I dedicate this post to Dr. Boston Boomer a newly minted PhD. Congratulations Dr. Boomer. My PUMA sister.
As difficult as the collective trauma is to reconcile, there is a remedy to save women who were left behind by history. You visit your local archive and save them one letter, one diary, one note at a time.
Throughout my career as an archivist, I have not cared for one collection that did not contain a woman, a minority, or a child that was just screaming to be recognized. But there she was buried in a pile of manuscripts, some man’s daughter. An unnamed wife, Mrs. Herbert Hoover. Mrs. Finley Calhoun. Some slave, a servant, a mute.
The university, my professional home, offers many opportunities for women past and present. Internships are invaluable to the career of a budding curator. The high-heel clad foot gets in the door, followed soon by a vintage plaid 50’s skirt from Oona’s in Cambridge, MA. A brown body, narrow hands, a face, curious brown eyes, a mouth. Before you can say Bobbi Brown, you are in. A new girl in the old boy’s network. There I was processing the letters of Henry James, James L. Lewis and a famed botanist. The latter collection was one of my favorites and my most challenging. A history buff, I possessed no formal training in botany. Biology yes, as I braved two terrible years as a pre-med major. Still, the specimens of amber, spore prints, orchids had my do-rag covered head spinning with the nomenclature of crytogamic botany. In order understand how to process that collection, to present it to the scholar, I had to become that botanist. Of course he was a man and so was the subject of nearly every collection I have worked with up to this point. Botany pertains to nature who is a mother. Or so we are told. How odd that the history of botany does not include more women. This was the irksome thought I held as I read reference texts on botanical taxonomy. The beautiful names of flowers- freesia, peony, rose. It was hard to imagine the absence of woman in such a world of beauty, such detail, delicacy, fertility and reproduction. The field notes of a botanist often reveal very little about his family unless they are somehow related to fungi. Sample collecting during inclement weather, meticulous writing and insects offer very little to a “delicate flower” such as a woman. Unless that woman is Jane Colden.
Jane Colden ( 1724-1760), is considered to be the first female botanist in America. She was born in New York City to botanist and New York Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden . Her father educated her at home and curiously in the fields of Hudson Valley. Following her father’s desire, Jane was trained as a botanical assistant of sorts, her father’s apprentice in his ambition to become a great botanist. In the home, Jane was known as her father’s daughter but in the field she developed an escape from the suppression and vulnerability so inherent to being of the “weaker sex” during the 18th century.
Jane diligently recorded undiscovered flora and fauna of the Hudson region in her field notebook and delivered what was considered to be the most comprehensive botanical record on the region of its time, containing over 300 specimens. Jane’s skill in formal Linnean taxonomy was so keen that she eclipsed the abilities of her father.
Jane was allowed to communicate with the greatest botanists in American and Europe, however, it was through Jane’s father that this communication was allowed. This arrangement may appear as one of gender biased restraint by today’s standards. Quite the contrary, for it was a familial partnership ideally suitable to both parties. Mr. Colden was allowed to expand his circle of influence in the discipline of botany while Jane became respected as a botanist in her own right. Traveling botanists would find the company of the two Coldens rather enjoyable. In 1756 one of Jane’s descriptions was published in a respected European journal, making her the first woman to do so.
It is believed that Jane discovered the gardenia while strolling one day. She alerted her father who shared her description of the flower (along with one of his earlier ones) to a friend. While the descriptions of both father and daughter were published, Jane’s discovery was challenged by her scientific contemporaries. She subsequently, never received her due of full recognition, accolades, or historical significance…until recently.
Jane was married in 1759 to Dr William Farquar.
She died one year later during childbirth in 1760. She was only two weeks shy of turning 36 years old. I discovered Jane Colden after I processed the papers of a famous male botanist and wondered about the dearth of female context and input in the field , both literally and figuratively. I questioned my own legacy as a historian, archivist, curator… someday when I am long gone will they remember me? What will happen with things that never were? Jane was cheated out of naming the gardenia, Hillary Clinton was cheated out of the Democratic nomination. Where will these stories live decades from now? Who will dig through the dusty archives to find them?
Almost immediately, Jane Colden comes to mind whenever I visit a botanical garden. A serene jaunt to the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago was a favorite childhood excursion. I could not read the Latin names. Linnean taxonomy meant nothing to a five year old. Smells and bright colors was what I could relate to. I wonder if I have ever walked by one of Jane’s discoveries without noticing as child. Did I ever walk by Jane while fanning myself at the New York Botanical Garden as an adult?
In Alice Walker’s famous novel, The Color Purple, the character “Shug” makes a memorable quote:
“I think it pisses God off when you walk by the colour purple in a field and don’t notice it.”
I believe that the same could be said for those who do not notice or appreciate women and their contributions to our society.
Congratulations on your Phd. Boston Boomer. I recognize and appreciate all you have done and will do for women everywhere.
Autographed Letter Signed,
If you would like to learn more about Jane Colden, there is a great article in the Journal of Women’s History by Sara Stidstone Gronim entitled “What Jane Knew: A Woman Botanist in the Eighteenth Century” Volume 19, Number 3, Fall 2007. If you would like a pdf copy of the article, please contact me and I will be glad to share it. Jane’s drawings and manuscripts may be accessed at the Museum of Natural History in London.