story of the slave in Surinam. She probably was the first woman who made a living solely as a writer.
Not many people will know that the first person to fly non-stop from England to North America was in fact a woman by the name of Beryl Markham and who had grown up in Kenya at the turn of the 20th century. Apart from being an accomplished pilot she also produced writing that attracted the comment from Hemingway that she had the ability to write rings around all those who considered themselves to be writers.
The names Mendelssohn and Schumann are known to any classical music fan. However, very few will know that Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny was also a composer as was Clara, the wife of Schumann. In fact, both her brother and father opposed Fanny every step of the way in order to prevent her from publishing her music. When she was 40 years old she sent a letter to her brother Felix saying that she really wanted to publish her music. Sadly she died shortly after this without public recognition for her musical talents.
The same story repeats itself in art. Many female artists have had to deal with gender biases. The challenges they faced included difficulty in training as artists and gaining recognition for their work. There is only a small sample of women who have been recognised as some of the greatest artists. Many of these women achieved recognition due to the support of their husbands. The painter, Francoise Gilot, forged a visual style and identity of her own, yet she was mainly known as Picasso’s lover. It was only during the 20th-century that things began to change for women artists.
And so the list goes on. In every field of endeavour throughout history women have made their own contributions without public recognition. Hopefully history will remember contemporary and future talented women who will have had a significant impact on society and their respective fields of endeavour.