Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673)

"I would rather die in the adventure of noble achievements than live in obscure and sluggish security." Margaret Cavendish

Margaret (Lucas) Cavendish was born in 1623 in Colchester, Essex, England. Because Margaret lived at a time when women were given very little education, she learned only the basics of reading and writing, as well as needle-work, singing, dancing, and musical instruments. While still young, Margaret decided that she wanted to be known for her wit and so began writing. When she was 17, a civil war broke out in England. Margaret was forced to flee to France because her family supported the King and Queen.

While in France, she became a maid of honour to Queen Henrietta Maria and also met William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle. In 1645, they married. William and his brother, Charles, gave Margaret informal lessons in science and philosophy to pass the time.

In 1653, two years after returning to England, Margaret published her first book, Poems, and Fancies. She went on to publish fourteen books about science. She also wrote plays, poems, philosophies, orations, and discourses. Margaret was criticized for her poor spelling and grammar, but she never apologized instead she stated that it was "against nature for a woman to spell right."

Her spelling and grammar were only the beginning of the criticism that earned her the name "Mad Madge." Not only was she the first woman in England to write for the purpose of publication, but she also was the only woman of her time to write about science. In her attempts to "die in the adventure of noble achievements," Margaret spoke out against many of the traditions of her day, earning herself further criticism. "Women live like bats or owls, labour like beasts, and die like worms." She spoke to the lack of education that women received. "In Nature, we have as clear an understanding as men, if we were bred in schools to mature our brains." She was particularly distressed by the lack of overall opportunities for women. "We are shut out of all power and authority, by reason we are never employed either in civil or martial affairs, our counsels are despised, and laughed at, the best of our actions are trodden down with scorn, by the over-weening conceit, men have of themselves, and trough a despisement of us."

In a time when women were expected to be dutiful wives who did not attract too much attention, Margaret spoke out, wore eccentric outfits in public, wrote extensively, and refused to be defined based only on her gender. Although her explanations and poems about science seem outrageous now, her theories stretched what scientists of her day knew and understood. She wrote about atoms when microscopes were brand new. She introduced the public to science through poetry and simplified explanations.

Of Loose Atomes
IN every Braine loose Atomes there do lye,
Those which are Sharpe, from them do Fancies flye.
Those that are long, and Aiery, nimble be.
But Atomes Round, and Square, are dull, and sleepie.

Margaret’s adventure ended in 1673 after a life without obscurity or sluggishness. She will be remembered as not necessarily for her contributions to science, but for her contributions to the cause of women, which set the stage for future women philosophers.

Classroom Discussion Questions:

How would Margaret Cavendish have answered the question: "Compassion or Violence:
Which has a greater impact on society?"

What inventions since the 1600s might Margaret Cavendish be most impressed with?

What are some of the advancements that women have made since Margaret Cavendish’s time?

Margaret was a pioneer in her time, both in science and women’s issues. Who are some of today’s pioneers? Are they using ideas that can be traced back to her philosophies? Which ideas?

To learn more about Margaret Cavendish, follow these links:,_Margaret/


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