a Library publication

Library Catalog No. DTB1990
(reissued 21 August 2012)

An Early Challenge to the Precepts and Practice of Modern Science: The Fusion of Fact, Fiction, and Feminism in the Works of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623–1673). PhD diss. University of California, San Diego, 1990. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1990. 9023994.
(Item 1 of 12: Abstract)
by Deborah Bazeley
e-Copyright © 2004–2016 < >
see also Part 1: Editor’s Introduction for Library Cat. No. DTB1990



of the Dissertation

This study expounds and defends the long-neglected physics, metaphysics, and rhetoric of Margaret Cavendish, an ardent feminist who published voluminously in the latter half of the seventeenth century — 14 works in 15 years, some with a page count exceeding 700. In open defiance of intense opposition to women’s publishing and the encroaching disfranchisement of women from the means of scientific and technological production, Margaret Cavendish dared to print repeatedly her dissenting opinions on scientific and philosophical matters.

In her publications, Cavendish articulated a viewpoint that is strikingly similar to “postmodern” feminist critiques of Western science and its attendant discourse of rationality. This intriguing conjunction of seventeenth- and twentieth-century feminist perspectives frames the approach taken here to Cavendish’s thought and work. Individual chapters assess: (a) the promise and pitfalls of Cavendish’s feminism; (b) Cavendish’s early production of “deconstructed” feminist discourse, crafted in opposition to androcentric literary and scientific models; (c) Cavendish’s “ecofeminist” variations on the New Science project; and (d) Cavendish’s fantasy texts, with their still-tantalizing images of women’s potential and liberation, that allowed her a discursive space from which to explore and reclaim “the feminine.” Separate appendices reconstruct the background context within which a woman approached scientific study and discourse during the Stuart era: the first addresses the changing relationship of women to science and technology in the early modern period; the second charts the evolution of scientific discourse, with its insistent suppression of “the feminine,” within this same time frame.

Contrary to conventional assessments of Cavendish’s discourse as largely undisciplined, with occasional flashes of literary genius, this study argues the merits of her heuristic rhetorical model, especially for scientific applications. Also opposed in this study are conventional judgments of Cavendish’s brand of natural inquiry as fanciful “pseudo-science,” plus characterizations of her philosophical method as scholarship compromised by ignorance and reckless recalcitrance. It is argued instead that in bringing a feminist perspective to bear on New Science researches, Cavendish formulated an imaginative ontology which challenged the more orthodox theories of the day with equal interpretive power.

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