FEMINAL BOTANIST OR BOTANICAL FEMINIST?

I’ve been reading about the social effects of the work of Swedish botanist, * Carl Linnaeus, who is known to have identified plant sexuality and whose revelations, in the 1700’s, had an unsettling affect on society at the time.  He, too, made use of human-plant analogies.*  In particular the social effects for women of the era.

I’m finding it completely fascinating, and it’s changed the way I think about historical and contemporary scientific discoveries. As well as the way I think about plants and their relationship to humans, and women.

Cover, Botany, sexuality and women's writing 1760-1840, Sam George

Cover, Botany, sexuality and women’s writing 1760-1840, Sam George

Women collectors,  around the time of Linnaeus’ discoveries, who expressed this new knowledge and language of gender, reproduction and sexuality through the arts (particularly writing), were considered so provocative that many of their works of poetry, watercolours and needlepoint were banned and there were public attacks on their personal reputations by the media.

So in the context of this project, I ask…

Was the classification of plants a slow trigger for the peak of the western feminist and sexual revolution of the 1970’s?

Speaking to an academic who studied English literature of the 1700-1900’s, she noted that the period of time (1700’s) coincided with the development of the nuclear family (a trinity of mother, father, children) that lead to the isolation of women, who had previously lived in extended family environments. She went on to explain that around this time women developed many secret languages – one of which was conveying meaning through the symbolic language of flowers.

As public interest in botany grew, many women contributed to its development as serious collectors, but without recognition. Despite this, botany was eventually one of the first sciences within which women became formally recognised.

Even prior to the 1700’s the relationship between women and plants could be seen to have been considered highly suspect by men – the earlier witchhunts (led by the patriarchal Christian church) are known to have destroyed a large amount of information kept by female healers and herbalists.

I recently read a paper by Patricia Howard titled The Major Importance of Minor Resources: Women and Biodiversity, published as part of the Gatekeeper Series by the International Institute for Environment and Development (2003). Howard describes the way in which data is collected on botanic diversity. She had reviewed data collected by other scientists in specific remote areas and noticed that the numbers were different to her own (showing vastly less numbers, species types, medicinal and domestic uses, and preparation methods) – she set out to investigate how that could have come about. In her analysis, she observed that the other data sets collected had been conducted by men foreign to the area, through interviews with men local to the area. Her own data had been collected from women local to the area, who were culturally responsible for collecting and knowledge of the locations, uses and preparation methods of local plant life. How much information has been collected in this way, and forms the basis of environmental decision making and valuation?

More than ever, I now believe that the visibility of female naturalists and scientists is of utmost importance to building human knowledge and decision making for the environment and the maintenance of diversity and species survival.

*Above reference: “Botany, sexuality and women’s writing 1760-1830”, by Sam George.