Untitled design 2023 04 07T111816.954 cb80f

Are Flowers Feminist? The Surprisingly Radical History of Women and Botany

by Dr. Romany Reagan

Today decorating your living room with floral wallpaper or wearing a daisy-printed dress might not scream “feminist statement.” But several hundred years ago, women’s fascination with flowers and, in turn, a desire for a flowery aesthetic, was not associated with dainty innocence, but instead showed evidence of a scientific mind.

In the 18th- and-19th centuries, one of the few branches of scientific study that was considered within the purview of “lady-like” pursuits was the study of botany. This led many women to become quite familiar with organic and botanical images, and also to become adept at their creation. It was only with the increasing codification of these “interests” into the hallowed halls of “science” that the walls came up—and women found themselves on the wrong side of knowledge.

The association between women and plants can be traced all the way back to the role of female healers in medieval and early-modern communities. The study and classification of plants was just part of the fabric of nature as a whole, which women were intimately familiar with.

Then, in 1735, Carl Linnaeus published his Systema Naturae, which presented an accessible way of naming and classifying plants, and helped bring the science of botany into prominence—particularly among women. “During the later 18th century, women had more culturally sanctioned access to botany than any other science: they collected plants, drew them, studied them, named them, taught their children about plants, and wrote popularizing books on botany. Botany came to be widely associated with women and was widely gender coded as feminine,” writes historian Ann B. Shteir in a 1997 journal published by the University of Chicago Press.

Such was women’s freedom within this discipline that several popular books were published during this time, written and illustrated by women. Elizabeth Blackwell melded the herbal tradition with artistic skill in A Curious Herbal (1737 to 1739), which featured 500 etched, engraved, and hand-colored illustrations of plants with descriptions and names in several languages, along with information about medical uses.

Elizabeth Blackwell NLM 01 Villain Public domain via Wikimedia Commons ba6ae(Elizabeth Blackwell; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Clove July Flower 0167aImage from Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal; Courtesy of British Library

In 1796, Priscilla Wakefield published Introduction to Botany, a text written specifically for women who wanted to take their scientific education seriously. 

Priscilla Wakefield. Ulrich Lange Dunedin New Zealand Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 87651(Priscilla Wakefield; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Wakefield plate4 Intro Botany clipdrop enhance a7e62Image from Wakefield;s Introduction To Botany; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

There were also many books aimed at women that provided instruction for drawing in nature. Far from botanical texts, these books instead showed how to create beautiful illustrations but left out the bothersome bits, like root systems, or endeavoring to explain any of the plant’s constituent parts. However, aesthetic and scientific pursuits inevitably collided. 

A growing interest in botanical exactitude began to overlap with fashion and, in the mid-18th century, you can see the flicker of scientific interest within the socially acceptable realm of a feminine pursuit: the flowery dress. According to Shteir, “The 1740s and 1750s saw a floral mania in rococo dress design in England, and some depictions of flowers were remarkably naturalistic.” One such designer was Anna Maria Garthwaite, who created hundreds of silk designs portraying flowers in realistic shapes and colors, many of which even showed the plants’ roots.

Mrs Charles Willing by Robert Feke 1746 WIKI2 3949cA 1746 painting depicting Mrs. Charles Willing wearing a dress woven with a pattern by Anna Maria Garthwaite; Robert Feke. Pubic domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But the permeation of women’s interest in botany didn’t stop with fashion. As naturalists went on excursions and gathered plants, artistic replicas of special specimens found their way into home decoration. Women recreated the nature they studied around them in wax, paper, and shells. They bought floral fabric designs, tile designs, and naturalistic wallpapers. And they began gardening. When a country ramble wasn’t an accessible pleasure, the garden at home could provide a private botanical world. Both represented a rare, sanctioned outlet for intellectual, scientific, and artistic development for women, and the enjoyment of flowers transcended class lines.

When a country ramble wasn’t an accessible pleasure, the garden at home could provide a private botanical world. Both represented a rare, sanctioned outlet for intellectual, scientific, and artistic development for women, and the enjoyment of flowers transcended class lines.

At the start of the Victorian era, however, there came a desire to “elevate” botanical science out of the realm of the armchair appreciator into the rigors of scientific pursuit, and women had to go.

“The professionalization of science in general, and of the natural sciences in particular, was part of an effort to exclude those without formal education and to elevate a scientific elite,” writes Linda Lear in Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, a biography about the beloved children’s author and dedicated naturalist. “Amateurs and those generalists without degrees or formal training, particularly women, were increasingly excluded from this new scientific dialogue.” This is especially galling when we remember that for the first half of the 19th century, women were barred from attending the universities that would grant them the degrees necessary to pursue sanctioned scientific work.

Nowhere can this deep bias be seen better than in the work and writing of John Lindley (1799 to 1865), the first professor of botany at London’s University College. In his first lecture, he vowed to “redeem” the study: “It has been very much the fashion in late years, in this country, to undervalue the importance of this science and to consider it an amusement for ladies rather than an occupation for the serious thoughts of man,” he said.

And Lindley wasn’t alone. A campaign of sorts began in Victorian England to de-feminize botany and make it a subject fit for serious men. Women were prohibited from joining professional societies, but they could still attend open public lectures—which they did, and frequently. One such lecture, “On the Study of Natural History” by Charles Kingsley in 1846, was intended to excite young men about the subject of botany. Kingsley was displeased with the mix in his audience, however.

As Beverly Seaton wrote in her book The Language of Flowers: A History, one of Kingsley’s contemporaries reported that, “When his botanical classes were infiltrated by women students, he was once heard to remark, ‘These good ladies quite spoilt my day—but what can you do? When they get to a certain age you must either treat them like duchesses or shoot them.’”

AHLPportrait clipdrop enhance transformed 8af62Portrait of Almira Lincoln Phelps; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

familiarlectures00phel 0329 1ba9ePlate from Phelps’ “Familiar Lectures on Botany;” Biodiversity Heritage Library

Despite growing negativity from the male scientific community toward female interference, women weren’t easily deterred. Almira Lincoln Phelps published her enormously popular book, Familiar Lectures on Botany, in 1829, emphasizing the science of plants. Most botany books for women, however, left the science behind. “The idea that women had to be taught botany in publications just for women was based on the notion that, since the female intellect was weak, women had to be approached from a different perspective than male students,” writes Seaton.

In these popular books, little bits of botany were sandwiched in among the more genteel aspects of flower study. “Flowers were seen as the most suitable aspect of nature to represent women,” Seaton explains, “reflecting as they do certain stereotypical qualities of the female being: smallness of stature, fragility of mind and body, and impermanence of beauty.”

“Flowers were seen as the most suitable aspect of nature to represent women,” Seaton explains, “reflecting as they do certain stereotypical qualities of the female being: smallness of stature, fragility of mind and body, and impermanence of beauty.”

But women never stopped pushing for inclusion into botanical study, and toward the end of the 19th century, the scientific education of girls became a higher national and social priority. Some women studied for university-level local examinations and, in 1896, the first women gardeners—Annie M Gulvin and Alice Hutchins—were hired at Kew, London’s Royal Botanic Gardens and one of the largest botanical collections in the world.

 105937159 mediaitem105937158.jpg edc67Alice Hutchins, far right, with two other female gardeners at Kew, 1898; copyright RBG KEW

Though they were “compelled to labor in brown knickerbockers, woollen stockings, waistcoat, jacket, and peaked cap, a costume guaranteed not to distract their male colleagues,” wrote Lear. The Linnean Society of London, exclusively male since its founding in1788, finally, in 1904, allowed women—albeit reluctantly—to become members.

Today, the association of flowers and women is seen as something of a cliché, but the origins of the connection of women with herbal healing, botanical study, and artistic expression within the strict confines of Victorian culture speaks to feminine celebration, not an externally imposed doctrine of girlishness. And the fact that women had to fight so hard to be included in the serious study of what was once their sole domain is nothing short of revolutionary. So perhaps, the next time you don a flowered dress, you might consider it a symbol of feminist power. All the better if it shows roots systems and articulated Linnaean structures.

Plant Pioneers: 4 Women to Know

Badass botanists and groundbreaking gardeners—here are a few names we’d nominate for the horticultural hall of fame.

Maxidiwiac or Buffalo bird woman 35014Maxi’diwiac; Gilbert Livingstone Wilson, public domain via Wikimedia Commons


Also known as Buffalo Bird Woman, Maxi’diwiac was a Hidatsa woman in North Dakota whose extensive gardening knowledge was immortalized in the 1917 book Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden. It details her tribe’s growth of everything from squash to sunflowers and includes many methods still in use today.

Gertrude Jekyll portrait William Nicholson Public domain via Wikimedia Commons clipdrop enhance 438b0Gertrude Jekyll; William Nicholson, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Gertrude Jekyll

British horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll was a trailblazing garden designer, bringing more than 400 gardens to life before her death in 1932, including some that can still be visited today. Her influence set the standard for the English-style garden, her artistic attention to color and texture was revered, and when planting, she was even known to fire seeds from a shotgun.


49946278311 b1efe9aebe o clipdrop enhance a2c2dIsabella Abbott; public domain, via NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

Isabella Abbott

 We don’t often think of plant life as thriving underwater, but marine botany is a whole thing, and Isabella Abbott (1919 to 2010), the first native Hawaiian woman to receive a PhD in science, was one of its stars. She was a top world expert on Hawaiian seaweed and Pacific algae, and ocean stewardship was a pillar of her work.


TanishaWilliams credit Tanisha Willimas 5deffTanisha Williams; Bucknell University

Tanisha Williams

A postdoctoral fellow in botany at Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University, Dr. Tanisha Williams is a plant ecologist and botanist with a special interest in conserving biodiversity. In 2020 she started #BlackBotanistsWeek, an online initiative to bring joy and representation to the botanical fields.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

Top Illustration:  Henriëtte Geertruida Knip, 1820; public domain via Unsplash

You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.