Over the last year, as I’ve wandered through the dusty attics and flooded basements of history in my search for women warriors I’ve stumbled across plenty of other fascinating women that I–and presumably you–had never heard of. Case in point: French botanist Jeanne Baret (1740-1807), part of the astonishingly large number of women who disguised themselves as men. In some cases to escape abusive situations at home. In other cases to gain access to better financial prospects, , more freedom, more rights, more education–more everything.
Jeanne Baret was raised in a family tradition of plant lore. She learned to identify plants and use them to treat wounds and illnesses–the kind of thing that got you labelled a wise woman if you were lucky and a witch if you weren’t. She was apparently very good at it. And unlike most village “herb women,” she was able to use her knowledge in the broader world. A young nobleman in her region, Philibert Commerçon, was a serious amateur botanist–back in the days when amateur did not disqualify you from being taken seriously as a scientist.* When he met Jeanne he was impressed with her knowledge and hired her as his teacher/assistant. They soon became lovers.
In 1766, French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville put together an official expedition of exploration. He hired Commerçon as the expedition’s botanist. Baret accompanied Commerçon on the expedition, disguised as his valet and assistant. She was his mistress, but according to Bourgaineville, she was also a skilled botanist in her own right who did her fair share of the botanical work on the expedition.** As Commerçon’s assistant, she carried the tools when they went plant hunting on land, including the heavy wooden plant-press. She may have been responsible for their most dramatic discovery: the colorful, flowering bougainvillea. (Guess who they named it after.)
Baret went undetected for more than two years in the tight quarters of the ship, surrounded by a crew of 300 men. When they landed on Tahiti, the Tahitians immediately recognized her as a woman; her trousers did not signal “male” to them.
Her travels ended when they reached the French colony of Mauritius, where Baret (now pregnant) and Commerçon were left on-shore, with the support of the French governor Pierre Poivre*** who provided a cover story to explain why Commerçon left the ship. Baret returned to France in 1774, sometime after Commerçon’s death.
In his memoir, Bougainville described Baret as a skilled botanist who did her fair share of the botanical work on the expedition. Someone in the French Navy must have agreed, because she received an unexpected pension of 200 livres a year for her botanical work on the expedition–roughly $42,000 in today’s dollars by one calculation of relative value.
Incidentally, Jeanne Baret was also the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Move over Nellie Bly.
*Unless you were female. Because.
**Also a botanist. In English, Peter Poivre would be Peter Pepper. He gained low-grade immortality in the tongue-twister “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”