“We’ll all grow up someday, Meg, we might as well know what we want.”—Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Visionary women have always been among us. Women have contributed to science, history, philosophy, medicine, and art long before they were admitted to scholarly societies or universities. Many were denied recognition for their expertise because they were young because they were not formally educated, because they were poor, because of their race, and because they were female. The limitations of people’s imagination, however, did not hold back those who were determined to make a difference. Women like Ann Lowe, Mary Anning, Anna Atkins, and Maria Merian, were committed to their work, overcame barriers and made history in their respective fields.
The first African American owned business on prestigious Madison Avenue was owned by fashion designer Ann Lowe. Ann was born in 1898 Clayton, Alabama a child of generations of skilled seamstresses. Ann’s mother had a successful business sewing for high society families. When Ann was 16, her mother died suddenly. She left an unfinished dress order for the first lady of Alabama that Ann completed. Ann began building a name for herself in the South and moved to Florida for more opportunities. In 1917, Ann was accepted to the S. T. Taylor Design School where she became the only African-American student. She studied and worked in solitude because other students refused to sit in a class with an African American. Despite the prejudice she faced, Ann’s work was often the best in her school and shown to other students as an example of superior craftsmanship.
In 1953 Ann was recruited for the most historical commission of her lifetime. She was asked to design the wedding dress and bridal party gowns for the marriage of future First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier and then Senator John F. Kennedy. Though the designs were widely celebrated, she was never given public credit for her work. Clients talked Ann into charging less for her designs because they undervalued her work due to her race and she had a difficult time making a profit. Ann designed for famous department stores in New York City to great acclaim and then opened her own shop, Ann Lowe Originals in 1968 on Madison Avenue.
Finding the first complete Ichthyosaur at age 13 is quite the accomplishment, but for Mary Anning, it was also a part of her life-long love for fossil hunting. As a baby in 1799, Mary and others she was with were struck by lightning. Everyone else died but somehow Mary survived. When she was taken home the once sickly baby thrived and people credited the lightning strike as the moment that sparked her brilliance.
Mary followed her older brother and father on fossil hunting adventures in the cliffs near their home of Lyme Regis, England where she developed a keen eye for spotting fossils. Mary’s father died when she 11, leaving the poor family destitute. Mary and her older brother Joseph used their excavation skills to unearth rare and interesting fossils to sell to wealthy tourists. Together the siblings found the first complete ichthyosaurus dinosaur. She went on to find more fossils that were important for the foundation of a new field of science, paleontology. Mary, however, did not just collect fossils, she studied them. She was able to identify bones by sight and recorded her findings diligently. Mary’s knowledge caused scientists to seek her out. Her findings were used as evidence in important scientific papers and ended up in museums, all without giving her proper credit. In 2010, the Royal Society named Mary Anning one of the ten most important female scientists in British history. The same organization did not admit a single woman from 1662 until 1945.
Anna Atkins was one of the world’s first photographers. Born into a life of privilege in 1799, Anna was a capable woman who benefitted from her proximity to scientific minds. Like many learned women of her era, Anna was able to explore academic interests because of a supportive scientist father, John George Children, the founding president of the Royal Entomological Society. Anna benefitted from both a private education and a respected position in society. They exposed her to new ideas, technology and perhaps most significantly other scientists. She counted Sir John Herschel and William Henry Fox Talbot as family friends, both pioneers of the photographic process. Anna though had an idea that had not been attempted before. Before being introduced to photography, Anna was an accomplished botanist. She collected plant specimens from a young age and was able to combine her knowledge of botany with her interest in photography. In 1843 she demonstrated the power of images in the first ever book of photography.
When Maria Merian was born in 1647, people thought wasps rose from fire and flies sprang from rotted meat. In Germany, her family were craftspeople, operating a publishing house that engraved and painted images of the new people, places, animals, and plants being encountered for the first time by Europeans around the world. Before photography, art was the dominant way to share stories of discovery. Reading and books were for the wealthy, but images made ideas more accessible to the common person.
Artistic skills were valuable to scientists eager to depict and circulate new discoveries. Maria was encouraged to develop her artistic abilities by both her father, Matthaus Merian, and stepfather, Jacob Marrel. Maria could not own a business, study with other artists or portray certain scenes because she was a girl but she was still able to contribute. Maria’s stepfather taught her all he knew about painting and engraving. He illustrated flowers, for him insects made his images more lifelike. Maria developed her love for entomology by collecting creatures for his pictures. At age 13 she raised silkworms to observe them directly. As she grew older and married, Maria explored the outdoors, searching for caterpillars of all size to collect and study. Her fascination coupled with artistic skill enabled Maria to contribute greatly to the scientific understanding of our bug-filled world. She gathered insects when they were still alive while most scientists only collected dead specimens. Her observations of metamorphosis and the creatures’ eating habits were unique. Maria determined insects were not mysterious organisms who appeared out of thin air but that they began as small eggs and transformed over various stages to the flying bugs we see all around us. In 1679, Maria published the Wondrous transformation of caterpillars and their particular nourishment from flowers, the first volume to show 50 moths and butterflies in all their stages of life along with the plants that sustained them.