Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, July 17, 2020

Eunice Newton Foote, Scientist and Inventor

Eunice Newton Foote, scientist and inventor (born 17 July 1819)


Writing about Eunice Newton Foote as part of the New York Times "Overlooked No More" series, John Schwartz notes that her "ingenious experiment more than 150 years ago yielded a remarkable discovery that could have helped shape modern climate science had she not been overshadowed."
Eunice Foote's 1856 paper , published in
the American Journal of Science and the Arts

Could have, Schwartz says, because "the scientific paper she published that might have added her name to the pantheon of early climate scientists was quickly forgotten, and she faded into obscurity. There isn’t even a known photograph of her today."

Now, however, Eunice Newton Foote's name and her scientific observations have begun to gain recognition, as the "overlooked no more" obituary demonstrates. Better late than never?

Born in Goshen, Connecticut, Eunice Newton was the daughter of the wonderfully named "Isaac Newton." (He was actually "Isaac Newton Jr.," the son of a farmer named Isaac Newton, also from Goshen). Her mother's given name was Thirza (her surname is unknown). 

Together Isaac and Thirza Newton had eleven children and, at some point, Newton relocated from Goshen to East Bloomfield, New York. The family's fortunes rose and fell--at one point Isaac Newton seems to have become wealthy (due to his "large and bold" speculation), but at the time of his death, he "was much embarrassed with debt."

While nothing is known of Eunice Newton's childhood, records indicate that she was enrolled at the Troy Female Seminary from 1836 to 1838. While there, she seems to have attended science lectures at Rensellaer School, co-founded by Amos Eaton, a man dedicated to the belief that women should be educated in the sciences.

In 1841, Eunice Newton married Elisha Foote. The couple had two daughters, Mary, born in 1842, and Augusta, in 1844. 

Elisha Foote, a lawyer and inventor, had been trained in the law by Daniel Cady, the father of the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Elisha Foote practiced law and then became a judge in Seneca Falls, New York. It should be no surprise, then, that both Elisha and Eunice Newton Foote attended the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, signing the "Declaration of Sentiments." Along with Stanton, Eunice Foote prepared the proceedings of the convention for publication.

Signatories of the "Declaration of Sentiments,"
Seneca Falls Convention;
Eunice Newton Foote's name is fifth on the list
By 1856, Eunice Newton Foote had written a scientific paper that was accepted for presentation at the Eighth Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Through a series of experiments, she had demonstrated the effect of the sun on various gases, in the process discovering that carbon dioxide became hottest. She then theorized about the effect of these gases on the earth's atmosphere, concluding that “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature.”

Though her paper had been accepted for presentation at the association's meeting, as a woman Foote was not able to present it herself. Instead her paper was read by Joseph Henry, director of the Smithsonian Institution.

About the "gender disparities" that were apparent in this arrangement, Leila McNeill writes:

At the meeting, Henry appended Foote’s paper with his own added preface: “Science was of no country and of no sex. The sphere of woman embraces not only the beautiful and the useful, but the true.” The introduction, intended to praise Foote, more than anything highlights her difference as a woman in a sea of men, indicating that her presence among them was indeed unusual and needed justification. Even Scientific American’s praise of Foote’s paper was included in a column two pages after the AAAS meeting report. Though both Henry and Scientific American seemed to see Foote as an equal in scientific endeavors, she was still kept separate from the fold.

In 1857, Foote published a second scientific paper, "On a New Source of Electrical Excitation," in the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

In addition to her scientific experimentation, Foote received a patent for a rubber filling to improve the soles of boots and shoes (intended to "prevent the squeaking of boots and shoes"), and she developed a machine to improve paper making. 

According to a genealogical study of the Newton, Eunice Newton Foote was also a portrait and landscape painter

She died on 30 September 1888, just sixty-nine years old. 

For understanding Eunice Newton Foote's scientific achievement (and the reasons why her achievements were "lost"), I recommend Leila McNeill's Smithsonian essay, quoted above (click here) and John Perlin's "Foote-Note" on "the hidden history" of climate science (click here).

There is a short film, Eunice, available by clicking here. Also online is a presentation from the "Science Knows No Gender: In Search of Eunice Foote" symposium (UC Santa Barbara, 2018), particularly interesting for information about Foote's education, about Adam Eaton, and about the Troy Female Seminary (click here).








Monday, May 25, 2020

On Paradise Row, a Mary Astell Mystery

On Paradise Row, a Mary Astell Mystery


After a career of writing history and literary criticism, I have turned my hand to fiction. My new novel, On Paradise Row, features the philosopher and writer Mary Astell as its main character. 

Of course, I haven't abandoned the historical research that was a part of my academic career and that continues here, in my posts on this blog. From the "Author's Note":
On Paradise Row is a work of fiction. Mostly.
The novel imagines a few weeks in the life of the seventeenth-century English philosopher and writer Mary Astell, who has been called the first English feminist. A quiet woman who spends her day in meditation and study, Astell is surprised by the sudden arrival of a young woman whose unwelcome presence interrupts her peaceful routine and challenges her calm certitudes.
To solve the problems created by this uninvited guest, Astell must negotiate not only the vast city of London but also the obstacles women face there. As she makes her way through the dirt and dangers of the crowded streets, she must also find a way through the social, political, and religious institutions designed by those who have little interest in, much less sympathy for, anyone who is not rich or powerful—and male.
While the story is entirely the product of my imagination, the novel’s plot incorporates many details and events drawn from the lives of real women who lived in late seventeenth-century England.

Mary Astell was well known in literary London, her person and her work both celebrated and satirized by her contemporaries. Today her most frequently read works are A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700). In late 1696, when the events of this novel unfold, she had just come to live in a newly constructed terraced house on Paradise Row in the village of Chelsea.

Several of the other characters in the novel are also based on real women, Astell’s friends and acquaintances in Chelsea: Lady Catherine Jones, daughter of the earl of Ranelagh; Elizabeth King, the wife of the rector of All Saints Church; and Mary Methuen, whose sweet-smelling honeysuckle was admired and commented on by several of her neighbors, including Mary Astell.

Other characters include historical women whom Astell might have encountered as she went about her business in the city: the scandalous Hortense Mancini, duchess of Mazarin, who also resided on Paradise Row; Anne Tenison, wife of the archbishop of Canterbury, and her “faithful” attendant, Ann Stubbs; Mary Kettilby, author of A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physic, and Surgery, printed by Richard Wilkin, the bookseller who published many of Astell’s works.

Still others who make an appearance in On Paradise Row are women who were known in seventeenth-century London, but who were probably not the kind of women with whom Mary Astell would have had an acquaintance—outside the pages of a novel, that is. Among them are Gertrude Rolles, a successful milliner with a shop in the Royal Exchange; Mrs. Ball, the proprietor of a marriage house in the Fleet; and Elizabeth Wisebourne, a notorious brothel-keeper whose premises were on Drury Lane.

All of these women—Mary Astell, her friends, her neighbors, and her contemporaries—have left at least some evidence of their lives in London, and I have tried to make real characters out of the tantalizing bits of information that have survived.

For the lives of the other women whose stories are told here—disgruntled maidservants, working women, impoverished widows, and runaway apprentices—I have turned to a variety of sources, including witness depositions, criminal examinations, trial records, settlement and poor relief appeals, livery company records, wills, and other kinds of archival material. These female characters may be fictional, but the circumstances of their lives are real enough.
If you'd like to more about the history behind the fiction, I invite you to visit the novel’s companion website, On Paradise Row (click here). There you will find maps, portraits, a timeline of historical events, biographical details, and a variety of contextual materials. There are also links to copies of newspapers, like the London Gazette, to diaries and summaries of parliamentary debate, to legal proceedings and court reports, and to information about Chelsea in the late seventeenth-century.

I have spent years thinking and writing about Mary Astell. I’ve read her work with scores of students. I’ve walked the length of Paradise Row (now Royal Hospital Road), visited the Chelsea Physic Garden, and had my picture snapped while I was standing next to a sign reading “The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Astell Street, SW3”—in the photo, I am grinning like a madwoman. You might well conclude that I am little obsessed. 

And so I have a confession to make. Mary Astell hated “idle novels” and thought that reading them was not only a waste of time but would also lead “to the practice of the greatest follies.” I am sure she would despise On Paradise Row. I can only offer my apologies and, in my defense, say that it is a product of much love and admiration. 

To sample the opening chapters, click here.










Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Leonor Teles, "the Treacherous"

Leonor Teles, queen and regent of Portugal (married 5 May 1372)


History has not been kind to Leonor Teles. The nineteenth-century novelist Alexandre Herculano described her as "the Portuguese Lucretia Borgia," "a species of diabolic phantom, which appears wherever there is a deed of treachery, of blood, or of atrocity."

Leonor Teles, queen and regent,
from a family tree
of the kings of Portugal
(Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal)
The date of Leonor Teles's birth is not certain, but she was probably born about the year 1350, the daughter of Martim Afonso Telo de Meneses, a Portuguese nobleman, and Aldonça Anes de Vasconcelos, the daughter of João Mendes de Vasconcelos, alcalde (mayor) of Estremoz. 

By 1365, Leonor Teles had married João Lourenço da Cunha, lord of Pombeiro, with whom she had two children. But in 1371, while visiting her sister, Maria, at the Portuguese court, Leonor was introduced to the king, Fernando I--who promptly decided to marry her. 

That Leonor already had a husband proved to be no problem to the "weak, fickle" Fernando, "completely blinded by his folly." The husband was "easily convinced" to give up his wife and retire from the scene. Nor did Fernando let his own entanglements stop him--he had just signed a peace treaty with the king of Castile, promising to marry the king's daughter. 

Instead, ignoring the terms of the treaty of Alcoutim, Fernando married Leonor on 5 May 1372. Early in February of the next year, the new queen gave birth to a daughter, Beatriz. (Fernando would later attempt to ensure his daughter's legitimacy--and her ability to inherit his throne--by having Leonor's first marriage annulled.) In 1376, the Portuguese Cortes affirmed Beatriz as her father's heir. Two years later, in his will, Fernando disinherited his half-siblings, removing them from the line of succession. Leonor would give birth to a son in 1382 and another daughter in 1383, but neither survived.

After the marriage of her sister, Maria Teles, to João of Portugal, King Fernando's illegitimate half-brother, Leonor grew fearful of the couple. Despite the terms of Fernando's will, the popular João might claim the Portuguese throne in the case of Fernando's death. Conspiring with her brother, Leonor convinced João that Maria was unfaithful to him--the enraged and suspicious João stabbed Maria and fled the court. (While Leonor could never be forgiven for her perfidy, João was--he was soon reconciled with his half-brother, returned to court, and sought to amend his hopes to succeed to the Portuguese throne by marrying Beatriz . . . Eventually he realized his precarious position and retired to Castile.)

In addition to providing her husband with an heir--and securing her daughter's rights--Leonor assumed a role in government--a role that generated a great deal of discontent among the people. At the time of her marriage, Ferdinand granted her a large quantity of land, over which she exerted "supreme power," and with her husband, she played an influential role in politics and diplomacy, including the marriage of their daughter, Beatriz, to Juan I, king of Castile, on 17 May 1383. (Beatriz was ten, Juan was twenty-five years old, recently widowed, and the father of three children.)

The young Beatriz's marriage to the king of Castile would forestall any hope that João of Portugal might have of assuming the throne of Portugal. According to the terms of the marriage contract between Portugal and Castile, Leonor Teles was to assume the regency in the case of Fernando's death, maintaining the kingdom for her daughter. And so, when the Portuguese king died just months after his daughter's marriage, Leonor Teles became regent of Portugal, governing in the name of her daughter.

Immediately following Leonor's assumption of the regency, turmoil erupted. Among the many factions, one, fearing the power of Castile, pressured her to marry João of Aviz, the illegitimate son of Pedro I (and thus Ferdinand's half brother), who would assume the regency in her place, while another, principally the nobility supported the "pretensions" of the king of Castile. (Their opposition to Leonor seemed to be rooted in their view that a man widely believed to be her lover would become too powerful.) The peasants and merchants, meanwhile, fearful of the power of the Portuguese nobility and of the king of Castile, rose up in revolt.

Facing the prospect of losing control of Portugal and after the brutal assassination of her suspected lover, Leonor appealed to her son-in-law, the king of Castile, to come to her aid. According to a contemporary chronicler,
at the beginning of 1384, [the king of Castile] received a message from Leonor. . . . She asked him to come and so he did. . . . She gave him the fortresses of the town and renounced her rule in favor of the king, which according to the terms of his marriage contract, she had to hold until the king of Castile had a son with Beatri[z].
About Leonor's decision, the nineteenth-century historian Edward McMurdo makes this judgment:
But the desire of revenge dimmed her intelligence, otherwise so bright and penetrative, and she actually supposed that the King of Castille [sic] would undertake to avenge her injuries and return placidly to his own kingdom, leaving her in possession of the royal power. It was a line of thought perfectly inexcusable in a woman who on other occasions had manifested herself such a profound politician, but her whole dreams were now those of revenge. It was principally against Lisbon, whose inhabitants had so often affronted her, that she directed all her vials of bitter wrath.
The decision made, Leonor found that her son-in-law's assistance did not come without a cost: he asked that Leonor Teles renounce her regency, which she agreed to do. Juan of Castile immediately began referring to himself as João, por graça de deus, Rei de Castela, Leão, Portugal, Toledo e Galiza (John, by the grace of God, king of Castile, Leon, Portugal, Toledo, and Galicia)--no reference to the rights of his wife, Beatriz.

Although Leonor agreed to resign her regency, she soon regretted her decision and involved herself in a number of conspiracies, including one to assassinate Juan of Castile. Her plots did not succeed. Instead of regaining her throne, Leonor Telles was exiled from Portugal, sent to Tordesillas, and placed in the convent there. (Many royal women were imprisoned in the fortress of Tordesillas, with its "royal convent," useful for keeping "inconvenient" queens out of sight--Maria of Portugal, queen of Castile; Blanche of Bourbon, queen of Castile, and, most famously, Juana, queen of Castile and Léon, known forever as "la loca.")

Leonor never returned to Portugal. Her son-in-law could not force her to become a nun, but she remained in the Real Monasterio de Santa Clara de Tordesillas until his  death in 1390. 

Although she seems to have left the convent after King Juan's death, the last years of Leonor Telles's life are unclear--the year of her death is uncertain, and the place of her burial is unknown. She does not seem to have reconciled with her daughter.

Leonor's daughter Beatriz, titular queen of Portugal, died in 1420. Beatriz's legitimacy and right to the crown of Portugal seem to have been shadowed by the circumstances of her parents' marriage.

The funeral monument of Beatriz,
titular queen of Portugal,
 convento de Sancti Spiritus de Toro,
Zamora, Spain
Despite the pretensions of Juan of Castile, João of Aviz is regarded as the successor of Fernando, his reign as king of Portugal dated from 1385 until his death in 1433. (João of Aviz was another one of Fernando's illegitimate half brothers.)

There are many resources on the life and political role of Leonor Teles, but most of them are in Portuguese. A good place to start is with Isabel M. Garcia de Pina's Leonor Teles, uma mulher de poder? (There is a good introductory section in English.)

Dated but still useful (and in English!) is Edward McMurdo's History of Portugal from the Commencement of the Monarchy to the Reign of Alfonso III, which includes references to contemporary chronicle accounts of Leonor. 

For good measure, there's an extensive work on Beatriz that's also available online--César Olivera Serrano's Beatriz de Portugal, la pugna dinástica Avís-Trastámara






Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Saint Walpurga, Writer and Missionary

Saint Walpurga of Heidenheim (died 25 February 777/9)


Born in Devon, England, probably about the year 710, Walpurga was the daughter of Richard of Wessex, an Anglo-Saxon chieftain under King Ine, and a noblewoman named Wuna, who seems to have died about the time of Walpurga's birth. (At some point, both of Walpurga's parents are recognized as saints--Saint Wuna's feast day is 7 February.)

A sixteenth-century portrait
of St. Walpurga
by the Master of Messkirch
In 720, Richard is convinced by his two sons--Walpurga's brothers (both of whom also become saints)--to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While preparing for this journey, Richard of Wessex decides to leave his daughter, then about eleven years old, in the care of the abbess of Wimbourne Abbey. According to some traditions, however, it is the girl herself who asks to be left in the abbey rather than with relatives.

Wimbourne was a double monastery, housing both monks and nuns who followed the Rule of St. Benedict under the direction of an abbess.* Walpurga spent twenty-six years at Wimbourne, where she received an excellent education. The nuns of Wimbourne were trained in Latin and at least some Greek, and they put their language study to use with both sacred texts and the work of the early Church Fathers. The abbey also specialized in producing manuscripts and fine needlework.

Walpurga's father never got to the Holy Land. He reached Rome, then traveled with his sons to Lucca, where he died. (Willibald, the older of Walpurga's brothers, completed the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, then went on to Byzantium, eventually returning to Italy to live as a monk in Monte Cassino. Winebald, the younger of the two brothers, stayed in Rome and entered a monastery).

In 737, Wuna's brother Winfrid (later St. Boniface) recruited both of his nephews to accompany him on a mission to Germany. His call for evangelizing eventually included women--evidently Boniface was the first to include women as missionaries. In 748, a group of nuns from Wimbourne, Walpurga among them, traveled to the Franks to undertake their missionary work.

As part of their successful mission, Willibald and Winebald founded the double monastery of Heidenheim in 752, with Winebald serving as abbot. Walpurga was established as the abbess, governing the nuns. After Winebald's death in 761, Abbess Walpurga became the head of the double monastery.

On 25 February 777 or 779 (accounts vary), Walpurga died and was buried at the monastery founded by her brothers, where she had lived for some twenty-five years. About a hundred years after her death, her remains were translated--that is, they were removed to the cathedral of Eichstatt (Bavaria), with the aim of interring hart remains with those of her brother, Wllibald, who had been consecrated as bishop there.  According to tradition, the beasts pulling the card with Walpurga's body stopped at a small church used by the canonesses at Eichstatt and refused to move further--so her relics were interred there. Later, a church was built in her honor.

Walpurgis Night (30 April) celebrates her feast day, 1 May, which commemorates her the arrival of her relics in Eichstatt and Walpurga's canonization.

An extended account of St. Walburga's life is Emmanuel Luckman's "St. Walburga: Medieval Nun, Free Woman," in Miriam Schmitt and Linda Kulzer's Women Monastics: Wisdom's Wellsprings.


*In this, Wimbourne Abbey might be compared to Hilda's Whitby.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Back to the Future, Part 15: Here We Go Again

Back to the Future, Part 15: Here We Go Again


I've put off writing about this year's Global Gender Gap Report--I just didn't have the heart for it. But with today's publication by the CDC of "Maternal Mortality Statistics," I was reminded of something my son once write when he was forwarding a link to me: "Mom, here's more good news for the woman who loves bad news."

On to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Report 2020.* First, some good news: "This year the progress has not only been larger than in the previous edition, but also more widespread: out of the 149 countries and economies covered both this year and last year, 101 have improved their score and 48 have seen their performance unchanged or reduced."

But before we in the U.S. get too excited, the U.S. is among those countries that have seen their performance fall--the U.S. ranks 53rd (of 153 countries), down two spots from the last year's calculations. By way of contrast, our two nearest neighbors rank much higher, Canada at 19, Mexico at 25. 

The report examines four key areas in assessing gender: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment. Again, here's a bit of good news: "The time it will take to close the gender gap narrowed to 99.5 years in 2019. While an improvement on 2018 – when the gap was calculated to take 108 years to close – it still means parity between men and women across health, education, work and politics will take more than a lifetime to achieve." Yup, that's about as good as the news gets . . . 

While political "empowerment" is "on the rise," it remains the "the worst-performing dimension": "it will take 95 years to close the gender gap in political representation, with women in 2019 holding 25.2% of parliamentary (lower-house) seats and 21.2% of ministerial positions." 


At the same time, women's economic situation is still not showing improvement: "In contrast to this positive progress in the lofty world of leadership, women’s participation in the wider labour market has stalled and financial disparities are increasing."

And the disparities in political power and their economic situation are all the more distressing because women have reached parity (almost) in health and, most important, education: 


So, it will take only 99 years instead of 108 to close the gap . . . If you're a glass-is-half-full kind of reader, here's a link to the full report.

I am not a glass-half-full kind of reader, however. (Nor am I a glass-half-empty reader--I'm a why-the-hell-are-there-only-two-glasses? kind of reader.) Even so, it took today's new maternal mortality statistics to knock me out of my funk. 

Perhaps the most shocking thing in the just-published CDC report is that the National Center for Health Statistics has not published maternal mortality figures since 2007--yes, over a decade ago! Thirteen years without official data . . . It has taken all that time (well, since 2003, actually) for a new "coding method" that would allow the NCHS to "resume the routine publication of maternal mortality statistics."

The figures are not good: "The maternal mortality rate for 2018 was 17.4 deaths per 100,000 live births, and the rate for non-Hispanic black women (37.1) was 2.5 to 3.1 times the rates for non-Hispanic white (14.7) and Hispanic (11.8) women."

As reporter Julia Beluz notes, "If you compare the CDC figure to other countries in the World Health Organization’s latest maternal mortality ranking, the US would rank 55th, just behind Russia (17 per 100,000) and just ahead of Ukraine (19 per 100,000)."

But whether there are "official" counts or not, it's not as if maternal mortality rates in the U.S. are a big secret--click here for a recent USA Today report, and here for the World Health Organization's Trends in Maternal Mortality: 1990 to 2015, 2000 to 2017.



Update, 13 February 2020: As if the news about material mortality rates weren't bad enough, ProPublica reports that there are "gaping holes" in the research:
In order to come up with a number that allows the United States to be compared with other countries, the National Vital Statistics System was required to use the World Health Organization’s definition of maternal mortality: “the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy … from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management.” The global standard encompasses the traditional, acute, obstetric causes of maternal death — hemorrhage, infection, blood clots, strokes — but excludes “accidental or incidental” causes. . . 
The 42-day cutoff for calculating maternal mortality excludes many maternal deaths:
In the U.S., as many as 24% of pregnancy-related deaths are happening from 43 days to 365 days after delivery, according to a CDC report last fall. In Texas, the proportion is closer to 40%. Even the new NVSS data confirms an enormous number of such deaths. Hidden in its report is a calculation for late maternal mortality for 2018: an additional 277 deaths. That brings the CDC estimate for maternal deaths up to a year postpartum to a much higher figure than it reported in the official U.S. rate: a total of 935 lives lost.
Causes of maternal deaths that are not included in the CDC report include heart-related conditions (which is the leading cause of uncounted maternal deaths), accidental overdoses, suicide, complications that lead to the deaths of older mothers, and, most horrifically, homicide (a study co-authored by [Joia] Crear-Perry, of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, shows that in Louisiana, homicides were the leading cause of death for pregnant and postpartum women from 2016-17).

In other words, "Since 2007, the government had held off on releasing an official estimate of expectant and new mothers who died from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. It waited for the data to get better. But the new, long-anticipated number falls short."

For Nina Martin's piece in ProPublica, click here.


*In previous years, the December publication was dated for the year in which it was published. This year, instead of the report being titled "2019" when it was published on 17 December 2019, it was titled "2020." For my previous posts on the report, click here (2016), here (2017), and here (2018). Rereading what I wrote in 2018, I said then that I "didn't have the heart" for a writing a whole post about it--talk about "back to the future"!!!