Great women thinkers of the Enlightenment are not as widely known as men and are underrepresented in general knowledge. This is because the Enlightenment, which roughly spanned the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, was a time when women were not considered rational thinkers, and their participation in education and academia was not allowed, or at least not widely accepted.
Despite this, many women forged paths for themselves in academic fields, contributing majorly to the evolution of science and philosophy. Here are just 10 of these incredibly accomplished women.
1. Margaret (née Lucas) Cavendish: Scientist & Writer
Born in Colchester, Essex, in 1623, Margaret Cavendish was a notable English philosopher, poet, scientist, fiction writer, and playwright. Unafraid to express her opinion, Cavendish was a prominent intellectual during a time when women were considered incapable of philosophical and scientific reasoning. Cavendish was born into a wealthy family and shared her intellect and interest in thought with her brother, Sir John Lucas, a prominent scholar. In 1645 Cavendish married William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle, giving her access to resources and opportunities that were rare for women of her time. She used this privilege to pursue her interests in writing and science and became one of the most famous women writers of the 17th century. Some of her works include Poems and Fancies (1653), Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1663), and The Covenant of Pleasure (1668).
In 1666, Cavendish published Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, which challenged the traditional Aristotelian view of the universe and argued for a more empirical approach to science. She also wrote extensively on the nature of reality, the human mind, and the role of women in society. Despite her significant contributions to literature and science, her male peers often criticized Cavendish’s work. Many of her contemporaries dismissed her as a “madwoman” or a “scribbling sister,” simply because she was a woman. During this time, it was common for women to write using pseudonyms to avoid bias or discrimination, but Cavendish continued to write under her own name. Cavendish died suddenly on December 15th, 1673.
2. Anna Maria Sibylla Merian: Naturalist
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Maria Sibylla Merian was born in the seventeenth century in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. She was a German naturalist, scientific illustrator, and entomologist who lived from 1647 to 1717. Merian is considered one of the most important naturalists of her time, particularly in the field of entomology, and is known for her detailed drawings and observations of insects and plants. Merian began her career in art, learning the craft from her stepfather Matthäus Merian, a well-known still-life painter. However, she became increasingly interested in insects and their life cycles and began studying and illustrating them in great detail.
In 1699, Merian embarked on a journey to Suriname, then a Dutch colony in South America, where she spent two years studying and documenting the flora and fauna of the region. Her observations were published in a book entitled Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, which remains a landmark work in the field of entomology to this day. Merian’s work was also revolutionary in its approach to gender roles. At a time when women were not encouraged to pursue scientific careers, Merian defied convention and made significant contributions to the field of natural history. Two years after suffering a stroke in 1715, Merian died at age 69.
3. Marie-Sophie Germain: Professor of Mathematics
Sophie Germain was a French mathematician and physicist who lived from 1776 to 1831. Born in Paris, Germain made significant contributions to mathematics, including number theory, elasticity theory, and the study of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Germain’s interest in mathematics began when she was a young girl, and she taught herself the subject by reading books from her father’s library. However, her gender prevented her from receiving a formal education in mathematics, as women were not allowed to attend university at that time. Undeterred, Germain continued to study independently and corresponded with prominent mathematicians of her time, including Carl Friedrich Gauss.
One of Germain’s most important contributions to mathematics was her work on Fermat’s Last Theorem, which states that there are no positive integer solutions to the equation xn + yn = zn for any integer value of n greater than 2. Germain’s work on this problem helped to lay the groundwork for the eventual solution by Andrew Wiles in 1994. Germain’s contribution to mathematics was not unnoticed. In 1816, Germain won an award from the French Academy of Sciences for her paper Memoir on the Vibrations of Elastic Plates, making her the first woman to receive such an honor. Just before she died at the age of 55 after a battle with breast cancer, The University of Göttingen had agreed to give her an honorary degree. Unfortunately, however, she died before she could receive it.
4. Catharine (née Sawbridge) Macaulay: Historian
Catharine Macaulay was an influential English historian, political writer, and philosopher who lived from 1731 to 1791. She was a pioneering feminist thinker who advocated for women’s education during a time when such views were not widely accepted. For example, today, Macaulay is often cited in some feminist writings for her assertion that women and men had no characteristic differences between the sexes and that understanding and acting on moral principles, distinct by use of reason, is the same for both sexes.
Macaulay’s most notable work was her eight-volume A History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line, which she wrote between 1763 and 1783. However, Macaulay also wrote several political treatises, including Letters on Education. In addition to her writing, Macaulay was involved in various political causes, including the movement for American independence and the abolition of slavery. She was a supporter of the American Revolution, presenting her criticisms of the British government, and many of America’s founding fathers took inspiration from her writings. In June 1791, Macaulay died, and she is commemorated today in All Saints Church in Berkshire, England with a marble plaque of her profile and an owl to symbolize her wisdom.
5. Mary (née Godwin) Wollstonecraft: Philosopher
Mary Wollstonecraft, known to have been significantly influenced by Catharine Macaulay, was a prominent English writer, philosopher, and feminist who lived from 1759 to 1797. Wollstonecraft is considered a pioneer of the feminist movement and is best known for her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792. In her book, Wollstonecraft argued that women were not inferior to men; their lack of education and opportunities made them appear so. She called for equal rights and education for women, arguing that they were entitled to the same freedoms and opportunities as men. Her work had a profound impact on the feminist movement and helped to shape modern feminist thought.
Wollstonecraft was also a prolific writer and wrote several other influential works, including Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790). She was deeply involved in her time’s political and social issues and was a vocal advocate for democracy, individual liberty, and social justice. Despite her contributions to the feminist movement, Wollstonecraft faced criticism and ridicule from her contemporaries, who often dismissed her ideas as radical and unfeminine. However, her work inspired generations of women to fight for their rights and paved the way for future advancements in women’s rights.
Sadly, Wollstonecraft’s life was cut short by complications from childbirth, at the age of 38. Her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, later became the author of the well-known book Frankenstein.
6. Caroline Lucretia Herschel: Astronomer
Caroline Herschel was a German-born British astronomer who lived from 1750 to 1848. She is best known for her significant contributions to astronomy, particularly her discovery of several comets and her work as a skilled telescope maker. Herschel was the sister of the famous astronomer William Herschel and worked alongside him for many years. On August 1st, 1786, Herschel discovered her first comet, described by some as the “first lady’s comet.” Over 11 years, from 1786 to 1797, Caroline discovered eight comets.
In addition to her comet discoveries, Herschel is also known for being the first woman to receive a salary for work as an astronomer, and, therefore, considered the first professional astronomer. She was known for her meticulous attention to detail and her ability to identify small pieces in the night sky. Herschel was a pioneer for women in science, and her work challenged the traditional gender roles of her time. Caroline lived a long life, dying in 1848 at the age of 97.
7. Mary (née Fairfax) Somerville: Science Writer
Mary Somerville was a Scottish science writer and polymath who lived from 1780 to 1872. She is best known for her scientific works, particularly her influential book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, published in 1834. Somerville was largely self-taught and developed a keen interest in science at a young age. Somerville pursued knowledge at a time when people did not think much of a women’s capacity to pursue academic interests. For example, at one time, Somerville’s parents forbade her from studying further, as they believed her education was responsible for her sister’s death. However, Somerville continued to indulge her passion for mathematics, astronomy, and physics and spent many years studying and researching these fields.
In addition to her scientific pursuits, Somerville was a passionate advocate for women’s education and rights. She believed that women should have access to the same opportunities and education as men politically and in education. Somerville’s contributions to science and her advocacy for women’s rights were widely recognized during her lifetime. For example, due to her impact on the sciences and her work as an academic, Somerville is known as the person who coined the term “scientist,” as “man of science” seemed inappropriate for a woman. Moreover, She was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Astronomical Society, and the University of Oxford named Somerville College after her.
8. Laura Maria Catarina Bassi Veratti: Physicist
Laura Maria Catarina Bassi was an Italian physicist and academic who lived from 1711 to 1778. She is best known for her contributions to physics and mathematics and for being the first woman professor at a European University and the first female member of the Academy of Science in Bologna. Bassi’s interest in science began at a young age, and she grew her knowledge by studying with some of the leading scientists of her time, including Father Giuseppe Toaldo and Father Eustachio Manfredi. Bassi’s works include Concerning Bodies of Water as Natural Elements of Other Parts of the Universe, and her experiments were influenced a lot by Newton’s works, such as Principa.
In 1732, Bassi became the first woman to earn a doctorate in science (physics) from the University of Bologna, where she went on to become a respected academic and researcher and was a professor of experimental physics. Only two years after her appointment, Bassi died at the age of 66 due to deteriorating health caused by childbirth complications and pregnancies.
9. Gabrielle-Émilie (née Le Tonnelier de Breteuil) de Châtelet: Philosopher & Scientist
Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, also known as Émilie du Châtelet, was a French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher who lived from 1706 to 1749. Du Châtelet’s interest in science began at a young age, and she quickly demonstrated a talent for mathematics and physics. She went on to conduct extensive research in these fields and was known for her ability to apply mathematical principles to physical phenomena. However, Émilie du Châtelet is perhaps best known for her contributions to the fields of science and philosophy, and her translations of the works of Isaac Newton, such as Principia Mathematica, into French. Her translation included her own commentary and insights, which helped to popularize Newton’s ideas in France and beyond.
In addition to her scientific work, Du Châtelet was also a philosopher and wrote extensively on various topics, including ethics, metaphysics, and the nature of matter. Her ideas were influenced by the works of René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Voltaire, with whom she had a romantic and intellectual relationship. Du Châtelet’s contributions to science and philosophy were significant and helped to advance our understanding of these fundamental areas of study. Unfortunately, Du Châtelet died young, at the age of 43.
10. Augusta Ada (née Byron) King: Programmer
Born at the end of the Enlightenment period, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, commonly known as Ada Lovelace, was a pioneering mathematician and computer programmer who lived in the 19th century. Born in London, England, in 1815, King was raised by her mother, who was determined to provide her with a strong education in mathematics and science. King was a mentee of Science writer Mary Somerville and is widely recognized as the world’s first computer programmer.
In the early 19th century, she worked closely with Charles Babbage, a famous mathematician and inventor, on his Analytical Engine, considered the first general-purpose mechanical computer. Ada wrote a groundbreaking paper, Translation and extended notes, in 1843, in which she described how the machine could be programmed to perform complex calculations using a series of instructions known as “loops” and “branches.” King has been honored since her death in 1852. For example, in 1979, the US Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada” in her honor.
It is not common to think of great women thinkers when considering the evolution of thought during the Enlightenment. Despite this, many women who pioneered or contributed to different areas of philosophical and scientific thought during this time existed. These women faced many challenges, such as the belief that women were incapable of rational thought and their social and often legal barriers to education. As with the well-known men who contributed to the Enlightenment, these women were often elite, having more access to educational resources than the average woman of the time. However, with drive and determination, these women overcame barriers unheard of for men to contribute to one of the most significant movements in history.