In Darwin’s lifetime women were expected to mainly become wives and mothers but his letters reveal a surprising range of careers that women carried out beyond the home. Women contributed to Darwin’s scientific work in a variety of ways and his letters are a fantastic source of information about the lives of women we may not be aware of.
American botanist and writer Mary Treat carried out experiments and collected plants and insects for leading naturalists including Asa Gray and Charles Darwin. Her writings about the natural world gave her respect and reputation during her lifetime. Like Darwin she worked at home, creating what she referred to as her ‘Insect Menagerie’, an enclosed space from which she observed the minutiae of the natural world around her. Darwin commented:
‘Your observations and experiments on the sexes of butterflies are by far the best, as as far as is known to me, which have ever been made.’
Marianne North is best known for vivid botanical paintings on permanent display in the gallery she had built at Kew Gardens, but less is known about the extent of her travels. After her parents died, Marianne sold the family home and began travelling with the aim of painting the flora of different countries. Between 1871 and 1885 Marianne North visited America, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile. During this time she travelled alone through the interior of Brazil for a year and India for 18 months, often exploring areas unknown to Europeans. Darwin wrote to her in 1881:
‘To the present time I am often able to call up with considerable vividness scenes in various countries which I have seen, and it is no small pleasure; but my mind in this respect must be a mere barren waste compared with your mind.’
Travel featured highly in the life of Lady Florence Dixie who explored the depths of Patagonia. Her fearless confidence transcends expectations of Victorian women as she writes to Darwin about being chased by a puma:
‘The mother attacked me & followed me up a tree, in self-defence I was obliged to shoot her but saved one of the cubs from the gauchos.’
She brought the cub home and reared it as a pet, walking it in Windsor Great Park until it attacked some deer and she reluctantly gave it to the zoological society.
Lydia Becker exchanged botanical information, seeds and plants with Darwin. She published ‘Botany for Novices’ in 1864, which she described to Darwin as being ‘chiefly intended for young ladies’. Becker was founder and president of the Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society and persuaded Darwin to send a scientific paper for the society to discuss. She was a leading member of the women’s suffrage movement, and was editor of and a regular contributor to the Women’s Suffrage Journal from 1870.
Women contributed to Darwin’s science through providing careful observations and challenging new ideas, but it is often only in the letters that their efforts are rewarded. On International Women’s Day we celebrate the lives of such intrepid and pioneering women.
We are currently working on a cross curricula pack for secondary schools entitled ‘Darwin’s Scientific Women’ which will be complete with activities and resources for English, Science, RE, History and Citizenship, and will be available soon. If you are interested in testing the resource, please get in touch.