Plants, Domesticity, and the Female Poisoner

By Afton Lorraine Woodward

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).

Eventually, as educational reform took hold, botany became an acceptable and even ideal pursuit for young ladies. Observations of the natural world could underscore moral lessons and provide girls with reasoning skills and an understanding of the logical structure of the universe. That logical structure was still socially gendered, though. One relatively progressive textbook, Elizabeth Phelps’s 1832 Familiar Lectures on Botany, eschewed the unscientific theological approach to botany, but in encouraging girls to pursue a rational study of the world, it still maintained the goal of preparing them for domestic life. Applying critical thinking and observational skills to plants would help eliminate scandal and frivolity, Phelps claimed, by giving a woman a sound, reasonable mind that she would use to improve her surroundings and help others—namely, her family. It often went without saying that women were to study the plants around their own homes, not travel to exotic locales for more extensive research. Furthermore, in most cases even accomplished women botanists, such as Jane Colden, called the first American woman botanist, were praised as “good observers,” not experimenters or innovators.

Cataloging and growing plants became a safe hobby, though rarely a full-time occupation for women, as they were generally supposed to be patient and inactive. Botany was distinct from more abstract sciences like physics or more practical ones like engineering; at their most hands-on, women might concoct new herbal remedies for stomach aches or eczema. In a way, it was socially acceptable for them to observe and tend to plants because that role was not far off from that of a caregiver. In just about all depictions of women botanists, they are seen as caring for their plants in the same way as they might care for their own children. Even today, this seemingly natural or inherent tendency to observe and nurture dominates even otherwise progressive characterizations of women scientists.

Poison, then, offers an appealing corollary to all of these notions. We can trace the woman poisoner trope along a different route than the one the woman botanist follows, but the two overlap in significant ways. Poison is traditionally, though not always, a female mode of attack. Classical lore features many women accused of poisoning their spouses, lovers, or rivals: Medusa, Hecate, Circe, Medea, and Agrippina the Younger, to name a few. In particular, witches of literature and accused witches of real life are often associated with potions and spells that make use of poisonous plants found around the home and garden: oleander, hemlock, castor beans (ricin), foxglove, various kinds of berries, and nightshades. Men, of course, make use of poison as well, like Shakespeare’s Claudius and Romero. But the subtle and seductive art of poison is often used as a storytelling device to comment upon the nature, and especially the flaws, of women.

Poison is a deceptive weapon, and stories about it play on fascinations with, and anxieties about, what women are hiding. It also offers a violation of proper female domesticity and the same traits that are supposed to make women good botanists. When a woman uses plants or food as poison to subvert rather than maintain the domestic order, she defies her assigned roles of observer, cataloger, and nurturer. Depending on one’s perspective, poisoning can be used to warn of or promote a woman’s independence.

The 18th and 19th centuries began a fascination with women poisoners; Sara Crosby’s book Poisonous Muse: The Female Poisoner and the Framing of Popular Authorship in Jacksonian America in particular tells a captivating story of poison in America. Poison began popping up in fiction as well as in the newspapers, and readers became alternately enchanted with, and horrified by, the symbol of transgression and empowerment that female poisoning represented. In many detective stories, the domestic poisoner is a jealous wife who offs her husband or a female rival (though Agatha Christie has plenty of husbands poisoning their wives too). Often the use of poison symbolizes female hysteria or jealousy, but it can also symbolize strength—in Phyllis Bottome’s 1935 story “The Liqueur Glass,” a degraded housewife triumphantly poisons her abusive husband for the sake of her children.

We have Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” to thank for the modern association between women, plants, and poison, and for ensuring that fictional botany has little resemblance to that of real life. Of Beatrice Rappaccini, the daughter of a notorious doctor-gardener, the narrator says: “Flower and maiden were different, and yet the same, and fraught with some strange peril in either shape.” Beatrice herself does not get to take part in the botanical sciences. Rather, she is locked in her garden, the subject of experimentation by her father: “nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence.” Though her father asserts these qualities make her powerful and special, in the end, love and poison are the Rappaccinis’ undoing. This story pairs well with Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark,” another warning not to meddle with the natural order or try to use science to make improvements to women. Hawthorne gives Beatrice the combined power of beauty and poison yet still makes her a victim confined to a limited domestic sphere.

Beatrice also provided inspiration for Poison Ivy, one of the most well-known woman scientist villains in fiction. Introduced in 1966, Ivy—a character in the DC Comics universe and the alias of botanist Pamela Isley—oftens appears as a remnant of the past but also serves as a conduit for change in the way women scientists are portrayed. Especially early in her comics career, she cemented the stereotype of the botanist-poisoner, a woman who cares for her plants as though they’re her children (actually cuddling them at times) and who uses her feminine wiles and subtle toxins to get what she wants. However, she also represents a break from tradition in fictional portrayals of women scientists and women poisoners; hardly a passive observer or a domestic victim, Ivy has a PhD in botany and is a brilliant experimenter in her own right. She is also an independent woman whose motives extend beyond mere revenge or romance to eco-terrorism (a relatively honorable pursuit as comic-book villainy goes). At her best, Ivy is an accomplished, albeit evil, scientist with autonomy, intelligence, and a nuanced personality. But though she has done a lot for the portrayal of women scientists, she is far from a good role model. Her work has little resemblance to real botany; she is still overly sexualized; and her popularity also might pigeonhole other women characters. A disproportionate number of sci-fi women scientist villains still use poison as their M.O. Even the CW show The Flash, which for the most part has positive portrayals of women scientists, falls prey to the formula: one woman villain demands that her weapon be something “pretty and toxic, like me.”

Clue’s Dr. Orchid, who as part of a board game is literally two-dimensional, suggests that modern depictions of women scientists are not all transgressive. Giving the character a PhD doesn’t necessarily remedy the issue: the antidote to stereotypes and conventional narratives is portraying women as capable of making real and valuable contributions to science, including in fiction.

Further Reading

Gibson, Susannah. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?: How Eighteenth-Century Science Disrupted the Natural Order. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Nagy, Victoria. “Narratives in the Courtroom: Female Poisoners in Mid-Nineteenth Century England.” European Journal of Criminology 11, no. 2 (2014): 213-227.

Riddle, John M. Goddesses, Elixirs, and Witches: Plants and Sexuality throughout Human History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Afton is a writer and researcher in Durham, North Carolina. She holds an MA in English Literature from Villanova University and only occasionally wish she'd stayed in academia. Her independent research includes topics in science and literature, especially overlap between the two. She blogs at The Virtuoso Blog. Contact Afton on Twitter @TheVirtuosoBlog or through email at [email protected]