Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne

Natural Philosopher

British Library, 1671

  • BORN 1623, St John’s Abbey, near Colchester, Essex
  • DIED 15th December 1673, Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire
  • WORKED Antwerp, Paris, London and Welbeck
  • HONOURS No honours, but she was the only woman to enter a Royal Society meeting – and there were no female Fellows for the next three centuries

Artistic Connections

She was a prolific poet, and there is now great interest in her as a literary figure. A girl’s education in the seventeenth century typically included singing and dancing

Education

As a girl, her education was very basic, but she later recruited her brother and her brother-in-law to teach her scientific ideas

Occupations

Lady in waiting
To escape from her cloistered provincial life, she went to Oxford and then to Paris with the royal court, which was in exile during the republican regime before Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660

Wife to William Cavendish, the first Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne
Astutely marrying a rich elderly aristocrat, she devoted her life to writing books that were privately published

Author
She wrote prolifically on scientific topics, but was perpetually frustrated by being constrained as a woman

Detail of picture by Gonzales Cocques (image from Wikipedia)

Scientific Achievement

Widely mocked at the time, her writings are now appreciated for their rejection of male supremacy:

“Why should we Desire to be Masculine, since our Own Sex and Condition is far the Better?”

She shocked many people by insisting that matter is intelligent, not inert – she opposed the binary distinction between mind and body.  This was scandalous because it challenged the role of God.

Did You Know?

High resolution microscopes had recently been invented, but she insisted that there was no point in magnifying a bee unless you could get more honey from it!

She blamed women’s bodies for their inability to think, and believed in Aristotle’s pronouncement that they are hampered by their cold, soft brains.

An Inspiring Woman

Because she refused to conform, her critics said she was mad. But she is now admired for having the courage to speak out for what she believed in.

Image from wikipedia

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