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 4 of 12: Chapter 1)
by Deborah Bazeley
e-Copyright © 2004–2016 < >
see also Part 1: Editor’s Introduction for Library Cat. No. DTB1990


Chapter 1


1.1   Biographical Summary

Margaret Cavendish was born in 1623, the last of eight children in the Lucas family of Colchester, Essex. As Sara Mendelson points out, the Lucases were exemplar of Tawney’s “rise of the gentry” during the sixteenth century. Although Margaret’s father (who died when she was only two years of age) was singularly disinterested in asserting himself in behalf of his family’s continued upward mobility, his widow, Elizabeth, worked zealously to advance Lucas family interests. Margaret’s mother was ruthless in her pursuit of increased family wealth. Immediately upon taking over management of the Lucas estate in 1625, Elizabeth attempted to have her poor rates reduced. By the eve of civil war, the local populace had staged an enclosure riot (Mendelson, Women in Seventeenth-Century England 29).

With the outbreak of civil war Margaret, then a Maid of Honour at the court of Henrietta Maria, fled to France with the royal entourage. There she met and married William Cavendish, then Marquis of Newcastle, in 1645. As the offspring of “minor gentry stock,” Margaret was deemed a poor marriage choice for William, who, although impoverished at the time, headed up one of the 20 richest families in England at the start of the Civil War (Mendelson, Mental World 21; Stone, Crisis 1194). William — at age 52, 30 years Margaret’s senior — was by 1645 a man of considerable power and position. He had served in Charles I’s Privy Council and from 1638–1641 was the first governor to the then eight-year-old Charles II (this coveted appointment being a perquisite for the lavish £20,000 extravaganza at Welbeck that William put on for king and queen in 1628). He had commanded the Royalist troops of northern England during the Civil War until routed at Marston Moor by Cromwell and the Parliamentarian army in 1644 — having led the king’s army to certain disaster with what Virginia Woolf called “indomitable courage but little skill” (101). Despite his abrupt flight abroad after his defeat at Marston Moor, William would play a major role in the Privy Council of Charles’ government-in-exile beginning in 1650. And the two tracts of political advice William authored for his prince were not without influence in the policymaking of the restored Charles II (Slaughter xxvi–xxvii, xxx). William would eventually be rewarded for services rendered his king with a dukedom in 1665.

Margaret’s European exile lasted 17 years, briefly interrupted by a sojourn to London where she spent 1652–3 in order to petition for her share of William’s estates. During their exile, she and William moved from Paris, to Rotterdam, and finally to Antwerp in continual search of new creditors willing to support the Cavendishes in the grand style to which William had long been accustomed and which he ceremoniously maintained in open defiance of the new republican regime back home. Long a patron of the arts and sciences, William attracted numerous intellectuals and fellow exiles with his ostentatious show of hospitality. The Newcastle Circle included such luminaries as Hobbes, Descartes, Mersenne, Gassend, John Pell, Sir Kenelm Digby, William Petty, and Sir Charles Cavendish (William’s older brother, a renowned mathematician, and because so accepting of her, utterly adored by Margaret).

Although she had been writing since childhood, Margaret did not commence publishing until 1653 (age 30) while she and Sir Charles Cavendish were residing in London. Clearly, she was emboldened to do so by the sudden increase in the number of women publishing just prior to this.<1> With William in absentia, Margaret consulted no one before embarking on such a scandalous act:

... in this Action of setting out of a Booke, I am not clear without fault, because I have not asked leave of any Freind thereto; for the feare of being denied, made me silent: and there is an Old saying; That it is easier to aske Pardon, then Leave: for a fault will sooner be forgiven, then a suite granted: and as I have taken the One, so I am very confident they will give me the Other. For their Affection is such, as it doth as easily obscure all infirmity and blemishes, as it is fearfull and quick-sighted in spying the Vices of those they love; and they does with as much kindnesse pardon the One, and with griefe reprove the Other. But I thought it an Honour to aime at Excellencies, and though I cannot attaine thereto, yet an Endeavour shews a good will, and a good will ought not to be turned out of Noble mindes, nor be whipt with dispraises, but to be cherished with Commendations.
(Poems and Fancies A4v–A5r)

Her strategy proved successful; Margaret continued to print her works without any family interference. Despite the tremendous social pressures directed against a woman writing during the seventeenth century, Cavendish published voluminously — 14 works in 15 years, some with a page count exceeding 700 — in almost every genre (drama, poetry, fantasy, prose narrative, epistle, biography, autobiography, oration, technical essay, fable, science fiction), and on almost every subject. After Restoration, when the presses capitalized on the intellectual ferment now popularly dubbed “the scientific revolution” by churning out science writings, Cavendish was the one woman who dared to speculate publicly in print on the most relevant scientific issues of the day.<2> Even with the proliferation of “she-philosophers” dating from about the 1690s on, there were, significantly, no further original contributions by Englishwomen in the field of scientific theory during the seventeenth century, and none at all during the first half of the eighteenth century.

In 1667 Margaret, exercising her new powers as Duchess of Newcastle, maneuvered for herself an invitation to attend a meeting of the Royal Society, England’s first and most prominent institution of science. On 30 May, bolstered by a retinue of servants and a profusive display of wealth and rank, Cavendish endured the probing, judgmental stares of academy members to witness firsthand such experimental feats as the dissolution of mutton in sulphuric acid and to have her presence as a “natural philosopher” publicly acknowledged within intellectual circles. This notorious visit would remain the one public intrusion by a woman of that august institution for almost 300 years.<3>

Six years later in 1673 Margaret died, most probably the result of a lifelong course of self-administered bleeding and purging for a condition that the leading seventeenth-century physician Sir Thomas Mayerne diagnosed as “Melancholyk Hypocondriak” (qtd. Mendelson, Mental World 26). The aging William, a fellow sufferer of this complaint but a less eager medical experimenter, survived his considerably younger wife by an additional three years.

Margaret’s admitted imprudences in print cost her dearly. In death as in life, large segments of the public jeered her. John Stainsby’s crude epitaph, penned at the time of her death, expresses a seventeenth-century misogynist’s hatred for her that is shocking in its vehemence:

Shame of her sex, Welbeck’s illustrious whore,
The true man’s hate and grief, plague of the poor,
The great atheistical philosophraster,
That owns no God, no devil, lord nor master;
Vice’s epitome and virtue’s foe,
Here lies her body but her soul’s below.
(qtd. Grant 199)

1.2   “Mad Madge”?

The association of intellectual women and madness has a long and ignominious history. No one epitomizes this unhappy relationship better than Margaret Cavendish, popularly reviled as “Mad Madge” of Newcastle. Despite the fond accolades of Charles Lamb (“a dear friend of mine ... the thrice noble, chaste and virtuous — but again, somewhat fantastical and original-brained, generous Margaret Newcastle”) and a sympathetic portrait by Virginia Woolf, Cavendish’s enduring literary portrait remains that of Sir Walter Scott who, in his Peveril of the Peak, refers to “that old mad-woman, the Duchess of Newcastle,” author of “trash.” Scott’s later references to Cavendish are equally vicious: “an entire raree-show in her own person — a universal masquerade — indeed a sort of private Bedlam-hospital, her whole ideas being like so many patients crazed upon the subjects of love and literature” (qtd. Perry 227, 302, 312).

Despite popular perception, Cavendish was not mad — just one of several prominent “Masculine wives transgressing Nature’s law,” to quote Andrew Marvell’s characterization of her (1:267). In the seventeenth century, when a woman didn’t conform to gender stereotypes, she was either “mad” or under the devil’s sway. With her penchant for cross-dressing, her flagrant display of self in print and fashion, and her outspoken feminism, Cavendish was openly defiant of cultural norms. Secretly, there were those like John Stainsby who believed that Cavendish cavorted with the devil. But few dared publicly to make such an accusation. Instead, observing firsthand Cavendish’s repeated behavioral outrages and regaled with stories of others still, Mary Evelyn and her contemporaries soon wondered how Cavendish managed to escape a fate in Bedlam. Indeed, Margaret’s fortunate marriage and the acquired class privilege that came with it protected her from incarceration in the madhouse and from the horrors of the witchcraft trials. Other women who publicly protested the status quo were seldom so safeguarded. As Margaret herself was well aware, old, poor, and unmarried “scolds” who didn’t meld easily into village life generally suffered a hard fate at the hands of hostile neighbors and prejudicial law enforcement.

To understand seventeenth-century aspersions on Margaret’s sanity, it is necessary to recognize that only one of her many eccentricities was repeatedly linked to madness — her audacity in publishing. Upon hearing of Cavendish’s first publication effort in 1653, Dorothy Osborne wrote to William Temple that “Sure the poore woman is a little distracted, she could never bee soe rediculous else as to venture at writeing book’s and in verse too” (37). Indeed, social opposition to women’s writing (let alone publishing) was still intense. Antifeminist lore popular throughout the century readily castigated the female “wit” as a “whore.” Robert Gould, in a popular misogynist tract at the end of the century, associated women’s “Scribbling Itch” with lascivious desires and the onset of puberty, describing women’s writing in graphic terms of masturbation: “At Ten Years Age the tingling Itch began / In Streams away thy Liquid Virgin ran, / Dissolv’d ev’n but by thinking upon Man” (qtd. Nussbaum 36). In 1669 when Margaret’s works were still being reissued in second and third editions, Thomas Lawrence praised Lady Jane Cavendish (Margaret’s stepdaughter) for her “Poetick spiritt” precisely because it was “An Art she knew and practised so well / her Modesty alone could it Excell / which by concealing Doubles her Esteem” (qtd. Mendelson, Mental World 61).

We must also remember that the advent of women’s publishing en masse (especially on topical issues) had clear links in the public mind to subversive political activities and revolutionary upheaval. It was the buildup to the Civil War and the following Interregnum years that had unleashed women’s rhetorical powers as pamphleteers, prophets, religious enthusiasts of various stripes, and petitioners of Parliament.<4> Cavendish herself noted women’s ability to “make an uproar, and a tumultuous disorder” with their powers of speech: “for though Women cannot fight with warring arms themselves, yet they can easily inflame men’s minds against the Governours and Governments”; “witness our late Civil war,” she adds (Sociable Letters 12–13).

To combat women’s obvious rhetorical skills, conduct guides such as The English Gentlewoman advocated that women avoid all public discourse, restricting discussion within their “household academies” or “where your owne sexe is onely conversant,” without any accompanying display of “over-great ambition” (qtd. Hilda Smith, Reason’s Disciples 53). Such proscriptions on women’s speech were justified by arguing that women (as descendants of Eve) were of “weak discretion” and therefore too easily deceived into disseminating false and pernicious doctrines. By labeling woman a dupe of the devil, and her dissenting ideas the unhappy result of a weak understanding, the conduct books were then able to argue that every woman must be silenced — given no public forum by which to “bring others into the same error” (Instruction of a Christian Woman; qtd. Hilda Smith, Reason’s Disciples 42).

Even so, not all women who published during the seventeenth century were considered mad. What made Cavendish’s publication act appear so lunatic? For one thing, as a woman author, Cavendish would not demur.<5> From the beginning, Margaret situated herself firmly in the tradition of Lady Mary Wroth: two women, she tells us, who in choosing pen and paper over needle and thread, knowingly “incroach too much upon [male] Prerogatives” (Poems and Fancies A3r). For another, the Poems and Fancies was outspokenly feminist — Cavendish’s indignant retort to the newly-circumscribed domesticity forcing women of her class and era to cede all vestiges of power to a patriarchal state.<6> And as the final outrage, Cavendish dared in her first publication, as an admittedly uneducated woman, to address that most “masculine” of subjects: natural philosophy. Her Poems and Fancies opened with poems on atomic theory, explicating her own ideas on the inner workings of the universe, along with discussion of such weighty issues as Aristotelian theories concerning rest, primary versus secondary qualities, and Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood. From here, she proceeded to assorted nature poems, intermixed with “similizing” verses, poetic dialogues, moral discourses, fairy poems, war poems, more natural philosophy, some literary criticism, and a thinly-veiled political satire on Republican rule. The text closed with an advertisement for her next publication.

Edmund Waller, among other literati, was quick to pronounce on “the disgrace of such a vile performance” (qtd. Perry 179). Margaret had flouted her lack of scholarly credentials like a badge of courage. She had demanded a public voice on public matters. She had asked for public acclaim. (In later publications, she would go so far as to suggest that her ideas be taught in universities throughout Europe.) Without question, this was (and for many, still is) the stuff of madness.

1.3   The Critics Speak

At one point Joseph Glanvill candidly explained his willingness to befriend Cavendish by writing her that “I am, Madam, an Admirer of Rarities, and your Grace is really so great an one, that I cannot but indeavour some Testimony of a proportion’d respect and wonder” (A Collection of Letters and Poems 135–6). Sadly, this attitude still prevails. What we know about Margaret Cavendish (if we know her at all) has been shaped by our received image of her as “Mad Madge” — “an entire raree-show in her own person.” Cavendish’s eccentricities (and they were many) have long been foregrounded for their entertainment value. Stripped of any explanatory historical context, Cavendish’s “madness” has made her a figure of fun. And the limited availability of her texts has allowed the myth of “madness” to flourish unchallenged.

Scholarship on Cavendish provides few exceptions to the rule. In general, commentators have been too quick to accept the derision of Cavendish’s peers, and to discount any favorable contemporary comment as originating in flattery, “gentlemanly ardour” fired by infatuation, opportunism, deference to rank, self-aggrandizement, or a desire for amusement. George Parfitt, who introduces the 1972 facsimile reprint edition of Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies by Scolar Press, subtly dismisses her considerable influence on the reading public by emphasizing the “sensational” and “eccentric” nature of her works and by declaring that the great printer Thomas Roycroft was too “high-powered and competent” to have been the mysterious “T.R.” who printed Cavendish’s early books. Such a statement is wide open to challenge, though no one has yet done so.<7>

Instead, Parfitt’s assessments of Cavendish are indicative of a tendency in critical commentary to discount her publications as the laughable products of “Vanity Press,”<8> implying a limited audience demand for or interest in her works, and denying them any substantive role in the public dialogue of the day. This characterization, repeated even by such a respected scholar as Marjorie Nicolson (see, for example, her chapter on Cavendish in Pepys’ “Diary” and the New Science), devolves from comments made by Walter Charleton in a letter to Cavendish (later published by her husband in the A Collection of Letters and Poems; also rpt. in Grant 219). Charleton’s reference there to Cavendish’s publication expenses could however be interpreted to signify money expended for more “elegant volumes” and plentiful presentation copies rather than as an early example of “Vanity Press.” Andrew Marvell, the first to berate Cavendish for this in print, substantiates this alternate reading of Charleton’s remarks. In the “Rehearsal Transpos’d,” Marvell lampoons Cavendish not for publishing her own works, but for being so far in love with her own “whelp,” that she was willing to assume the expense “of translating [her] works into Latin, transmitting them to the universities, and dedicating them in the Vaticane” (3:36).

Scholarly study of Cavendish is limited both in its quantity and scope. The past three centuries have produced few published editions of her texts: here and there, selected poems, letters, and literary essays; most recently, the Scolar Press facsimile reprints of her Poems and Fancies and Sociable Letters; and of course, the one continuing thread of publication through the years, Margaret’s biography of her husband. Never have any of her science writings been anthologized or otherwise reissued. Correlated with this, research has traditionally addressed Cavendish’s most “literary” writings and dismissed the rest. A surge of interest in women’s studies has thankfully broadened the scope of scholarly discussion, but still, the stereotypes linger.

1.3.1 Literary Criticism

The presence of “tedious”<9> philosophical disquisitions coupled with her “wild” style and unconventional rhetoric leaves Cavendish’s discourse somewhere outside the tradition of “great literature.” She has been labeled a “minor literary talent” and investigated accordingly. Repeatedly we encounter judgments such as: “her tendency to express her ideas in trite literary forms that had already become old-fashioned by the mid-seventeenth century” bespeaks a “lack of originality” and a “derivative” literary talent.<10> Traditionally, critics have been inclined to isolate out flashes of genius, abstracting these from the corpus of Cavendish’s works, and to ignore everything else as not worth the bother of interpretation.<11> By far the most critical acclaim has been showered on her The Life of ... William Cavendish.

Moving away from more traditional concerns (and yet still bounded by them), Thomas Farrell has recently authored a problematic piece on female versus male modes of rhetoric wherein he evidences Cavendish as “clearly anticipat[ing] some qualities of the female mode of rhetoric, notably the reliance on enumerating detail without explicit analytic commentary or the framework of a thesis, and the non-adversary or non-combative stance” (912). Farrell’s summary mention of Cavendish relies entirely on a study by Patricia A. Sullivan<12> comparing Margaret’s Life of William to other biographies of her era by male authors.

What Farrell tags as “the female mode of ‘indirection’” clearly bears some relation to the work of Patricia Spacks, although Farrell nowhere mentions her in his article. Predating Farrell, Spacks also wrote about a “female language of indirection” (“Self as Subject”), and her brief essay on Cavendish in The Female Imagination (190–7) is in large part framed by this issue. Here Spacks argues that the “formlessness” and “apparently random sequence” of statement in Cavendish’s writing “does not issue from any genuine stream of consciousness” but serves instead as yet “another disclaimer of self-assertion” (193). This argument is seriously marred by Spacks’ restricted focus on only two of Cavendish’s texts (her autobiography, A True Relation, and the biography of her husband, The Life of ... William Cavendish). Spacks appears to be unfamiliar with Cavendish’s extensive commentary on the subject of her own rhetoric (i.e., her sophisticated theorizing regarding a stream-of-consciousness technique and her repeated practice of it in every text she ever wrote, regardless of subject or genre). Statements like “The Duchess of Newcastle did not know she was angry” (Spacks 195) simply do not hold up when Cavendish’s other writings are examined.

Where Spacks is careful to point out that “indirection represents an almost universal artistic device” (“Self as Subject” 113), and her detailed studies of indirection in relation to specific women’s writings belie ahistorical generalizations on the subject, Farrell is guilty of this and more. Although I shall later in chapter 3 make claims about Cavendish’s writing style similar to those recounted by Farrell, I wish at this early point to differentiate my approach and findings from his. My objection to the notion of “male” versus “female” rhetorical modes is a point belabored at length in the closing terminology section for this chapter (see 1.5.4). I wish to argue here only that Farrell’s reliance on this schema — in keeping with his acceptance of Walter Ong’s thesis that (at least some) variations in male and female patterns of discourse “are rooted in biological differences” (917) — leads to false generalizations, about Cavendish in particular, and about gender all around. I cannot condone Farrell’s use of Cavendish to bolster such spurious assertions as: (1) “the male mode of rhetoric is probably better suited than the female mode for written discourse”; (2) “the female mode can be learned but cannot be taught” (on this point, cf. Annas); or (3) “students in college composition courses [should] be required to master the male mode of rhetoric” (920). Furthermore, Farrell’s association of the female rhetorical mode with speech (also associated with emotion, and characterized as people-oriented — a discourse of unity capable of “lowering the temperature in heated, live deliberations”) and the male rhetorical mode with writing (oppositionally associated with reason, and characterized as idea-oriented — the discourse of knowledge production) fosters patriarchal stereotypes that Cavendish would never have countenanced.

1.3.2 History and Philosophy of Science

As a woman who produced only “fanciful science” (“pseudo-science”), Cavendish is largely ignored by historians and philosophers of modern science. There is a strong prejudice within mainstream historiography against Cavendish’s philosophical predilections, her confessional tone, her method of discourse, and her continual crossing of fact/fiction boundaries.

For the most part, Cavendish’s contributions to seventeenth-century New Science debates have been widely ridiculed and deemed irrelevant to our understanding of the development of modern science. The fact that Christiaan Huygens, for example, valued Cavendish’s opinion on scientific questions and carried on a correspondence with her is readily dismissed (although we now regard him as one of the most brilliant of seventeenth-century scientists, we discount his relationship with her as based in his excessive love of all things British). Where some effort has been expended in sympathetic review and revaluation of “non-scientific” strains in the thought of early scientists,<13> no one has thought to approach Margaret Cavendish with the same consideration.

Only Robert Kargon among historians of modern science bestows stature on Cavendish — as a peripheral member of the important Newcastle Circle and as a key popularizer of the doctrine of aetheistic atomism (a charge which would have horrified her). Although Kargon’s preliminary work on Cavendish’s unique version of natural philosophy is to be welcomed, it is far too circumscribed to tell us much about Cavendish or her ideas. Atomism was early on rejected by Cavendish as a theoretical framework and superseded by a sophisticated materialist doctrine. Kargon, however, makes no mention of Cavendish’s maturer (and far more extensive) science writings.

In lieu of sustained analytical study of her body of work (Douglas Grant’s authoritative biography being a notable exception), conventional history-of-science scholarship presents Margaret Cavendish as little more than a footnote in the history of the Royal Society — interesting because of her scandalous visit, fantastic personage, and anecdotal charms.<14>

With the growing feminist interest in the history of women in science, the framework governing research on Cavendish is changing as women previously unknown or discounted in the sciences are finally surfacing as a legitimate focus of scholarly attention. Concerning women of science during the early modern period, the encyclopedic surveys by Marilyn Ogilvie and Margaret Alic are an excellent starting point. Both include essays on Cavendish, but both rely on secondary materials (studies by Meyer, Kargon, Reynolds, and Grant) for their descriptions and assertions. Meyer’s assessment of Cavendish — “mildly mad,” an untutored novice in matters of scientific inquiry who, utterly lacking formal education, was important only as a popularizer and “precursor of the scientific lady” (2, 104) — pretty much frames the discussion in Ogilvie and Alic. Ogilvie further adds that “as a woman interested in a ‘man’s field,’ and as a correspondent of influential natural philosophers” Cavendish “holds a place in the history of science” (54). Alic disallows “madness” as an informing category, but also what she calls Cavendish’s “imaginative natural philosophy.” Again, Cavendish’s role as popularizer, her outspoken feminism, and her status as England’s first recognized woman scientist are cited to rescue Cavendish from insignificance and assign her due place in the history of science (Alic, Hypatia’s Heritage 85, 88).

While feminist versions of the history of science remain for the most part untouched by the new feminist critiques of science itself, feminist versions of the philosophy of science engage in little detailed historical study of early women scientists. Lois Frankel, Carolyn Merchant, and Londa Schiebinger are important exceptions. Both Merchant and Schiebinger mention Cavendish in passing, but little more. Schiebinger simply refers to Cavendish in an occasional note. Merchant, clearly intrigued by Cavendish, rehashes the arguments of Meyer, Kargon, and Grant. Hers is a minimal introduction to Cavendish’s scientific philosophy, but it was sufficient to engage me in this present study.

1.3.3 Feminist Studies

The most sustained studies of Cavendish to appear in the last 30 years are by Mary Ann McGuire, Hilda Smith, and Sara Mendelson. All three focus on what Alic has aptly called Cavendish’s “outspoken if inconsistent feminism” (Hypatia’s Heritage 88).

McGuire portrays Cavendish’s inconsistencies on the subject of women as the result of being caught in the “confusions and conflicts” of a transitional age; thus, Cavendish was “unable to shake off old ideas of woman’s innate inferiority but was uncomfortable with traditional female roles” (204). McGuire characterizes Cavendish’s feminism as a “tension between her conviction that women are inferior beings incapable of significant achievement and her fierce personal desire to achieve in ways that transcended the feminine properties of her day” (193). She then explains the co-existence of incompatibles in Cavendish’s works as a fiction/non-fiction dichotomy. Examples of female achievement are reserved for the fictional works, McGuire argues, while in Cavendish’s non-fiction, “the attitudes she expresses about domestic hierarchy, women’s sexual rights, and feminine frailty are in accord with the more conservative opinion of her day” (198).

Hilda Smith’s compelling study of Cavendish in Reason’s Disciples is framed by her investigation of seventeenth-century feminism as a whole and its relation to later feminist movements. She identifies Cavendish as the most “puzzling” of seventeenth-century feminists, concluding that no other feminist work of the period “poses so many interpretive problems.... Her views were at once the most radical and far-reaching and the most contradictory” (12, 75). Smith’s theories are in stark contrast to those of Mendelson, who appears unfamiliar with Smith’s earlier work.

Mendelson argues that Cavendish was no feminist — just “an egoist who happened to be of the female gender” (Mental World 55). She accuses Cavendish of “pseudo-feminist sentiments,” contending that “the freedom from the limitations of her sex for which she groped in her writings and in her personal ‘style’ had reference to her own life rather than that of women in general.” It was only “when balked in her quest for ‘male’ privileges like literary ambition” that Cavendish adopted “a ‘feminist’ perspective” (Women in Seventeenth-Century England, “Abstract” and 101). At the same time, Mendelson offers her own version of fact-fiction dualism, observing a tension between antifeminist facts and feminist fictions in Cavendish’s works. Thus, when Cavendish “rose above the empirical observation of her sex’s deficiencies in order to explore its theoretical potentialities, she was transformed into an eloquent ‘feminist’” (Mental World 54; also 57). Mendelson’s provocative study of Cavendish is wide-ranging and knowledgeable, albeit less than sympathetic (this is especially true of the earliest version, Women in Seventeenth-Century England). But her study is marred by what I would argue is a false opposition of feminism and egoism. The aggressive display of self and sisterhood are not binary opposites, no matter how much Mendelson might wish it so.

Indeed, artificial dualisms are unhappily a recurring theme in all three of these studies, each of which considers Cavendish’s feminism in isolation from her “life passion” — science. As I shall argue in the following chapters, some of Cavendish’s boldest feminist doctrine is located in her scientific works. Mendelson, to her credit, hints at this, noting that Cavendish’s “view of nature was an exact inversion of the religious, hierarchical and male-dominated world of Stuart England.” Accordingly, Mendelson considers “some aspects” of Cavendish’s thought “worthy of mention,”<15> but no more than this: “there would be little point” in detailed description of Cavendish’s “scientific fantasies,” Mendelson decrees (Women in Seventeenth-Century England 72).

Both Mendelson and Smith chide Cavendish for “arrogance” in presuming “to speak about many things concerning which her knowledge was meager” — paramount among these, natural philosophy (Hilda Smith, Reason’s Disciples 67). Mendelson goes so far as to contend that this exerted “a negative influence on her work” because Cavendish was forced to accept “a low standard in her own endeavours,” resulting in a “grotesquely transformed” New Science project (Mental World 36, 28). Just who in fact was qualified to discourse on scientific questions during Cavendish’s era is never specified, either by Smith or Mendelson. It is simply assumed that Cavendish, as an uneducated woman and undisciplined writer, was unable to “clearly segregate the fantasy from the fact” (Hilda Smith, Reason’s Disciples 76), and that this alone is sufficient grounds for disqualifying her as a legitimate partner in scientific inquiry.

1.4   Reconstructing Cavendish

This study attempts to (re)discover Cavendish on somewhat different terms than prior investigations. I do not undertake to place Cavendish within mainstream literary or scientific traditions. I am unconcerned with justifying her inclusion in an abstracted canon of “great” men and/or women. Nor am I inclined to rank Cavendish as author and scientist. It is not my intent to render her Isaac Newton’s equal, or Shakespeare’s, or the inferior of either. Indeed, I do not seek recognition for Cavendish on grounds that she is a “great” or “important” figure within any particular intellectual tradition. Such preoccupations have for too long determined the tenor of Cavendish scholarship, directing critical energies towards projects of rating or justification and away from what I believe to be more fruitful courses of inquiry. Must we understand Cavendish only in terms of hierarchies and standards — cultural constructs from which she herself advocated (and sought) escape?

I prefer instead to seek recognition for Cavendish on grounds of shared political concerns and her interesting handling of these. Over three centuries ago, Cavendish articulated a viewpoint that is strikingly similar to “postmodern” feminist critiques of Western science and its attendant discourse of rationality. Cavendish wrote passionately about man’s wanton destruction of the environment; the “masculine” bias of Western science/technology, intellectual traditions, and written discourse; the poverty of mind-matter dualisms and derivative contrast schemes; the imperatives of patriarchy. Her suggested alternatives were also strangely “postmodern”: adopting an environmentalist perspective; (re)feminizing the New Science program; writing “the feminine”; re-visioning matter and form as a fusion of soul-body-mind; turning to the far-out fancies of feminist sci-fi and utopian fiction for images of a different world order. It is this curious convergence of pre- and postmodern feminist perspectives that here frames my study of Margaret Cavendish. Ultimately, I seek to render Cavendish, ourselves, and our diverse feminist projects somewhat more clear by a heightened awareness of similarity and difference. I would argue that Cavendish’s works are worthy of critical scrutiny and evaluation on these grounds alone. Accordingly the following chapters, framed by specific thematic concerns of particular relevance to feminist struggles today, address only selected fragments of Cavendish’s vast body of work and thought. My overall organization is encyclopedic rather than thesis-driven, geared more to sweeping portraiture of little known texts and period concerns than to single-minded pursuit of one line of argument.

Chapter 2 first explores the controversy surrounding Cavendish’s feminism since this logically precedes any discussion of Cavendish’s “feminist” rhetoric or science. In chapter 2, I argue that Cavendish gave free play to multiple voices in her writings: the dominant voices of patriarchal discourse, and a feminist voice of rebellion. She wrote some of the most virulently antifeminist statement of the period (to an extent, indicative of a certain self-hatred imbibed with the culture) and some of the most feminist. She did not attempt, let alone achieve, the reconciliation of such conflicting narratives. This candid display of discord between textual voices, representative of real-life tensions and contestations for authoritative power and audience in seventeenth-century society,<16> was truly a remarkable achievement, wrought in an early feminist defiance of such traditional literary guidelines as “thematic coherence” and “imaginative unity.”

Next, chapter 3 focuses on Cavendish’s early version of “deconstructed” discourse, characterized by: an emphasis on natural language (rather than Standard Language) norms, a plurality and confusion of voice, an integrationist (rather than reductionist) format and intent, an indulgence of “wild” imaginings, a proliferation of personal detail, and a relation of co-orientation with the reader. In crafting what she termed a “natural rational discourse,” Cavendish deliberately sought to challenge and shift Standard Language boundaries viewed as constitutive of patriarchal discourse (Penelope and Wolfe 136). Her sophisticated critique of gender-biased registers — coupled with her deliberate espousal of particular rhetorical strategies because they best accommodated her needs as an oppressed woman and her alternate vision of nature as ceaselessly changing, various, complex — drew on a “feminist” rationale.

Chapter 4 next examines Cavendish’s fascinating variations on the seventeenth-century New Science project. Her materialism was anti-mechanistic at core, and fused elements of dialectical thinking with strains of organicism. Because of gender identification, Cavendish observed a direct relation between her society’s domination of women and what she justly delineated as the New Science attempt to dominate nature. Cavendish argued that both women (in reality) and nature (in New Science theory) were denied free will, “self-motion,” and self-governance. Her theories (and the metaphors on which she drew) promoting nature as infinite, self-moving, all-powerful creator — supreme over man — stemmed in large part from her need as a woman to resist patriarchal oppression and controls. So too did her methods, which favored forms of non-invasive natural inquiry focused on the world as it is rather than on experimental simulations of it. It is my contention that in combining a feminist perspective with metaphors, observations, and experiences derived from “the woman’s sphere,” Cavendish formulated an imaginative ontology which challenged the more orthodox theories of her day with equal interpretive power.

Chapter 5 then probes Cavendish’s attempts at imaging differing realities in multiple dimensions: social, political, and physical. Some of these are more conventional than one might expect; others are uniquely visionary. With their still-tantalizing images of women’s potential and liberation, Cavendish’s fantasy texts allowed her a discursive space from which to explore and reclaim “the feminine.” Rather than simply dismissing such “airy fairy” thinking from the arena of serious political discourse, I wish to contend that Cavendish’s most far-fetched imaginings were not without significant reverberations in the real world. The incredulous silence with which literary critics today greet Cavendish’s “wild” fantasies was not always the preferred reading.

Finally, chapter 6 brings our discussion back to the twentieth century for a closing look at Cavendish’s relation to, and possible meanings for, many of us today. I there suggest that, with the benefit of hindsight and the questionable legacy of the New Science project full upon us, it is time to listen to the voice of Margaret Cavendish raised in early protest. The two appendices that follow chapter 6 provide supplementary material referenced in earlier chapters, but too detailed and prolonged for earlier inclusion. With these two narratives, I attempt to reconstruct the background context within which a woman, especially a feminist, approached scientific study and discourse during the era of scientific revolution. As I shall argue, her destiny lay not in passing the torch of revelation from Galileo, to Boyle, to Newton, and on down through the ages, but in encroaching disfranchisement from the means of scientific and technological production. Appendix A presents my research on the changing relationship of women to science and technology in the early modern period, while appendix B charts the evolution of scientific discourse, with its insistent suppression of “the feminine,” within this same time frame. Let me here stress the preliminary nature of both appended narratives; much study remains to be done on the subjects covered there.

In reconstructing Cavendish in this manner, I wish not only to rescue her from prior obscurity and misrepresentation, but in so doing, to continue the arduous process of “unthinking”<17> prevailing attitudes about science and its discourse that are prejudicial to our readings of Cavendish (and, I would add, to our readings of contemporary science and technology as well). Western culture retains a number of dualisms (most not original with the New Science project, but rather, augmented by it) that separate and deify science with a special epistemological status. The arational and extralogical; fancy and the fantastic; singularity of vision (Cavendish’s “original-brained” thinking); values, self, and subjectivity — all are popularly conceived of as existing in a relation of opposition to “true science.” Cavendish did not accept these oppositions; nor do I.

Today, commentary on the appalling state of technical writing abounds. I would suggest that the well-documented failure of much technical writing as communication rests with a particular epistemological stance, inherited from the New Science, and rooted in patriarchal concepts of society and nature.<18> In laboring to craft a discourse type suitable to their scientific enterprise, the London Royal Society and its continental counterparts first separated and then elevated facts over theory — a “masculine” res over a “feminine” verba — at the same time promoting a telementational theory of language and truth.<19> In their desire to discover and contain “the one true story” of life, mind, and physical reality, prominent New Science spokesmen sought to impose linguistic unity (thus inhibiting the capacity of language to convey difference or dissent) by creating a “regulative” language of one word, one meaning (Medcalf xxx). The protracted struggle of multiple New Scientists against what Dobrin calls “the fecundity of language” emphasized language as information rather than communication (“What’s Technical” 236). This attitude now plagues technical writing at the level of macro- as well as microstructure. Not only the word, but also the text, have been de-rhetoricized, with information transfer isolated from its communicative context. In the process of formulating and later deifying the “fact” as something that exists a priori to the perceiving subject, New Science activists initiated data-based technical discourse with their “omniverous fact-gathering” and natural history compilations (now associated by scholars with a “vulgar Baconianism” that was increasingly popular throughout the seventeenth century; see Hoppen 6). These early collections of “raw data” would eventually evolve into an arhetorical stance and the now-familiar “depersonalized reporting of events as if they had occurred in a vacuum” (Rutter 702).

The uncritical encomiums of John Brogan and others who today still invoke a “plain style” ideal hark back to earlier praises for “chastity and brevity” in style by Francis Bacon and his followers who believed that when writing for their fellow “sons of science,” the self-evident truths of fact and reason needed no adornment. Suggested fix-its for today’s technical writing still promote what Royal Society spokesmen called (and contemporary feminist theoreticians, linguists, and rhetoricians also call) the “masculine style,” popularly viewed as decisive, direct, economical, authoritative, logical, neutral and objective, vivid, vigorous (characteristics also widely gendered as male). The imagery denoting masculinity is pervasive. Superior technical writing is defined as “lean writing” that “thrusts the essential ideas vigorously forward” (Brogan 6). Contemporary editorial dicta promote “communicating with confidence, authority and power.” Workshops, style guides, and language pundits all reduce successful technical communication to the use of “power-packed” prose boasting “sentence muscle,” “power and punch.”<20>

As the privileged truth status of scientific texts comes under increased scrutiny from those critical of a blind allegiance to scientific and technological dogma, so too do the language conventions correlated with that privilege. The long-favored standards for technical discourse — e.g., “objectivity,” traditional patterns of logic (argument by deduction, antitheses, and differentiae), economy of expression, a verb-based prose style, subordinate syntax, declarative mood — are increasingly under attack for their unacknowledged biases and have been widely criticized from within varying fields of study: science, linguistics, philosophy, ethics, feminism, and rhetoric.<21> This is worth remembering when we set out to read the very different science texts of Margaret Cavendish. Her preference for a style of discourse other than that traditionally favored by modern science was not, I shall argue, simply a case of ignorance or ineptitude (on her part) after all.

1.5   Notes on Terminology

1.5.1 “New Science”

Peter Wright among others contends that use of the term “science” when describing seventeenth-century knowledge-seeking activities is anachronistic. He prefers the phrase “natural knowledge”: “after all, the full name of the Royal Society was, ‘The Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge.’ I shall use the term as synonymous with natural philosophy” (97). I have no quarrel with the terms “natural knowledge,” “natural philosophy,” or “natural history.” All were current during the seventeenth century and will be used here. My preference, however, is for the phrase “New Science,” also favored by an increasing number of scholars. While I don’t think there is any mistaking “New Science” as a descriptor for present-day science and technology, I do at the same time wish to stress a certain continuity between seventeenth- and twentieth-century science practices.

Wright’s objection to use of the term “science” centers around his accurate characterization of the mid-seventeenth-century as “a world in which religious and political motives interfused with ‘scientific’ work at many levels; where social status often coloured scientific legitimacy; and where central figures such as Boyle and Newton might conceive of their ‘scientific’ research as the fulfilment of alchemical and millenarian ends” (83). He finds all of this incompatible with “science” as defined today. I do not. Although it is customary in some circles to define “true science” as detached from social, political, and subjective concerns — to quote Vickers, “scientific thought systems are ‘socially-neutral’” (Introduction 41) — I believe this to be an egregious distortion of the scientific enterprise. Science

... can not be made value-neutral in the sense of blocking political values and interests from the conceptual schemes and methodologies that direct scientific inquiry ... But science is value-neutral in the dangerous epistemological and social sense that it is porous, transparent, to the moral and political meanings that structure its conceptual schemes and methodologies.
(Harding, The Science Question 238)

It is significant that this much-lauded separation of scientific thought from its social and political context dates from the mid-seventeenth century. As Daele argues, the institutionalization of science in an age of absolutism and civil war required a clear differentiation of science from politics, morality, social reform and religion. However, the mid-century institutionalization and alignment of science with royal protection was itself an important political act. Then, as now, science’s proclaimed neutrality did not erase, but merely served to mask, that complex of relations which bind science to “the worlds of historical particularity and of psychic repressions and fantasies” (Harding, The Science Question 245).

I have also chosen the phrase “New Science” because it calls attention to the much-vaunted novelty of seventeenth-century natural philosophy. References to the “new philosophy” and the “improved philosophy” permeate the works of seventeenth-century scientists. Although this characterization of “new” and “improved” was about as accurate then as it is today in the pervasive discourse of Madison Avenue, it nonetheless played an integral role in the history and development of natural philosophy during the period. The fact that seventeenth-century scientists presented themselves as embattled proponents of a “new” vision struggling against the entrenched forces of reaction is not insignificant to an understanding of the eventual fate of natural knowledge and knowledge-seeking activities at that time. Quoting Mendelsohn:

The search for new methods, new explanatory modes, new means of gaining knowledge and a clear restatement of human domination of nature coincided with the decline in social authority and the struggling to the top of new social classes seeking means of achieving wealth and power. The social instabilities definitely permitted, even encouraged, new social and cognitive experimentation while the desire to consolidate gains and achieve social space in the face of re-asserted authority necessitated the careful drawing of boundaries and foregoing of many challenges. (20)

I wish also to emphasize that while use of umbrella terms such as “the New Science” are necessary, it is essential not to infer from this use too great a uniformity among those subscribing to New Science theories or practices. The New Science movement was in many ways remarkably broad-based, drawing believers from all sectors of the population (educated and non-educated, religious and skeptical, Puritan and Anglican, Royalist and Republican, reformer and reactionary, artisan and king, astrologers, merchants, midwives, lawyers, farmers, landed gentlemen, academics, courtiers, “huswives,” laborers, soldiers, herb-women, statesmen, and so on).

1.5.2 “Institutionalized New Science”

The above caveat holds also for the umbrella term “institutionalized New Science,” used here to differentiate the New Science as mediated by the procedures and publications of the Royal Society from that of the New Science movement as a whole. Specifically, “it is important to appreciate that the Society as a corporate body projected an image which need not necessarily represent the considered viewpoint of more than a small minority of the membership” (Webster 495). Indeed, as the important researches of Hoppen, Wood, and Hunter all show, the membership of the Royal Society, although considerably less broad-based than that of the New Science movement as a whole, was equally eclectic in its interests and interpretations of the Baconian New Science project. Many Royal Society members entertained facets of the new mechanical philosophy along with “a variety of still vital intellectual traditions,” including alchemy, astrology, naturalism, neoplatonism, cabbalism, and hermeticism (Hoppen 2). Thus, “a definitive statement of the Society’s ideology, methodology, or metaphysics” was/is impossible (Wood 5). Propagandists such as Sprat and Glanvill who claimed, under the Royal Society imprimatur, to speak for the Society or New Science movement as a whole, imposed consensus where none truly existed. Nonetheless, the corporate voice they so carefully crafted, as the sole official word of the New Science movement after 1662, carried volubly.

1.5.3 “Scientific” and “Technical” Discourse/Writing

These two phrases are here used interchangeably. Although I do not wish to collapse the important distinction between science and technology, a recognized difference in their respective discourses is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon, and even then somewhat arcane to those outside the specialized field of technical communications.<22>

1.5.4 “Masculine” and “Feminine”

In keeping with convention, I use “masculine” and “feminine” to refer to cultural constructions of gender. These I consider quite different from “female” and “male” (or “women” and “men”), terms which I use throughout to denote biological sex.

That said, I wish now to address the problems inherent in concepts of “masculine” and “feminine.” References to a female/feminine versus male/masculine epistemology (also ontology, rhetoric, language, and cognitive style) have become increasingly popular of late. Repeatedly we are told that competition, aggression, individualism, control, reductionism, and objectivity characterize the masculine sensibility while cooperation, receptivity, nurturing, integration, egalitarianism, wholism, and an emotional subjectivity characterize the feminine sensibility. I do not accept that “masculine” and “feminine” describe mentalities or traits inherent to males versus females, but that they are falsely universalizing, evaluative descriptors assigned by cultures at a particular historical moment, whereby a label of “feminine” traditionally indicates pejorative, marginalized status. It is in this sense that I use the terms “masculine” and “feminine” in the text that follows.

In defense of this position, I would note that arguments which posit a particular way of perceiving, thinking, speaking, or acting as innately “feminine” because the majority of women we know and/or observe seem to favor that way are frequently specious. For example, while recent research in cognitive studies reveals certain sex biases in Western societies (with women biased towards field-dependent and men towards field-independent cognitive and perceptive styles), researchers have also discovered that the observed difference between sexes is statistically insignificant in comparison to the range of differences within sexes (Witkin, Moore, Goodenough, and Cox). Even the effects of gender socialization are not absolute. Although all social roles and occupations are “valenced,”<23> this does not mean that everyone who assumes these roles feels or behaves according to role prescriptions. Not all women, for example, are caring, nurturing, etc. Not even all homemakers and mothers are. While research in Meyers-Briggs type theory evidences the vast influence of gender socialization in behavioral preferences, it also acknowledges that such socialization is hardly all-encompassing.<24> Thus, as Pearson stresses, women share some values and differ in others: “Those values that are shared ... constitute an ethos correlated with gender but not caused by it” (59).

The same holds true for language. Language — in the sense of a human faculty and communication channel — belongs to everyone; “because of the crucial part it plays in human cognition and development, it cannot be appropriated.” But “the language, the institution, the apparatus of ritual, value judgment, and so on, does not belong to everyone equally. It can be controlled by a small elite” (Cameron 145). In this sense, “masculine” and “feminine” languages (Steiner prefers “language worlds”) do exist, with the designated “masculine” style usually entrenched as the Standard Language of the culture. Thus, strategies of indirection, rejected by the “masculine” register in Anglo-American cultures and as a result often used by Anglo-American women in writing and speech, are the favored strategies for ritual (high-prestige) speech in Malagasy culture, where indirectness is considered a prized characteristic of “masculine” speech and the “feminine” register is pejoratively marked by its directness and vigor (Cameron 155). Despite the prevalent marking of registers by gender, we must remember that not all men use the “masculine” register; neither do all women use the “feminine” register. Popular perceptions of “masculine” and “feminine” registers as what real men and women actually speak/write are often incorrect. For example, the observation (voiced since antiquity) that women are more talkative than men accords with the supposed loquacity of style and syntax that marks the “feminine” register in Anglo-American cultures. Yet, when empirically tested, this age-old truism proved spurious.<25> Our gendered perceptions often introduce male-female differentials that don’t exist in actual speech.

While many tenets of feminism educe from traditionally “feminine” values and activities, we must be careful not to conflate the two. A deliberate feminist championing of what has been devalued in Western societies as “feminine” is not the same thing as positing a female Being that transcends the speech and knowledge of particular female subjects. I believe, along with Jean Bethke Elshtain, that it is time to discount “the ontological superiority of female being-in-itself” (129). Gender — with its assymmetrical assignments of “masculine” and “feminine” — must be returned to its social context. We must take note that gender is neither a “natural” nor a unitary fact, but takes shape in concrete, historically changing, social relationships (Thorne, Kramarae, Henley 16).

1.5.5 “Feminist”

I recognize that it is anachronistic to label as “feminist” pre-twentieth-century advocates of women and women’s issues. Harding considers such early proponents of women’s rights “utopian feminists,” pointing out that while they “could recognize the misery of women’s condition and the unnecessary character of that misery ... both their diagnoses of its causes and their prescriptions for women’s emancipation show a failure to grasp the complex and not always obvious mechanisms by which masculine dominance is created and maintained” (The Science Question 159). Simon Shepherd prefers “pre-feminist” (at least as applied to the feminist pamphleteers of the seventeenth century) because “the articulate shared consciousness of womanhood was missing” in their writing and thinking (23).

Nonetheless, I can find no adequate replacement term for that of “feminist.” With the former caveats in mind, I follow Hilda Smith’s intent when she documents a group of “seventeenth-century English feminists,” Cavendish among them, who pioneered “the sociological definition of sex roles” — women who challenged men’s control of public and private institutions, who desired to change the sexual balance of power, and who saw social change as necessary to achieve that end.<26>

1.5.6 “Feminist Science”

The concept of a “feminist science” has long been a source of dissension within feminist circles. Some scholars, arguing from a broad diversity of perspectives, posit a monolithic feminist/feminine science grounded in a uniquely female sensibility that is inherently opposed to Western science and scientific methods. Others vigorously disagree, arguing against any theories that maintain a “masculine”/science versus “feminine”/nature opposition.<27>

I include myself in the latter camp, in full agreement with the general criticisms leveled against a feminist/feminine science drawn from and describing a reality portrayed as “other” to that revealed by traditional science.<28> I instead use the phrase “feminist science” in the same sense as Helen Longino to mean “doing science as a feminist” — that is, as descriptive of a process, rather than a method, wherein feminist values inform on a conscious level our practice and choices as scientists.

In the specific case of Margaret Cavendish, I wish to argue that her alternate New Science project was greatly influenced by her feminism. However, neither her feminism nor her science derived from a culture of shared female experience, grounded in some universally feminine relation to the natural world (although Cavendish herself did sometimes present it this way). Her “feminist” retort to a perceived androcentrism in the New Science was in fact due to her peripheral status on the fringe of institutionalized science and her general alienation from both “masculine” and “feminine” subcultures. Cavendish was no “exemplar of a female culture”; as with most women scientists, her “acculturation was anomalous” (Keller, “Commentary” 418).

Chapter 2 >>


1. Patricia Crawford has documented the remarkable impact of the Civil Wars and Interregnum upon women’s publications (see her “Women’s Published Writings”). The half-decade 1646–50 produced the greatest number of women’s first editions in any half-decade of the century. Equally important, the range of subjects addressed by women in print after the Civil War years broadened from the customarily “feminine” to include political controversy (pamphlets, petitions, feminist criticism) and instructional matter (almanacs, cookery books, herbals, medical texts).

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2. The only other woman at this time to write extensively and systematically on issues of scientific theory was Anne Finch (1631–1679), Viscountess of Conway. Although Finch’s writings circulated in manuscript form among the Cambridge Platonists, and her theories were espoused by the likes of Francis van Helmont and Leibniz, only one of her works (Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy) was ever published. Translated into Latin and edited by her friend van Helmont, it was first published posthumously (and anonymously) in Amsterdam; two years later it was retranslated into English and published in London as the work of an (again anonymous) English countess “learned beyond her sex.” Carolyn Merchant has written extensively on Finch and the significance of her scientific thought, contending that Leibniz’s concept of the “monad” derives from Finch’s work. See also Jane Duran’s recent article contrasting Finch’s version of monistic vitalism with Descartes’ epistemology and metaphysics. Duran argues the “superiority” of Finch’s theory in numerous areas.

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3. It was 1945 before the first woman was elected to membership in the Royal Society, with her election then opposed by ten percent of the institution’s voting body (Stimson 238).

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4. Keith Thomas is probably not the first to link Cavendish and Lady Eleanor Davis (later Douglas), the sensational prophetess (see Decline 138).

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5. Katherine Philips (first pub. 1664) did demur, and accordingly, was widely touted as the model female poet, earning the moniker “the Matchless Orinda” despite acknowledgements that “her poetic talents were not great” (Hilda Smith, Reason’s Disciples 153).

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6. Joan Kelly has documented the “narrowing gender prescriptions of early modern society,” culminating in the “seventeenth-century feminizing of women” and women’s “enforced domestication.” During the early modern period, women of rank suffered a real loss of power as states eroded the military, juridical, and political powers of aristocratic families, gradually forcing these women from a public into a private role (Kelly 7, 23, 28).

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7. My own challenge is as follows: (1) Leona Rostenberg amply documents Roycroft’s long association with the prestigious Martyn and Allestry publishing firm, official “Printers to the Royal Society” from 1663, and publishers of most important seventeenth-century intellectuals, including Hobbes, Hooke, Willughby, Evelyn, Charleton, Malphigi, More, Wilkins, Sprat, etc.; (2) Martyn and Allestrye published a number of Cavendish’s texts, using the printer “T.R.”; (3) the business acumen of Martyn and Allestrye was legendary, and their publishing business was among the most profitable of the time; and (4) Rostenberg attributes this in large part to a select number of “best-selling” authors, among whom she includes Margaret Cavendish (see Rostenberg 237–80).

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8. Such aspersions are in themselves somewhat anachronistic. During the seventeenth century, it was not at all unusual for authors to finance at least some part of the publication effort. Henry More, for example, paid varying amounts for the privilege of publication and for presentation copies of his works (see Finch, Conway Letters 371, 372, 374). Such action did not, in itself, discredit an author or negatively impact his/her influence.

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9. It should be noted that much of our boredom with Cavendish’s science writing — and our easy characterization of it as “pseudo-science” — reveals our own disinterest in a sometimes dated subject matter. Issues of pressing concern to Cavendish and intellectuals of her day no longer absorb us. When we want to know whether or not a snail has teeth or a butterfly hears and sees, we run for our encyclopedias, and not, as Virginia Woolf remarked, for our dissecting shears. “Individually we may know as little as” Margaret Cavendish and John Evelyn on these subjects, “but collectively we know so much that there is little incentive to venture on private discoveries” (Woolf, “Rambling Round Evelyn” 111–12). Our impatience with Cavendish’s prolonged process of private discovery escalates in direct proportion to our ready access to what is deemed “certain” knowledge on a subject.

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10. Mendelson, Women in Seventeenth-Century England 71. As “trite literary forms” Mendelson evidences “‘Encyclopedic’ verse,” “allegories of fancies,” “fairy poems,” and “dialogues of birds or animals.” Mendelson, not herself a literary critic, bases her claims here on H.M. Cocking’s “Originality and Influence in the Work of Margaret Cavendish, First Duchess of Newcastle” (M. Phil. thesis, Reading U, 1972). Her predisposition to Cocking’s way of thinking is amply demonstrated in her own study of Cavendish. I must note that I am unfamiliar with Cocking’s thesis beyond Mendelson’s synopsis of it.

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11. To varying degrees, the studies by Sir Egerton Brydges, Henry Perry, A.S. Turberville, Paul Delany, and B.G. MacCarthy fall into this category.

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12. “Education and the Style of Seventeenth Century Women Writers: The Case of Margaret Cavendish” (M.A. thesis, St. Louis U, 1975). I regret to say that I have not yet obtained a copy of this work.

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13. Here the work of Frances Yates springs to mind, and others such as P.M. Rattansi who ascribe to the Yatesian theory of influence.

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14. In this vein, see for example: Dorothy Stimson; Samuel Mintz, “The Duchess of Newcastle’s Visit”; and Marjorie Nicolson, Pepys’ “Diary”.

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15. Here, Mendelson lists Cavendish’s materialism; her depiction of a universe “more or less egalitarian, and animated by feminine principles, for Nature herself was a woman”; her “deflating” of man’s pretensions to superiority over animals; and her identification of “beasts” with men and birds with women.

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16. I am here paraphrasing Ruth Bleier (“Introduction” 14), who in turn draws on the formative work of Donna Haraway for the underlying concept.

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17. I borrow this term from Corlann Gee Bush who defines the feminist project as “a dynamic process of unthinking, rethinking, energizing, and transforming” in contrast to the “sterile, planar dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis” (152).

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18. This claim, and those that follow it by way of explanation, are developed in appendix B (see for substantiating detail).

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19. Cameron 138. Others refer to this as the “windowpane” or “universalist” theory of language. See, for example, Miller 611 ff.; Gusfield 16–17; and Dobrin, “What’s Technical about Technical Writing?” 234 ff. Rather than accept that technical content “is created in and through the dynamics of statement,” the telementational viewpoint holds that language conveys “a pre-established or separately extant content, as a cable conveys telegraph messages” (Dobrin, “What’s Technical about Technical Writing?” 238).

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20. Such advisements are from the National Seminars brochure, the Success Builders brochure, and John Brogan (35).

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21. A representative range of critical viewpoints includes: Scott Consigny; David Dobrin (“What’s Technical About Technical Writing?”); Sally Gearhart (“Womanization of Rhetoric”); Michael Halloran; Luce Irigaray; James Kelso; Robert Lilienfeld; Michael Markel; P.B. Medawar; Carolyn Miller; Dennis Minor; Sheryl Pearson; Jack Selzer; Philip Wander; Rulon Wells; plus Whitburn, Davis, Higgins, Oates, and Spurgeon.

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22. David Dobrin adroitly distinguishes the two discourses; see his “What’s Technical about Technical Writing?” 230–1.

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23. That is, tend to seek out or fit in with certain social norms and to ignore or disturb others. I borrow this usage from Corlann Gee Bush (“Women and the Assessment of Technology” 154–5).

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24. Only one out of the four MBTI axes — the Thinking-Feeling (T-F) plane — evidences a statistically-significant difference according to sex. American men split into 60% “T” and 40% “F” types, while American women split into 35% “T” and 65% “F” types (Meyers and McRaulley 45).

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25. Research with mixed-sex groups in the twentieth century inverts the stereotype of women as “all tongue” (a favorite seventeenth-century metonym). Because of men’s strategies of interruption and inattention to topics raised by women, men are actually more talkative than women (see Thorne, Kramarae, Henley 13, 17, 273, 279–81). Women may well be perceived as more talkative than men precisely because they are expected to be more silent (Thorne, Kramarae, Henley 17).

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26. Hilda Smith, Reason’s Disciples xiv. Patricia Crawford also chooses the “feminist” label; see her “Women’s Published Writings” 228.

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27. Subscribers to the feminist-as-feminine position include Carolyn Merchant, Ynestra King, Hilary Rose (“Beyond Masculinist Realities”), and Barbara Dodds Stanford. Among those who dissent are Sandra Harding, Evelyn Fox Keller, Helen Longino, Marion Namenwirth, Elizabeth Fee, and Joan Rothschild (“A Feminist Perspective”).

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28. For example: falsely universalizing; promoting uncritical acceptance of the “feminine”; perpetuating separateness and dualistic thinking; and bolstering strategies of exclusion by condoning the opposition of science vs. woman.

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