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Women and Science

Observing science textbooks of the 1800's gives students the opportunity to learn the historical roots of their scientific lessons. One way to accomplish this lesson is through botany. The following lesson combines history with language arts and science in order to learn the parts of a plant, poetry, and how to create a herbarium using 19th century textbooks specifically designed for women.

In the mid-1700's, Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus created a system of taxonomy that revolutionized botanical study and is the basis for our modern system of classification. Linnaeus’ work was made possible by communication with networks of learned scholars and collectors, which included women. These scholars argued that botany, in particular, was a suitable science for women to learn, and by the 1800's, it became an integral part of women’s education.

Educated women were expected to understand plant classification, and in the 1800's, a number of women published botanical textbooks. Women used their botanical knowledge to improve various tasks within the domestic sphere, such as medicinal herbs. Women would also keep herbaria, a book of dried plants, in conjunction with schoolwork, or while traveling abroad. The Linnaean system would be used to determine a plant’s class, genus, and species, and women used this knowledge to identify the various plants in their herbaria. In addition, in a woman’s herbarium, she would sometimes attach poetry or sentiments to the plants as a way of demonstrating her knowledge and beautifying the object. One example is the herbarium kept by Emily Dickinson, created during her time at Amherst Academy. Dickinson’s herbarium has more recently received attention when it was digitized and now acts as a preserved example of the importance of botany at female education.

By 1800, botany was fairly common at female seminaries. Earlier institutions limited women to “feminine” or ornamental studies, such as embroidery, etiquette, and various other domestic responsibilities. These new seminaries, including the Troy Female Seminary founded in 1821, sought to provide women curricula comparable to what men received. The broader-based education included math, science, and history.


Arts and Culture


Science and Medicine


Big Ideas

Historical Context

US History

Essential Questions

How can the story of another American, past or present, influence your life?

Why is time and space important to the study of history?


  • Textual evidence, material artifacts, the built environment, and historic sites are central to understanding United States history.

  • Learning about the past and its different contexts shaped by social, cultural, and political influences prepares one for participation as active, critical citizens in a democratic society.


  • Analyze a primary source for accuracy and bias and connect it to a time and place in United States history.

  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social relations for a specific time and place.

Background Material for Teacher

Biography on Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps by Emma Lydia Bolzau

Emily Dickinson's Herbarium

Emily Dickinson's Poetry

Modern Parts of a Plant with Vocabulary

Learning to Stand and Speak by Mary Kelly

End of Unit Assessment

Have the students create their own herbarium along with poetry and classification using the instructions from Almira Phelps Lincoln's book.


Plans in this Unit

Women's Scientific Practice in Botany

Grade Level

Middle School

Standards/Eligible Content





PA Common Core Standards:




Wells Fargo Bank

About the Author

This Unit Plan was created by Alicia Parks, Wells Fargo Education Manager at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania


Blog Post

Get Ready to #GetNerdyPHL

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