Homepage Dorothee Sturkenboom

De elektrieke kus
Over vrouwen, fysica en vriendschap in de 18de en 19de eeuw

(Engelse samenvatting van het boek)

When forty-nine-year-old Lady Hillegonda Catharina Schorer died in her Dutch home town of Middelburg shortly after the new year in 1820, a small collection of scientific instruments and books was found amongst her possessions. Whilst this collection was already rather dated by the time of her death, the objects – including a telescope, microscope and electrostatic generator with accessories - bear undeniable witness to the extraordinary intellectual interest fostered by this woman for Nature and natural phenomena.
Yet, this intellectual interest was perhaps less extraordinary than we are now inclined to believe, for despite the deep-rooted, age-old notion that women, science and technology simply did not mix, there appear to have lived hundreds, even thousands of women intensively engaged in scientific studies in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. In the Netherlands as early as 1785 a separate society was set up for women who wished to broaden their knowledge of ‘natural philosophy’ or ‘physica’. At that time all branches of science were still grouped under those two terms, whilst physics proper was termed ‘experimental philosophy’. Not only Lady Hillegonda Catharina Schorer, but also both her sisters and dozens of other women from the highest social circles in Middelburg became members of this scientific society for ladies. For a century, these female enthusiasts would gather every fortnight during winter to learn about the latest scientific developments through lectures and experiments conducted by a (male) instructor they had employed.

Through the ‘Natuurkundig Genootschap der Dames’ (the Ladies’ Scientific Society) in Middelburg - which would finally disband in 1887 – the Netherlands became an international pioneer, for in other countries similar societies for women would be set up only in the course of the nineteenth century. Thus a study of this unique society offers a rare opportunity to explore from a historical perspective the special place of the sciences in Western society and the marginal position women still occupy within this field. The growth and decline of this Dutch ladies’ society embody on a small scale how the complex triangular relationship between women, science and society developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The loss of almost all the original archive material during World War II is the sole reason why a history of this fascinating society has never appeared before.
The book resolves this problem by placing the surviving documents within a wider social, cultural and historical context. Moreover, extensive use is made of documents from the scientific society of the Middelburg gentlemen with which the ladies’ society maintained close links over many decades. Fictional fragments have been inserted in order further to fill the gaps in the source material, and paint a more vivid picture of the events which must have occurred around this first scientific society for women.

In the first chapter the author begins by donning the guise of the bookseller and auctioneer Salomon van Benthem, who was responsible for auctioning the estate of Lady Hillegonda Catharina Schorer (1770-1820). Whilst he looks back with satisfaction upon the auction, we learn more about the buyers and the contents of this unusual collection of scientific equipment. Thus, through the handwritten notes preserved in an auction catalogue it is known that the electrostatic generator with accessories fell into the hands of a Middelburg widow. This chapter investigates who this widow Van Citters might have been, and what motives could have compelled her in 1821 to buy the electrostatic generator. Furthermore, the upbringing, interests, and social contacts of Lady Hillegonda Catharina Schorer are reconstructed. This chapter offers in effect an initial introduction into the life of women within Middelburg’s ruling elite – the social environment against which we must place the ‘Natuurkundig Genootschap der Dames’.

Chapter 2 deals with the growing popularity of science in the eighteenth century and thereby sketches the general background of the founding of the Middelburg ladies’ society. It begins with an imaginary evening at the home of the Schorer sisters where plans were underway to carry out the ‘electric kiss’, a physical experiment devised in the mid-eighteenth century which soon won fame in fashionable circles. The electric kiss was one of many spectacular experiments performed by the ‘physique amusante’ to promote scientific knowledge and bring it to life. The physical spectacle enhanced the appeal of the new science, not only for laymen but also for specialists in various countries who were actively engaged in lectures and demonstrations for a wider public. In addition, dozens of handbooks were published popularising science, some of which found their way into Middelburg’s private libraries. Newtonianism, which had spread across the European continent in the early eighteenth century, had given an enormous impulse to a long-standing interest in Nature. Newton’s new theory of gravity fitted wonderfully with the idea that God’s greatness could be witnessed at all levels of Creation: not only in the flawless design of a tiny insect but also in the orbit of the planets in the infinitely large universe. By immersing oneself in Nature, one stepped closer to God.

Yet it was not only this scientific and theological interest which motivated people to study nature in the eighteenth century. Knowledge of the sciences now formed part of a new cultural ideal exploited by commercially-minded publishers, instrument makers and itinerant instructors: the ability to engage in conversations on the workings and laws of nature was considered a sign of good-breeding and manners. Those with money began to purchase equipment to experiment with physics and impress friends with their collection of instruments or natural specimens. Science penetrated the households of the aristocracy and the upper middle classes and began to play a part in domestic and social life. This cultural ideal was further bolstered by the central ideas of the Enlightenment which propagated knowledge as a catalyst for progress, and sociability as a way of achieving this: and so in the second half of the eighteenth century countless societies were founded whose members collectively set about acquiring scientific and scholarly knowledge.
However, women were rarely part of this flourishing scientific social life. Yet there were men who maintained that it was indeed desirable for women to immerse themselves in science, on condition that they would not neglect their domestic duties nor try to surpass the male sex in the depth of their studies. Despite the egalitarian ideals of the Enlightenment, the spectre of the femme savante was as potent as ever…

It is therefore not surprising that the first male chair of the ladies’ society, Johan Adriaen van de Perre, talked at length in his opening speech on 9th November 1786 about criticism the ladies of Middelburg might encounter regarding their unusual interest. Chapter 3 offers respectively a romanticised account and a detailed analysis of this intriguing text, which is thankfully preserved in printed form. The address provides a clear insight into the arguments employed by the influential Maecenas Van de Perre - who acted as public representative for the women - to legitimise the foundation of the society in the face of anticipated opposition.
In this key chapter readers become more closely acquainted with the first 44 members of the ‘Natuurkundig Genootschap der Dames’ which was known simply as ‘Damesphysica’ amongst its membership. Family backgrounds, financial means, social relations, religious denomination, interests and leisure activities are all examined. The author investigates why the Middelburg town regents – who must largely have supported their wives’ endeavours – did not allow the women to participate in their own, longer-established ‘Natuurkundig Gezelschap’. She furthermore explains how it was possible that this first scientific society for women was set up, of all places, in the Zeeland town of Middelburg, a relatively small and isolated provincial capital without a university.

Chapter 4 focuses on the lessons the women received and opens with a guest lecture on astronomy by Daniël Radermacher, the Middelburg regent who had succeeded Van de Perre in 1790 as the ladies’ chairman. Since no minutes remain, the contents of the lessons are reconstructed from other surviving data: the collection of instruments shared with the gentlemen’s society, the first prescribed science book, the background and pet subjects of successive teachers, the parallel lessons of the gentlemen’s society, the books purchased by the women. It is through these oblique means that an insight is finally gained into the facilities, the subjects covered, and the developments the sciences witnessed in the nineteenth century. Whilst astronomy and physics in the strictest sense initially constituted the core of the science lessons, mathematics, chemistry, meteorology, natural history, geology, geography, and industrial technology would later all win closer attention.
At the same time, this chapter reveals the problems which were to confront the Middelburg ladies’ society: membership figures were fluctuating, the relationship with the gentlemen’s society became more distant and the local clergy, who had initially supported the ladies in their venture, lost interest. Eventually the ‘Natuurkundig Genootschap der Dames’ would disband in 1887 owing to lack of interest.

To understand the decline in interest for the Middelburg ladies’ society, chapter 5 broadens its focus to a number of social developments in the nineteenth century. By means of a fictional opening fragment the reader is transported to 1860s Zeeland to the world of ‘Dorcas’. For some decades now this local women’s charity organisation had been offering an alternative to the gatherings of the ladies’ scientific society which had gradually lost its monopoly on the women’s social scene. In Middelburg, but also elsewhere, new women’s groups were on the rise which concerned themselves chiefly with deeds of charity, an occupation said to be far better suited to the soft, sensitive female character than scientific study. This kind of association offered women new possibilities to broaden their social horizons. Moreover, previously male-dominated clubs started opening their doors to women and allowed them to participate in new ways in public cultural life – albeit in conflict with the deeply-entrenched ideal of domesticity which disapproved of too much time spent outside the home.
Further changes ensued from the Dutch debate on secondary education for girls and its institutional consequences after 1865. With the foundation of the Secondary School for Girls and the opening of Dutch high schools, grammar schools and universities to women, the educational opportunities available to the younger generations improved so much that from now on young women no longer needed private teachers and courses offered by scientific societies. Yet, at the same time, critics rose up opposing measures to bring the education of both sexes into line, and in doing so frequently criticized instruction of women in the scientific disciplines. Moreover, during the nineteenth century scientific study gradually became an ever more professional and specialised pursuit, which, despite ongoing attempts at popularisation, reduced accessibility for enthusiasts without an academic background. These developments all affected the relationship between women and the sciences and must also have been felt in circles surrounding the ‘Natuurkundig Genootschap der Dames’ in Middelburg.

How all this manifested itself within the Middelburg society is explained in the closing chapter 6, which examines the local situation before and after the ladies’ society disbanded. For, although by that time women were able to attend public lectures on science all over the country, the opening of the Middelburg gentlemen’s scientific society to women in 1888 – about a year after the shutdown of the ladies’ society - still proved hugely problematic. Only in 1891 did the leadership of the men’s society manage to persuade defiant members to grant women their own special membership. The social distance which had widened between the gentlemen’s and ladies’ societies in the course of the nineteenth century certainly played a part in this opposition. Whilst the gentlemen’s scientific society had been radically democratised and now counted many middle-class men amongst its members, the ladies’ society was still more private and exclusive, though certainly less elitist than at its foundation. However, the men feared that the arrival of fashionable ladies would alter the prevailing manners and cause the intellectual standards of the lectures to fall.

The first scientific society for women came to an end because, despite earlier reductions in membership fees, the society failed to engage a wider public. The changing image of the sciences, recurrent ideas regarding the limitations of the female mind and the emergence of alternative kinds of societies were partly responsible. In addition, the foundation of the Middelburg Secondary Girls’ School in 1880 accounted for a dramatic fall in membership. This occurred not only because the Secondary Girls’ School offered women new educational opportunities but also because teachers from the local high school - who for years had been responsible for the lectures delivered to the ladies– lost interest in the meetings of the ladies’ society owing to their new time-consuming duties at the girls’ school.
An analysis of the final list of members from 1887 reveals moreover that the remaining seventeen members were mostly unmarried and of advancing years – a definite shift compared with 1785 when the average age was much lower and the society possessed more married members. In the course of the nineteenth century it had evidently become more difficult for women to combine married life with an active interest in science. Participation by the younger generation in the Middelburg ladies’ society decreased. Whilst science for and by women could still possess a positive meaning in the eighteenth century, it had now gained more negative connotations. Attraction had become repulsion. By 1887, the time when men and women could still engage together in experiments such as the electric kiss was definitely at an end.