Women in ‘Stem’

I’ve grown up around flowers. Whether it were the fresh peony roses on the kitchen table from Mum’s garden, my grandmothers extensive collection of floral-inspired artworks, or the past 7 years spent working as a florist myself, my natural attraction to flora has been something of a continual presence in my life.

Throughout history, the role that women played in the botanical science realm was one rather significantly limited by a patriarchal system. Instead of being allowed to participate in scientific study and tertiary education, women were instead forced to come up with creative ways to cultivate an understanding of their own.

This fascinating article by Sarah Todd which I found this week has become a pivotal element in the conceptualisation of this project and the direction that it will now take as I progress. Todd writes about 18th-century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and her seminal book A Vindication of the Rights of Women. According to Todd, “Wollstonecraft was fed up with the idea that women’s supposedly soft and delicate nature meant that they simply weren’t cut out to know things…explaining the case for offering women equal access to education” (2019).

She goes on to elaborate upon just how important the role was that women played in forging creative, feminist history. She writes:

“The recent re-discovery of a “lost” book of illustrated plant life by Wollstonecraft’s sister-in-law, Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft, is a testament to women’s robust history of forging their own paths in the arts and sciences, formal training be damned…

…It’s also an important part of feminist history, putting Wollstonecraft in the company of a number of well-known women who took an acceptably feminine skill—drawing—and used it to study plant and animal life, despite living in eras in which only men were meant to be scientists.”

(Todd, 2019)

It was only very recently, however, that I became aware of my grandmother’s own experience with botanical illustration, which was news met with great excitement and anticipation considering the trajectory of this project. I’ve always known my grandmother to be an artist, but it was completely unbeknownst to me that she too had studied various forms of botany and had drawn numerous stunning botanical illustrations. This realisation was only apparent after having a discussion with my mother about the project, and I was completely thrilled to hear of this exciting, previously unknown past.

What makes this even more relevant to the research I had previously done was the fact that my grandmother too grew up in a time where access to education for women was limited and somewhat restricted. She never attained a tertiary education yet still to this day has such a profound amount of knowledge to share about plants, flowers and all kinds of flora. It only accentuates the ideas that Todd puts forward regarding the “secret feminist history of illustrating plant life” (2019).

Throughout history, the presence of women in the biological and botanical illustration fields has been testament to their paramount history of fashioning their own paths in the STEM realm, despite working in a historically male-dominated arena. Bringing this into a modern setting, I hope to increase the visibility of women in the STEM and arts fields, emphasising the true importance of diversity and equality as we move into a world so wholly dominated by technology.


Todd, S 2019, ‘The secret feminist history of illustrating plant life’, QUARTZ, online article, May 1, viewed 2 October 2019, available at <https://qz.com/1608611/a-lost-botany-book-highlights-the-feminist-history-of-illustrating-plant-life/>

Published by susiealdermann

Fifth Year Bachelor of Communications and Media/ Bachelor of International Studies (Dean's Scholar) student

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