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Women Among the Early Biological Explorers

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 2, 2012

Not only was there a shortage of women collectors in my book The Species Seekers, but I also left out most of the botanical explorers.  Partly that’s just because I prefer writing about animals, and there weren’t a lot of women out collecting animals before the twentieth century.

But Susan Branson’s article from the new history web site Common-Place begins to correct both omissions.  Here’s an excerpt:

Merian

Women clearly were interested in botany. Whether or not botany was deemed to be a suitable occupation for women is another matter. Two gendered portrayals of female practitioners in the early eighteenth century show how some men depicted such women. German Naturalist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian, who travelled to Surinam in 1699 with her daughter, produced a comprehensive volume, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, on the insects and flora of the colony. Merian was knowledgeable and thorough: she bred insects so she could illustrate each stage of the life cycle. A portrait painted during her lifetime shows her as a scholar, surrounded by instruments, books and the insects she studied. Yet the frontispiece to an edition of her work published after her death shows Merian seated calmly at a table while at her feet, mischievous putti rummage through collections of flora and other study objects. Alan Bewell has suggested that this maternal, rather than scientific, depiction of Merian may have “reduc[ed] social anxieties raised by the unconventional aspects of Merian’s life by [intimating] that ultimately her primary commitment as a female naturalist was to domestic family life, not to the study of nature.”

A retreat to domesticity in order to raise the comfort level of the early eighteenth-century readers of Merian’s work was not the only strategy employed by men who encountered botanically savvy women. Charleston, South Carolina, nursery owner Martha Logan procured plants for customers in the colonies and Britain. When John Bartram met Logan during his southern tour in the 1760s, he paid her the compliment (in a letter to Peter Collinson rather than to Logan herself) that she knew her horticulture well. Logan’s own letters confirm how knowledgeable she was, and they demonstrate that she was part of a local network of fellow horticulturists, some of whom were women. Logan’s Gardener’s Calender, which instructed southern gardeners about what, and when, to plant, was printed at the back of South Carolina almanacs until the end of the eighteenth century. Yet Bartram thought of her quite differently than he thought of male practitioners. To Collinson, Bartram described Logan as his “fascinated widow,” a sexualized creature who panted after him. Bartram bragged to Collinson that he had also fascinated two other women: “two men’s wives, although one I never saw; that is, Mrs. LAMBOLL, who hath sent me two noble cargoes; one last fall, the other this spring. The other hath sent me, I think, a great curiosity. She calls it a Golden Lily.” Needless to say, Bartram had a rather exaggerated opinion of his ability to “fascinate.” And note that he uses fascinated rather than fascinating—indicating that he had done the fascinating, not that he found these women to be so. In Bartram’s depiction of Logan, Lamboll, and the unknown wife, women used plants as tribute or enticement, but not as a straightforward exchange of botanical specimens among equals.

Read Branson’s full article here.

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