Gender Subversion in the Science of Margaret Cavendish
Lisa Walters
The University of Edinburgh

Walters, Lisa. "Gender Subversion in the Science of Margaret Cavendish." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 14 (May, 2004): 13.1-34 <URL:

  1. Margaret Cavendish is best known for her plays, poetry and fiction, yet she also wrote many scientific and philosophical treatises that redefine and challenge the patriarchal assumptions within the scientific tradition. An understanding of Cavendish's theories, particularly in relation to the Scientific Revolution, will facilitate an understanding of her literature since she wrote extensively about science and often incorporated it into her fiction. Cavendish's intricate science, which includes animism, materialism, atoms and theories of multiple worlds, results in subverting the foundations of scientific knowledge and reason that maintain ideas of natural sex inequalities. Cavendish does not simply criticize the apparently unequal social roles, but her theories further challenge patriarchal metaphors embedded within the foundations of science and Western culture -- values that are still prevalent within contemporary Western thought. [1] Cavendish recognized the multifaceted aspects of power and examines the ideologies that make inequalities appear natural and thus, unquestionable. Throughout Philosophical Letters, concepts within science that were considered naturally masculine, such as reason, mind, spirit, activity and power, are intermixed with the cultural definitions of femininity and its associations with nature, irrationality, body, passivity and natural inferiority.

  2. Cavendish's theories can be best understood in relation to seventeenth-century scientific conceptions of the world. Historian Hugh Kearney claims that early modern science can be loosely organized into three main scientific traditions, the scholastic, magic and mechanic sciences, all of which can be defined by their approach to nature. Mechanical philosophy, which eventually evolved into modern science, used the metaphor of a machine to describe the natural world; the magic or hermetic tradition, which included astronomy and chemistry, understood nature as a piece of artwork or music to be mastered by the magician; and scholastic science, which was taught in universities, used analogies of organisms to depict nature . Although all three sciences had different outlooks upon the world and often contradicted each other, all maintained a view of nature that held gendered implications.

  3. Cavendish developed a science that utilized ideas from various traditions, yet her science challenges cultural codes that determine what was considered masculine and feminine within philosophy by redefining nature itself. Nature and woman have been historically associated together throughout Western culture. Rational knowledge is often depicted as male and in direct opposition to an irrational, female Nature. Maleness was often aligned with active, determinate form and femaleness with passive, indeterminate matter. Within these gendered dichotomies, ideas associated with maleness were superior to its opposite (see Lloyd).

  4. Cavendish does explicitly define nature and matter as female, yet she challenges the patriarchal values embedded within this metaphor. She claims that there is no rest in nature and that this constant movement is not induced by an external force since "Nature hath a natural Free-will and power of self-moving" (Philosophical Letters 225). Nature is not merely an empty, lifeless body that is governed, but is capable of movement within itself. Nature is an active, moving, powerful being for "matter is not meerly Passive, but always Active" (PL 145). In reversing the active/passive dichotomy, associations between body, nature, and woman with passivity are disrupted.

  5. If Nature is one active, self-moving, continued body, then it must sustain itself without the aid of any external or supernatural power. Mechanical science is questioned in her rejection of the idea that movement is caused by an external force since this science portrayed nature as a motionless machine moved or set into motion by God. Cavendish argues that external forces do not govern nature since "Nature moveth not by force, but freely" (PL 23). A lifeless machine or body that only moves through external force depicts a vision of the universe that contains violent connotations, particularly in context of its gender associations. Nature is a passive, lifeless entity that is forcefully and even violently moved.

  6. This conception of nature relates to the mechanist, Francis Bacon, who used the metaphor of a feminine nature that is raped and dominated by a male scientist for knowledge. Bacon discusses how for previous science, the "true sons of knowledge has been trying to "find a way at length into [nature's] inner chambers," yet has failed to discover her secrets: "though it grasps and snatches at nature, yet can never take hold of her. Certainly what is said of opportunity of fortune is most true of nature; she has a lock in front, but is bald behind" (64). Nature is a passive, female body to penetrate and violate by male reason for the pursuit of knowledge. The male/female binary is utilized to portray a relation between knowledge and sexual power. Power can be obtained over nature as man has power over woman. The mutually reaffirming metaphors linking women and nature potently demonstrate Bacon's claim that "human knowledge and human power meet in one" (153).

  7. Cavendish disrupts this notion of power linked with reason as she argues that nature is incomprehensible and diminishes the idea of human grandeur and mastery in comparison to the natural world. Nature and 'femininity' are not only active, but they are also endued with reason and knowledge:

    But Nature is wiser then any of her Creatures can conceive; for she knows how to make, and how to dissolve, form, and transform, with facility and ease, without any difficulty; for her actions are all easie and free, yet so subtil, curious and various, as not any part or creature of Nature can exactly or throughly trace her ways, or know her wisdom (PL 476, 477).

    Nature, and its associations with woman, is not a passive vehicle to be mastered since it is not only wise, but an entity beyond human understanding.

  8. In contrast to the mechanist belief that God was the force behind the analogy of the world as machine, Cavendish states that God is an omnipotent entity within the universe, yet it is nature that is motion, knowledge and life within the natural world.

    when I do attribute an Infinite Power, Wisdom, Knowledg, etc. to Nature, I do not understand a Divine, but a Natural Infinite Wisdom and Power, that is, such as properly belongs to Nature, and not a supernatural, as is in God; For Nature having Infinite parts of Infinite degrees, must also have an Infinite natural wisdom to order her natural Infinite parts and actions, and consequently an Infinite natural power to put her wisdom into act; and so of the rest of her attributes, which are all natural (PL 8, 9).

    This distinction between divine and natural power not only allows Cavendish to avoid complete heresy, but also allows nature to be omnipotent within her realm so that she can function without God or any other immaterial force. Although nature is ultimately created and subservient to God, she is distinct from God and still contains a powerful, active role. There is nothing supernatural in Nature's domain and nature is omnipotent through God's command; "Therefore it is probable, God has ordained Nature to work in her self by his Leave, Will, and Free Gift" (PL 11). God is enigmatic and unknowable, granting nature the power of creation, motion, life and knowledge within the material world, contrary to the mechanist view of nature being a lifeless, passive machine.

  9. Although mechanism emphasized a more secular world-view, the magic or hermetic tradition relied on spirituality. Yet both magic and mechanism held parallel views upon the state of matter. Similar to mechanism, hermetic science relied upon the idea of matter being moved by force. The magic tradition believed matter had spirit, but it was an active spirit that impregnated or suffused passive, inert matter. [2] Though hermetic science still used active/passive dichotomies to describe matter, it simultaneously also emphasized harmony and union in nature. Evelyn Fox Keller claims that as a result, it held more egalitarian gender metaphors for "whereas Bacon sought domination, the alchemists asserted the necessity of allegorical, if not actual, cooperation between male and female" (Reflections 48). Yet the magic tradition is the science that contrasts most with Cavendish's philosophy.

  10. Cavendish disagrees with the hermetic explanation of immaterial entities being the primal cause of natural phenomenon and attempts to explain and understand nature in material terms. The emphasis that active spirit causes motion is disrupted as Cavendish disputes Van Helmont's claim that spirits are what control nature since "natural Matter stands in no need to have some Immaterial or Incorporeal substance to move, rule, guide and govern her, but she is able enough to do it all her self" (PL 194). The idea of a self-moving, active and material nature redefines body and nature in such a way that she has become a force that cannot be controlled or governed, whether it is by God, science or immaterial substances.

  11. The hermetic emphasis upon mysticism was problematic for Cavendish not only due to her materialism, but also because she believed science should focus upon the physical, natural world, rather than on spiritual mathematics and numerology. Mathematics cannot discover divinity or God's mind since it is not "possible that Divinity can be proved by Mathematical Demonstrations; for if Nature be not able to do it, much less is Art" (PL 211). If the universe is entirely material, the scientist cannot prove religion through their arts and limited corporeal perspective.

  12. Cavendish further argues that hermetic scientists' attempts to discover God's secrets represent human arrogance rather than constructive scientific pursuits:

    I am amazed, when I see men so conceited with their own perfections and abilities, (I may rather say, with their imperfections and weaknesses) as to make themselves God's privy Councellors, and his Companions, and partakes of all the sacred Mysteries, Designs, and hidden secrets of the Incomprehensible and Infinite God. O the vain Presumption, Pride, and Ambition of wretched Man! (PL 314).

    Humanity is ignorant and will not be able to discover God's secrets, contesting the hierarchy maintained by the magic, mechanist and organic traditions that humans were superior to other creatures and closer to God. Scientists striving for the secrets of God and the universe are comparable to the devil and his fall from heaven because their pride and ambition parallels Satan's aspiration to be like God: "some men will be as presumptuous as the Devil, to enquire into Gods secret actions, although they be sure that they cannot be known by any Creature" (PL 349). In linking Satan with scientists aspiring to gain powers, Cavendish questions the ethics of the belief that humans could obtain God-like powers through their science.

  13. Since Cavendish emphasizes the diversity, plurality and infinite qualities of nature, as opposed to the limitations of human knowledge and ability, she could not accept the belief that one medicine could remedy the vast amount of diseases:

    And what would the skill of Physicians be, if one remedy should cure all diseases? Why should they take so much pains in studying the various causes, motions, and tempers of diseases, if one medicine had a general power over all? Nay, for what use should God have created such a number of different simples, Vegetables, and Minerals, if one could do all the business? (PL 390).

    Synthetic medicine would be working against nature since "Chymists torture Nature worst of all; for they extract and distil her beyond substance, nay, into no substance, if they could" (PL 491). It attempting to transmute and alter natural substances, the chemist or alchemist is enacting a God-like position where nature is being controlled by an external force as she is violently and unnaturally used.

  14. Although Cavendish disagreed with the hermetic approach to medicine, she enthusiastically agreed with the scholastic, organic medical practices that used natural rather than synthetic remedies [3] which she understood as working with nature, rather than trying to usurp or possess her powers. Since she agreed with scholasticism in its practice of medicine, it would seem that she was embracing the scholastic tradition. Both Cavendish and this tradition based their science upon analogies of the body and believed that there was an animistic quality in matter, yet her conception of body and motion differs and challenges Aristotelian definitions of matter and consequently the gender order that it sustains.

  15. Gender analogies are transgressed as Cavendish disputes the scholastic conception of matter in relation to corruption. The scholastic tradition conceived matter on earth as corruptible, whereas the matter which composed the heavens was incorruptible (see Dampier). Since women were associated with matter and nature, and men had a closer likeness to God, women would be located within the negative, corruptible side of the heaven/earth, incorruptible/corruptible binary. Cavendish rejects the notion that anything can be corrupt in nature since all "Matter is Eternal and Incorruptible" (PL 460). This statement demonstrates how Cavendish subverts the multiple, reaffirming cultural metaphors that signify and reinforce gender. As Cavendish collapses the dualism between the heavens and earth, she simultaneously challenges the definitions of gender that are related to this dichotomy.

  16. Although Cavendish does relate to many aspects of scholasticism, signifiers of gender are still questioned. She agrees with the Aristotelian notion that everything on earth is in constant change and motion, yet she argues that this would include all of matter within the whole body of nature, including the heavens. Since all matter is in constant change and motion, she conflicts with the scholastic tenant that the heavens never change and have perfect motion and the earth has imperfect motion. The heaven/earth distinction is again confounded as all of matter and the universe is composed from the powerful, feminine force of matter, imbued with life and reason.

  17. If nature is such an infinite and continuously active force, the scholastic explanation for motion, that all matter is directed to fulfill its final cause or purpose, is made problematic. Although the theory of final purpose may appear to relate to Cavendish's notion that matter has an animistic, self-motion, yet this movement towards a final cause does not mean that all matter had life and knowledge. Matter sought its end purpose because it was seeking its natural place in the universe and once it reached its final purpose, it was at rest (see Shapin). Alternatively, Cavendish believed that matter was motion itself:"for Matter, Motion and Figure, are but one thing, individable" and was never at rest (PL 11). Furthermore, matter was not searching for its natural place, but that matter could not exist without place:"all bodies carry their places along with them, for body and place go together and are inseparable" (PL 67). A body does not move through various places, for that would suggest that the body is not connected or interacting with the matter that it is immersed within:

    Say a man travels a hundred miles, and so a hundred thousand paces; but yet this man has not been in a hundred thousand places, for he never had any other place but his own, he hath joined and separated himselfe from a hundred thousand, nay millions of parts, but he has left no places behind him (PL 102).

    Cavendish's labyrinthine body of matter is further complicated and expanded in this definition of place that is not distinct from body. Matter is infinitely interactive and humanity is constantly mixing, becoming part of or physically interacting with the material environment. The distinctions between humanity, body, man, woman and nature are blurred and confused.

  18. As Cavendish deconstructs various dichotomies and categories, she demonstrates how value systems and social hierarchy are maintained and reaffirmed through various institutions and knowledges, giving the appearance of a stable, unchanging truth. Rather than working within a patriarchal framework and accepting gender roles as a permanent truth, Cavendish conceives how the world is structured in gender/power relations and attempts to restructure the gendered assumptions in science. As Cavendish critiques and absorbs aspects from various sciences, she playfully revises scientific metaphors and ideas that maintain sex hierarchy. She claims that the sciences cannot master nature for art "hath found out some things profitable and useful for the life of others, yet she is but a handmaid to Nature, and not her Mistress" (PL 362). Art, which encompasses 'male' philosophy and science, is portrayed as not only a woman, but a female servant to Nature, a metaphor that further disrupts and plays with the links between science, reason and power with masculinity.

  19. Since nature had so many cultural associations with woman, Cavendish attacks and ridicules her contemporaries and their assumption that nature is a body, void of reason:

    some of our modern Philosophers think they do God good service, when they endeavour to prove Nature, as Gods good Servant, to be stupid, ignorant, foolish and mad, or any thing rather then wise, and yet they believe themselves wise, as if they were no part of Nature; but I cannot imagine any reason why they should rail on her, except Nature had not given them as great a share or portion, as she hath given to others; for children in this case do often rail at their Parents, for leaving their Brothers and Sisters more then themselves. (PL 162, 163).

    Cavendish places humanity into a humbling position where only Nature as a whole body united has knowledge of the entire material world and humanity is not God's favorite, but their vanity is akin to little children who whine for want of more attention and power. The scientist's desire for power is ironically derived upon irrational emotions such as jealousy. If humanity is only a part within Nature's body, then "there can never be in one particular Creature a perfect knowledg of all things in Nature" (PL 407). As a result, Cavendish conceives human knowledge as fragmented and limited.

  20. Since humanity is merely a small fraction of the body of nature, its knowledge and perspective cannot transcend its limited position within the natural world. Male reason and knowledge are not distinct from body, matter and femaleness, but are limited creatures within her.

  21. Nature and matter cannot be controlled since it is the force that creates humanity itself for "the cause of every particular material Creature is the onely and Infinite Matter" (PL 11). Matter itself is one united mass or body that is continuously moving in infinite ways to create a diverse and various universe:

    for though Matter is one and the same in its Nature, and never changes, yet the motions are various, which motions are the several actions of one and the same Natural Matter; and this is the cause of so many several Creatures; for self-moving matter by its self-moving power can act several ways, modes or manners; and had not natural matter a self-acting power, there could not be any variety in Nature; for Nature knows of no rest, there being no such thing as rest in Nature; but she is in a perpetual motion, I mean self-motion (PL 163, 164).

    Thus, it is Nature's activeness and will that cause and produce the universe. In terms of gender, this signifies that femaleness and body are the active powers and will that create the world.

  22. Using categories and dualisms that would be familiar and embedded within Western thought, Cavendish questions and subverts such conceptions by placing them in a different context. For example, though she does use an active/passive dualism in her descriptions of matter, she seems to use these concepts in order to deconstruct them and their associated gender ideologies. She claims there are two types of matter within nature, the animate and inanimate matter yet she claims they are so thoroughly intermixed that nothing can exist without both, "by reason in all parts of nature there is a commixture of animate and inanimate matter" (PL 99). Although Cavendish creates this distinction, all matter always contains both aspects; thus all matter is able to be in continual motion "for the animate forces or causes the inanimate matter to work with her; and thus one is moving, the other moved." Since every part of nature has both types of matter, everything is simultaneously active and passive as it moves and is moved.

  23. As Cavendish shifts meanings of the active/passive binary, she also uses a mind/body dichotomy in her description of matter. Yet, she creates these distinctions within matter in order to question the values they support. In The Philosophical and Physical Opinions, she argues that that there is one aspect in matter that contains reason and another that contains sense, body and life, "since the Animate matter is of two Degrees, Sensitive and Rational, I call the Sensitive the Life, and the Rational the Soul" (sig. e). This initially appears like Aristotelian thought in which rational substances control and are superior to grosser subjects that are devoid of reason (Stevenson 537). Yet these forms of matter are completely intermixed so that everything in existence has reason, body, motion and life; thus the mind/body distinction is not only blended, but placed within a different value system since "all degrees of Only and Infinite matter are Intermixed" (PAPO 4). Life, power and knowledge are brought into concepts such as nature, matter and body that were entrenched within the feminine side of the male/female metaphors. The concept of mind distinct from matter is now placed in an animistic universe where all of nature has reason:

    there is life and knowledg in all parts of nature, by reason in all parts of nature there is a commixture of animate and inanimate matter: and this Life and Knowledg is sense and reason, or sensitive and rational corporeal motions, which are all one thing with animate matter without any distinction or abstraction, and can no more quit matter, then matter can quit motion (PL 99).

    Mind is not superior over matter and femininity cannot be defined as irrational, as both are thoroughly intermixed as one living, knowing entity.

  24. Cavendish's universe is a conglomeration of reason, body and knowledge. The mind is an entity that functions like a physical body: "the Mind Feeds as greedily on Thoughts, as an Hungry Stomack doth Meat," confusing the conventional mind/body categories (PAPO 268). If mind and matter are conceived as the same, then signifiers of masculinity and femininity are confused, collapsing the gender hierarchy that places men within an ideologically superior position.

  25. In contrast to the Cartesian mind/body dualism, Cavendish claims that the mind and body are both material and thus, inseparable. "For the Natural Mind is not less material then the body" (PL 149) and thus humans cannot have immaterial knowledge. Only Nature as a whole body united has knowledge of the entire material world since her creatures are only pieces that together compose her body and they can only obtain fragments and pieces of this wisdom. Consequently, all creatures in nature are simultaneously wise and ignorant.

    for if there were not ignorance through the division of Parts, every man and other creatures would know alike; and there is no better proof, that matter, or any particular creature in nature is not governed by a created Immaterial Spirit, then that knowledg is in parts (PL 178).

    No aspect of nature can either comprehend or be entirely ignorant of the whole infinite body in which they are a small part of. Since all perspectives and knowledge are to some degree valid and true, none can claim perfection; "no particular Creature in Nature can have any exact or perfect knowledg of Natural things, and therefore opinions cannot be infallible truths" (PL 246). Perhaps this is why Cavendish characteristically depicts various and contradictory opinions and perspectives upon one subject. Since knowledge is distributed or divided amongst body and matter, no single entity has a privileged perspective for "there is no part of Nature that hath not life and knowledg" (PL 98, 99). Cavendish conceives an animistic universe where not only humanity, but every aspect of the material world is wisdom. Human reason is only one aspect within a vast, infinite body.

  26. Human knowledge appears insignificant within this wider view of the universe. Nature is goddess-like, yet is corporeal and too vast and infinite to be an anthropomorphic character. Her knowledge and power is divided and distributed throughout the material world:

    though they have not the speech of Man, yet thence doth not follow, that they have no Intelligence at all. But the Ignorance of Men concerning other Creatures is the cause of despising other Creatures, imagining themselves as petty Gods in Nature (PL 40, 41)

    Many forms of knowledge within Nature may be incomprehensible or imperceptible to humanity. Our knowledge is limited by our material, sensory perceptions. Other forms of knowledge may possibly exist beyond our abilities "for other Creatures may know and perceive as much as Animals, although they have not the same Sensitive Organs, nor the same manner or way of Perception" (PL 59). There can be no human supremacy or natural hierarchy in matter within this view of the universe since all creatures have their own peculiar knowledge and perspective. The male scientist cannot dominate a female nature if human knowledge is an infinite fraction in a vast body of nature. Cavendish expands and complicates the natural world into a labyrinth of animistic, conscious, living matter.

  27. As Cavendish complicates and extends nature, she complains that a scientist often "takes a part for the whole, to wit, this visible World for all Nature, when as this World is onely a part of Nature, or Natural Matter, and there may be more and Infinite worlds besides" (PL 460). If there are multiple worlds within the mass of Nature, how can a tiny fragment of this infinite, complex mass, understand, control or dominate the whole?

  28. If the body of nature is infinite then there could be more worlds than an individual could comprehend. Cavendish's theory of multiple worlds can be better understood in context of atoms. She conceives even particles as small as atoms as having their own life and knowledge. If every aspect of nature, whether it is as small as an atom, has life and reason, then there could be infinite worlds that are imperceptible to our senses. For example, there could be a world in an earring, as described in her earlier poetry (see Poems and Fancies). This theory of matter expands beyond human experience and comprehension since there are worlds within worlds that are too small, large or enigmatic for human comprehension and our senses are too limited to be able to perceive or understand them. Since even thoughts are material, people can create worlds with their thoughts as was done by the characters in Cavendish's novel, The Blazing World. [4]

  29. Although Cavendish discusses atoms and multiple worlds, in Philosophical Letters, she disclaims her previous atomic theories. Although she dismisses atoms, Cavendish refers the readers to her previous books and even to particular pages in order to understand her atomism. Jay Stevenson explains that the reasons for this strange paradox are partially because Cavendish's atomism was a potentially dangerous position to claim with its associations with atheism and unorthodoxy and also because disagreement and contradiction is precisely the state of Cavendish's atoms. He claims that this later shift in her science should not be taken at face value and her supposed revised science that excludes atoms is virtually the same philosophy but with different terminology (Stevenson 537). Cavendish argues that atoms couldn't exist,

    for if Every and Each Atome were of a Living Substance, and had Equal Power, Life and Knowledge, and Consequently, a Free-will and Liberty, and so Each and Every one were as Absolute as an other, they would hardly Agree in one Government, and as unlikely as Several Kings would Agree in one Kingdom, or rather as Men, if every one should have an Equal Power, would make a Good Government; and if it should Rest upon Consent and Agreement, like Human Governments, there would be as many Alterations and Confusions of Worlds, as in Human States and Governments (PAPO c2, c3).

    Cavendish's reason for disclaiming her atomist theories actually resembles and parallels her scientific theories which claim that all matter has Free-will, life and knowledge. This statement results in affirming her atomism and making a statement about humanity. [5] Since humanity can never find consensus and agree upon one opinion this indicates that the disparity in human opinion will always be infinite. Yet, according to her science, such conflicts are natural and necessary since this description of humanity is also a reflection of the state of nature. These disagreements along with consensus are the glue that cements atoms and reality together. Antipathy and sympathy between atomic particles are what form the world. The variety in the one body of nature creates an infinite variety of reactions amongst its entities in regards to each other, creating infinite worlds and creatures. Some parts of matter have various degrees of negative, positive or neutral reactions towards one another and this is the glue or cement that holds forms within matter together. [6] Thus there can be no true, perfect or unchanging government, since human opinions and governments are as variable as the changes and variety in atoms and the natural world.

  30. This suggests that there is no natural hierarchy since all creatures even as small as atoms are absolute with free-will, knowledge and need to disagree to make matter into forms. The body of nature is in constant conflict where there is no supernatural order placed upon the material world. If there is no supernatural or divine rank this in many ways makes Cavendish's royalism problematic. If every aspect of nature has free-will, is equal and "ha[s] an equal power [which] would make a Good Government," then one entity would not have a divine right to a hierarchical position such as a monarch.

  31. Not only does atomism question her Royalism, but also her theories of the soul in relation to matter question the common critical assumption that she advocates hierarchy. All parts of Nature including atoms are not only active, powerful and imbued with reason, but also contain equal soul. In depicting Nature as active and self-moving, yet corporeal, Cavendish creates an animistic, material universe where everything has life and soul:

    there is not any Creature or part of nature without this Life and Soul; and that not onely Animals, but also Vegetables, Minerals and Elements, and what more is in Nature, are endued with this Life and Soul, Sense and Reason: and because this Life and Soul is a corporeal Substance, it is both dividable and composable (PL b3).

    Although materialism and animism may appear paradoxical, Cavendish defines the soul as corporeal, a presence within all matter, that is not supernatural or exclusive to humanity: "though there is but one Soul in infinite Nature, yet that soul being dividable into parts, every part is a soul in every single creature, were the parts no bigger in quantity then an atome" (PL 433). There is no true self or soul, but infinite, dizzying amounts of living, knowing souls within one organism since even the atoms within a human have soul. There is no death within this paradigm, only changes within atoms. [7] Although a person or creature may die, the matter with which they were composed will continue to be endued with life, soul and motion. In a similar manner, matter is never created, but only moves and changes since "one Creature is produced by another, by the dividing and uniting, joyning and disjoyning of the several parts of Matter, and not by substanceless Motion out of new Matter" (PL 431). Matter exists as a plurality of states as the various forms compose, dissolve and continuously change. In redefining the concept of soul and blending it with materiality, Cavendish again transgresses dualisms that contain gender associations. The associations between masculinity with divinity are blended into the cultural definitions of femininity and its links with nature and body.

  32. In conceiving matter as one active, living mass, where the various parts continuously transform, create and dissolve one another, Cavendish emphasizes a connection between all matter: "I cannot conceive how any thing can be by it self in Nature, by reason there is nothing alone and single in Nature, but all are inseparable parts of one body" (PL 248) and consequently, "there is no part that can subsist singly by it self, without dependence upon each other" (PL 117). The emphasis upon the connection between matter again exemplifies Cavendish's characteristic resistance to dualism and hierarchy. Cavendish does not just deconstruct hierarchy between man and woman, but questions hierarchy and binaries of all kinds. All of matter is part of the same body and thus humanity or any other entity is not distinct or superior to any other part in nature.

  33. Cavendish systematically deconstructs metaphors, analogies and cultural associations that define gender, recognizing the multifaceted dimensions of a patriarchal social reality. Cavendish's theories demonstrate how the belief in natural gender differences and, consequently, male superiority is entrenched within the way society perceives the world. Power does not merely function in social interactions, but is supported and justified by an ideological system. Throughout her texts, Cavendish attacks in multiple, diverse ways, the metaphors that define gender within her society.

  34. Categories and binaries that many scientific and cultural metaphors are based upon do not operate within Cavendish's active, living, infinite force called Nature. [8] Within this world view, prevalent gendered conceptions of nature, matter, mind cannot accord or be reconciled within her universe. Cavendish mixes and hybridizes categories and cultural metaphors, challenging common, accepted perceptions of the world while simultaneously disrupting patriarchal metaphors embedded within scientific traditions. Rather than simplifying, universalizing or placing the world and morality into a comprehensible box, Cavendish complicates and stretches the universe into dizzying perspectives, where she cannot be restrained by categories, science and patriarchal traditions.


1. Evelyn Fox Keller notes that Cavendish's critique upon the new science has a resemblance to contemporary feminist criticism of scientific discourse; there is "a rather startling similarity between Cavendish's position and a post-Kuhnian and even a proto-feminist critique of the rational bases of mechanical science" ("Producing Petty Gods," 451).

2. An individual could thus manipulate the natural world by controlling the active spirit within bodies. See Harman 7,8.

3. "I am confident [natural remedies], hath rescued more lives, then the Universal Medicine, could Chymists find it out, perchance would do" (PL 383).

4. "[C]an any mortal be a creator? Yes, answered the spirits" (Blazing World 185).

5. Critics such as Emma Rees and Anna Battigelli have also perceived a relation between human behavior and atoms in Cavendish's literature. Rees demonstrates how the self is placed in comparison to an atom while Battigeli argues that the "physical universe, the political world, the mind - each of these could be envisioned as an atomist system" (Rees; see also Battigelli 39).

6. Cavendish wonders what "glue or cement holds the parts of hard matter in Stones and Metals together"? She answers that this cement is "Consistent or retentive corporeal motions, by an agreeable union and conjunction in the several parts of Metal or Stone" (PL 167). Thus, when matter is sympathetic, without aversion, a union is created. This explains Cavendish's dislike of the hermetic emphasis upon peace and harmony for antipathy and strife is necessary within her paradigm.

7. "[W]hat is commonly named death, is but an alteration or change of corporeal motions" (PL 411).

8. Even within her literature, Cavendish "is most engaged by that which troubles or resists categorization, thereby engendering reflection on the nature and function of categorization itself. Both Cavendish herself, and her writings, have similarly challenged categorization" (Blazing World xi).

Works Cited

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© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).