When I saw that the new character in the Clue board game was going to be a woman botanist with an affinity for poison, I thought it sounded very, tiredly familiar. This is not to say that the addition of a woman scientist to a board game should not be considered progress—even in a game with murder as its primary motif, a woman character defined by her career rather than her marital status is preferable. But far from instigating a “feminist coup,” Dr. Orchid is only the latest in a stereotype-rich line of women botanists and poisoners from mythology, detective stories, comics, and science fiction. Modern stories, including comics, are slowly letting women scientists be geneticists, engineers, hackers–even Iron Man. But botany, especially when it can be a front for a poisoning operation, is over-ascribed to women as a profession of choice.
I looked to some early American examples for information on how attitudes toward real-life women botanists have evolved. Tina Gianquitto’s book “Good Observers of Nature”: American Women and the Scientific Study of the Natural World, 1820-1885 paints an illuminating portrait of women’s relationship with plants in the Enlightenment and into the 19th century. At that time, the separate-spheres dogma for men and women also applied to science; scientific reasoning and experimentation were masculine pursuits, whereas decorating the living room was a more appropriate activity for women. When they did write about plants, women were expected to emphasize the moral and theological lessons to be learned from the Linnaean structure of the natural world. Some now claim that Linnaeus’s gendered classifications of plants reinforced and encouraged this gendered binary, giving preference to strong, “masculine” characteristics in the natural world (See especially the work of Londa Schiebinger and Ann Shteir).