"Transient Beauties": Early Nineteenth-Century British Women and the Construction of a Global Imperial Science Culture

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Vandenberg, Virginia
British Empire , gender history , history of science , global history , botany , transnational , women in science , imperial science culture , colonialism , knowledge production
Botanical collecting and illustrating had been a key part of an Enlightened education for elite women during the eighteenth century, and botanical practices were an established part of many women’s activities. As British women began to move about the globe in increasing numbers as part of British imperial expansion in the early nineteenth century, the cultural practices around the accumulation and development of scientific knowledge went with them. This thesis explores the practices of botanical science by analyzing the travels and activities of British women, while situating those activities within the global context of imperial expansion and projects of control. By tracing their movements and analyzing the forms that women’s scientific work took, I argue that women’s scientific work was not separate or subordinate to the work of male scientific practitioners, but rather took a variety of forms outside the practices that later defined what formal scientific participation could be. This thesis establishes how gendered forms of science activities were conducted by women in a variety of spaces and introduces how they formed a cultural context for the practice of science abroad in the colonies. Women’s activities were significant components in imperial processes used to establish control through domestic scientific spaces. The scientific activities of women, in a range of spaces, were not marginal to the projects of scientific progress and imperial expansion, but a significant part of the larger project of utilizing scientific knowledge in achieving certain imperial goals. In the frame of global circulation, political and economic instability, and cultural imperialism, women’s botanical work became a key part of the British empire’s goals of securing control over unstable colonial locations. I use the term “imperial science culture” to describe the science work which was such a crucial part of cultural imperialism and which was the context in which British women were practicing botanical activities. Through several case studies set in Britain and in colonial locations, such as British North America, India, Ceylon, and Mauritius, I demonstrate how women contributed to botanical science and acted as informal agents of the British empire through the formation of this imperial science culture.
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