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Tag Archives: Women’s History Month


March is Women’s History Month (in the U.S.). It’s also National Reading Month and National Nutrition Month. I thought of writing about how these can be related. (Reading feeds our minds, and how about reading about women? And writing about them, of course.) But instead, let’s talk about real heroines of the Regency period. (See giveaway details at the end.)

Wikipedia lists fifty-three “Women of the Regency Era” who have their own pages. They range from the obvious (Jane Austen) to the notorious (Harriet Wilson) to the questionable (Princess Caraboo). But rather than list them here, or try to even scratch the surface of this topic, I’d like to invite you to chime in with your favorite candidates. Who were the real heroines of our period?

I would hold that merely existing in the period isn’t enough. What qualities do we expect heroines to demonstrate? Courage, for one, I’m sure you’d agree –no matter what time period she lives in. Certainly in real Regency heroines, courage was necessary to pursue any course outside of normal expectations. Tenacity is another one I am sure was needed just to live any kind of satisfying life as a woman in the early 19th century. What else? And who comes to your mind?

Let’s think about the various ways in which women could be “significant”. Which of these women contributed to the betterment of society, or added to the knowledge or literacy of our world? Or gave their support (sometimes invisibly) to men who accomplished significant things? What other ways did they make impacts?

And also, I would make a distinction between fame and significance. Certainly Lady Emma Hamilton’s beauty and choices made her infamous in her own time and famous even today. Do you think she made the best life out of the limited choices she had? Does she belong on the list of significant women?

Mary Wollstonecraft

I’ll start, offering Mary Wollstonecraft. While she lived almost too early to be included, she was only 38 when she died in childbirth, producing the daughter who would become Mary Shelley. That was in 1797, five years after she published her Rights of Women. Can you imagine what her life might have been like, or what controversies she might have stirred up, if she had lived on into the full Regency era? And I would say she gave us a daughter who also became a significant woman of the Regency.

Perhaps I’ll print the names on Wikipedia’s list a bit later this month, after we’ve had some time to discuss this topic. I wonder how many of them we can come up with on our own, and how many we’ll feel can be classified as heroines?

I’ll even offer this: a free ebook to one commenter, either chosen randomly or if one person stands out as offering the most interesting response, by the end of March. Offering a book feels right during National Reading Month!!

Here we are at the end of Women’s History Month. The response to my request for suggestions of “real Regency heroines” has been outstanding, and I have to say almost none of these following admirable women were on Wikipedia’s list of 53 “Women of the Regency”, although nearly all do have write-ups there. I wonder what criteria they were using for that list?? Anyway, many, many thanks to everyone who contributed. I am actually going to award several free ebooks because so many people participated (I will post that separately next week after all have been awarded and accepted.)

I want to offer special thanks to author Judith Laik, who generously sent me her notes from a past talk on women scientists of our period. The first 20 women below were contributed by various people (and sometimes multiple people), in the comments here at Riskies or to me via Facebook or email. The last 10 are from Judith’s talk, the entries shortened by me. How many of these women were already familiar to you? I purposely left out some of the most famous Regency heroines, and I am the first to say this list is hardly complete. I take full responsibility for the editing of the summaries. I hope you enjoy reading through it!

1. Mary Anning (1799-1849) English fossil collector and paleontologist who became known around the world for her important finds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis. Her discovery of fossilized dinosaur skeletons contributed to important changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

2. Anna Atkins  (1799–1871) –botanist and photographer. Often considered the first to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. After receiving an unusually scientific education (for a woman), she pursued botany and illustrated her father’s book on shells. After marriage, she continued her scientific interests, and learned about early forms of chemical photography developed by friends of her father and her husband, William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel (Caroline Herschel’s nephew). Anna proved Herschel’s cyanotype process to be of practical use by illustrating the first installment of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions with it in October of the same year he invented it (1842).

3. Dr James Barry (Margaret Ann Bulkley)  (c. 1789–1865) Born in Ireland as Margaret Ann Bulkley and known as female in childhood, for multiple reasons Barry adopted the identity of a man to be accepted as a university student and pursue a career as a surgeon. Over the course of a long military career Barry achieved the rank of Inspector General (equivalent to Brigadier General) in charge of military hospitals, the second highest medical office in the British Army. Barry not only improved conditions for wounded soldiers, but also the conditions for native inhabitants, and performed the first caesarean section in Africa in which both the mother and child survived. (He had hoped to keep his gender secret to the grave, but his wishes were thwarted when he died. He wouldn’t have wanted to be on this list.)

4. Sophie Blanchard (1778-1819)- Napoleon’s official balloonist and aerial advisor, she was the first woman to pilot her own balloon and the first to make ballooning her career. She began as the wife of Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the world’s first professional balloonist, and continued after he died (in a balloon accident) just five years after she started. She became extremely famous throughout Europe and often performed in Italy. She performed 67 balloon ascents before she was killed in a balloon accident at the age of 41.

5. Etheldred Benett (1776-1845)-one of the first female geologists in Britain. Her collection of Wiltshire fossils was extensive, and she was respected by many in the field. Since she had her own money, she even published her own monograph. Her wonderful name could be confusing to some and led to the unexpected: She was awarded membership in the Natural History Society of Moscow, and Tsar Nicholas I granted her an honorary doctorate. They did not realize she was a woman.

6. Eleanor Coade (both mother and daughter with the same name) – operated a highly successful ceramic (artificial stone) factory in Lambeth, either inventing or at least improving the material itself, and supplying vast quantities of building materials, reproduction statues, decoration, etc in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Their secret formula for “Coadestone” was lost, sadly, since the material has held up extremely well over the centuries and never has been replicated.

7. Mrs Coutts –(1777-1837) “Lady Jersey and Mrs. Coutts owned shares in banks and were active in the management of them. Coutts was a philanthropist as was her heir, her step grand-daughter Angela, Lady Burdett -Coutts. They gave the lie to the opinion that women couldn’t handle money.” (description by Nancy Mayer) Mrs Coutts was Harriet Mellon, a stage actress who married Thomas Coutts, a very successful Scottish-born banker, after his wife died. He was older and left her a very wealthy woman when he died. She managed her affairs (apparently of all kinds) extremely well, and later married again, to the 9th Duke of St. Albans, having gone from “a poor little player child” (her words) to a Duchess at the pinnacle of society. She wanted Sir Walter Scott to write her life’s story.

8. Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)–a significant German-born astronomer who discovered several comets and worked with her better-known older brother (astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel) and kept his house. She was the first woman to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1828), and to be named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society (1835, with Mary Somerville) among other honors. She was also the first woman in England honored with a paid government position, and the first woman to be paid for her work in astronomy.

9. Hannah Humphrey (c. 1745-1818)– While not the only London woman printer, she was the most successful of them. After getting started with her brother, she ran her print business on St. James’s Street and published such notables as Gilray, Rowlandson, and James Sayer, providing an important outlet for their social and political caricatures. Gilray boarded with her for much of his career, and she tended to him during the last years of his life.

10. Ellen Hutchins –(1785-1815)-First female Irish botantist. She contributed hundreds of specimens and drawings to the study of plants. She was well regarded during her short life (died at age 30) and has quite a few plants named after her, all native to the areas of Ireland where she lived. Her legacy can be seen in major museum collections and is celebrated at the Ellen Hutchins Festival (annual event since 2015).

11. Mary Linwood -(1755–1845)-Another spinster who achieved great success, Mary was an educator who ran a school (started by her mother) for 50 years, but her great fame came from her art. By the time she was 20 she had raised needlework to the level of fine art, specializing in full sized copies of great masters and famous paintings rendered in worsted wool. The 100 such pictures she produced were exhibited in many major cities and even Russia. Queen Charlotte had her to Windsor, and she also met many other European heads of state, including Napoleon, whose portrait she did from life. Her exhibition in Leicester Square, London, was the first art show to be illuminated by gaslight. Embroidery historians credit her for inspiring the practice of needlepoint. Her niece, also Mary Linwood, was a composer and author.

12. Ada Byron Lovelace (Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, and daughter of Lord Byron)  -(1815-1852) Writer and mathematician. Her notations in research on Charles Babbage’s proposed “analytical engine” make her the first computer programmer, presenting the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine (1843). Although the engine was never built, Ada saw the potential for much more than mere calculation of numbers.

13. Jane Marcet –(1769-1858). Early science popularizer for young readers, women, and working people. Among other works, her Conversations on Chemistry (1806, 1811) ran to sixteen editions, introducing Michael Faraday (1791-1867) to the topic. (He later became one of the world’s most famous electrochemists.)

14. Hannah More –(1745-1833) Educator, playwright, religious writer, poet, social activist and philanthropist, blue-stocking (is that all?). Hard to sum up in a few sentences, because she did so much. Numerous schools owe their existence to her, and her anti-slavery writings were passionate, but her ultra conservative views in later life have tarnished her reputation.

15. Mrs Mountain –Another (probably a widow) who proved women could succeed in business: she owned the Saracen’s Head, Snow Hill, in Holborn with a coachbuilder’s shop on the premises, owned the Louth Mail (ie, had the contract for that route), and owned partnerships in several stage coaches.

16. Mary Reibey née Molly Haydock (1777–1855) Deported to Australia at age 15 (for horse-theft after she ran away from working in service), she married at age 17 and took over her husband’s business holdings when widowed at age 34. As an Australian merchant, ship owner and trader, she was viewed as a role model of success and became legendary as a successful businesswoman in the colony. (Australian 20-dollar notes carry her picture.)

17. Duchess of Richmond –for her courage in hosting a ball in the teeth of war on the night before Waterloo

18. Mary Fairfax Somerville  -1780-1872. Scottish science writer and mathematician, she shared with Caroline Hershel the achievement of being the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society. Mary’s strength was more in mathematics and algebra, but she branched out into other areas where she wrote books on chemistry, magnetism, physics and math that were used as textbooks for almost a century. She also translated the seminal French astronomical book, The Mechanisms of the Heavens by LaPlace. She also started schools for girls and children of the middle and lower classes in Britain. She also tutored Byron’s daughter Augusta (1815-52) in mathematics, so perhaps we could say she was the “grandmother” of modern computers.

19. Hester Stanhope –“who set out for adventures in the Middle East, after her uncle, William Pitt the Younger, died. She kept house for him while he was prime minister, then flung respectability to the far winds and set out for pastures new. Or rather, deserts new” (love this description by Lynne Connolly).

20. Ann & Jane Taylor –Literary sisters. Both women wrote poetry for children as well as stories and novels, essays, and plays. Ann’s son wrote in her biography, “Two little poems – ‘My Mother,’ and ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little Star’ – are perhaps, more frequently quoted than any; the first, a lyric of life, was by Ann, the second, of nature, by Jane; and they illustrate this difference between the sisters.”

Added from Judith Laik’s talk on “Regency Women Scientists” 

21. Sarah Kirby Trimmer –(1741-1810). Philanthropist, early children’s writer and popularizer of science. She and her husband had twelve children, raised ten of them to adulthood. She founded several Sunday schools and charity schools, and wrote textbooks and manuals for other women who wished to establish schools. She wrote in a wide range of genres: textbooks, teaching manuals, children’s literature, political pamphlets and critical periodicals.

22. Sarah Bowditch Lee –(1791-1856) Illustrator & writer, she began as illustrator for her husband on a scientific expedition, during which he died. She finished the work, followed it with one entirely her own (Fresh Water Fishes of Great Britain, Drawn and Described by Mrs. T. Edward Bowdich,1828). She went on to write fiction, a biography of the geologist Baron Cuvier, and a book on taxidermy, supporting herself and her family by her illustration and writing.

23. Mary Moreland Buckland  (1797-1857). Talented illustrator and collector of fossils. Her husband, William Buckland (1784-1856) was an English geologist, paleontologist and Dean of Westminster, who wrote the first full account of a fossil dinosaur, which he named Megalosaurus. Married in 1825, they visited noted geologists and geological sites on their honeymoon. She assisted in his work, in between giving birth to nine children, of whom five survived to adulthood. Mary helped her husband prove that footprints found in a slab of sandstone were of a tortoise by covering the kitchen table with paste while he brought in their pet tortoise to cast and compare its footprints.

24. Margaret Bryan — Educator and popularizer of science. She published three standard scientific textbooks during the final years of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth. Her first book, A Compendious System of Astronomy, dedicated to the pupils at her school, was published in 1797. The last of her three books, A Comprehensive Astronomical and Geographical Class Book for the use of Schools and Private Families, was published in 1815.

25. Elizabeth Gould (1804-41). One of the outstanding bird illustrators of her time, Elizabeth accompanied her husband, John Gould (1804-81), on expeditions to gather information for their series of books. The Gould Bird books were respected reference materials for ornithologists and amateurs. Gould had to leave several of her eight children behind while she traveled to Australia to illustrate what would become the seven-volume Birds of Australia (1840-48). She also, ahead of her time, was interested in the ecology of the Australian bush, noting the intimate interconnection between birds and plants. Sadly she died before the series was completed.

26. Elizabeth Twining (1805-89). Elizabeth Twining, of the tea-growing family, was a botanical illustrator. Self-taught, when young she studied The Botanical Magazine to learn about plants. She visited botanical gardens to study living specimens. In 1849 she published the first volume of her popular Illustrations of the Natural Order of Plants with Groups and Descriptions, the second volume in 1855. She also wrote Ten Years in a Ragged School and Readings for Mothers Meetings. Twining was also a philanthropist. She restored almshouses, established a hospital for the poor, and a home for destitute girls.

27. Anne Pratt (1806-93). Another nature illustrator and writer. As a child, Anne Pratt studied every kind of plant. In 1828 she began to write, illustrate, and publish nearly twenty books about native British flowers, fields, woodlands, sedges, ferns, and sea plants, including Flowering Plants and Ferns of Great Britain, a five-volume text first published in 1855 and covering every order of British plants. Her most popular volume was Wild Flowers (1852-53), a work illustrated in block prints and intended for children.

28. Jane Webb Loudon (1807-58). Botanist and novelist. Her career began with The Mummy, A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century in 1827. John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843), a well-known landscape gardener and horticultural writer, read her book, arranged to meet her and married her. Jane became his companion and secretary, learned and shared in his business. She collaborated with him on a gardening encyclopedia, and wrote books on botany and gardening published in the 1840’s which sold extremely well. She also founded and edited a weekly, The Ladies’ Companion at Home and Abroad. She was able to support herself and her daughter with her work after her husband died, contributing to the movement in science popularization and children’s literature.

29. Mary Horner Lyell  (1808-1873). Familiar with science first through her father (geologist Leonard Horner) and then through assisting her husband (Sir Charles Lyell, 1797-1875), Mary became an accomplished British geologist and conchologist. She accompanied her husband whenever possible as he traveled extensively in Europe and North America. Her husband’s book Principles of Geology was considered essential to Darwin in the development of his evolutionary theory.

30. Margaret Gatty (1809-73). Writer of educational science books for children and student of marine algae. She intensively researched the subject for fourteen years before publishing her British Sea-weeds (1863). She also authored Parables from Nature (various editions 1855-71), one of the most popular children’s books of the Victorian period. She also founded a children’s magazine, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, named for her daughter, Juliana Horatia Ewing.

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