The Eighteenth-Century Lady Scientist

By Afton Lorraine Woodward

Try to name some women scientists from the early modern and Enlightenment periods, and you might be able to come up with a few: Margaret CavendishCaroline HerschelÉmilie Du Châtelet. Now try to name some fictional women scientists from that era. The truth is that women did not appear much in fiction as scientists until relatively late in history, but that’s not because there weren’t any female scientists—there were many, but they were mostly invisible, sidelined, uncredited, exploited, or shunned. Some women who observed and participated in science (or natural philosophy) in the early modern era were formidable figures: Cavendish, for one, famously visited the Royal Society in 1667 and wrote about her experiences in The Blazing World. There was a present demand for and significant interest in scientific outlets for women: they bought microscopes, attended scientific lectures, and had Newton’s philosophies mansplained to them. Still, the gendered separate spheres dogma was firmly in place, and while they could enjoy science on the peripheries, women were largely excluded from scientific and intellectual arenas.

One place where we do find female scientists during this period is in the theater, and plays can provide illuminating information on women’s roles in science. For the most part, these works were written by male authors and reflected men’s anxieties about science interfering with women’s household and familial duties. Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Ladies, 1672) was full of husbands unable to rein in their unruly, stargazing wives, who desired “to know the motions of the moon, the pole star, Venus, Saturn, and Mars . . . while my food, which I need, is neglected.” In 1726, James Miller’s Humours of Oxford attempted to put women firmly in their place again. Miller’s character Lady Science confesses she deserves punishment for her experimental projects by lamenting she is “justly made a Fool of, for aiming to be a Philosopher—I ought to suffer like Phaeton, for affecting to move into a Sphere that did not belong to me.” The male character responds in kind: “The Dressing-Room, not the Study, is the Lady’s Province—and a Woman makes as ridiculous a Figure, poring over Globes, or thro’ a Telescope, as a Man would with a Pair of Preservers mending Lace.”

Even though women were significant consumers of science, they were not considered worthy investigators themselves because of the perceived detriment to pot roasts and embroidered pillows everywhere. The problem, ostensibly, was not that women were mentally incapable of doing science, but that their lady brains and dainty bodies could not handle both doing science and fulfilling their domestic obligations; the latter, it was assumed, should take natural precedence. Indeed, good science, especially for women, is correlated with coldness, workaholism, and lack of children. In the event that a woman was granted a professorship in science, it was assumed she would remain celibate. Even now, Rosalind Franklin, one of the most successful female scientists of the 20th century, is portrayed as an “ice queen.”

Further complicating the intersection of women and science in the early modern period was the troublesome nature of experimental science itself, which received its own dose of mockery at the theater. Many people believed that experimental science was a fad, pointless at best and harmful at worst, that pulled men as well as women away from more meaningful work—or, at least, many playwrights thought such an idea made for comedy gold. Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, the nutty professor in Thomas Shadwell’s 1676 play The Virtuoso, was a favorite punching bag at the theater. In one scene, Gimcrack pantomimes the motions of swimming like a frog on a table because he hates the water: “I content myself with the speculative part of swimming; I care not for the practice. I seldom bring anything to use; ’tis not my way,” he says, summarizing the audience’s concerns about the practical uselessness of science. Because he fritters his time away on absurd and irrelevant projects instead of paying enough attention to his business or marriage, both begin falling apart. Gimcrack finally sees the error of his ways, and satirically laments, “That I should know man no better! I would I had studied mankind instead of spiders and insects.”

One voice that is heard among all the squabbling over the role of women in science and its relative usefulness is that of Susanna Centlivre, who in 1705 wrote a play called The Basset Table featuring a woman scientist. This play, though excruciatingly minor in the canon of Restoration comedies, is notable for featuring a fictional woman scientist who is actually written by a woman (though prevailing sentiments about the marketability of female-authored plays meant that Centlivre’s name was removed from the work, and she was not given credit for it for several years). It is a work that successfully and skillfully rebuffs the idea that women cannot be curious and investigative while simultaneously investing in emotional relationships. This work is exceptional among comedic plays at the turn of the 18th century for its optimistic messages about both science and women.

Frontispiece and title page for The Basset Table. (Shakespeare Folger Library I CC BY SA)

The Basset Table’s primary plot is a straightforward, though amusing, pontification about the dangers of gambling. The main character, Lady Reveller, annoys her uncle, alienates her friends, and mucks around in a love triangle for much of the play. Lady Reveller’s natural philosopher cousin Valeria, though, is the real star of the show. At first glimpse, Valeria appears to play into the standard tropes as nothing more than a lady Gimcrack: she first arrives onstage chasing a “giant flesh fly” with a net; she offers to take her cousin’s dog and do experiments on it; and she purports to keep bear cubs in her bedroom “for dissection.” Her father’s ridicule of her investigative pursuits is in line with many contemporary opinions of science, and he demands that she put away her silly instruments, marry a sea captain, and give birth to many strong sons who will go fight the French. In any other play in which the characters learn a moral lesson, Valeria might put her experimental pursuits aside to focus on social and familial obligations; and, indeed, the play’s other female characters do, somewhat problematically, learn to obey their husbands. Valeria, though, not only retains her experimental proclivities but gets to choose her own husband and play an equal part in a happy marriage.

Centlivre is aware that her female scientist is odd for her inquisitive propensities, made even odder by her gender, but by giving Valeria the conventional role of heroine who gets married in the end, Centlivre combats the threat of social abnormality posed by intellectual female scholars. The twist here is that it is the scientist’s father, not the scientist herself, who is the antagonist to love and happy domesticity. And even while it gently mocks her, the play clearly means the audience to sympathize with Valeria—contrary to stereotypes about scientists, in particular lady scientists, she conducts her science while pursuing, however inexplicably, a fulfilling relationship with Ensign Lovely. Valeria is also the most cool-headed member of her family; even when she believes she has been forced to marry someone else, she shows remarkable presence of mind and intelligence while still remaining human and distinctly female: “Duty compels my Hand,—but my Heart is subject only to my Mind,—the Strength of that they cannot conquer;—no, with the Resolution of the Great Unparallell’d Epictetus,—I here protest my Will shall ne’re assent to any but my Lovely.” Crucially, Valeria poses no danger to the domestic order, showing that acceptance of traditional roles such as that of a wife does not have to be antagonistic to intellectual pursuits. In fact, her scientific inclinations make her an ideal heroine. By contrasting the rational Valeria with the frivolous game-playing women in the play, Centlivre shows not only that women are capable of hands-on and intellectual work, but that intelligence and stability, good qualities in any scientist, are far more desirable in a woman than, for instance, superficial obsessions like gambling.

The Basset Table had a very short run when it was first produced, but there has been some renewed interest in it lately, possibly because of its independently minded female characters. A critical edition was published in 2009, and the Folger Shakespeare put on the play in 2012. To modern audiences, a marriage might not seem like the most progressive ending—after all, marriage is not everyone’s ultimate goal or reward—but the play ends on a progressive note by giving Valeria what she wants, not what her father wants. In the hands of any other writer, Valeria might have eventually seen the error of her ways and decided that she was squandering her keen housekeeping abilities, but in a way, Centlivre suggests that women scientists can have it all. An overly rosy and simplistic lesson to be sure, but radical for its time, and even for today. When people stop explaining to women scientists what they should want from their own lives, everything actually turns out okay.

Further Reading

Warren, Victoria. “Gender and Genre in Susanna Centlivre’s The Gamester and The Basset Table.” SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43.3 (2003): 605-624.

Chico, Tita. “Gimcrack’s Legacy: Sex, Wealth, and the Theater of Experimental Philosophy.” Comparative Drama 42.1 (2008): 29-49.


Afton is a writer and researcher in Durham, North Carolina. She holds an MA in English Literature from Villanova University and only occasionally wish she'd stayed in academia. Her independent research includes topics in science and literature, especially overlap between the two. She blogs at The Virtuoso Blog. Contact Afton on Twitter @TheVirtuosoBlog or through email at thevirtuosoblog@gmail.com