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Caroline Herschel: agency and self-presentation
02.04.2021 Emily Winterburn
Astronomy
Caroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel was rare among her female contemporaries in gaining public recognition for her work in science, yet her role in this process and her role in designing her training have never previously been studied. We know that access to education and participation in science was different for men and women in the eighteenth century. However, drawing on feminist, pedagogical and biographical approaches to history, I argue that although access depended on a variety of factors, a more consistent gender divide came in lessons on how to learn, and in what was regarded as appropriate behaviour. Caroline's skill—so often misunderstood—was to be aware of the differences and to use them to her own advantage.

‘I found I was to be trained as an assistant Astronomer’, Caroline Herschel remarked in 1782 with no great enthusiasm.1 In the years that followed, Caroline's training led her to become a celebrated figure throughout Europe. By presenting this turn of events as something unwelcome, imposed upon her, Caroline carefully distanced herself from any suggestion of personal ambition. Her subsequent actions, which show her pursuing her scientific education and reputation in various ways, rather undermine her claims. As Paola Bertucci recently observed, unmarried learned women in the eighteenth century, especially those unprotected by class, needed to take great care in their self-presentation.2 Women devised different strategies for working within these societal restrictions, depending on their social and geographical position.3 In this article I bring recent debates within the history of pedagogy to this discussion, to consider how training helped to determine the types of role taken and how they were presented. Caroline, as I show here, learned to be aware of the restrictions of her gender and class, and consciously devised strategies for both developing her education and presenting her work in respectable terms.

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