Could you imagine yourself living in another era?
If it wasn’t for her personal choices and tragedies in her life, Mary Eleanor, once described by surgeon and family doctor Jesse Foot as ‘the most intelligent female botanist of the age,’ (The Lives of Andrew Robinson Bowes Esq and the Countess of Strathmore, 1810) may have realised her potential as a natural historian and been entered into the history books for her contributions to the natural sciences.
– National Trust website
Mary Eleanor Bowes was not your typical Georgian heiress. She had been educated by her father who adored her. When he died, when she was 11 years old, she became far richer than most of the aristocracy of the time.
In the eclectic collection at the Bowes Museum there is an unassuming Georgian cabinet that Mary Eleanor Bowes had made to house her botany collection. She was astute and intellectual. But these traits are vastly lost to our social memory of her because of the way her lifestyle and sex were used to undermine her. In open court, under duress, the salacious details were publicly scrutinised.
In another blog I’ll go further into her complex story, but I wanted to make a note of some of the reasons that I think her story is still relevant today.
In Alabama they have just passed a restrictive abortion law that reduces a woman’s right to body autonomy to a distant dream. Mary Eleanor Bowes was seen as a decadent woman of very loose morals. She had abortions, illegitimate children, two marriages, and was a long time victim of extreme domestic abuse. Her perceived misdemeanours were brought out in a vicious court case. Her husband Andrew Robinson Stoney was attempting to legally take her inheritance, as was the norm of the time, by ruining her reputation, even though her father had the presence of mind to stipulate a prenuptial agreement.
This American state law throws women in Alabama into a situation where their rights are essentially non-existent. They are not in control of their bodies. Demonised and subjugated. Just like almost 300 years ago.
I realise that my own autonomy could be equally eroded if the political sway towards ultra conservativism continues. It really makes my blood run cold.