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Review - Pandora's Breeches - Patricia Fara

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At first sight, the topic of Patricia Fara's book - women, science and power in the Enlightenment - seems one that will be a very short read. Try to name any women involved in science before 1900. Well, how early was Marie Curie, you might think. And I suppose you could include Ada King, Countess Lovelace, although her actual (as opposed to mythological) contribution to Babbage's work was pretty marginal. Then there was... erm.

And that's why Pandora's Breeches is hugely important. The fact is that women have played significant roles in science for several hundred years. Some, like John Dee's wife Jane, supported the scientist's work in a domestic way, putting up with the inconveniences of their husbands' work and keeping the complex business of what was often a large household running smoothly. Others, like William Herschel's sister Caroline, took observations or made experiments in their own right and these days would be regarded as scientists as much as were their male counterparts. (Why, by the way, does Fara twice say the Herschels lived "near Windsor"? Is she in league with the late John Betjeman in wanting to wipe out the English town of Slough were Herschel's house was?) Still other women acted as the earliest popular science writers, interpreting the obscure writings (often in Latin) of the big name scientists of the day.

What is perhaps most fascinating about Fara's book is the way she avoids the feminist urge to turn traditional history on its head and proclaim a whole swathe of early female scientific characters as potential scientific geniuses, only kept down by male domination. Instead she gives a more realistic view that accepts that women didn't have the same attitudes and expectations 200 or 300 years ago, and so were much less likely to be the frustrated scientists than we like to think they were. Occasionally this split personality between feminist and realist gets a little twitchy - particularly when she makes a totally unnecessary apology for referring married women by their married names, because that's the way things were then (I hope none of Fara's readers are ignorant enough to expect otherwise) - but mostly it's not a problem.

Perhaps the only problem with this book as popular science, as opposed to a presentation of scholarly research, is that significant though women's roles were, our knowledge of them is sketchy, because little was recorded, and they mostly weren't very exciting. Because of the times, the vast majority of women in science were just a support act - and where the woman outshone her male counterpart in ability (an outshining mostly hidden at the time by anti-female prejudice), the man she happened to outshine tended to be pretty second rate as a scientist - as in the case of Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet. This isn't a criticism of the women or their contribution, but simply shows why this doesn't make a great popular science title. Lone heroes battling against great opposition to come up with a great theory or experiment may not reflect the reality of much science - but it makes for a more entertaining story than team players contributing their small part to a long term, step by step, slow and steady progress.

In conclusion, then, it's an important book with an important message, it just isn't going to set the world on fire.

Reviewed by Brian Clegg


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Last update 05 June 2007