SOME THOUGHTS ON WOMEN'S WORK
Dear Ones —
So you guys know that my new novel "The Signature of All Things" is about a fictitious 19th century female botanist, right? (That would be my dear Alma Whittaker.)
I've been on book tour lately, which means I've been doing a lot of interviews in recent weeks. And the other day, a journalist asked me, "Why botany?" And then, before I could answer, he added: "Also, why the 19th century?" And finally: "Also, why a female protagonist?"
OK, so here is my answer…or rather, here are my answers!
1) I wrote about botany because I am a passionate gardener who loves plants.
2) I wrote about the 19th century because that was, to my mind, the most action-packed and exciting moment in all of botanical history.
3) And I wrote about a female botanist, because women like Alma Whittaker actually existed, and because nobody knows about them, and because they were totally fascinating and kick-ass, and because I wanted to celebrate them.
You see, in the late 18th and early 19th century, botany was the only science in which women could participate, because: FLOWERS! Plants and gardens had always been considered a woman's domain, and so botany was deemed feminine and unthreatening enough to not destroy or corrupt the delicate female mind. (Oh, how delicate we women are, with our tiny little lady minds!) Thus, women were able to sneak into botany through the garden gate — but once they were there, they began to make tremendous scientific contributions.
Which started to make certain men nervous.
For instance, in 1825, a gentleman named John Lindley became the first Professor of Botany at the newly formed London College, in England. He was twenty-nine years old and on a holy mission. In his inaugural speech, he swore that he would take back botany from women. He promised that he would "redeem" the study of botany forever, transforming it from "an amusement for ladies" into a proper science — "an occupation for the serious thoughts of man." (Oh, those poor gentlemen, with their big serious thoughts!)
From that point forward, the study of plants would be bifurcated into two very clear and distinct realms: a respectable profession studied by men, and a harmless recreation enjoyed by women.
What men practiced would henceforth be called "botany."
What women practiced would henceforth be called "polite botany."
Everyone was doing exactly the same work, mind you. But only the men's work would be regarded as "science." Everything else was just a silly female hobby. So decreed the likes of John Lindley.
So how did the lady scientists, the "polite botanists", respond to this diminishing of their labor, their intelligence, their talents?
They ignored it.
They just kept on working. They just kept on studying, kept on writing papers, kept on making discoveries, kept on exploring, kept on WORKING — diligently, seriously, effectively. Some of them went on collecting voyages to Madagascar. Some of them became trusted correspondents with the likes of Charles Darwin. Some of them now have galleries dedicated to their names in the great botanical gardens of the world (while dopey John Lindley is unremembered for anything but his one dumb comment.)
The "polite botanists" simply would not be shut out.
Which is what you have to do whenever people try to diminish you. You just have to work harder than them and be better than them. You just have to make sure you get up earlier in the morning, and put in more hours, and produce more impressive work, and never quit. And you must ignore the bullshit chatter in the air all around you questioning whether you are worthy, and instead focus stubbornly upon continuing to seek and find satisfaction and honor in your own life's work, whatever that may be.
AND THAT — whether it's 1825 or today, my dears — IS HOW YOU KICK ASS.
Like our dear Alma Whittaker.
So that is my final answer.