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.
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:
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:
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:
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,
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.
- The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World
- The Royal Society's lost women scientists
- Emory Women Writers Resource Project: The Atomic Poems of Margaret (Lucas) Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, from her Poems, and Fancies, 1653
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Margaret Lucas Cavendish
- Women Alchemists: Stories and Reflections on Their Place in History, Psyche, and Science