STEM Women Hall of Fame: Sci Fi Creatoress


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Lady Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, traveled in circles closed to most other 17th-century women. A brilliant natural philosopher (i.e., scientist) and prolific writer with a well-connected husband, she rubbed elbows with the likes of Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes and eventually published more than 20 books.

Among them is one of this universe's earliest examples - if not the first - of science fiction. Published in 1666, "The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World" describes a maiden's journey through the North Pole to another world. She becomes their empress and, in addition to preventing war and sexual discrimination, ponders scientific questions with her new subjects. All in a day's work.

Courtesy Andrew Liptak

In the introduction to her novel, Cavendish immediately gives a shout out "to all noble and worthy ladies" who are about to have their minds blown:

And if (Noble Ladies) you should chance to take pleasure in reading these Fancies, I shall account my self a Happy Creatoress.
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She assures her readers that she doesn't need a bunch of gold or diamonds (easy for a duchess to say); rather, she's in it for that creatoress part:

[F]or, I am not Covetous, but as Ambitious as ever any of my Sex was, is, or can be; which is the cause, That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet, I will endeavour to be, Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Cesar; yet, rather than not be Mistress of a World, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own.

Just like sci-fi authors today! She obviously got a kick out of creating what, centuries later, Ursula K. Le Guin would call a "thought experiment," using her writing to imagine an alternate way of life (in this case, a peaceful, lady-led world). In the epilogue, she explains:

And in the formation of those Worlds, I take more delight and glory, than ever Alexander or Cesar did in conquering this terrestrial world; and though I have made my Blazing-world a Peaceable World, allowing it but one Religion, one Language, and one Government; yet could I make another World, as full of Factions, Divisions and Warrs, as this is of Peace and Tranquility; and the Rational figures of my Mind might express as much courage to fight, as Hector and Achilles had; and be as wise as Nestor, as; Eloquent as Ulysses, and be as beautiful as Hellen. But I esteeming Peace before Warr, Wit before Policy, Honesty before Beauty; instead of the figures of Alexander, Cesar, Hector, Achilles, Nestor, Ulysses, Hellen, &c. chose rather the figure of Honest Margaret Newcastle, which now I would not change for all this Terrestrial World.

Not everybody was a Cavendish fan.

Here's a woman who, despite having received no formal education in math or science as a girl, grew up to be an "intellectual," thanks to being a curious bookworm - qualities not exactly prized among women at the time. The outspoken, bright and bold Lady Cavendish dealt with what plenty of women today still face: endless criticisms of her clothes (self-made and quite unique), her behavior (too flirtatious, too shy or too masculine) and her language (too much and too crass). Anything to shut down a #distractinglysexy woman interested in science.

Frenemy Mary Evelyn, tired of hearing Cavendish nervously discuss her studies, described the duchess as "so full of herself, so amazingly vain and ambitious," while some of her male contemporaries zeroed in on her bizarre fashion sense. According to the Count of Grammount,

As I was getting out of my chair, I was stopped by the devil of a phantom in masquerade ... It is worth while to see her dress; for she must have at least sixty ells of gauze and silver tissue about her, not to mention a sort of pyramid upon her head, adorned with a hundred thousand baubles. "I bet," said the king, "that it is the Duchess of Newcastle."
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Cavendish certainly didn't shy away from the attention; despite being a little awkward and suffering from bouts of "melancholia," she loved standing out from the crowd. And her position as a well-connected and wealthy outsider gave her a platform to acknowledge and question gender roles.

Active in the scientific community, Cavendish took issue with women's exclusion from academic societies - but she had an in. Her brother John was a founding member of the Royal Society, and in 1667, the group invited her to attend a meeting. The lady scientist must've made quite the impression; women were subsequently banned from the society until 1945.

And in the introduction to one of her books of poetry, she admitted that while "spinning with the fingers" was a more suitable activity for those of her sex, studying and writing poetry are "spinning with the braine." She hoped her mental handiwork would "spin a garment of memory, to lapp up my name, that it might grow to after the ages."

Seems like it worked.

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