I think sometimes we don’t realize that it wasn’t very long ago that women weren’t encouraged to participate in what was considered a man’s world. Up until the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries women–especially upperclass women–were generally constrained to the drawing room, where they were expected to occupy themselves with more “genteel” activities, such as needlework, music, and sketching.
While women did begin to enter the work place at the beginning of the 20th century, the notion that women belonged in the kitchen persisted straight through the 1950s, an idea that was emphasized by ad campaigns. Even though many women went to work, women did not get the same job opportunities as men, and even today the pay rate for women can differ greatly from that of a man with the same qualifications.
The attitude that women are lesser than men persists, I have experienced it myself. Apparently beekeeping is not typical women’s work, and as president of the Somerset Beekeepers, there have been a select few men who have had difficulty accepting knowledge from me personally (add to that the fact that I am still rather young, and look even younger, and I’ve got a double strike in their eyes).
But women’s contributions to society cannot be denied. During the world wars it was women who left their kitchens to take up men’s positions in factories, producing weaponry and other supplies for the military.
As one who aspires to impact society’s attitudes toward insects, I’ve recently been fascinated by women naturalists and women of science. I’m reading “Women in the Field; America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists” by Marcia Myers Bonta. The book covers America’s female pioneering naturalists, botanists, entomologists, ornithologists, and ecologists–from Maria Martin, known as the sweetheart of John James Audubon, to Anna Comstock, and Rachel Carson–just to name a few. And what an inspiration these women are!
Despite the attitudes of their time toward women’s abilities, these women persisted, excelled and accomplished so much! They collected specimens–cataloging and preserving them to add to databases at universities, they wrote and illustrated wildflower identification books, wrote detailed treatises about a variety of subjects like: birds of New Mexico, aphids of the world, mayflies, the ecology of a winter pond, mosses or the Burmuda and Bahamas, and more. These women helped to found major museums of natural history, and worked to save vital natural areas to protect wildlife.
Unlike male naturalists, these women were typically very modest, and did not want plants and animals named after themselves. Often they allowed men to take the credit for their work and discoveries.
Most of them disliked housework (an attribute I can empathize with!) but enjoyed cooking for friends.
These women usually had little interest or regard for clothes and fashion.
They were the favorite daughters of unusually enlightened fathers who appreciated nature and nurtured their daughters’ interest in the subject. A few had independent mothers who provided excellent role models for their daughters. As soon as the doors opened to women, these female pioneering naturalists were encouraged by their parents to attend college.
Many of these women never married, though half a dozen managed to find mates who were supportive of their endeavors. Still two of these heroines were actively discouraged by their mates. And all but two of them were childless.
All of these heroines felt that not to work at their chosen jobs, even without pay was to die–and I can empathize with that concept too.
The English naturalist, Miriam Rothschild is quoted for saying:
“If I had to wish one wish for my children, I would wish that they were interested in natural history, because I think there you get a spiritual well-being that you can get no other way, and what is more, life can never be long enough….I think all naturalists retain a sort of keen interest in what’s going on in life. It’s all part of natural history.”
She was an inspiration because she had never had any formal schooling, but through her love for nature Miriam became the world’s leading specialists on fleas and was known as a prominent scientist that many deferred to. Here she is in a clip from the Seven Wonders of the World series:
Then there is Mary Townsend, the sister of acclaimed ornithologist, John Kirk Townsend–who was partial to insects and begged people to “treat them with kindness”. An unusually enlightened idea even today.
Maine can boast of it’s own heroine–Cordelia Stanwood, known as the Bird Woman of Ellsworth, who so loved birds that she could charm them right out of the tree, and her work was so valued that no other ornitholigists (even John Burroughs and Frank Chapman) would question what she saw.
Anna Botsford Comstock
Anna Botsford Comstock is today the acclaimed “Dean of American Nature Study”, due in part to “The Handbook of Nature Study”, an all-time best-seller among books published by Cornell University. She went on to be one of the first four women initiated into the National Honor Society of the Sciences.
There are many more of these women of science and nature, but the last one I will mention here is the only American female naturalist who became a household name.
Rachel Carson was vilified by chemical and agricultural interests who condemned her as a mere “birdwatcher”, when in fact this woman was actually an acclaimed biologist with a very long career working for the US Fish & Wildlife Service. What’s very interesting about Rachel’s great work “Silent Spring” is that she was very reluctant to be the one to write what she felt was a necessary book about the abuse and effects of pesticides. For her labors Rachel received numerous honors, including the first Audubon Medal ever awarded to a woman, and her book went on to spur the environmental movement.
The paved path less traveled
It’s easy to forget now that women did not always have the opportunities we have today. And while some old fashioned attitudes do persist, women have proven their worth again and again. These women I have mentioned, and many more, are an inspiration to me, as I continue on along the path less traveled. And I am thankful for the women’s movement–to the women who paved the way for the women of today, making the journey a little bit smoother than it might otherwise have been.