In the 18th century, botany books were mostly written for a female audience. Women were encouraged to study botany as it was considered to be an acceptable activity for women. In Linnaeus in Letters and the Cultivation of the Female Mind: ‘Botany in an English Dress’, professor and 18th-century scholar, Sam George, discusses the feminization of botany in the 18th and 19th centuries.
During this time, authors wrote popular botany books for women. Botanists even got into the game and, as George (2005) describes it, “wooed female readers” by making analogies between flowers and the finer virtues of women. Flowers became symbols of innocence and all was beautiful and happy. That is, until Carl Linnaeus came along with his classification system and his discussion about the sexual parts of flowers.
Language likening botanical terms to human sexuality became an issue. George (2005) refers to two books published not too long after Linnaeus’ System Naturae (1735), that were some of the first to describe the sexual system to British readers. In Introduction to Botany (1760), author James Lee refers to male stamen as “husbands”, female pistils as “wives”, sexual union as “marriage”, flowers without stamen or pistils as “eunuchs” and the removal of anthers as “castration” (George, 2005). In Elements of Botany (1775) by Hugh Rose, the flower calyx is referred to as “the marriage bed”, the corolla as “the curtains” (George, 2005) and the metaphors go on and on.
Suddenly, it became controversial for a woman to study botany. Linnaeus was labeled by moralist Charles Alston as being “too smutty for British ears” and there were warnings that botanizing females were “indulging in acts of wanton titillation” (George, 2005). You can imagine the reaction of one Reverend Richard Polwhele when he saw boys and girls botanizing together (George, 2005)!
Fortunately, not everyone was appalled by the thought of women studying Linnaeus’ classification system. But this issue didn’t work itself out overnight. There was a lot of discussion about how women should learn about plants. George provides an interesting overview of the controversy as she explores how two proponents of botany education for women, Priscilla Wakefield and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, promoted botany as a worthwhile activity for ladies.
Both Wakefield and Rousseau emphasized the importance of Linnaeus’ classification system and how it can help the female mind make sense of the plant world. They thought the study of botany was a good way for women to learn how to be socialized in an ordered hierarchical system (George, 2005). Wakefield and Rousseau also agreed that learning about plants outdoors was better than learning about plants in isolation and only from books (George, 2005).
Although they may have agreed upon these points, the philosophies behind their respective positions varied.
Even though Wakefield was dedicated to the education of women, she stopped short of encouraging women to become all that they could become. She thought women should be educated according to their place in society and thought that women should not enter “masculine spheres” (George, 2005). She promoted botany as “an antidote to levity and idleness” (Wakefield (1818), as cited in George, 2005).
Rousseau’s view about women studying systematics was a little different. He saw the study of Linneaus’ classification system as “true” botany (George, 2005). Even so, he was more concerned that women use botany as way to observe and describe plants instead of using Linnaeus’ method to study botany seriously. He thought it was best for women to study plants outside because the study of “true” botany had to occur where plants existed in a natural undisturbed state. Uneducated women were thought to be closer to an undisturbed “state of nature” and so had “a special affinity” for plant exploration (George, 2005).
Although Wakefield’s and Rousseau’s thinking is backward and offensive today, they are credited with giving women access to botanical knowledge. George (2005) says that because of Wakefield and Rousseau, botany had become so feminized by the 19th century that it was considered to be “unmanly”.
To learn much more about this period of botany’s history, buy a copy of George (2005) from the British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies or read George’s paper online (accessed 16 December 2011).
George, Sam. 2005. Linnaeus in letters and the cultivation of the female mind: “Botany in an English Dress”. British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies. 28(1): 1-18.