Thus Spake Zuska

Between Jellies and Stars

The next Scientiae Carnival topic is How We Are Hungry.

We spent the Memorial Day holiday weekend at Mom’s house, so hunger and food are topics much on my mind. Sunday we had a cookout at my brother’s house; the weather was perfect, and Brother Zuska was in his element at the grill/smoker, delivering up enough grilled meat to feed at least three times as many people as we had there. Food – feeding each other, sharing meals – has always been a big deal in my family. Are you familiar with the Wedding Song? One time my sisters and I made up parody lyrics to it, culminating in “For whenever two or more of you are gathered in the Franks name, there is food – there is food…” There are special foods for holidays and special occasions, but any excuse will do to feed each other. My mother has been known to manufacture requests for food out of thin air.

Mom: Cindy, do you want me to make you a sandwich?

Cindy: Oh, you don’t have to go to all that trouble.

Mom: It’s no trouble, I already have all the stuff out because I’m making one for Greg; he asked for a ham sandwich with cheese and mayo. Do you want one, too?

Greg: Whaaa??? (stupefied look on face; he did not, in fact request a sandwich.)

Cindy: (noticing Greg’s reaction, trying not to laugh) Okay, okay, I’ll take a sandwich.

Mom: (triumphantly feeds relatives)

But of course, all that food is not just, or even primarily, feeding our bodies. It is food for the soul, when we eat with our families and friends. We share food, we talk, we tell each other the same stories over and over and over again, strengthening the bonds between us. But we can’t just rely on sharing food with family to feed our souls. We need other resources.

For me, gardening is one such resource. The winter months then pose their own challenges, but gardening is a true companion for eight or nine months a year. Gardening can pleasure all the senses, refresh the spirit, exercise the body, and make you forget whatever was bothering you, at least for a little while. If there is a gardening scale, with 10 being Master Gardener, and 1 being Rank Beginner, I am probably about a 2.5, but I do it for my own pleasure, so who cares? Maybe this picture will help you see what I mean.


Is that not a lovely iris? Every spring they appear unbidden in my garden, to entertain me for a week or so. They never fail to take my breath away.

If I had been born in the eighteenth century, I might have been urged to take up the study of the iris and other plants to help suppress my appetite for “frivolous amusements”, and to help bring me to a “[greater] appreciation of God and his universe.” These quotes are from Londa Schiebinger’s book The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science, chapter 8, in the section “Was Botany Feminine?” Schiebinger gives an interesting and amusing sketch of the ways in which women were urged to the study of botany – but not too much. They should take care not to take it too seriously, not to be ambitious, not consider themselves more than an amateur. Meanwhile, debates raged about whether or not botany was a proper subject of study for men at all, and the propriety of its study for women. Was it not just too, too feminine for men to consider? And yet…what about all that lurid Linnaeun plant sex? Schiebinger notes how the latter issue was resolved:

In 1735, when Linnaeus identified sexuality as the key to botanical classification, had he not remarked that the genital organs of plants are exposed to the view of all? Surely a science which studied the “shameful whoredom” of plants as they are caught in various acts of polyandry or polygamy was not an appropriate study for young women…[A]t the same time that Linnaeus emphasized the sexuality of plants, he made it palatable to young minds by assimilating plant life to European mores: through rich metaphors Linnaeus suggested that plants joined in lawful marriages whereby stamens and pistils met as brides and grooms on verdant nuptial beds. [p. 242]

That is soooo freakin’ romantic! I suppose I ought to at least get a nice card for my iris. But I’m not buying them a blender. I’ve heard rumors that they are all fooling around on each other and this isn’t going to last…

Some of you may know, but I’ll bet most of you don’t, that there was a huge boom in popular science writing aimed specifically at women in the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century. Popular mathematics magazines, books on astronomy (natural philosophy, it was called then), botany; Schiebinger makes note of a series of 154 volumes published in 1785, “designed to provide women’s libraries with all necessary knowledge”.

The mother of them all, so to speak, was Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds), published in 1686. You can actually buy a recent English translation of the original French book. It’s a good read with a nice scholarly preface, but I much prefer the 1688 translation by Aphra Behn, which was the first ever translation into English. I was lucky enough to get a copy of Behn’s translation when I was a graduate student at Duke (thanks, Monica Green!), and once wrote a paper about it. The Conversations is a dialogue between a philosopher and a marquise as they walk in a garden at night, and it is written in a style that is somewhere between the way science texts and romances were written at that time, if you can imagine. My analysis of the Conversations is that it presents an intellectual seduction of the Marquise, who is initially completely naive of natural philosophy, an intellectual virgin. By the end of the dialogues, she has lost all inhibitions and reservations, and is desirous of knowing everything the philosopher would teach her – even Geometry! She wants more, more, more! In this, the Conversations is much like popular romances of the period that featured the seduction of innocents.

The Conversations was tremendously popular, went through numerous editions and translations, and inspired many imitators and periodicals aimed at women. Here’s a little snippet from the paper I wrote (presented at a conference, but not published):

Joseph Addison (editor of a journal called the Spectator and an 18th century disseminator of Fontenelle’s ideas) was amused by the scene of an 18th century noblewoman and her daughters making jam while reading Fontenelle aloud: “It was very entertaining to me to see them dividing their speculations between jellies and stars, and making a sudden transition from the sun to an apricot, or from the Copernican system to the figure of a cheese-cake”. To me, however, the scene is more bitter. “Between jellies and stars” indeed, is where the scientific lady would find herself for many long years to come.

Fontenelle acknowledged his own wish to have women read his work…[he] was a product of his times and produced a work entirely consistent with those times. The place it defined for women in science was that of an entertained spectator, a consumer of watered down versions of the productions of men. Despite this, many women found in it inspiration and encouragement for their scientific aspirations, both through the text itself and the followers it inspired. Indeed, it was probably the only type of work that could have reached a majority of women who were expected and learned to like romances, and to whom serious education was forbidden. A more rigorous textbook might not have reached their hands, or could have been seen as improper for them. In a sense, Fontenelle’s text sat at the intersection of two worlds, not truly at home in either. It was neither strictly scientific nor completely romantic, for it did attempt, with some success, to inform…

Fontenelle was popular because he combined the new science with beliefs about human nature with which his audience was comfortable, and presented both in a witty and entertaining way. He provided, perhaps inadvertently, a considerable opening for women to the sciences, but it was an opening which could not be further widened, and eventually disappeared.

By the 19th century, opportunities for women to participate in science had constricted again. We tend to think that there must be, throughout history, a steady progress of women’s access to science. You know, the old “we just have to wait for the junior faculty to work their way up through the ranks” bit. But if you really look at women’s history – if you really take the long view – you will see that the history of women in science is comprised of a series of advances and retreats. I am not so sure that, in at least some disciplines, we are not in a retreat right now.

And if we are not in a retreat…do we not still find ourselves, in a sense, between jellies and stars, trying to combine career and family and stay sane?

How we are hungry. We hunger for jellies AND stars, and for men who will help us have both, not dismiss or take amusement in our difficulties combining them. Jellies AND stars. Not trapped between, but able to clasp both, and draw sustenance for our souls.


  1. #1 katherine sharpe
    June 1, 2007

    The “shameful whoredom” of plants! It sounds like someone’s been hipped to ‘Friday Flower Porn’ over at Doc Bushwell’s Chimp Refuge…


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