How Lydia Ernestine Becker Was Once Central to—Then Excluded from—the Study of Botany

Botany has a long history of not holding space for women, and even pushing them out when it becomes expedient to do so. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women were very much at the heart of botany. The European Enlightenment produced a huge interest in scientific knowledge, and in natural history specifically, as a form of self-betterment.

The study of life was still tightly tied to religion, as a way of knowing God, and was seen as a means of moral improvement. Botany was considered a wholesome and enriching activity for “the fairer sex,” and middle- and upper-class girls were encouraged from childhood to take part in a variety of ways.

“There were those who collected, and there were those who drew and painted. There were those who were involved with herbal knowledge in different forms. And there were those who were writing; writing as teachers and putting together informal manuals for teaching their children about botany, and for slightly broader audiences as well,” says Ann Shteir, professor emerita in women’s studies at York University who studies women’s history in botany. “Fieldwork was there for women. That is, going out, collecting, preserving, getting information about how to name things, maybe exchanging specimens with others.”

Those with a particular passion were able to read journals, use microscopes, and attend meetings of local botanical groups as well.

Women of the late eighteenth century had greater access to botany than to any other branch of science, and so botany came to be thought of as a feminine activity in the popular consciousness. An 1827 biography of Linnaeus himself described the man’s teenage disinterest in what he considered to be a woman’s pursuit. Encouraged by his father, Linnaeus’s first botany teacher was his older sister.

Because a subject so heavily undertaken by women couldn’t be considered a consequential intellectual pursuit, a major step in this movement was to “defeminize” botany…

The lines separating science and nonscience, profession and hobby, weren’t as strictly drawn at the time, so the study of plant structure and classification sat comfortably alongside the more aesthetic pastimes of painting flowers or maintaining a fern collection in the parlour. Distinctions between amateur and professional, too, were neither so important nor so black and white as they are today.

Beginning in the 1830s, however, what were then called “philosophical” botanists—those that focussed solely on the rigorous science of plants, a group composed primarily of middle-class white men—began an effort to professionalize botany in hopes of gaining more respect for the field and establishing funded professional positions within academic institutions. Because a subject so heavily undertaken by women couldn’t be considered a consequential intellectual pursuit, a major step in this movement was to “defeminize” botany…to sever the historical association with women so that the men who did it would be taken seriously.

A major player in the push to defeminize botany was John Lindley, an English botanist and orchidologist who in his inaugural lecture as chair of botany at the new University College London in 1829 told his audience that “It has been very much the fashion of late years, in this country, to undervalue the importance of this science, and to consider it an amusement for ladies rather than an occupation for the serious thoughts of man.”

Thus began the stratification of the field, with women and hobbyists driven to a lower stratum dubbed “polite botany,” and men and their “serious thoughts” occupying the top tier of what came to be known as “scientific botany.”

Part of this change entailed moving botany from the field into the lab and shifting its focus from observation to experimentation. “There are hierarchies of knowledge that sharpened in the nineteenth century,” says Shteir.

And a lot of it had to do with professionalizing fields. So what we now call the amateur approach got pushed to the side as being less important, less contributory than those that were arrived at through techniques of classification, data analysis, and experimentation that took place within institutions. The more informal approaches gave way to the more formal approaches to knowledge. And those were associated with experimental techniques rather than observational techniques.

This immediately excluded most women, whose lives were still largely carried out in and around their homes. And of course, the hierarchy of experimentation over observation continues to this day.

Another bit of sleight of hand that helped the process along was to, rather than simply push women out altogether, define a separate, related sphere of activities and encircle female botany enthusiasts within it, giving them the illusion of socially sanctioned participation and acceptance. They were welcome to learn about botany, to an extent, and were encouraged to teach their children about it in order to improve their minds. For those women wishing to take part in polite botany, Lindley produced a book called Botany for Ladies, which he described as an experiment in conveying scientific knowledge “in a simple and amusing form.”

“It was botany for women. It wasn’t botany for everyone. And it was not botany for boys,” says Shteir. “He wasn’t against women learning . . . it was what they were learning it for, and what they should use that knowledge toward. He was not interested in training women to be professional botanists. It was for women to do the kind of work within their natural orbit as he saw it.”

Those few women who did conduct scientific research through their own individual efforts often found their paths blocked by the need to present their findings before a scientific society in order to achieve recognition for them. Many scientific societies of the day simply did not allow women, while those that did often restricted them to acting at best as audiences and at worst as set dressing, as in the case of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), which issued ladies’ tickets with the intention that their presence would raise the tone and mannerliness of the club’s social events.

One president elect is quoted as saying that women’s presence even as audience at the reading of the scientific papers would turn the affair into a “dilettante meeting” rather than a serious scientific discussion but added, “their presence at private parties is quite another thing—and at these I think the more ladies there are, the better.”

One of the most vocal, intellectually formidable, and persistent advocates for Victorian women’s right to fully participate in science was the English botanist and suffragist Lydia Becker. Born in 1827, Becker was the eldest of fifteen children and, after the death of her mother when Becker was in her late twenties, was forced into the role of mother figure to that large family.

In 1848 Becker published a book, Botany for Novices, which distinguished itself by being aimed not specifically at male or female readers but at all novices.

Becker chafed at the “intellectual vacuity” of the life society expected women to live, writing achingly of the slow death of curiosity and ambition that awaited many women when they, “after vain struggles against their destiny, sink at last into a weary kind of resigned apathy, and men say they are content. But no one can measure the pain that has been endured ere the yearnings for a wider and freer existence subside into deadened calm.”

With a lifelong interest in plants, Becker turned her scientific focus toward extensive and detailed observations of a strange phenomenon in which a fungus forced the female flowers of red campion, Lychnis diurna, to develop stamens and become hermaphrodites. Her investigations led to an ongoing correspondence with Charles Darwin, who helped her to frame her observations in light of his evolutionary theories, though they disagreed on what was actually occurring in the flower.

Becker’s interpretation was ultimately the correct one, as she theorized that the fungus co-opted the flower’s anthers for its own reproduction, replacing the pollen that would normally have developed there with its own spores and spreading them via the plant’s own pollinators, a highly novel finding at the time.

Becker’s research led her to consider that the seemingly fixed categories of male and female might not be as immutable as they first seemed. At this time, women’s intelligence was widely debated, mostly by the men for whom their inferior position provided a direct benefit. These highly regarded gentlemen of science and medicine used women’s supposed lower intelligence as a justification for not allowing women a proper scientific education; their low turnout in scientific pursuits were then used, circularly, as evidence of their disinterest in the same.

Becker, having managed to become one of the very few women to present research in the Botany and Zoology section of the BAAS with her fungus work, gave another talk in which she used her insights on the fluidity of sexual expression to suggest that human minds might exist on a spectrum ranging from highly male to highly female, and that a more masculine mind might exist within a woman, and vice versa.

She accepted that human minds ran the gamut of intelligence and ability but refused to concede that these were tied to physical sex. And furthermore, she claimed, were girls and women to be provided with the same education and upbringing as their male counterparts, their achievements would be the same.

If Becker’s first talk produced bemused skepticism, the second caused a complete uproar. The advent of a woman coming forward and using scientific arguments to suggest that the fairer sex might indeed possess an equally sharp intellect was outrageous. Becker was roasted in the press on both sides of the Atlantic; commenters simultaneously implied she was stupid and out of her depth while paradoxically also calling her unnatural and repulsive for possessing such a masculine mind. Some sought to humiliate her and imply that she herself was a hermaphrodite.

Though publicly unflappable, realizing as she did that a woman must be without emotion to be taken seriously among men, she confessed in a private letter to having a “horror of newspapers” after the affair. Still, there were those who agreed with her ideas, and the uproar carried her sentiments further than they might otherwise have gone; the talk didn’t fall entirely on deaf ears.

Darwin, however, initially quiet on matters of female intellectual ability, began increasingly to apply his theory to humans following the publication of The Origin of Species, leading to harmful speculation on his part about the intelligence of both women and people of color bolstered by a new interest in biological determinism and in spite of his earlier support of girls’ education.

At around this time, and perhaps related to his statements, Becker’s correspondence with him ended, and she shifted away from using evolutionary arguments to support her advocacy of women. One can only imagine how disappointed she must have been in her scientific hero.

While Becker’s work eventually moved away from botanical research and toward fighting for girls to receive a rigorous science education, she nevertheless correctly interpreted the fungal manipulation of plant sexual organs and was the first person to document the phenomenon. In 1848 she published a book, Botany for Novices, which distinguished itself by being aimed not specifically at male or female readers but at all novices, and which provided accurate information using the modern impersonal voice that was a rarity for female writers at the time.

Notably, it was bylined not Lydia Ernestine Becker but simply L.E.B.


Unrooted: Botany, Motherhood, and the Fight to Save an Old Science - Zimmerman, Erin

Unrooted: Botany, Motherhood, and the Fight to Save an Old Science by Erin Zimmerman is available via Melville House.

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