Professor Ann Shteir – Women and Plants: A Fruitful Topic (Winter 2023 Forum #5 Summary)

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Professor Ann Shteir

Professor Ann Shteir

Our brush with botany came early. Remember those primary school drawing lessons, the collections of native field flowers, the glorious autumn leaves pressed in waxed paper?

Those who took it a step further, who were hungry for a deeper scientific understanding, then worked harder and longer to discover and achieve, despite societal obstacles, are the subjects of Professor Ann Shtier’s research and teaching. As Professor Emerita and Senior Scholar in gender, feminist, and women’s studies at York University, she concentrates on digging deeper into the questions surrounding women and their relationship to science.  A book she recently edited, ‘Flora’s Fieldworkers: Women and Botany in Nineteenth Century Canada’ is a collection submitted by fifteen authors.

In the name of Flora, goddess of flowers, Shtier has undertaken to shine a light on these Canadian fieldworkers, accomplished botanists, who could otherwise fade into obscurity.

In an engaging talk at the Forum, Shtier highlighted the lives of a few prominent 19th C women botanists whose contributions have stood the test of time.

Catharine Parr Traill, an Englishwoman who settled in Canada, labored throughout her long and busy life extensively collecting and recording botanic specimens. ‘Canadian Wild Flowers’, illustrated by her niece Agnes Fitzgibbon was published, through 4 editions, and today forms part of the collection at the Thomas Fisher Library.

Christian Ramsay, Lady Dalhousie, a Scottish botanist and natural historian, collected and catalogued extensive lists of Canadian botanic specimens. She had several plants named after her, and created outstanding gardens while in Canada, then on her return to Britain.

Shtier believes there is a large body of scientific work created by women, that needs to be located and shared. The accumulated knowledge and experience of Indigenous women is yet to be explored, for example. She stressed the importance of gathering a more inclusive history of Canada’s women botanists and their contributions.

This is the work of historians and scientists and the topic of poets. Tennyson, of Victorian vintage, said “Women are God’s flowers.”  Not the wilting variety, we learned today.

Laura Hill