The Wenches are having some fun with redesigning our Facebook page, and as an ongoing feature, we’ve decided to do highlight “Underappreciated Wenches” throughout history—those smart, strong women who dared to defy convention and follow their passions in life. And we invite you to share your own favorite “Wenches” too. So please come join us over at the WW page and tell us about the women you find fascinating.
To start the ball rolling, here are a few women from the Regency era who I find compelling:
Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, was Lord Byron’s daughter, though never knew her father as her parents separated soon after her birth. As a child she suffered through a difficult childhood, as her mother was a manipulative woman who used physical pain and guilt to try to control those around her. Ada exhibited a special talent for mathematics and was fortunate enough to meet Mary Somerville, the leading female scientist of the times, who encouraged her to study seriously.
After her marriage, Ada helped support Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, precursors of the modern computer. They worked together on mathematical problems, and Babbage called her “the Enchantress of Numbers.” Indeed, Ada’s notes on calculating sequences of Bernoulli numbers on the machine is credited with being the first computer program. Today, the U. S. Department of Defense has named one of its programs ADA in her honor. Unfortunately, she became addicted to opium and alcohol, then, on kicking those habits, she turned to gambling on horses. Like her father she died young, succumbing to uterine cancer at age 36.
Mary Anning began digging up fossils from the sea cliffs around her home in Lyme Regis at age twelve to help support her family. Collecting had become popular among wealthy tourists, and Anna showed an uncanny knack for finding spectacular specimens. Her interest soon became intellectual as well as financial. Fascinated by the extraordinary wealth of life forms preserved in the stones, she carefully preserved and catalogued her finds.
Mary’s shop became known throughout the scientific world, drawing such notable visitors as the geologist George William Featherstonhaugh and King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony. As she gained confidence in her knowledge, she began writing articles for scientific journals, and despite her lack of formal training, she is considered one of the pioneers in paleontology. (Among other things, Mary is credited with discovering an ichthyosaurus and a pterodactyl.) The Royal Geological Society eventually recognized her accomplishments by making her an honorary Fellow.
Caroline Herschel was a tiny woman who stood only four foot, three inches tall, but she looms large in the history of astronomy. Born in Germany, she was brought to Bath by her brother, William Herschel, who had been appointed organist of the Octagon Chapel in Bath and needed someone to help him keep house.
He soon gave up music in favor of building high-power telescopes, and Caroline (who had already won recognition as an accomplished singer) started to help. In 1782, William was appointed King’s Astronomer to George III. They moved to the Observatory House near Slough, and Caroline soon learned to “sweep” the skies with the powerful lenses, studying the stars and helping to record the complex calculations of their observations.
William is credited with discovering the planet Uranus (which he named the Georgium Sidus—the star of George—in honor of the English King) but Caroline earned her own place in the scientific firmament by discovering no less than eight major comets and meticulously cataloguing countless stars. In 1828, Caroline was awarded a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society for her work. And in 1835 she and Mary Somerville were the first women ever elected to an honorary membership in the Society.
So let’s celebrate the intrepid spirit of bygone Wenches! Please share some of your favorite underappreciated women throughout history, both here and at the blog!