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Women in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries were challenged with expressing themselves in a patriarchal system that generally refused to grant merit to women's views. Cultural and political events during these centuries increased attention to women's issues such as education reform, and by the end of the eighteenth century, women were increasingly able to speak out against injustices. Though modern feminism was nonexistent, many women expressed themselves and exposed the conditions that they faced, albeit often indirectly, using a variety of subversive and creative methods.

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The social structure of sixteenth century Europe allowed women limited opportunities for involvement; they served largely as managers of their households. Women were expected to focus on practical domestic pursuits and activities that encouraged the betterment of their families, and more particularly, their husbands. In most cases education for women was not advocated—it was thought to be detrimental to the traditional female virtues of innocence and morality. Women who spoke out against the patriarchal system of gender roles, or any injustice, ran the risk of being exiled from their communities, or worse; vocal unmarried women in particular were the targets of witch-hunts. Anne Hutchinson, who challenged the authority of Puritan clergy, was excommunicated for her outspoken views and controversial actions. Anne Askew, a well-educated, out-spoken English Protestant, was tried for heresy in 1545; her denial of transubstantiation was grounds for her imprisonment. She was eventually burned at the stake for her refusal to incriminate other Protestant court ladies. Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, a woman who contradicted many of the gender roles of the age. She was well educated, having studied a variety of subjects including mathematics, foreign language, politics, and history. Elizabeth was an outspoken but widely respected leader, known for her oratory skills as well as her patronage of the arts. Despite the advent of the age of print, the literacy rate during this period remained low, though the Bible became more readily available to the lower classes. Religious study, though restricted to "personal introspection," was considered an acceptable pursuit for women, and provided them with another context within which they could communicate their individual ideas and sentiments. In addition to religious material, women of this period often expressed themselves through the ostensibly private forms of letters and autobiographies.

The seventeenth century was not an era of drastic changes in the status or conditions of women. Women continued to play a significant, though not acknowledged, role in economic and political structures through their primarily domestic activities. They often acted as counselors in the home, "tempering" their husbands' words and actions. Though not directly involved in politics, women's roles within the family and local community allowed them to influence the political system. Women were discouraged from directly expressing political views counter to their husbands' or to broadly condemn established systems; nevertheless, many women were able to make public their private views through the veil of personal, religious writings. Again, women who challenged societal norms and prejudices risked their lives—Mary Dyer was hanged for repeatedly challenging the Massachusetts law that banished Quakers from the colony. Though their influence was often denigrated, women participated in various community activities. For example, women were full members of English guilds; guild records include references to "brethern and sistern" and "freemen and freewomen." During the seventeenth century, women's writings continued to focus on largely religious concerns, but increasingly, women found a creative and intellectual outlet in private journal- and letter-writing. Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, published in 1682, is a famous narrative written ostensibly for personal use that was made public and became a popular success.

The eighteenth century brought the beginning of the British cultural revolution. With the increasing power of the middle class and an expansion in consumerism, women's roles began to evolve. The economic changes brought by the new middle class provided women with the opportunity to be more directly involved in commerce. Lower-to middle-class women often assisted their husbands in work outside the home. It was still thought unseemly for a lady to be knowledgeable of business so, though some class distinctions were blurring, the upper class was able to distinguish themselves from the rest of society. The rise in consumerism allowed the gentry to place a greater emphasis on changing fashion and "display," further distancing them from the middleclass. With the advent of changes in rules of fashion and acceptable mores within society, some women established a literary niche writing etiquette guides. Also due to the cultural revolution, mounting literacy rates among the lower classes caused an increase in publishing, including the rise of the periodical. Men and women of all classes found new means to express ideas in the wider publishing community. Though women's writing during this period continued largely to be an extension of domesticity, and focused mainly on pragmatic, practical issues, women found a wider market for publication. The act of professional writing, however, was still considered "vulgar" among the aristocracy. Significant colonial expansion during this period provided would-be writers with unique subject matter—letters written by women abroad discussed foreign issues and culture, and offered a detailed view of far-off lands. These letters were often circulated among members of an extended family, as well as in the larger community. In defiance of social strictures, women such as Mary Wollstonecraft began to speak out publicly on women's rights, including education and marriage laws. Though women had better access to education, the goal of women's education was to attain an ideal "womanhood"—a "proper education" was viewed as one that supported domestic and social activities but disregarded more academic pursuits. Women such as Wollstonecraft advocated access to education for women that was equal to that of their male counterparts. Marriage laws, which overwhelmingly favored men, also spurred public debate, though little was accomplished to reform laws during this period.

Throughout the world, women took action to advance their political and social rights. Catherine the Great of Russia devised a coup d'etat to take the throne in 1762, an aggressive act to prevent her son's disinheritance. Catherine continued to rule in an unconventional, independent manner, withdrawing from the men who made her ascension possible and remaining unmarried to ensure her power. Catherine was a shrewd politician, and used wide public support to enact laws that significantly altered the Russian political system. In France, Olympe de Gouges demanded equal rights for women in the new French Republic, and was eventually executed by guillotine in 1793. Madame Roland, who also met an untimely death in 1793, influenced revolutionary politicians and thinkers during the French Revolution through her famous salon. She, too, was an activist for women's social and political rights and was executed for treason, largely due to her outspoken feminist ideas. Phillis Wheatley, an African-American slave, examined slavery and British imperialism in her poetry, and became a notable figure among abolitionists in America and abroad. Increasingly, women rebuked traditional roles and spoke out against the social and political inequalities they faced. The century closed with the deaths of visionaries such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Catherine the Great, and the births of a new breed of female writers and scholars. The political and social changes that took place in the eighteenth century paved the way for these future writers and activists to advance the cause of women's rights.

Representative Works

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Marie Jean Antoine

On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship (essay) 1790

Elizabeth Ashbridge

Some Account of the Fore-Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge (autobiography) 1774

St. Teresa de Avila

El libro de su vida [The Life of the Mother Teresa of Jesus] 1562

El libra de las fundaciones de Santa Teresa de Jesús [The Book of the Foundations] 1576

El castillo interior, o las moradas [The Interior Castle; or, The Mansions] 1577

Mary Astell

A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest. By a Lover of Her Sex (essay) 1694

A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II. Wherin a Method is Offer'd for the Improvement of Their Minds (essay) 1697

Aphra Behn

Oroonoko; Or, The Royal Slave. A True History (novel) 1688

The Lady's Looking-Glass, to dress herself by; or, The Whole Art of Charming (novel) 1697

Anne Bradstreet

The Tenth Muse (poetry) 1650

Margaret Cavendish

CCXI Sociable Letters (correspondence) 1664

Daniel Defoe

"On the Education of Women" (essay) 1719

Elizabeth I

The Public Speaking of Queen Elizabeth: Selections from Her Official Addresses (addresses) 1951

Mary Evelyn

Mundus Muliebris: Or, the Ladies Dressing-Room Unlock'd, and her Toilette Spread (prose poem) 1690

Cassandra Fedele

Letters and Orations [edited and translated by Diana Robin] (letters and speeches) 2000

James Fordyce

Sermons to a Young Woman (handbook) 1766

Mary Hays

Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous [with Elizabeth Hays] (letters and essays) 1793

Memoirs of Emma Courtney 2 vols. (novel) 1796

Appeal to the Men of Great Britain on the Behalf of the Ladies (essay) 1798

Female Biography: or Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Countries (biographies) 1803

Eliza Haywood

The Female Spectator. 4 vols. (periodical) 1744-46

Charlotte Lennox

The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella. 2 vols. (novel) 1752

The Lady's Museum [editor] (essays, prose, poetry) 1760-61

Bathusa Makin

An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentle-women (essay) 1673

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

* Letters of the Right Honorable Lady M—y W—y M—e: Written, during her Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa, To Persons of Distinction, Men of Letters, & c. in Different Parts of Europe. 3 vols. (letters) 1763

Marguerite de Navarre

L'Heptaméron des Nouvelles [Heptameron] (novellas) 1559

Modesta Pozzo (Moderata Fonte)

Il Merito delle donne (novel) 1600; translated as The Worth of Women, 1997

Anne Radcliffe

The Female Advocate; or, An Attempt to Recover the Rights of Women from Male Usurpation (essay) 1799

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Lettres de deux amans, habitans d'une petite ville au pied des Alpes. 6 vols.; also published as La Nouvelle Héloïse (novel) 1761

Du contrat social [The Social Contract] (essay) 1762

Émile, ou l'education. 4 vols. (novel) 1762

Mary Rowlandson

The Soveraignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Commended by her to all that Desire to Know the Lord's Doings to, and Dealings with Her. Especially to her Dear Children and Relations. [republished as A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, A Minister's Wife in New-England: Wherein is set forth, The Cruel and Inhumane Usage she underwent amongst the Heathens for Eleven Weeks time: And her Deliverance from them. Written by her own Hand, for her Private Use: and now made public at the earnest Desire of some Friends, for the Benefit of the Afflicted, 1682] (autobiography) 1682

George Savile, Marquis of Halifax

The Lady's New Year's Gift; or, Advice to a Daughter (handbook) 1688

William Shakespeare

Comedy of Errors (play) 1592-94

Romeo and Juliet (play) 1595-96

Twelfth Night (play) 1601-02

Anne Wheathill

A Handfull of Holesome (though Homelie) Hearbs (devotions) 1584

Phillis Wheatley

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (poetry) 1773

Mary Wollstonecraft

Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life (essay) 1787

The Female Reader; or, Miscellaneous-Pieces, in Prose and Verse, Selected from the Best Writers, and Disposed Under Proper Heads; for the Improvement of Young Women [editor] (poetry and essays) 1789

A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (essay) 1790

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (essay) 1792

Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman: A Posthumous Fragment (unfinished novel) 1799

* This work is commonly referred to as Turkish Embassy


Anne Wheathill (Essay Date 1584)

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SOURCE: Wheathill, Anne. "A Handfull of Holesome (though Homelie) Hearbs. "In Lay by Your Needles Ladies, Take the Pen: Writing Women in England, 1500-1700, edited by Suzanne Trill, Kate Chedgzoy, and Melanie Osborne, pp. 50-56. London: Arnold, 1997.

In the following excerpt from her 1584 work, Wheathill offers a collection of prayers.

To all Ladies, Gentlewomen, and others, which love true religion and vertue, and be devoutlie disposed; Grace mercie, and peace, in Christ Jesus

For a testimonall to the world, how I have and doo (I praise God) bestowe the pretious treasure of time, even now in the state of my virginitie or maidenhood; lo heare I dedicate to all good Ladies, Gentlewomen, and others, who have a desire to invocate and call upon the name of the Lord, a small handfull of grose hearbs; which I have presumed to gather out of the garden of Gods most holie word. Not that there is anie unpurenes therein, but that (peradventure) my rudenes1 may be found to have plucked them up unreverentlie, and without zeale.

Whereupon of the learned I may be judged grose2 and unwise; in presuming, without the counsell or helpe of anie, to take such an enterprise in hand: nevertheles, as GOD dooth know, I have doone it with a good zeale, according to the weakenes of my knowledge and capacitie. And although they be not so pleasant in taste, as they can find out, to whom God hath given the spirit of learning: yet doo I trust, this small handfull of grose hearbs, holesome in operation and workeing, shall be no lesse acceptable before the majestie of almightie God than the fragrant floures of others, gathered with more understanding.

But without presumption I may boldly saie, they have not sought them with a more willing hart and fervent mind; nor more to the advancement of Gods glorie, and the desire of acceptation, than I have doon. Which if I may obtaine, with the good judgement and liking of all my brethren and sisters in the Lord, I shall thinke my time most happilie bestowed: for that thereby I did avoid idlenes, to the pleasing of almightie God; and have gained those, whom I know not, as well strangers to me, as my acquaintance, to be my freends, that shall taste these grose hearbs with me.

The Lord Jesus Christ, who moisteneth all his elect3 with his most pretious blood, give us all a sweete taste in him: whome I humblie beseech, from the bottome of my hart, to give unto those that are vertuouslie bent, a desire to increase therein; and those, which have not yet reached thereunto, I praie the holie Ghost to inspire their hearts from above, that they and we may be worthie to meete together, in the blessed kingdome of our heavenlie father, which his deare sonne our saviour Jesus Christ did purchase for us; whose blessed name, with the living father, and the holie Ghost, be praised and magnified now and for ever, Amen, Amen.

Yours in Christ,
Anne Wheathill,

1. A Praier for the Morning

O Mightie maker and preserver of all things, God omnipotent, which like a diligent watchman, alwaies attendest upon thy faithfull people, so that whether they sleepe or wake, live or die, thy providence never forsaketh them: looke favourablie upon me, O Lord, thy poore and sinfull servant, which am not woorthie, but through thy great mercies offered to me in Christ, once to lift up mine eies unto thy mercie seat.

Wherefore in the name of thy deere sonne my Lord and Saviour, I offer unto thee, through him, the sacrifice of praise and thanks giving; that thou hast preserved me both this night, and all the time and daies of my life hitherto, untill this present houre. I beseech thee of thy great mercie to illuminate my understanding, that I may lead and frame my life as thou hast taught me in thy holie word, that my light may so shine here on earth, that my heavenlie father may be glorified in me, through Jesus Christ our Lord and redeemer; for whose sake heare me deare father, and send thy holie Ghost to direct me in all my dooings. To thee O glorious and blessed Trinitie, the Father, the Sonne, and the holie Ghost, be given all honor and praise, now and for ever more, Amen.

4. An Evening Praier

O Everlasting light, whose brightnesse is never darkned; looke favourablie upon me thy poore and sinfull servant, who hath not onelie this daie, but all the daies and time of my life hitherto, untill this present houre, offended thy divine Majestie, in thought, word, and deed; wherby I have most justlie provoked thy wrath and indignation against me. And now I bow the knees of my hart unto thee most mercifull and heavenlie father, beseeching thee for Jesus Christ his sake, to forgive me all my sinnes, negligences and ignorances. For I confesse how wickedlie I have mispent the talent that thou gavest me, abusing thy gifts of grace manie waies, burieng the same in obscure darknesse, woorse than the servant that hid his maisters treasure, not putting it to anie increase; for he delivered the principall againe [Matt. 25: 14-30].

But I most miserable creature, can shew unto thy majestie no part of that which thou gavest me, to use to thine honor and glorie: for the which I am most hartilie sorie, and doo unfeinedlie repent, having no meane to helpe myselfe, but onelie to lift up the eies of my faith unto thy deare sonne Jesus Christ, beseeching him most instantlie to make perfect my wants, and to renue whatsoever is lacking in me. For I commit my bodie and soule, this night and evermore, into his most holie hands; hoping, O Christ, thou wilt make me an acceptable sacrifice unto thy father.

I have no place to flie unto, but to shrowd me under the wings of thine almightie power, who wast so loving unto us, that thou wast contented to shed thy most pretious bloud, for the sinnes of the whole world; for the which I most humblie and hartilie yeeld unto thee thanks, honor, praise and glorie.

O lambe of God, sonne of the father, heare thou me, thou that saiedst; I am thy health and salvation, I am thy peace and life; cleave fast unto me, and thou shalt live. O Lord I am the woonded man, and thou art the good Samaritane: powre oile into my wounds, and bind them up [Luke 10: 25-37]. Lord heale thou me, and I shall be whole: for thou art my God and Saviour.

Heare thou therefore my supplications from heaven, and have mercie. Take from me all my sinnes and wickednesse, and give me thy grace and holie spirit. Lighten mine eies, that I sleepe not in death: so shall I joiefullie, after this sluggish sleepe of sinne, rise againe, living in thy feare all the daies of my life. Which grant me to doo, O Father, Sonne, and holie Ghost, three persons and one true GOD, world without end, Amen.

21. A praier of the creation of mankind, of the true Samaritane, and for strength against temptation

O Father of heaven, of power almightie, which with thine onlie word diddest create and make all the whole world, and all for the profit and service of man, whom thou diddest create of all other a most noble and perfect creature, giving him power upon earth, the waters, and all the fowles and birds of the aire; thou madest him also after thine own similitude and likenes, induing him with a reasonable soule, and all the powers thereof, thou also diddest put him in the pleasant garden of paradise, excepting nothing from him, but the eating of the onelie tree of knowledge of good and evill: and further, for his helpe, comfort, and companie, of a ribbe of his side thou madest for him a woman, and gavest hir to him to be his wife [Gen. 1-3].

There had they instructions given them, and the lawe of life for an heritage. Before them was laid both life and death, good and evill, with a freewill given them to take which liked them best. But their frailtie was such, that they, through a small intisement, chose the evill, and left the good: they left life, and chose death. Thus Lord, through sin and breaking of thy commandements, man lost the freewill that was given him in his creation, and purchased death to all his posteritie.

In the waie as he went to Jerusalem and Jericho, he fell in the hands of theeves, who hurting and wounding him sore, departed, leaving him halfe dead; so that he could have helpe of none, but only the good Samaritan, who, as he passed by the same waie, powred wine and oile into his wounds, and tooke the cure of him.

This onelie Samaritan was thy deare Sonne Christ, which tooke upon him all the iniquities of mankind, and laid them on his backe by his death, purging and clensing him, not onelie from the originall sin of our father Adam, but also from all our sins which we commit from time to time, by the vertue of his passion, and the sacrament of baptisme upon our repentance. For as by Adam, death came to mankind, so by Jesus Christ was mankind restored to life.4

For this great and high benefit of thy sonnes blessed passion for our redemption, we thy poore creatures praise and thanke thee, most humblie acknowledging his inestimable love towards us, in that thou vouchsafedst to die for us, being then sinners, and thy mortall enimies. Neverthelesse, most mercifull father, we are of our selves not able to do any thing that good is, no not so much as to thinke a good thought, without thine aid and assistance. We wander here miserablie, in the lowe parts of the vile earth; our strength will not serve us to clime to the high of the hilles, where thou dwellest in thy mount Sion, a place prepared for thine elect, a chosen inheritance of thy faithfull servant Abraham, and his seed.

Wherefore since we, being burthened with the affects of worldlie pleasures, and also with other cares and troubles, can by no meanes ascend to thee, that art on the top of so high a mountaine, (so manie legions of angels attending on thy Majestie) we have no remedie, but with the prophet David now to lift the eies of our harts and minds towards thee, and to crie for helpe to come down from thee to us thy poore and wretched servants.5

We wander here below as lost sheepe, having no shepheard; we are assailed on every side with manifold enimies; the divell ravening and hungering, seeketh whom he may devoure; the world allureth us also to hir deceitfull vanities; our flesh also, which we carrie about us, is our enimie readie and prone to drawe us unto all vices and pleasures. From this can we by no meanes be defended, but by thee Lord.

Send us therfore thy helpe and holie angell, to assist and strengthen us: for of thee most mercifull Father floweth all bountie and goodnes. Thou O Lord God madest heaven and earth for thine honour, and mans commoditie; establish therefore good Lord the chosen works of thy hand with thy eternall helpe: from heaven send us downe the welspring of thy grace, and thy strong angell to aide us by his helpe, that no assault of our spirituall enimies doo prevaile against us: but from all evils by thy word defend us, Lord, both touching the bodie, and also the soule, that no temptation prevaile against us.

Thou hast beene our protectour, even from our mothers wombe [Ps. 22: 9]; and our trust is that thou wilt so continue all the daies of our life, and speciallie at the houre of our death, that we may ascend to the heavenlie Jerusalem, where we shall reast in the bosome of our father Abraham, the father of all faithfull beleevers, there to praise thee, and thy loving Sonne, and the holie Ghost, world without end, Amen.

31. A praier that we may heare the word of God and keepe it

I am thy servant, Lord, give me understanding, that I may learne thy lawe and decrees: incline my soule to the words of thy mouth, bicause thy talke floweth like unto dew. The Israelites said unto Moses; Speake thou unto us, and we will heare thee, but let not the Lord speake, least we die [Exod. 20: 19]. Howbeit, I praie not so, O Lord, but rather with the prophet Samuel I doo humblie and earnestlie beseech thee thus; Speake on Lord, for thy servant dooth hearken [1 Sam. 3: 9, 10], for thou art the giver and inspirer of life, who art able without anie to instruct me.

Thy Ministers speake for thee thy secreats, but thou unlockest the understanding of the things pronounced; they rehearse to us thy commandements, but it is thy aid and helpe that giveth strength to walke over the same, and givest light unto the minds. Wherefore, bicause thou art the everlasting truth, speake thou Lord my God unto me, least I die, and be made unfruitfull: for thou hast the words of everlasting life. Speake therefore that thing, which may bring both comfort unto my soule, and amendment unto my life, and also may cause glorie and immortall honor unto thee. For man dooth perish, but thy truth indureth, O God, for ever.

Blessed are they therefore, whom thou instructest and givest knowledge unto O Lord, and doost teach thy lawe, that thou maist helpe them in time of trouble, that they perish not. Looke favourablie upon me, O GOD, and graunt (I praie thee) that thy truth may teach me, keepe me, and bring me unto a happie end. Let the same deliver me from all wicked lusts, and from inordinate love. Thou hast infinit means, and all creatures are at thy commandement; therefore good Lord shewe some signe, whereby I shall be delivered, and send thine holie angell before me, to keepe me in thy waie, and to bring me to the place which thou hast provided for me, that I may live with thee everlastinglie, world without end, Amen.

39. A praier of lamentation, wherein the sinner lamenteth his miserable estate, and crieth for mercie

My God, when I do earnestlie behold mine owne state, whereunto I am brought through sinne, not onelie being naked and bare of all goodnes, but also to be overwhelmed in the depth of all iniquitie; I cannot but lament, moorne, and crie for helpe, as dooth a woman, whose time draweth neere to be delivered of hir child; for she can take no rest, till she be discharged of hir burthen.

No more can I, Lord, as long as I feele my selfe loden with my heavie burthen of sinne, the weight wherof draweth me downe to the deepe bottome of all miserie; from whence I can by none be delivered, but onelie by thee, that art the guide and the eie to those that are blind through ignorance, the succor of the oppressed, the comfort of the weake, the life of those that are dead; so that they repent and turne unto thee.

It is not the long distance of us from thy highnesse, which keepeth our praiers from thee; thine eares are readie in the hearts of all that are willing to crie for the help of thy grace. Who so is made farre from thee, through sinne, by repentance is made neere unto thee. He that is in the bottom of the sea of miserie, if he beginne to call for thy helpe, he shall not be suffered to sinke. From all deepe dangers most mercifull God deliver me.

I crie and call pitiouslie unto thee, which art onelie able to helpe me. Heare therefore, I most hartilie praie thee, my sorowfull praier, and let my poore petition pearse the eares of thy Godhed. And since thy sonne Christ died for to release us of sinne, let not my sinnes be a staie, whereby my praiers should not be heard, but wipe them cleane awaie, that they never more appeere. For I miserable sinner doo flie to the gentlenes, of thy favourable mercie, whose nature and propertie is to have pitie and compassion.

From thee floweth all mercie and grace, which was so great unto us, that it mooved thee to send thine onlie Sonne to die for our redemption; whereby thy justice was satisfied, and thy mercie found that it sought. O how fervent was this thy noble charitie to us vile wretches! It tooke root and beginning in thy mightie deitie, and from thence it was derived to mankind; being an example that we thy christian people should, like loving brethren, beare one anothers burthen.

Wherefore I am most willinglie contented, to remit all injuries doon to me; as it hath pleased thy goodnes to forgive me much greater offenses comitted against thee. And whensoever it shall please thee to scourge and punish me, I will gladlie receive thy chastisement, for that I knowe it proceedeth of love for my wealth and suretie; trusting that after my long abiding and suffering in this life, I shall surelie obteine thy reward, by thy promise, that is; If we suffer with Christ, we shall also reigne with him [Rom. 8: 17].

Such sure hope have I ever had in thee Lord, and by the same hope I trust to have thy favour, and live for ever. For blessed are they that trust in thee, most mercifull Father; and cursed are they that trust in man. Of thy grace and mercie onelie commeth all goodnes; thy mercie forgiveth onelie our sinnes dailie and hourelie, and the painfull death of thy sonne Christ delivereth us from all the paines due for our sinnes. Thou boughtest us not with gold and silver, but with the pretious bloud of that lambe without spot, thy blessed Sonne, whose death had beene sufficient for thousands of worlds.

The greatnes of thy love caused the plentifull paiment of the price of our redemption. The charitie of our Lord Jesus Christ hath burnt up, and consumed, by his death, all our iniquities. Where-fore the faithfull, being thus delivered from all dangers, by thine onlie goodnesse, may now give thanks unto thy mightie Majestie, resting in hope to have, after this life, everlasting joie and felicitie; through Jesus Christ our mercifull Lord and redeemer; to whom with thee O deare Father, and the holie Ghost, be given all honor, glorie, and praise, now and for ever, Amen.

George Savile, Marquis Of Halifax (Essay Date 1688)

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SOURCE: Halifax, George Savile, Marquis of. "Advice to a Daughter." In, The Lady's New Years Gift, or, Advice to a Daughter pp. 24-38. London: Gillyflower and Partridge, 1688.

In the following excerpt, Savile, the Marquis of Halifax, gives suggestions to his daughter concerning marriage.


That which challengeth the next place in your thoughts is how to live with a husband. And though that is so large a word that few rules can be fixed to it which are unchangeable, the methods being as various as the several tempers of men to which they must be suited, yet I cannot omit some general observations, which, with the help of your own, may the better direct you in the part of your life upon which your happiness most dependeth.

It is one of the disadvantages belonging to your sex that young women are seldom permitted to make their own choice; their friends' care and experience are thought safer guides to them than their own fancies, and their modesty often forbid-deth them to refuse when their parents recommend, though their inward consent may not entirely go along with it. In this case there remaineth nothing for them to do but to endeavour to make that easy which falleth to their lot, and by a wise use of everything they may dislike in a husband turn that by degrees to be very supportable which, if neglected, might in time beget an aversion.

You must first lay it down for a foundation in general, that there is inequality in the sexes, and that for the better economy of the world the men, who were to be the lawgivers, had the larger share of reason bestowed upon them; by which means your sex is the better prepared for the compliance that is necessary for the better performance of those duties which seem to be most properly assigned to it. This looks a little uncourtly at the first appearance, but upon examination it will be found that nature is so far from being unjust to you that she is partial on your side. She hath made you such large amends by other advantages for the seeming injustice of the first distribution that the right of complaining is come over to our sex. You have it in your power not only to free yourselves but to subdue your masters, and without violence throw both their natural and legal authority at your feet. We are made of differing tempers, that out defects may the better be mutually supplied: your sex wanteth our reason for your conduct, and our strength for your protection; ours wanteth your gentleness to soften and to entertain us. The first part of our life is a good deal subjected to you in the nursery, where you reign without competition, and by that means have the advantage of giving the first impressions. Afterwards you have stronger influences, which, well managed, have more force in your behalf than all our privileges and jurisdictions can pretend to have against you. You have more strength in your looks than we have in our laws, and more power by your tears than we have by our arguments.

It is true that the laws of marriage run in a harsher style towards your sex. Obey is an ungenteel word, and less easy to be digested by making such an unkind distinction in the words of the contract, and so very unsuitable to the excess of good manners which generally goes before it. Besides, the universality of the rule seemeth to be a grievance, and it appeareth reasonable that there might be an exemption for extraordinary women from ordinary rules, to take away the just exception that lieth against the false measure of general equality.

It may be alleged by the counsel retained by your sex, that as there is in all other laws an appeal from the letter to the equity, in cases that require it, it is as reasonable that some court of a larger jurisdiction might be erected, where some wives might resort and plead specially, and in such instances where Nature is so kind as to raise them above the level of their own sex they might have relief, and obtain a mitigation in their own particular of a sentence which was given generally against womankind. The causes of separation are now so very coarse that few are confident enough to buy their liberty at the price of having their modesty so exposed. And for disparity of minds, which above all other things requireth a remedy, the laws have made no provision, so little refined are numbers of men by whom they are compiled. This and a great deal more might be said to give a colour to the complaint.

But the answer to it in short is, that the institution of marriage is too sacred to admit a liberty of objecting to it; that the supposition of yours being the weaker sex having without all doubt a good foundation maketh it reasonable to subject it to the masculine dominion; that no rule can be so perfect as not to admit some exceptions, but the law presumeth there would be so few found in this case who would have a sufficient right to such a privilege that it is safer some injustice should be connived at in a very few instances than to break into an establishment upon which the order of human society doth so much depend.

You are therefore to make your best of what is settled by law and custom, and not vainly imagine that it will be changed for your sake. But that you may not be discouraged, as if you lay under the weight of an incurable grievance; you are to know that by a wise and dexterous conduct it will be in your power to relieve yourself from anything that looketh like a disadvantage in it. For your better direction I will give a hint of the most ordinary causes of dissatisfaction between man and wife, that you may be able by such a warning to live so upon your guard that when you shall be married you may know how to cure your husband's mistakes and to prevent your own.

First then, you are to consider you live in a time which hath rendered some kind of frailties so habitual that they lay claim to large grains of allowance. The world in this is somewhat unequal, and our sex seemeth to play the tyrant in distinguishing partially for ourselves, by making that in the utmost degree criminal in the woman which in a man passeth under a much gentler censure. The root and the excuse of this injustice is the preservation of families from any mixture which may bring a blemish to them; and whilst the point of honour continues to be so placed, it seems unavoidable to give your sex the greater share of the penalty. But if in this it lieth under any disadvantage, you are more than recompensed by having the honour of families in your keeping. The consideration so great a trust must give you maketh full amends, and this power the world hath lodged in you can hardly fail to restrain the severity of an ill husband and to improve the kindness and esteem of a good one. This being so, remember that next to the danger of committing the fault yourself the greatest is that of seeing it in your husband. Do not seem to look or hear that way: if he is a man of sense he will reclaim himself, the folly of it is of itself sufficient to cure him; if he is not so, he will be provoked but not reformed. To expostulate in these cases looketh like declaring war, and preparing reprisals, which to a thinking husband would be a dangerous reflexion. Besides, it is so coarse a reason which will be assigned for a lady's too great warmth upon such an occasion that modesty no less than prudence ought to restrain her, since such an indecent complaint makes a wife more ridiculous that the injury that provoketh her to it. But it is yet worse, and more unskilful, to blaze it in the world, expecting it should rise up in arms to take her part; whereas she will find it can have no other effect than that she will be served up in all companies as the reigning jest at that time; and will continue to be the common entertainment till she is rescued by some newer folly that cometh upon the stage, and driveth her away from it. The impertinence of such methods is so plain that it doth not deserve the pains of being laid open. Be assured that in these cases your discretion and silence will be the most prevailing reproof. An affected ignorance, which is seldom a virtue, is a great one here; and when your husband seeth how unwilling you are to be uneasy there is no stronger argument to persuade him not to be unjust to you. Besides, it will naturally make him more yielding in other things; and whether it be to cover or redeem his offence, you may have the good effects of it whilst it lasteth, and all that while have the most reasonable ground that can be of presuming such a behaviour will at last entirely convert him. There is nothing so glorious to a wife as a victory so gained; a man so reclaimed is for ever after subjected to her virtue, and her bearing for a time is more than rewarded by a triumph that will continue as long as her life.

Daniel Defoe (Essay Date 1719)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1805

SOURCE: Defoe, Daniel. "(On) The Education of Women." In English Essays from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay, pp. 1-16. New York: Collier, 1910.

In the following essay from 1719, Defoe praises women's natural abilities and argues for their education.

I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilized and a Christian country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women. We reproach the sex every day with folly and impertinence; while I am confident, had they the advantages of education equal to us, they would be guilty of less than ourselves.

One would wonder, indeed, how it should happen that women are conversible at all; since they are only beholden to natural parts, for all their knowledge. Their youth is spent to teach them to stitch and sew or make baubles. They are taught to read, indeed, and perhaps to write their names, or so; and that is the height of a woman's education. And I would but ask any who slight the sex for their understanding, what is a man (a gentleman, I mean) good for, that is taught no more? I need not give instances, or examine the character of a gentleman, with a good estate, or a good family, and with tolerable parts; and examine what figure he makes for want of education.

The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond; and must be polished, or the lustre of it will never appear. And 'tis manifest, that as the rational soul distinguishes us from brutes; so education carries on the distinction, and makes some less brutish than others. This is too evident to need any demonstration. But why then should women be denied the benefit of instruction? If knowledge and understanding had been useless additions to the sex, God Almighty would never have given them capacities; for he made nothing needless. Besides, I would ask such, What they can see in ignorance, that they should think it a necessary ornament to a woman? or how much worse is a wise woman than a fool? or what has the woman done to forfeit the privilege of being taught? Does she plague us with her pride and impertinence? Why did we not let her learn, that she might have had more wit? Shall we upbraid women with folly, when 'tis only the error of this inhuman custom, that hindered them from being made wiser?

The capacities of women are supposed to be greater, and their senses quicker than those of the men; and what they might be capable of being bred to, is plain from some instances of female wit, which this age is not without. Which upbraids us with Injustice, and looks as if we denied women the advantages of education, for fear they should vie with the men in their improvements.…

[They] should be taught all sorts of breeding suitable both to their genius and quality. And in particular, Music and Dancing; which it would be cruelty to bar the sex of, because they are their darlings. But besides this, they should be taught languages, as particularly French and Italian: and I would venture the injury of giving a woman more tongues than one. They should, as a particular study, be taught all the graces of speech, and all the necessary air of conversation; which our common education is so defective in, that I need not expose it. They should be brought to read books, and especially history; and so to read as to make them understand the world, and be able to know and judge of things when they hear of them.

To such whose genius would lead them to it, I would deny no sort of learning; but the chief thing, in general, is to cultivate the understandings of the sex, that they may be capable of all sorts of conversation; that their parts and judgements being improved, they may be as profitable in their conversation as they are pleasant.

Women, in my observation, have little or no difference in them, but as they are or are not distinguished by education. Tempers, indeed, may in some degree influence them, but the main distinguishing part is their Breeding.

The whole sex are generally quick and sharp. I believe, I may be allowed to say, generally so: for you rarely see them lumpish and heavy, when they are children; as boys will often be. If a woman be well bred, and taught the proper management of her natural wit, she proves generally very sensible and retentive.

And, without partiality, a woman of sense and manners is the finest and most delicate part of God's Creation, the glory of Her Maker, and the great instance of His singular regard to man, His darling creature: to whom He gave the best gift either God could bestow or man receive. And 'tis the sordidest piece of folly and ingratitude in the world, to withhold from the sex the due lustre which the advantages of education gives to the natural beauty of their minds.

A woman well bred and well taught, furnished with the additional accomplishments of knowledge and behaviour, is a creature without comparison. Her society is the emblem of sublimer enjoyments, her person is angelic, and her conversation heavenly. She is all softness and sweetness, peace, love, wit, and delight. She is every way suitable to the sublimest wish, and the man that has such a one to his portion, has nothing to do but to rejoice in her, and be thankful.

On the other hand, Suppose her to be the very same woman, and rob her of the benefit of education, and it follows—

If her temper be good, want of education makes her soft and easy.

Her wit, for want of teaching, makes her impertinent and talkative.

Her knowledge, for want of judgement and experience, makes her fanciful and whimsical.

If her temper be bad, want of breeding makes her worse; and she grows haughty, insolent, and loud.

If she be passionate, want of manners makes her a termagant and a scold, which is much at one with Lunatic.

If she be proud, want of discretion (which still is breeding) makes her conceited, fantastic, and ridiculous.

And from these she degenerates to be turbulent, clamorous, noisy, nasty, the devil!…

The great distinguishing difference, which is seen in the world between men and women, is in their education; and this is manifested by comparing it with the difference between one man or woman, and another.

And herein it is that I take upon me to make such a bold assertion, That all the world are mistaken in their practice about women. For I cannot think that God Almighty ever made them so delicate, so glorious creatures; and furnished them with such charms, so agreeable and so delightful to mankind; with souls capable of the same accomplishments with men: and all, to be only Stewards of our Houses, Cooks, and Slaves.

Not that I am for exalting the female government in the least: but, in short, I would have men take women for companions, and educate them to be fit for it. A woman of sense and breeding will scorn as much to encroach upon the prerogative of man, as a man of sense will scorn to oppress the weakness of the woman. But if the women's souls were refined and improved by teaching, that word would be lost. To say, the weakness of the sex, as to judgment, would be nonsense; for ignorance and folly would be no more to be found among women than men.

I remember a passage, which I heard from a very fine woman. She had wit and capacity enough, an extraordinary shape and face, and a great fortune: but had been cloistered up all her time; and for fear of being stolen, had not had the liberty of being taught the common necessary knowledge of women's affairs. And when she came to converse in the world, her natural wit made her so sensible of the want of education, that she gave this short reflection on herself: "I am ashamed to talk with my very maids," says she, "for I don't know when they do right or wrong. I had more need go to school, than be married."

I need not enlarge on the loss the defect of education is to the sex; nor argue the benefit of the contrary practice. 'Tis a thing will be more easily granted than remedied. This chapter is but an Essay at the thing: and I refer the Practice to those Happy Days (if ever they shall be) when men shall be wise enough to mend it.


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SOURCE: Spender, Dale. “Introduction: A Vindication of the Writing Woman.” In Living by the Pen: Early British Women Writers, edited by Dale Spender, pp. 1-35. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992.

In the following excerpt, Spender surveys outstanding eighteenth-century women writers and discusses their motivations, situations, and accomplishments.

While many changes took place in the eighteenth century, two are of primary concern here; they are:

the emergence of the novel, and
the establishment of the professional woman writer.

But these two major developments of the eighteenth century are not in themselves the sole concern. That the two occurrences are not normally linked together, that the possible correlations between the success of women and the genre have not been a focal point in literary history, is also a matter which calls for attention. In drawing together these two great events—the birth of the novel and the growth of the professional woman writer—and in looking at some of the reasons behind their apparent separation and suppression, new issues are raised and new connections are made.

The following questions help to suggest the scope of this fascinating literary area:

Who were these eighteenth-century women writers,
what did they write, and
what was their relationship to the novel?
Why did they write,
what did they write about, and
what was the response to their writing?
What were the conditions under which they wrote,
what was their creative and professional achievement and
Why is their emergence and contribution not part of the readily acknowledged cultural heritage?

Although it is not possible in this introduction to address all these questions at length, it is possible to give some idea of the extent and diversity of this heritage and to posit some of the research priorities of the future.

Because of the increasing interest being shown in early British women writers, the picture is constantly changing. Already these questions have lost some of the shock-force they had when asked in 1985; that was the year the University of London Institute of Education planned a summer school at which the course Early British Women Writers was to be offered. When taught in 1987, the course not only proved to be very popular (with many of the participants providing contributions for this volume), but it also prompted a particular line of discussion: How could it be that there were so many early women writers, that they had overcome so many obstacles and written so many books, when in contemporary times so few of them were in print, so few of them were known, there were so few courses (were there any others?), so few publications on them. (One exception was Fidelis Morgan’s excellent publication on the women playwrights, The Female Wits: Women Playwrights of the Restoration, 1981.) There are questions here about the nature of knowledge as well as those about the women and their work. (Many of these issues are discussed in Cheris Kramarae and Dale Spender, in press.)

Since 1985 some of the more pressing problems have been remedied. For example, many of these early British women writers are now much better known thanks to the availability of such excellent publications as Fetter’d or Free? British Women Novelists 1670-1815, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski (1986); The Rise of the Woman Novelist; From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen by Jane Spencer (1986); and the considerable contributions of Janet Todd—Sensibility; An Introduction (1986) and A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800 (1987); to name but a few.

Some of these early women writers have been brought back into print, partly because of the efforts of women’s publishing houses and presses (see particularly Mothers of the Novel Reprint Series [a list of reprint titles is included at the end of this article] and Virago Classics). Internationally, in English departments and Women’s Studies courses, more interest is being shown—perhaps even as a product of feminist interest and pressure— in the contributions of these women writers in both their own times and in contemporary terms. But still, many issues remain unresolved and many questions unanswered: issues about professional women writers and about the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next.

Then too, the area is so vast that it is difficult to survey and itemize all that it contains. It is located so far in the past (and has been so shamefully neglected) that much of the material and many of the records have been lost, buried, or mislaid, so that it is a demanding task to find all the women and their publications, let alone to read and assess them. Currently, the information which has become available has done little else than whet the appetite.

A door may have been opened and a rich resource glimpsed, but impatience to explore and document the find is not the only response; there is a measure of frustration as well. Why was the door ever closed? Why does it seem so difficult now to keep it open? And is this concealment of women’s creativity but an unfortunate accident of the past, or does it have contemporary implications? What is the position of the woman writer, the place of her work, past, present, and future?

These are some of the topics that are the substance of this collection. Not that any claim is being made for comprehensiveness; quite the contrary. As might be expected with a relatively recently unearthed research area, the gaps in knowledge are extensive. But in opening the door just a little further, in noting what is there, as well as what remains to be examined, this book plays a part in recovering and reconstituting women’s participation in the literary heritage.

Because the articles in this collection cannot attempt to cover the many concerns that emerge, this overview is provided. Once the broad outlines have been sketched, it can be much easier to place in context the individual writers and works, as well as their collective achievement and the response it gave rise to. Where possible, further reading will be referenced, and where practicable, future research directions will be recommended.

Who Were the Eighteenth-Century Women Writers and What Did They Write?

The number of women writers of the period and the range of their publications are readily demonstrated by the list of entries in A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1669-1800. And while the table now requires modification (with more entries added and some of the existing ones clarified), the inventory which is published in Mothers of the Novel (Dale Spender, 1986: pp 119-137) and which includes 106 writers and their 568 novels, serves to emphasize the astonishing extent of the achievement. Not that women’s literary output was confined to novels, of course.

Women wrote across every existing genre and played an innovative role in the evolution of new forms as well. The following summary provides some of the basic information in terms of who these women were and what they wrote.


The primary source of women’s writing was letters and journals. As so many female critics have suggested, Virginia Woolf among them, letter writing has been one of the literary forms actively encouraged in women. It has also been suggested that it is a mark of women’s creative achievement that they should have been able to transform this genre into the epistolary novel and, in the process, provide themselves with a profession (see Perry, 1980, for further discussion).

This was the pattern that evolved: allowed to excel at the art of letter writing, women expanded the form to meet some of their own needs for information, self-realization, and wider communication. They created for themselves a public voice and the potential to influence values, views, events, not just among their own sex but throughout the whole society. Women made a crucial contribution to the transition of the private letter into the public/published epistolary novel and the development of fiction.

What has to be noted is that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the only communication, apart from direct contact, had to be through letters; with the establishment of the Post Office in 1660 and the introduction of the “ penny post” twenty years later, letter writing really came into vogue during this period— And not just letters which maintained family relationships and for which women could be expected to assume responsibility. Letters then were very different from the displaced form they have generally become today:

Educated people were expected to know how to write graceful letters, how to compose their thoughts on paper. Schools trained this skill—letter writing was a standard composition assignment and students read and copied from classical examples. Londoners must have been accustomed to writing them, for THE SPECTATOR reports a steady stream of letters addressed to the editor; “I have Complaints from Lovers, Schemes for Projectors, Scandal from Ladies, Congratulations, Compliments and Advice in Abundance” 1—testimony to the readiness with which readers took pen in hand to scribble off their reactions to even so impersonal a target as that popular daily.

(Ruth Perry, 1980 p. 64)

Women, however, were not likely to have enjoyed such a range of letter writing opportunities; not normally “ educated,” nor encouraged to go “public,” their choices were considerably curtailed. (At a time when newspapers did not usually find their way into many homes but were confined to coffee houses and such places on the grounds that their content was inappropriate for females, women probably comprised very few of the writers to the editor or writers of travel reports, dispatches, business letters, etc.) But the letter certainly became a significant form of communication (and self-expression) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the boundaries of women’s literary possibilities were extended as a result.

As Ruth Perry (1980) has commented, “Letters were the one sort of writing women were supposed to be able to do well” (p. 68) and in the expansive climate of the time, it is not surprising that women should have extended their horizons beyond the members of their own family and the intimate communications of the private sphere. That extraordinary and prolific writer, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-73)— whose literary contribution cries out for critical evaluation—published her Sociable Letters in 1664, and it is clear from their contents that they were never intended as personal correspondence with a friend but as advice and counsel to a much wider circle. One of the early women writers who sought professional status for her sex, Margaret Cavendish’s efforts afford a good example of Ruth Perry’s assessment that letter writing “was the mode of expression appropriated by women writers en route, so to speak, to professional authorship” (p. 68).

This was Virginia Woolf’s thesis as well. In A Room of One’s Own and “Women and Fiction,” where she accounts for the emergence of the professional woman writer, Virginia Woolf also starts with the remarkable contribution of Margaret Cavendish and then moves on to the oft-quoted and illuminating letters which Dorothy Osborne (1627-1695) wrote to her lover, William Temple:

“Had she been born in 1827, Dorothy Osborne would have written novels;” says Woolf, “ had she been born in 1527 she would never have written at all. But she was born in 1627, and at that date though writing books was ‘ridiculous for a women’ [as Dorothy Osborne said of the Duchess of Newcastle when she dared to write and publish her CCXI Sociable Letters] there was nothing unseemly in writing a letter.” 2

Furthermore, letter writing could be made to fit in with the scope and expectations of a woman’s life. “It was an art that could be carried on at odd moments, by a father’s sick-bed among a thousand interruptions, without exciting comments, anonymously as it were, and often with the pretense that it served some useful purpose” 3

(Ruth Perry, 1980 pp. 68-69)

No doubt there were times when letter writing was an onerous obligation, but there would have been times too when for women, letter writing (and journal keeping) were eagerly embraced activities. Given the isolated circumstances which were the limits of many women’s lives, a letter could be one of the few means of communicating with the world outside, and a journal entry one of the few means for creating a friend or confidante (see Fanny Burney, in Joyce Hemlow, 1958: p. 26; and the introduction to The Diary of Elizabeth Pepys for further discussion on the role of journals).

Men had much more freedom of movement; the mobility of women was restricted, either because they belonged to a class which could not afford travel, or else to a class which would not allow women to move about independently. In this context, the letter could be a vital link to experience beyond the “here and now.”

Apart from providing access to information and experience outside one’s own four walls, the letter was also a primary means of maintaining relationships. “Correspondence became the medium for weaving the social fabric of family and friendships in letters of invitation, acceptance, news, condolence and congratulations,” comments Ruth Perry (p. 69).

Then too there was the opportunity that the letter provided for the author to create a “self,” and one which was positive, exciting, entertaining—worthy of esteem. “Letters were the perfect vehicle for women’s highly developed art of pleasing, for in writing letters it is possible to tailor a self on paper to suit the expectations and desires of the audience” (Ruth Perry, 1980, p. 69).

The capacity of letters to forge and foster relationships and to provide a forum for the self-actualization of the author became even more significant during the period of British expansion, when letters to and from the farflung colonies were the only fragile life lines among families and friends. And when from strange continents women wrote home, aware that their audience could be the entire assembled family who waited on every word, it is not difficult to detect yet another influence working to transform the letter into the epistolary novel. Rare was the women who wanted to worry those back home, so some of the most serious and stressful experiences were recorded between the lines or commented on only AFTER the danger or despair had passed. More common was the woman correspondent who composed the entertaining episode—in virtually serial form—in which she figured as the “heroine” confronting challenges in an exotic climate. For example, Rachel Henning wrote some of the most entertaining “stories” about Australia between 1853 and 1882 and without any background information, it simply would not be possible to determine whether her letters were indeed real or works of fiction. (For further discussion of this aspect of Australian women writers, see Dale Spender, 1988.)

That women used letters (and diaries) to explore and explain so many aspects of their personal lives was another contributory factor in the development of the epistolary novel, according to Perry: “Because so many private relationships came to be conducted in letters, especially for home-bound women, these exchanges came to be understood as the repository for emotions usually enclosed by convention, the place to look for records of a person’s secret doings” (p. 70). Not surprisingly, there was a growing market for such disclosures. During the eighteenth century, the literary distinction between public and private became blurred when real private letters were sometimes seized for publication (though even here, as in the case of Delariviere Manley’s and Katherine Philips’ poems, there is some debate as to whether the material was truly seized or whether it was a ruse), and where fictional letters were sometimes presented as the real thing (as with some of Aphra Behn’s publications). What can be said with confidence is that the boundaries between letters and fiction collapsed, and that women played a critical role in the process.

But if letters were at the center of literary innovation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they have no such significance today. Many are those who regret their passing; although the concern that biographers might be deprived of sources with the displacement of the letter by the telephone is not now quite so serious given the appearance of the fax machine. Another matter for regret, however, is that this literary form of the past, with all its strengths, complexities, and nuances, is so little studied. Far from being a “popular” or prestigious research area (a status well warranted), women’s letters are rarely included in the valued literary tradition; and this can have no correlation with the quantity—or quality—of the contribution (see Dorothy van Doren, 1929, for some indication of the art of the area). There have been so many women letter writers whose accounts provide a fascinating documentation of self-examination, of interpersonal networks and friendships, as well as an illuminating record of their time and a satisfying example of literary skill and accomplishment. The suggestion that it is because they are the work of women that women’s letters have not become part of the legitimated “world of letters” is one which deserves serious attention.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) is one woman writer whose letters have enjoyed a measure of public acclaim; but still more could be known—and more could gainfully know—of her witty Embassy Letters (written in Turkey in 1716) which are a remarkable “anthropological” study of period and place. An inveterate traveler and letter writer (who recorded her own part in the popularization of smallpox vaccination, for example), Lady Mary’s letters inform, entertain, and present much of the inner life of a perceptive woman and her relationships with daughter, granddaughter, with love, marriage, and women’s education!

Apart from the correspondence of individuals such as the remarkable Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800), older sister of the equally remarkable novelist, Sarah Scott (1723-1795), there are the many letters of groups of women, such as the Bluestockings. To be able to study the extensive correspondence between Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806) and Catherine Talbot (1721-1770)—not to mention that of Hester Thrale Piozzi (1741-1821) and Mary Delaney (1700-1788)—with all their contemporary references to literary women and their influences, would be an exciting, even inspirational prospect. The letters of so many “literary ladies” (particularly those written to each other) could be another source of enormous interest, and because of the position they occupied at the center of literary innovations, their correspondence could cast further light on the shift from personal letters to public ones.

There are letters between women and letters between women and men; Mary Hays’s love letters (literally used as part of the text in The Memoirs of Emma Courtney, 1796-1987) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters to Gilbert Imlay (1798), as well as her travel Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1796), can only begin to suggest the range of women’s epistolary writing during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

And of course, diaries and journals began to come into their own during this period; dependent upon a notion of individual identity and worth, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed women’s move away from the devotional record (such as that of Lady Margaret Hoby’s Diary, 1599-1605) to the focus on self-examination and character development—all very consistent with the evolution of fiction. And very useful too as a form of literary apprenticeship, as Fanny Burney’s diary demonstrates.


Margaret Cavendish—again—was a pioneer in the area of autobiography and biography; “A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding and Life” (which occurred at the end of Nature’s Pictures Drawn By Fancy’s Pencil to the Life, 1656) is, in the words of Nancy Cotton (1987), “the first autobiography published by a woman in England,” and The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince, William Cavendish, Duke, Marquess and Earl of Newcastle” (1667) “is considered the first biography of a husband to be published by an Englishwoman” (p. 232)

Charlotte Charke (1713-1760), novelist, playwright and autobiographer, wrote a scintillating account of her life with an ulterior motive, that of “persuading” her father to leave her a legacy (which he did not), and published in serial form in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1755. Laetita Pilkington (1712-1750) published her three volumes of Memoirs (the first in 1748) in the attempt to realize her self and define her life. There was no literary area into which women did not venture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and no form on which they did not leave their mark.

In relation to biographies, it was not uncommon for women to write “testimonials” for their husbands; Lucy Hutchinson (1620-?) wanted to record her husband’s part in the Civil War (The Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson— not published until 1806) and Anne Fanshawe (1625-1680) wrote an account of her husband’s life, after his death, so that their son would be aware of his father’s qualities and worth.

In taking these pioneering literary steps, in providing an account of one person’s life, in telling a story, and developing a character, these women were also making a contribution to the novel in its present form. Currently there is a revival of interest in biography as the bridge between “fact” and “fiction” (with many suggestions that the increasing popularity of the genre with women writers and readers is precisely because of the way in which it can reveal the private life behind the public figure). To return to the origin of contemporary biography and the contribution of women is to construct an enriching continuity. Though not for long did women confine themselves to biographies of husbands;Hester Thrale Piozzi’s account of Samuel Johnson (Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, 1786) extended the scope of women’s literary efforts and revealed the way the figure of a great man can appear very different when portrayed through the eyes of a gifted women.


The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries marked the transition from the high-culture poetry, written by aristocratic women (such as Katherine Philips, 1631-1664) to the published poems of milkmaids; and while many privileged women might have continued to write classical poetry for their own private purposes and many milkmaids might not have turned to verse, the published efforts of women poets during this period are quite extraordinary. Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720) deserves sustained critical study, and there are so many more whose contributions should be represented in the literary heritage (see Germaine Greer, Jeslyn Hedoff, Melinda Sansone, Susan Hastings, 1988, for an indication of the range, diversity, and excellence of women’s achievements during this period).

That no poets per se have been included in this volume is a matter for regret; for with the contributions of such women as Elizabeth Rowe, Mary Robinson, Helen Maria Williams, Anna Seward, not to mention that of Charlotte Smith, there is sufficient justification for numerous volumes on early women poets alone. In such a context, the contribution of women working class poets could also be explored. Ann Yearsley (1752-1806), who was referred to as Lactilla, the poetical milkwoman, was assisted in her efforts by another celebrated woman writer, Hannah More, and published Poems on Several Occasions in 1784. Janet Little (1759-1813) was the author of Poetical Works of Janet Little, The Scotch Milkmaid (in 1792), and Elizabeth Bentley, (1767-1839), the daughter of a cordwainer, published Genuine Poetical Compositions on Various Subjects in 1791.


Apart from the contribution of Fidelis Morgan (The Female Wits) and that of Kendall (Love and Thunder; Plays by Women in the Age of Queen Anne), very little attention has been given to the outstanding achievement of women playwrights during this period. Indeed, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, (now and then) the assertion that women have not excelled as dramatists can still persist.

Many of the early women writers wrote plays, and many of them were marvelous successes. During the Restoration era, it is likely that women of the caliber of Aphra Behn, Catherine Trotter, Delarivière Manley, Mary Pix, and Susanna Centilivre, were in the ascendancy, and much more research could be undertaken on them and their individual and collective contributions to the theatre. More too should be known about some of the popular playwrights such as Anna Wharton, Jane Wiseman, Mary Davys, and Sophia Lee, as well as of the highly influential playwright, poet, and religious writer, Hannah More (1745-1833). In the eighteenth century there was Frances Boothby, Elizabeth Powhele, Elizabeth Cooper, Catherine Clive, Frances Brooke, and Elizabeth Griffith who all deserve attention in their own right, not to mention playwright and novelist Frances Sheridan (1724-1766), whose satirical The Discovery (staged in 1763) and The Dupe (also 1763) were highly successful. Frances Sheridan’s A Journey to Bath (published but not staged) contains a colorful character, Mrs. Tryfort, “the prototype for Mrs. Malaprop in her son’s play, The Rivals” (David Meredith, 1987: p. 283).

Eliza Haywood wrote plays, as did Fanny Burney, and Elizabeth Inchbald not only acted and authored numerous plays, she also wrote the critical prefaces to Longman’s 25-volume British Theatre—thereby becoming one of the first drama critics in the English language.

Joanna Baillie, whose contribution is treated briefly in this collection, was another whose achievement should have permanently laid to rest the myth that women could not be dramatists; poet and playwright, she made a classic contribution to the development of drama, and she was acclaimed as the woman playwright of her day.

And still, there were more. These are only the broad outlines of women’s part in the drama; it is clear that the whole area of the history of women and theater needs more detailed attention and evaluation.


During this period, women also started to write as literary critics. With the shift from aristocratic patronage and a commitment to high culture, to more popular forms (a shift which Alexander Pope of course deplored and decreed to be the end of the world of letters), women were not so disadvantaged by their exclusion from formal education and were more confident about their ability to appraise the literary output of the period. So Elizabeth Inchbald became the drama critic and Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) edited The British Novelists (1810) in fifty volumes.

Novelist and critic Clara Reeve (1729-1807) wrote The Progress of Romance (1785), one of the first evaluations of fiction (in which a distinction is made between novels and romance, a distinction which is discussed in this volume in Ros Ballaster’s provocative article “Romancing the Novel; Gender and Genre in Early Theories of Narrative” p. 188) Maria Edgeworth was another who “defended” fiction and its form; Letters for Literary Ladies (1795; reprinted in part in Dale Spender & Janet Todd, 1989, pp. 355-371) is a critical text in any appreciation of the role that literature has played in women’s lives.

There is no accessible history of women’s literary criticism but such a compilation would not only make exciting reading, it could change fundamentally some of the received wisdom about the literary tradition and the process of its construction.


During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was a great demand for books on the education of young women. Not necessarily interested in expanding intellectual horizons, the bulk of these publications was concerned with the cultivation of good manners and refinement, and the conduct books were turned out by male and female authors alike. Perhaps because—as Mary Wollstonecraft was to assert so authoritatively—it was that women were made, not born, it was necessary to produce so much material on the desirability of gracious dependence and the necessity of meek subservience. Many of the women who earned their living by their pens wrote such guide books, often from the paradoxical position of trying to persuade their readers to follow the path NOT “of what I do, but of what I say.”


Then there were the political treatises; A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Some Reflections on Marriage (1700) made clear the position of Mary Astell (1666-1731). Her critique of women’s education and channeling for the self-denial of marriage is still relevant today, as is the protest of Mary Wollstonecraft (Vindication of the Rights of Woman). Mary Hays (1760-1843) wrote Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798), as well as Female Biography: or Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Countries, 1802, and she was in good company with other Rights’ philosophers such as Mary Anne Radcliffe (1745?-1810?, who wrote The Female Advocate; or, An Attempt to Recover the Rights of Women from Male Usurpation, 1799). As Janet Todd has said, “Almost every female author [of this time] considered the state of her sex, and, however conservative, in some way disturbed patriarchal assumptions— necessarily so since her very existence as a writing subject challenged the prevailing ideology of female marginality” (1987, p. 23).


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (as has been mentioned) wrote of Turkey; Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of Scandinavia; and many were the women who “went abroad” (including Celia Fiennes [1662-1741] who wrote Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary, 1881) and wrote “letters” and other accounts of their travels. Helen Maria Williams not only reported on Switzerland in turmoil, she chronicled the course of the French Revolution, while Catherine Macaulay (1731-1791) wrote her six volume History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line (published between 1762-1783).

When it came to translations, women’s work was ubiquitous. Despite the educational disadvantages, there were women who translated from the classic (Sarah Fielding and Elizabeth Carter among them); more common, however, were translations from contemporary European sources with Mary Wollstonecraft for example, teaching herself German from a dictionary in order to work as a paid translator.


While women’s magazines then were not as popular as they have become today, some of the seeds of the contemporary product were planted in the eighteenth century. Eliza Haywood, who was not only the author of plays, novels, and conduct books but of translations as well, also played a pioneering role on women’s magazine publications; from 1744 to 1747 she brought out The Female Spectator. And there is some suggestion that this was not her first venture; an earlier publication, The Parrot (1728), was edited by one, Mrs. Penelope Prattle, often taken to be Eliza Haywood.

The Female Spectator was also preceded by The Female Tatler (1709), under the editorship of Mrs. Crackenthorpe, widely assumed to be Delarivière Manley—if not indeed the editor, there is some evidence that Delariviére Manley wrote for The Female Tatler (see Janet Todd, 1987, p. 211).

While these publications had their share of scandal sheets (and advice columns!), they also contained political items, pleas for education, and some short fiction (which requires further examination,particularly in relation to the first short story writers, Harriet and Sophia Lee (see Dale Spender, in press). But The Female Tatler and The Female Spectator did not reach the same standard as Charlotte Lennox’s monthly periodical, The Lady’s Museum (which was also one of the first publications to include serialized fiction, in this case Charlotte Lennox’s own novel, Sophia).

Then too there was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s political periodical, The Nonsense of Commonsense (published every Tuesday, it ran to nine issues from December 16, 1737 and was intended to refute the Whig opposition paper, Common-sense). And Frances Moore Brooke (1724-1789) published The Old Maid under the pseudonym of “Mary Singleton, Spinster”; this periodical ran from November 15, 1755 until April 10, 1756, and while the title remains something of a mystery (Frances Moore became the wife of John Brooke in 1756), there can be no doubt about its contents. Frances Brooke wrote “with lively wit on subjects ranging from courtship to current events, from religion to theater,” comments Leo Manglaviti (1987, p. 61).


While this survey suggests some of the major innovations, lists some of the outstanding writers, and gives some idea of the dynamism of the time, it cannot begin to document in detail the number of women writers and the individual significance of their works. That specific articles on Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), Sarah Scott and Harriet and Sophia Lee are not included in this collection is a regrettable omission; while many attempts were made to find people who could comment on the achievements of these writers, they were, unfortunately, not successful. (For further discussion of Mary Wollstonecraft and Ann Radcliffe, see Dale Spender, 1986. There is also an illuminating introduction by Jane Spencer to Sara Scott [1723-1795] and her friend, Lady Barbara Montagu, in the Virago edition of Millenium Hall [1762 and 1986], an account of an utopian female community. Harriet [1757-1851] and Sophia [1750-1824] Lee also call for further examination; Harriet for her contribution to the short story [see Canterbury Tales, 1799-1805]; and Sophia for her rewriting of women’s history in fictional form in The Recess [1783-85]—where the heroines are the twin daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots, and it is their version of history the reader is provided with. The information is supposed to have come from an old manuscript, and in summarizing the author’s intention, Jane Spencer [1986] says that Sophia Lee promises to disinter some of the buried truths of women’s history, “through the story of these two sisters, revealed in their own writings, which were preserved for posterity by being entrusted to a female friend” [p. 195]. Such a significant novel deserves a collection concerned with its own contribution to the genre and the tradition of women’s writing.)

Perhaps the most important point that can be made in relation to all these early women writers and their contributions is that this was a critical period in women’s history; it marks the beginning of the development of women’s literary culture, which, with all its associated characteristics, continues to this day and nourishes concepts of education, self-realization, and women’s rights.

Deprived of formal education, denied professional occupation, and increasingly confined to the domestic sphere in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many females sought knowledge of the world and intellectual stimulation— and they frequently taught themselves to read and write. Then they turned their talents towards communicating with others; and so a literary community came into being. This was an age when there was a dramatic increase in the size of the female reading public and in the number of female writers. The two were closely interrelated. The more women readers there were, the more women writers were required; the more women writers who emerged, the more women readers they won. Each helped to mold and shape the other, and both created an environment conducive to the development of a literary culture and the success of the novel.

What Was Women’s Relationship to the Novel?

Any discussion of women’s relationship to the novel must encompass some of the issues involved in the difference between the novel and the romance!

Basically, romances were a known genre at the beginning of this period; the term customarily referred to the “romance literature” of the classical or courtly love tradition (particularly of France; see Madeleine de Scudery for example). A romance consisted of fantastical acts performed by fantasy figures in far away and idyllic pastures, in different times. And the new form, the novel, was distinguished from this rarified plane by its social and domestic realism. “Romances” happened to princely people in distant places, but novels could be about ordinary people leading ordinary lives in the place next door. Clara Reeve (1785) made this distinction in her critical work when she declared that “The Romance is a heroic fable which treats of fabulous persons and things—The Novel is a picture of real life and manners and of the times in which it was written” (The Progress of Romance, I, 1785, p. 111).

Which is all very neat and orderly, and it would have been convenient if fiction writers and literary critics had continued to preserve this distinction; but, unfortunately, most of them didn’t.

Romance and novel, as Ros Ballaster makes clear in this volume, became a gender distinction as well; and almost invariably, women are associated with romances, and men with novels. And this may have little or nothing to do with the content of their contribution. While on the one hand there is ample evidence—now and then— that women could be just as concerned with social and domestic realism, on the other hand they were (and still are) likely to be branded with the pejorative term romance.

Eliza Haywood, for example, made an explicit and courageously creative comment about her commitment to realism in the introduction to The Disguised Prince, or the Beautiful Parisian:

Those who undertake to write Romances are always careful to give a high Extraction to their Heroes and Heroines; because it is certain we are apt to take a greater Interest in the Destiny of a Prince than a private person. We frequently find, however, among those of a middle State, some, who have Souls as elevated, and Sentiments equally noble with those of the most illustrious Birth; Nor do I see any reason to the Contrary; Nature confines her blessings not to the Great alone. . . . As the following Sheets, therefore, contain only real Matters of Fact, and have, indeed, something so very surprising in themselves, that they stand not in need of any Embellishments from Fiction: I shall take my Heroine just as I find her, and believe the reader will easily pass by the Meanness of her Birth, in favour of a thousand other good Qualities she was possessed of.

(1728, pp. 1-2)

But no matter her protestations about an ordinary heroine and “Matters of Fact,” Eliza Haywood is labeled as a romantic writer. In one sense, this is not surprising; virtually all women novelists from Jane Austen to Mary Gordon, from Elizabeth Gaskell to Margaret Drabble, Alice Walker—and Barbara Cartland—are broadly categorized as writers of romance in contemporary literary circles. Which says more about the nature of literary judgments than the nature of women’s writing (see Dale Spender, 1989, for clarification).

In the circumstances it is tempting to suggest that—one woman’s realism is another man’s romance.

This is certainly consistent with some of the conventional evaluations of women’s writing. As Candida Lacey (1986) pointed out in her perceptive appraisal of proletarian writers of the thirties, in the United States, when women writers introduced the added—and realistic dimensions—of the conflict between working for the union or becoming a wife, the verdict was invariably that these novels were flawed. Rather than recognize that for women it can be common place to have to choose between career and marriage—between being the union organizer and being the wife of the union organizer—female proletarian writers were criticized and condemned for their inclusion of “romantic interests” which distracted from the centrality of the class struggle.

(Interestingly, however, the same standard does not seem to apply in general to male writers who include—or even concentrate on—relationships in their fiction. D. H. Lawrence, for example, is not ordinarily devalued as a writer of romances, and the question arises as to whether his treatment of relationships is qualitatively different from that of the women who are consigned to the category. It could be revealing to undertake “blind” studies of some of his work; if placed between the typical covers of a popular romantic press’s publication, would his novels pass as romance?)

Of course, one of the characteristics of most women’s novels is that they focus on relationships, frequently on relationships between the sexes. And it could be that this is the salient feature which attracts the derogatory label—romance.

The primary reason that relationships are central to women’s fiction is that they are central to women’s lives; whether this fascination with human relationships is born of necessity (because women are so frequently on the receiving end in male-dominated society and must know which way the wind blows, managing their lives indirectly by managing relationships) or whether it is born of desire (the proper and most profitable study of humankind, is humankind) is impossible to determine. Certainly the combination of women, novels, and relationships is a complex and enduring one. It was at the heart of women’s literary culture when it came into existence, and it still characterizes the reality of many literate women today. That the area is so under-researched, under-reported and under-recognized, however, is more an indication of traditional literary priorities than of women’s realities.

Why women read novels, what they read, what they get from them, who they share their experiences with, what communities and networks they create from this common cultural exposure, how they are changed by the process— and why women write novels for other women to read—are among some of the most elementary and enlightening issues which could be addressed, particularly in contemporary times, when the very existence of the book and the novel is being questioned. The study of women’s relationship to the novel in every century since the seventeenth and including the twenty-first, has much to recommend it in the interest of establishing the scope and nature of women’s literary traditions and contemporary community.

What began as a trickle of women’s novels at the beginning of the eighteenth century became a proverbial flood by the end, with women writers such as Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Ann Radcliffe commanding respect as the leading literary figures of their day. While, as has been indicated, women still wrote in every other genre, it was the novel which was recognized as “women’s form.”

Perhaps this was because—as Virginia Woolf suggested—it was that the novel was the new form and was, therefore, sufficiently malleable to be bent to women’s purposes. But perhaps the novel now has its recognizable form precisely because it was shaped by women and reflects the reality of their lives. Either way, it can be stated with conviction that in the eighteenth century women became avid writers and readers of the novel and to this form they brought the experiences of their own particular circumstances.

As it was within women’s experience to write letters, the shift to the epistolary novel was accomplished relatively easily. As it was within women’s experience to construct and maintain relationships—which meant that women were required to be sensitive to responses—writing the replies as well as the original letters was no great departure into the unknown. As Ruth Perry (1980) has commented, the epistolary novel called for “two or more people, separated by an obstruction which can take a number of forms, (who) are forced to maintain their relationship through letters” (p. 93). Such a format did not even demand an imaginative leap on the part of many women writers.

And once women realized the opportunity to write in the familiar style which they cultivated in their letters and to write about the domestic realities of women’s lives, there was no stopping them. Women wrote about their own position, about relationships, about love and marriage, and, even in the eighteenth century, they wrote novels about ideas, politics, and the nature of reality (see Helen Thomson’s fine article on Charlotte Lennox in this volume, pp. 113-125), although this did not prevent their novels from being labeled and belittled as romances.

Women’s relationship to the novel as writer, reader, and critic is a story yet to be told in full; some of the contributions in this volume provide the outline for what promises to be a stimulating and fascinating narrative of the future.

Why Did Women Write?

Women wrote for business, and women wrote for pleasure; women wrote for many of the reasons that men wrote—because they needed occupation, and remuneration, and writing was something they were able to do, and which provided them with certain satisfactions. And the women who are included for discussion in this volume typify women’s reasons for writing.

If Aphra Behn had not been paid for her writing, she surely would have spent more than one short period in debtors’ prison. For Eliza Haywood, who left her husband, the choice was simple; she needed to earn her living and she preferred to sell her literary labors than to sell her self. Delariviére Manley also appears to have had a choice between working at the oldest profession for women or the newest; for all these women who had neither privilege nor patron the way was clear—if they didn’t write, they didn’t eat.

Sarah Fielding welcomed every penny she earned (although she was never wholly financially independent, and it probably isn’t a coincidence that she was concerned with the construction of utopian societies and the principles of sharing). And while Elizabeth Inchbald was known for her parsimonious practices, the fact that she spent some time as a penniless actress (reduced even to stealing and eating raw turnips in a field) no doubt helped her to seek decent payment for her work and to protect her financial interests.

Charlotte Smith wrote desperately to keep the wolf at bay and to support her many children, as well as her granddaughter! And Charlotte Lennox’s adult life seems to have been one long battle with poverty—which she lost, dying destitute; like Charlotte Smith, she too left her husband who was a terrible financial burden.

Fanny Burney’s first novel, Evelina (1778), may have been written for pleasure, but Camilla (1796) was written to support husband and family.

Joanna Baillie earned her living by her pen, and of the women discussed in this anthology, it was probably only Maria Edgeworth and Mary Brunton who were supported by men and who wrote more for the pleasure than the profit. So much for the old allegation that women were dilettante writers, who had no need to earn their bread. As Jane Spencer has wryly commented: “Well born or not, most women novelists needed the money” (1986: p. 7).

Women also wrote because the opportunity to write was available; “Writing for publication, especially fiction,” comments Janet Todd (1987), “was one of the few growth industries at a time when more traditional female occupations from millinery to midwifery were being appropriated by men” (p. 1).

But these are just the basic reasons for women seeking employment; why women should turn to writing as their particular profession has its psychological and aesthetic rationales as well.

Women wrote because they needed to find a form of self-expression, because they needed to consciously construct their reality, realize their potential, and define their own lives. Women wrote too because they needed a voice; they needed to feel that they had agency, that they were participants on the human stage and could affect some of the events of their domestic circumstances and their own society. Sometimes they even wrote to vindicate themselves and their writing.

And women wrote because they needed to make contact with other women and to create a community, a sense of solidarity; so a clergyman’s daughter in one country town (Jane Austen) could communicate with a clergyman’s daughter in another country town (Charlotte Brontë). So Maria Edgeworth subscribed to Jane Austen’s novels and offered the highest praise to Elizabeth Inchbald in relation to A Simple Story: “I never read any novel—I except none—I never read any novel that affected me so strongly, or that so completely possessed me with the belief in the real existence of all the persons it represents” (in Anne Elwood, 1843, p. 325). So Jane Austen was intimidated by Mary Brunton’s Self Control, and then included reference to so many of her sister writers in Northanger Abbey; by such means is a community created, isolation overcome, and a cultural milieu generated.

When Delarivière Manley published her novels, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu protested in her letters that she couldn’t obtain a copy of the “key” to work out who the scandalous representations applied to; when Fanny Burney published Evelina, conversations, letters, and diaries of the day concentrated on speculations about the author and her heroine and whether either should or should not have indulged in certain activities.

And instead of being condemned to routine and monotonous lives, women readers became privy to a wide range of marvelous characters and witness to any number of exciting events—which is why there is no mystery about their enthusiasm for the novel and the demand for women writers.

These conversations, which can bring characters alive, continue to this day; whether they are about Evelina, Emma, Mrs. Ramsay, or the likely eventuality of The Handmaid’s Tale, members of this literary community have a shared experience which can cross national boundaries and which addresses some of the central issues of women’s lives.

Many of the early women writers were aware of the contribution they were making to this “conversation” (though it is unlikely that they knew how long it would continue or how extensive it might become); and many of them took their role very seriously. In the absence of an educational curriculum for women, women’s novels frequently served as women readers’ connection with the wider world. It was from novels such as Evelina or Adeline Mowbray or Emmeline or even Emma that women readers could become acquainted with the pitfalls that threatened innocent women in society and with the tragic consequences of “going wrong.”

Discussions as to whether Adeline Mowbray was noble or a fool when she went to live with her lover were no mere titillations; they represented the genuine moral dilemmas of the day (and indeed, in this case, were meant to reflect the realities of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life; see Dale Spender, 1986, p. 318-323). The questions of whether a woman should marry, or marry for love, or money, whether she should follow the dictates of her heart or elect to provide security for her mother and brother (as is the case in Frances Sheridan’s The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph), were not self-indulgent speculations but real conflicts of interest in many women’s lives. And deprived of direct experience of the world, of education, and tutoring in the exercise of moral judgment, novels were the best means available for trying to determine why people behave as they do and whether there are other viable options.

Few are the issues that novels did not raise or the lessons they did not teach. It is no exaggeration to suggest that novels can (and have) covered the gamut of human experience that can be articulated; even today, it would be possible to use women’s novels as a basis for an excellent education. To construct such a curriculum would be a rewarding challenge and a refreshing experience.

What Did They Write About?

Heroines, in the main, were the subject of early women’s writing. But to choose to write convincingly about ordinary women’s lives was not without its difficulties—And not just because the events of ordinary women’s lives may not have been the best raw material for the making of an exciting or edifying narrative, but because to provide a woman with adventures was to make her unfit to be a heroine of her time. “In the eighteenth century,” comments Jane Spencer (1986) wryly, “the very word adventure in connection with a woman implies a loss of virtue. . . . (The) ideal woman in eighteenth century society is the woman about whom there is nothing to say. . . . Any woman whose life is eventful enough to be the subject of romance has compromised feminine virtue” (Spencer, 1986, p. 190). No properly brought up or supervised young lady would ever be in a dramatic or discreditable predicament (hence the abundance of orphans in early fiction writing), and no respectable, responsible married woman would do anything which attracted attention to her person. So certain “devices” had to be developed which allowed authors to create heroines who clearly retained their virtue, but who also had their share of risk taking in their lives. And as Katharine Rogers has revealed in this volume, Elizabeth Inchbald excelled in her efforts to overcome this contradiction.

Motherless daughters afforded considerable potential; like Evelina, their lack of information about the world could leave them open to a number of dramatic possibilities without necessarily calling their virtue into question. Then too, there were the daughters of inadequate mothers (a category into which Amelia Opie’s heroine, Adeline Mowbray, falls) which presented similar authorial opportunities; these heroines were given poor or improper advice by their mothers and could not be blamed completely for their ignorance or mistakes (as Jane Spencer explains, this volume, pp. 201-211).

Both the motherless daughter and the inadequately reared one allowed the authors to show their heroines engaged in a learning process, involved in self-examination and personal insight, and this also conveniently provided a context in which a case could be made for better education for women and for a more just and equitable society.

Eliza Haywood exploited a new vein when she presented a reformed heroine in the shape of Betsy Thoughtless—a poor but honest heroine—and made it very difficult for her audience to condemn such a likable young woman who, admittedly, behaved very foolishly (though not at all wickedly) and who soon saw the “error of her ways.” And limitless were the opportunities for adventure that such a format provided. The heroine could get into all manner of scrapes— some very dangerous, some very comic—but while even she recognized that she had done the wrong thing and was prepared to make amends (even if only in the last chapter), she could pass as an acceptable leading lady.

The reformed heroine was also put in the position of being a “learner”; she too could lament her own inadequate preparation for the world (including the absence of an education), and she too could call for the end of a sexual double standard. By the end of the eighteenth century, the young women who had “learned” from being exposed to temptation were quite popular characters in women’s novels. In some respects the association of didacticism with women’s fiction has its origins in this particular configuration. But if the heroine learned a lesson, the writers learned as well; there was more than one way for women to know something of the world and to preserve their good name and standing.

For many reasons Charlotte Smith created an entirely different sort of heroine; no flighty young woman who is sobered and matured by the lessons of the world provides the focus of her fiction. Rather, she starts with the women who have tasted some of the bitter fruits of experience, who have suffered the fate of “women’s lot.” As Pat Elliott points out in her appraisal of Charlotte Smith (see page 91), many of the author’s characters reflect the circumstances and conclusions of her own life. And as Charlotte Smith herself was a victim of marriage, husband, and an unjust society, so too do some of her “heroines” deal with debt, dissolute husbands, and the desire for a better life. While it may have presented the author with many more problems to write a captivating account of these trials (and to arrive at a happy ending), there can be no doubt of Charlotte Smith’s ability to hold her audience’s attention, even if it was to issue a warning or to remind readers of the awful penalties that could be paid for an error of judgment. Dire consequences could await the woman who chose “the wrong man.”

That the choice of a husband should be a primary concern in the novel is perfectly understandable, given that this was often the biggest event in a woman’s life. And it was a choice on which so much rested; the happiness of the heroine, the happiness of her husband. Should a woman marry to obey her father or please her mother? Or should she too treat marriage as a career and look for promotion and the best financial prospects? Or was this a marriage market to which she had vehement objections?

(That women writers of the time might have been most concerned with this issue in fiction and in life is a point made by Janet Todd, [1987]: “Writing women, especially professional ones, no doubt represented a higher incidence of failed marriages than the population as a whole; otherwise marriage could almost be said to have broken down” [p. 7].)

How not to choose a man is part of the moral of Charlotte Lennox’s amazing tale, The Female Quixote: the Adventures of Arabella; in this satire the author introduces a heroine who has no proper parental guidance (her mother is dead, and her father keeps her isolated). Arabella has been reared on a diet of romance literature to the extent that she believes the world works on the principles of courtly love and high sentiment—and of course the author makes the point that only by keeping the heroine from the real world could such a false construction of reality have been possible. The novel, which is extremely entertaining as well as intellectually provocative, is structured around many of Arabella’s misapprehensions; given her romance-reality, she sees the gardener as a young nobleman in disguise (and after her hand), a gentleman out riding as someone trying to abduct her, and the Thames as a refuge, inviting her into its welcoming depths when she believes she is being pursued by ravishers. Always center stage and convinced of her great courtly powers and capacity to command, Arabella calmly contemplates the death of the suitors she rejects, and orders Glanville (later her husband) to go, to stay, and when ill, to survive!

It’s all very heady, and highly amusing stuff. We are confronted with a heroine who holds power. But of course, the power is only an “illusion.” This is a point which Charlotte Lennox makes with persuasive clarity. For Arabella to let go of romance and join the world of mere mortals is for her to give up power; it is for her to give up her adventures:

To retain her virtue, Arabella must relinquish her adventures; but as we can see from the subtitle of the novel, The Adventures of Arabella, this means giving up the story of her life and her identity as heroine.

(Jane Spencer, 1986, p. 190)

While Arabella persists in thinking she is a romantic heroine who holds power over men, she is not a virtuous woman and cannot become Glanville’s wife; but to become the virtuous woman, to recognize the realities of everyday life, is to abandon her concept of self and the romantic society. It’s not much of a choice.

Charlotte Lennox has written a novel which works at many levels, and—as Helen Thomson argues—should stand at the starting point of any appreciation of women and fiction. It is a novel about the nature of romance and reality, of emotion and reason, of subjectivity and objectivity, and as Glanville tries to lead Arabella from feminine “error” to masculine “truth,” (Jane Spencer, 1986, p. 189), the echoes of gender division are again loud and clear.

What does emerge from The Female Quixote is that the focus on romance, courtship, and marriage is not necessarily a narrow one. Rather, it can serve as a microcosm for the discussion of the range of human values. Issues of truth, objectivity, the nature of knowledge and reality—all issues of profound importance in this postmodern world— are treated perceptively by Charlotte Lennox and many other women writers as well. Indeed, some of the fundamental philosophical questions of why human beings behave as they do and whether they can behave differently provide the framework for much of women’s fiction.

Do women (and men) behave as they do as a result of nature or nurture? Will they behave differently given a decent education? What is the proper form of expression for female power and influence? And would society have to be structured differently if women were to realize their full potential? All of these issues are consistent with the discussion of love and marriage and the role these institutions play in women’s lives.

Early women writers wrote about the world, but they did so from women’s perspective; the objects and events of the world pass through a different filter when women are in charge of the reality, which is why there are different priorities, perceptions, protests in the work of women. So, for example, while men may have been critical of their own educational provision, they were not obliged to question whether or not education was a good thing. But for women—who were excluded, for whom educational opportunities were actually limited after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the religious houses, and who were routinely informed that, for women, education could be physically and psychologically damaging—the entire educational debate assumes very different dimensions (including those of: “Who says that women’s uter-uses would burst and their brains atrophy if exposed to education?”).

Early women writers used fiction to explore their own world and to remedy some of the deficiencies of their exclusion and isolation:

When asked why she does not read history, Catherine Morland, [the heroine of Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey] replies, “history, real, solemn history, I never could be interested in . . . the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.”

(Jane Austen, 1969, p. 108)

But Catherine Morland reads novels, particularly Gothic novels where women are at the center of the action and where women’s view of the world prevails:

[Catherine Morland’s] reason for preferring Gothic fiction is the same as Arabella’s for preferring the versions of history that she gets in the French romances: women are acknowledged there as they are not in history books. Women’s fiction has always been concerned with redressing the balance and restoring women to the record. . . .

(Jane Spencer, 1986, p. 192)

This is one of the main reasons that women have written fiction.

What Was the Response to Their Writing?

Readers, reviewers, and critics in the eighteenth century knew something not always widely known in the twentieth; namely, that the novel was “the woman’s form.” It was the genre which bore their imprint, and men could learn much from paying attention to the creative efforts of the woman writer. So accepted was the premise that this was the area where women predominated, that there were males who adopted female pseudonyms in order to increase their ratings as authors.

“Among other literary frauds it has long been common for authors to affect the stile [sic] and character of Ladies,” wrote a reviewer in the Gentleman’s Magazine (June 1770, p. 273), and readers were assured that every attempt would be made to detect these great deceivers of the reading public. The Critical Review also contributed to reader awareness and exposed any likely false practices. “We suspect,” wrote their reviewer in April 1778, “that Madame la Comtesse may be found in some British garret, without breeches, perhaps, but not yet in petticoats.”

So on the one hand the response was positive; women were acknowledged as the writers of the novel. But on the other hand, the novel did not enjoy the highest status as a literary genre.

There could have been many reasons for this; the first, that it was primarily because women were associated with it that the novel was not accorded high status (see Spender, 1989, for a discussion of gender and status in the world of letters). Or an explanation could have been that the novel was a new—and lesser—form, and that, unlike poetry and drama, (it was argued) its production did not demand a classical education or understanding on the part of the author.

Alternatively, it could have been because it was popular that the novel was devalued. Popularity and prestige have not always been compatible within the literary canon, and while there was no doubt about the quantity of women’s output in the eighteenth century (with F. G. Black, 1940, estimating that women wrote between two-thirds and three-quarters of the novels in the period 1760-1790), their very success could have been used to challenge their quality. (Such popularity could also have been a factor in the gender-based division of fiction into men’s novel and women’s romance.)

This would help to account for a literary heritage in which it is exclusively male authors who are held up as the originators of the novel, while so many of the works of female writers have been consigned to virtual oblivion; why all women’s fiction can be classified as romance and treated as an inferior achievement.

If, however, there was a double standard in relation to the novel, it was not confined to the differential status of the sexes. There was a whole set of different expectations which related to female and male authors and which played an influential role in determining the critical response to individual women writers.

It might have been all right for a man to write bawdy, to present a tale about the sexual exploits of a hero; but it was a very different matter for a woman to write bawdy, to write about a young man’s amorous adventures and escapades (young women, of course, not being allowed to have them). The response to the woman writer would be outrage; for her to know such things was to be condemned as a woman and, hence, as a writer.

Some of the women even took this issue up in their writing, Aphra Behn among them. Many of her prologues and prefaces contain protests about the unfair treatment of women writers who wanted to write—realistically—about the world outside the narrow sphere a woman was supposed to be confined to. (One reason that has since been given for Aphra Behn’s “fade from fame,” is that she was such an indecent writer; it has to be said that men who wrote bawdy do not seem to have suffered a similar fate, but rather, have been relished for their colorful and robust contributions to the literary heritage.)

A woman writer was supposed to be virtuous; she was enjoined to write about the virtuous and to recommend the blameless life. Which meant that many female authors were obliged to extol the virtues of an existence that was very much at odds with the way they lived their own lives. Admonishing young women to do their duty, to be subservient, obedient, and deferential, was not all that consistent with the survival strategies employed by many of the early women writers. Jane Spencer (1986) comments on the contradictions and the pressure this placed on women writers, and she provides an illustration with the life and work of Frances Brooke. In The Excursion (1779) Frances Brooke “produced an impeccably ‘moral’ work by criticizing the kind of independent and ambitious behaviour she showed in her own life,” Jane Spencer states dryly (p. 20).

Trying to appear virtuous and trying to write about the virtuous, in a gripping and memorable style, were additional obstacles which confronted the woman writer. And if there were penalties for failure, there were also penalties for success.

Eliza Haywood was one of the most prolific and popular of the early women writers. She was also the target of some of the worst verbal attacks of the day. It was precisely because she was so successful that Alexander Pope, for example, tried so hard to discredit her; and because she was a woman, his attack centered on her sexuality. So he offers her sexual favors as a prize in a urinating competition between two publishers and portrays her in the most appalling, sexist terms.4 And while Pope’s attack on popular writers who were “lowering the standards” was not confined to females, in “his attack on Haywood he could draw on an existing stereotype of the woman writer, according to which she was unclean, untidy, disgustingly sexual and a whore” (Jane Spencer, 1986, p. 5).

Today we could label Pope’s actions as sexual harassment. There is considerable contemporary literature available on the way in which some men use sexual harassment as a device for keeping women out of territory they have defined as their own particular preserve (see MacKinnon, 1979). And certainly in the eighteenth century many men had defined the world of letters as their world and were prepared to go to great lengths to keep women out. (The extent to which authorship is seen as a male prerogative is discussed at length in Gilbert and Gubar, 1980.)

There is also some evidence that this strategy worked. For many years after the attack on her in The Dunciad, Eliza Haywood did not publish (at least, not under her own name). Whether this was because she was intimidated, or whether it was because publishers were influenced by Pope’s treatment of her (and did not want to publish her work) is a matter for conjecture. Either way, it can be stated that when women did well, there were men who tried to prevent them from continuing to work in the area; women writers could be damned if they did well and damned if they did not. To some extent this is the salient feature of the reponse to women’s writing.

What Were the Conditions Under Which They Wrote?

The more general conditions under which women wrote were those of a society moving towards industrialization, where the economic position of women was deteriorating.5 In defiance of the traditional historical theory of “steady progress,” women found their opportunities persistently eroded during this period. “The disappearance of the convents at the time of the Reformation had deprived girls not only of convenient local places of learning, but also of a pool of women teachers in the shape of the nuns themselves,” states Antonia Fraser (1984, pp. 123-124). And with men’s appropriation of some of women’s traditional occupations (such as midwifery), along with the adoption of the increasingly fashionable concept of bourgeois femininity (which had as its ideal the seclusion of women and the servicing of men) the result was “that by the eighteenth century women had been forced to withdraw from many public activities” (Spencer, 1986: p. 14).

But paradoxically, the very forces that were pushing women out of paid work and public influence were the same ones that were helping to make possible the emergence of the novel and women’s expanded opportunities for authorship.

At the simplest level there had to be some sense of isolation and privacy before the realistic novel—in the domestic setting—could have a rationale for existence. It’s probably not an accident that “novels” have not developed in small communities where little distinction is made between PUBLIC and PRIVATE and where the members of the community are reasonably familiar with the details of each other’s lives. This changed with industrialization and urbanization, and the entrenchment of the private sphere; a curiosity began to surface as to what was happening behind other people’s closed doors. It was the desire to know the intimate details of other people’s lives (as well as the emergence of concepts of INDIVIDUAL and CHOICE) which established the context for the novel.

But before the novel could become the popular medium, certain conditions had to be fulfilled; there had to be the technological means of producing and distributing the books, and there had to be sufficient literate members of the population with time to read, and money to purchase the works of fiction.

To deal with the finances first. Of course the fact that men purchased more novels—and figured more prominently on subscription lists—cannot necessarily be taken as an indication of their commitment to literature, or as a mark of their reading habits; it is more a measure of their relative purchasing power and their ability to decide how money should be spent. Perhaps women readers did not have access to the same number of titles until the advent of the circulating library, which provided novels (in abundance) to those who could not afford to buy them. But book sales and library circulation constituted a huge demand (and an audience of both sexes) and generated at one level a positive climate for the development of the woman writer.

This was a period in which the reading public expanded (though there is something of the chicken-and-egg debate in trying to determine whether such expansion facilitated the growth of the novel, or whether it was a response to it, or both). During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries writing and reading ceased to be the prerogative of the aristocracy (or the product of patronage) and became much more part of the repertoire of the urban middle classes. Tradesmen, “shopkeepers, clerks and their families—and also to some extent servants” were all members of this new community, which was ripe for the evolution of fiction (Jane Spencer, 1986, pp. 6-7).

That writing and reading were theoretically the only skills that women required to be the writers and readers was particularly fortunate; for at this time (in contrast to contemporary wisdom), it was considered quite normal for girls who had the opportunity in terms of books, light, and leisure, to teach themselves these skills. While there were privileged females who had access to some tuition—through parents, governesses, or brothers’ tutors, etc.—if school attendance had been a necessary condition of authorship, there would have been many women writers who were disqualified.

So many women taught themselves to read and write, and took to it with such a vengeance; and so many made the “art” of both seem so effortless that many are the dismissive comments that have been made about women’s facility for writing (and reading!) fiction. (This has been true even in the twentieth century; the Australian novelist, Vance Palmer, trying to illustrate how easy it was for women to write novels, in contrast to the creative struggle it meant for men, stated that “Writing a novel seems as easy to almost any literate woman as making a dress,” (Bulletin 3, July 29, 1926).

So popular did writing and reading become with women (which supports the thesis of the creation of a continuing literary community) that grave fears were expressed that soon every woman would be doing it, even the servants. And with what disruptive consequences:

. . . the number of Authoresses hath of late so considerably increased, that we are somewhat apprehensive lest our very Cook-wenches should be infected with Cacoethes Scribendi, and think themselves above the vulgar employment of mixing a pudding, or rolling a pye-crust.

(Monthly Review, 27, 1762: p. 472)

Of course it wasn’t just the writing that was questioned; in the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth grave fears were also expressed about the dangers of fiction for young women. (The fact that reading novels might have provided women with a world of their own, one that men did not directly have access to, and that it also made them “unavailable” to attend to men, could also have had something to do with the objections to women’s novel reading. My discussions with women readers reveal that many men can still find it threatening when women are engrossed in novels, and they can even report that men will use disruptive strategies to prevent women from reading and to obtain their attention. This is apart from the fact that women can “get ideas” and become “awkward” as a result of reading.)

But while novel reading was often viewed with disapprobation, it was writing and the power of agency that it afforded which was reserved for the greatest condemnation.

When a farmer’s daughter sits down to read a novel, she certainly mispends [sic] her time, because she may employ it in such a manner as to be of real service to her family; when she sits down to write one, her friends can have no hope of her.

(Critical Review, 33 1772, p. 327)

Women’s efforts were rarely welcomed by the literary establishment. It wasn’t just that women were considered to be without artistic merit, that they had their works rendered apolitical and “trivial” by being labeled as romance, but their very presence in the literary marketplace was deplored by many men as a “lowering of standards”;

So long as our British Ladies continue to encourage our hackney Scribblers, by reading every Romance that appears, we need not wonder that the Press should swarm with such poor insignificant productions.

(Monthly Review, 28 1760, p. 523)

And there are contemporary echoes (see Spender, 1989).

The resistance to the idea that women’s writing and reading represent skill still persists (even among women themselves, unfortunately).6 And this climate of devaluation characterizes the conditions under which women have routinely written. Mary Wollstonecraft insisted that one of the last male bastions to fall would be that which appropriated for men intellectuality and creativity. While enormous material and legal gains have been made in the two hundred years since she presented her case in Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), it could be argued that when it comes to the accreditation of women’s authority as intellectual and creative beings, few, if any, changes have been made.

Women became writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for the very good reason that it was not possible to prevent them from doing so. They were, of course, often discouraged; denied education, informed that they were inferior, ridiculed at times for their literary efforts, and cautioned against the corrupting influence of novels. It took enormous faith and confidence for women to declare that they possessed—and could use well—creative and intellectual faculties.

What they did not normally do in this period, however, was assert that they wrote because they were ambitious and sought artistic fulfillment, financial independence, or VISIBILITY AND RECOGNITION OF THEIR WORK. While the pretexts for venturing into the literary work place are discussed at more length in the final chapter, what must be stated here in relation to the writing woman’s working conditions, is that she had to collude in the making of the myth that women were NOT autonomous beings who could occupy space in the public sphere and have a political agenda:

. . . Let a woman write to amuse her leisure hours, to instruct her sex, to provide blameless reading for the young, or to boil the pot; moral zeal was an accepted justification and poverty an accepted excuse; but there was one motive which could be neither justified nor excused—ambition, the “boast” of conscious power, craving to perform its task and receive its reward. The proper attitude for a female talent was diffidence; the proper field for its exercise, the narrow circle of her intimate friends; and if for any of the permitted reasons she stepped outside the circle, let her at least sedulously avoid the disgraceful imputation of assurance.

(J. M. S. Tompkins, 1969, p. 116)

It was an offense for women to be confident, visible.

Many women wrote in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in psychological circumstances that would not now be considered conducive to writing; many women wrote without “a room of their own” or “five hundred pounds a year,” the very basics advocated by Virginia Woolf as the conditions for the writing of fiction. Despite these “limitations,” they played a crucial part in shaping and extending and securing the viability of a literary community, and their contribution deserves to be much better appreciated and more widely known.

What Were the Creative and Professional Achievements of These Writing Women?

The professional achievement of women is treated in more detail in the concluding chapter, and the underlying purpose of this overview has been to establish the extent of the early women writers’ creative achievement. While they wrote across every genre and could be studied for their contribution to everything from drama to letters, from history to poetry, the part they played in the development of the novel is remarkable, and the full implications of their achievements will only be realized when even further research is undertaken on their lives, their work, and the traditions they helped to forge. And this is where the final question is relevant; why is it that these women have not been at the center of the valued literary tradition which resources the views and values of the entire culture and which is transmitted from one generation to another?

Why women are NOT at the center of the literary tradition—why they are not equally represented in the production of legitimated literary culture—is a question which invites numerous alternative explanations. If the full range of possibilities is to be canvassed, then one which must be entertained is that women have no central presence in the heritage for the very simple reason that their writing is not up to standard; that what they write, and how they write does not warrant praise, prestige, accreditation, or emulation. The identification of such a deficiency would then serve to account for women’s relative absence from the canon and exclusion from the curriculum and their relative invisibility in the cultural and educational heritage (for further discussion, see Dale Spender, 1989, and Joanna Russ, 1983).

But to discount the contribution of women in this manner is not to put an end to the problematic matter of women’s lack of representation. On the contrary, to devalue women writers on the basis of their gender is to raise yet more awkward questions—not the least of which would be that there is no study within literary criticism which establishes the inferior nature of women’s authorship. Despite the implicit assumptions and explicit assertions that women’s writing is not as good as men’s, there is no evidence which would support such a thesis.

However, the absence of a definitive study on the deficiencies of the writing woman has not always pre-empted the devaluation of her contribution; in some respects the history of literary criticism is the history of the dismissal of women’s achievement, as so much of feminist literary criticism makes clear. But if women have been—and still are—being judged as inferior when there is no conclusive evidence about the standard of their contribution, then this in itself becomes the overriding issue; who decides? Who is determining that women’s writing is not of the same order as men’s and not worthy of equal representation in the literary tradition?

Literary criticism is not immune from some of the epistemological questions which have challenged many of the disciplines in the social sciences and humanities:

  • who are the knowledge makers?
  • what is the nature of the knowledge they generate?
  • whose interests are served by such knowledge construction? and
  • how are the benefits of vested interests justified/rationalized?

Although issues about authority, validity—and vested interest—may not have been addressed in any systematic way in the past, they are, nonetheless, proper areas of investigation within the literary criticism paradigm. And they can give rise to some disturbing considerations.

The striking fact is that it has been literally the “men of letters” who have been primarily the knowledge makers; it has been mainly men—and a PARTICULAR group of white, educated, privileged (able-bodied, and heterosexual) MEN—who have determined that the work of white, middle-class men is the best that can be written and deserves pride of place in the canon.

Such a value judgment and coincidence does not necessarily imply any insidious or conspiratorial strategy on the part of male literary critics of past generations. Rather, their preferences are understandable; for the very same reasons that women readers—and critics—may find the work of women more meaningful, relevant, more enriched with detail, nuance, and delineation, and hence a greater artistic achievement, so too may men place greater value on the offerings of their own sex. It is not male preference per se which has been responsible for women’s eclipse (for women writers may have been the choice of women readers and critics, but this in itself has not resulted in the disappearance of the work of the men); it is that the preferences of men have prevailed. Men have been in a position to insist on the rightness (and the impartiality!) of their own assessments.

It is not difficult to establish that when it comes to the construction of the literary heritage and to the classification of good and great writers and their inclusion in a tradition which is transmitted from one generation to the next, it is men who almost exclusively have been the knowledge makers. They have constructed a tradition which has favored the contributions of their own sex (and class and ethnicity); they have provided a rationale which serves their own interests; and they have made their own case for their own supremacy in the area. The history of the novel constitutes a critical example.

As is argued in Mothers of the Novel; 100 Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen (Spender, 1986), the men of letters have rewritten literary history so that the greater contributions of women—in terms of number of titles, number of sales, payment for manuscripts, innovative and artistic developments—have been denied in favor of achievements of five males who are deemed to have been the originators of the novel.

Since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women have written; some would go so far as to suggest that they may have even written more fiction than men. So it has been no mean feat to exclude this mammoth amount of work from the literary heritage. In the case of the fiction, extraordinary “revisions” were necessary to remove “the majority of eighteenth century novels” from the heritage. As Joanna Russ has indicated, extraordinary denials of women’s achievements were required for these revisions to be rationalized:

She didn’t write it.
She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have.
She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.
She wrote it, but “she” isn’t really an artist and “it” isn’t really serious, of the right
“genre”—i.e. really art.
She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. She wrote it, but it’s only interesting/included in the canon for one, limited reason. She wrote it, but there are very few of her.
(Joanna Russ, 1983, p. 76)

Such a challenge to the conventions of literary judgment is indicative of the increasing emphasis in feminist criticism on the sexual double standard and the role it has played in the exclusion of women. And the criticism has been leveled not so much at past social arrangements which accorded privileges to males so that they occupied the position of literary critics, nor at their preference for the writing of their own sex; for, while not excusable, such patterns of the past are understandable. What is of concern in the contemporary climate is the reluctance of the literary establishment to put its own house in order and to “revise its revisions”; it is the failure of many institutions and individuals to treat the nature of critical judgment as a serious issue and to seek to remedy some of the past omissions by reinstating women as equal representatives as writers and critics. What is of concern is the continued practice of the exclusion of women and the refusal of too many agencies—from course programmers to schools of criticism, from anthology compilers to research supervisors—to make the process of canon construction and value judgments (including those related to class and ethnicity) the subject of constant scrutiny and assessment. At the center of literary evaluation should be the premise that it is not just the study of those who are good and great (if these are to be the desired categories) but who says so, which is the range of reference for the discipline. Then questions of why women have been—and continue to be—excluded would become fundamental rather than marginalized issues.

Currently women are far from being equally represented in the tradition that is transmitted to the next generation in English speaking communities; while there is some difficulty in obtaining figures, the consensus seems to be that in college English courses fewer than seven percent of the writers studied are women.7 And despite the perceived gains of the last decades, this could actually constitute a decrease in women’s representation.

And it is not the case that the work of women has been systematically studied, that quantitative and qualitative analyses have been undertaken and have revealed women’s writing to be below standard. Quite the reverse; it is not that women have been given a fair hearing and found wanting, but that women are found wanting, and are not given a fair hearing (and this is the thesis of The Writing or the Sex? or, why you don’t have to read women’s writing to know it’s no good).

Prejudice against the writing woman still persists, and it works against women in a variety of ways. Just as in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was not possible to prevent women from taking up their pens and enjoying considerable success in print, so too it has not been possible to prevent women writers from enjoying enormous success over the last decades. And yet just as the early women writers were kept out of the mainstream, so too are many contemporary writers precluded from representation in the establishment. For while the last twenty-five years have witnessed a virtual explosion in the publication of women’s books, the reality is that there has been no significant change in the canon or the curriculum. When less than seven percent of the writers taught are women, it is obvious that female authors, past and present, continue to be silenced, suppressed, excluded.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when women were denied access to formal education, women’s novels were a welcome substitute; they were a means of communication which gave shape and substance to women’s lives, which promoted an exchange of information and the encouragement of growth and learning. Perhaps in the current context they continue to provide a comparable service. For it is not uncommon to find the bookshop on the college campus stocked with a vast range of women’s books which will sell widely to students—but which are not taken up and set as texts in the halls of learning. So women continue to write for each other and to generate an informal but shared literary culture. Which, while it may have its advantages, places the continuity of women’s contribution in jeopardy. It’s not just that women’s writing from the past has not been incorporated into the cultural heritage; it is also that women’s writing in the present could suffer a similar fate.

Living by the Pen; Early British Women Writers is both an attempt to reclaim a heritage and to ensure that it becomes a permanent and prized part of the literary repository for future generations. And while the women who have worked to contribute to these pages have made a significant start, much more remains to be done before women are assured of their rightful place and there is a Vindication of the Writing Woman.


1. See The Spectator, 581, August 16, 1714.

2. From The Second Common Readers, 1984, p. 151.

3. p. 52

4. Charlotte Brontë was subjected to the same double standard; with the publication of Jane Eyre (under the pseudonym of Curer Bell), the critical response was that if written by a man it was excellent but if by woman it was scandalous (see Spender, 1989, for further discussion).

5. There are quite a few informative surveys of women’s economic status in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including Alice Clark, (1919 1982), Antonia Fraser (1984), and Ruth Perry (1980, pp 27-62).

6. Eva Cox’s current research on the assessment of women’s skills, reveals how reluctant women are to perceive themselves as skilled; they can be gifted, but are often very resistant to the idea of having a range of skills (private communication, 1990, on ongoing research).

7. Such a figure does not include Women’s Studies courses where women writers are included; see Dale Spender, 1989, for further clarification.


Adburgham, Alison. (1972). Women in print: Writing women and women’s magazines from the Restoration to the accession of Victoria. London: Allen & Unwin.

Austen, Jane (1969). Northanger Abbey. In Robert William Chapman (Ed.), The novels of Jane Austen, Volume V. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Black, F. G. (1940). The epistolary novel in the late eighteenth century: A descriptive and bibliographical study. Eugene, OR: University of Oregon. Bulletin. (1926, July 29). 3, 3.

Chapman, Robert William, Ed. (1969). The novels of Jane Austen. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Alice. (1919/1982). Working life of women in the seventeenth century. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Critical Review. (1772). 33, 327.

Cotton, Nancy. (1987). In Janet Todd (Ed.), A dictionary of British and American women writers 1660-1800. London: Methuen.

Dorr, Priscilla. (1988). Joanna Baillie. In Paul Schlueter and June Schlueter (Eds.), An encyclopedia of British women writers. New York: Garland Publishing.

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Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan. (1980). The mad-woman in the attic; The woman writer and the nineteenth century literary imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Greer, Germaine; Medoff, Jeslyn; Sansone, Melinda; and Hastings, Susan (Eds.). (1988). Kissing the rod: An anthology of seventeenth century women’s verse. London: Virago.

Haywood, Eliza. (1728). The disguised prince, or the beautiful Parisian. Ln. Publ.

Hemlow, Joyce. (1958). The history of Fanny Burney. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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Kramarae, Cheris and Spender, Dale (Eds.). (in press). The knowledge explosion: Generations of feminist scholarship. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press.

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Women’s Studies International Forum, 9(4), 373-384. In Candida Lacey (Ed.), Political Fiction.

MacKinnon, Catharine, A. (1979). Sexual harassment of working women. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Meads, Dorothy M. (1930). The diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, 1599-1605. London: Routledge.

Meredith, David W. (1987). In Janet Todd (Ed.), A dictionary of British and American women writers 1660-1800. London: Methuen.

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Morgan, Fidelis. (1981). The female wits: Women playwrights of the Restoration. London: Virago.

Morgan, Fidelis. (1986). A woman of no character: An autobiography of Mrs. Manley. London: Faber & Faber.

Perry, Ruth. (1980). Women, letters and the novel. New York: AMS Press.

Piozzi, Hester Thrale. (1786). Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson.

Reeve, Clara. (1785). The progress of romance. 2 Volumes. Colchester: W. Keyymer. (Reprinted in 1970 by Garland Publishing, New York.)

Russ, Joanna. (1983). How to suppress women’s writing. London: The Women’s Press.

Russell, Rosalind. (1987). The “immortal” who fell from literary grace. Scotsman, February 2, 1987.

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Gary Kelly (Essay Date 1996)

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SOURCE: Kelly, Gary. “Gender, Class and Cultural Revolution.” In Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft, pp. 1-22. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

In the following essay, Kelly discusses the influence of women on the British middle-class cultural revolution of the 1790s.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a Revolutionary feminist—an advocate of the rights or claims of women in a specific revolutionary situation. There were two related aspects of that situation: the French Revolution and the cultural revolution that founded the modern state in Britain.1 Many cultural revolutionaries in Britain saw the Revolution in France, at least in its early stages, as an example of what they themselves could achieve. But the British cultural revolution was itself a field of struggle in which the fortunes of various contestants, including Revolutionary feminism, were influenced by the changing course of the French Revolution. Paradoxically, the Revolution soon turned against feminists in France, yet it was also used as a reason to reject feminism, along with other forms of ‘innovation’ or ‘French principles’, in Britain.

The British debate on the French Revolution was part of the struggle for power within the British cultural revolution and it was conducted through writing, one of the cultural revolution’s main instruments. Thus it was necessarily through writing, or print, that Wollstonecraft aimed to intervene in both the French Revolution debate and the cultural revolution in her own country, to turn them in the direction of a feminism for the Revolutionary decade. She did so not only by advancing feminist arguments in writing, but by challenging the entire male-dominated institution of writing in her time. She used the available resources of style, genre and discourse to show that the limited education, experience and professional opportunities assigned to women in both the pre-Revolutionary order and the British cultural revolution could lead not to subordination but to feminist consciousness, and the emancipation of women. Wollstonecraft’s Revolutionary feminism was a writing revolution, exemplified and conducted in writing.

‘Feminism’ and ‘revolution’ are of course problematic terms. As Philippa Levine points out, ‘The definition of feminism in the historical context is . . . fraught with difficulties.’2 ‘Feminism’ in the usual modern sense—advocacy of the rights or claims of women—did not come into the English language until the campaign for women’s electoral rights in the 1890s, but it can be argued that there were feminisms in Britain before then, such as Renaissance feminism, seventeenth-century court and anti-court feminism, mid-eighteenth century Bluestocking feminism, and feminisms within cultural movements such as Sensibility and Evangelicalism.3 After 1800 there was a Romantic nationalist feminism and, later still, socialist feminism, mid-nineteenth century movements for women’s legal and educational rights and the later campaign for women’s suffrage, giving rise to the modern use of the word ‘feminism”. Each of these feminisms was conditioned by different social and historical circumstances, different horizons of possibility.

‘Revolution’ usually means a sudden or violent transformation in the established order and Wollstonecraft lived in an age of such revolutions, but some revolutions are less sudden. The Revolutionary feminists of the 1790s advocated the rights and claims of women within an intense debate over a sudden and violent revolution, and within the longer revolution that founded the modern state in Britain. This cultural revolution was not sudden or massively violent, but it transformed the culture, society and political structure of Britain, and naturalized this order for individuals in daily life and experience. Within this cultural revolution gender difference was a major issue, deeply implicated in other major revolutionary issues and in the struggle to define and lead the classes by and for whom the cultural revolution was being carried out.4

Social class may be taken as a particular historical phenomenon rather than a transhistorical social reality, a manifestation of social conflict rather than the cause of it, as different social groups come to see themselves having common interests, identity and opponents.5 The cultural revolution of the late eighteenth century was carried out by and for the bourgeoisie or middle classes—the ‘middle ranks’ or ‘middling sort’, as they were then called—led by the professional class. Their revolution aimed to remake society in their own image and interests by imposing their culture, or forms of it, on other classes. But their cultural revolution was conditioned by their own changing experience of social conflict and the politics of culture. In the middle decades of the eighteenth century, bourgeois social critics, along with others, attacked court government and culture as well as emulation of court culture by the gentry and middle classes. Toward the end of the century, and especially in the 1790s, they also attacked the lower classes, both urban and rural, whom they saw as either subordinated to court culture or challenging for political power, if not for social and cultural domination in their own right. Yet the professional cultural revolution owed much to these different class rivals.

The professional bourgeoisie were especially marked by relations with their ‘betters’—the landed classes. Historically, the professionals had been closely associated with these classes and dependent on them.6 The aristocracy and gentry placed second and third sons in the professions— careers often controlled by the landed classes through patronage. But the professions also offered upward social mobility to the commercial and mercantile middle classes. The gentry married first daughters off within their own class to secure family alliances and thus build a broader base of power through patronage; second and third daughters could be married off to useful and promising professional men or sons of well-to-do commercial or manufacturing families. Heiresses of the commercial and manufacturing classes raised their families’ status by marrying into the gentry and brought new money for agrarian capitalism and the conspicuous consumption that affirmed the gentry’s power and prestige.

The professional bourgeoisie were an increasingly distinct group within the middle classes from the seventeenth century on, but their increasing power and prestige in the eighteenth century were due to the pre-eminence of the landed classes. The latter had established their power with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and used it to enhance their prosperity through capitalist land management, improved production and technological advance. Some of the new prosperity went into the traditional gentry culture of conspicuous consumption, which in turn increased the numbers, wealth and status of the professionals who provided administrative, cultural and personal services.7 Economic expansion also led to the growth of towns, where most professionals lived and which they came to dominate; in fact, they were often called ‘the town gentry’.8 These developments enabled professional people to develop distinctive identity, interests, culture and values. Increasing distinctness accompanied increasing sense of distinction, or social importance and dignity. Other differences reinforced these distinctions, as with the religious Dissenters who had been legally and socially excluded from most patronage and power since the seventeenth century.9

Yet in the last three decades of the century there was an increasing sense of class conflict. Increased social distinction and economic opportunities led to increased social frustration for those professional people not in élite professions or well-connected to the gentry-dominated system of patronage that still controlled economy and state.10 Because of this domination, membership in the gentry continued to be the aim of socially ambitious individuals and groups, and those who could not quite make it into the gentry emulated them socially and culturally or challenged their domination. While social and cultural changes were enhancing the status and power of the professional class, they also increased distinctions within the middle classes. Middle-class emulation of their ‘betters’ and desire for upward social mobility led to increasing disdain for the ‘lower orders’ and sharper distinctions between the professions, the commercial and manufacturing bourgeoisie and mere ‘tradespeople’. The increasing numbers and wealth of the professionals also widened gaps between ‘learned’ professions such as law and the clergy, ‘gentlemanly’ professions such as the military, and professions still associated with crafts or trades. Even in the law there was a strong distinction between the élite barristers and the mere attorneys.

There was increased hostility between the lower classes and the others, arising from the shift to a wage economy, accelerated enclosure of common lands, abandonment of customary doles, suppression of popular sports, pastimes and festivals, exclusion of the ‘vulgar’ from public spaces in towns, and the development of ‘standard’ forms of language and culture from which the lower classes were excluded.11 Furthermore, economic development and improved communication between the regions of Britain made their social, historical, cultural and religious differences more noticeable. The growing towns were very different from one another. People of all classes retained strong local loyalty and regional identity, which could cut across an emergent sense of national solidarity and common interest within a particular social class. Many events gave prominence to these social divisions, including the Jacobite rebellions, unrest in Ireland, antiquarian and folklore movements, the rise of local presses, the rise of the ‘reading public’, the feminization of literature and culture, the Gordon Riots and other disturbances.

Then events of the 1790s, such as the debate on the French Revolution, political unrest in Scotland and open rebellion in Ireland, formation of organized lower-class opposition to government, the association of religious Dissent with sympathy for the Revolution, and the debate on women’s rights, revealed dangerous regional and social divisions in Britain and within the professional and middle classes.12 Meanwhile, events in France showed how a professional middle-class revolution could go wrong. Nevertheless, in the 1780s and 1790s some middle-class and professional people were ready to form a coalition with the literate, politicized artisan classes in order to carry out a middle-class revolution: overthrow of the court system, the patronage system and the hegemony of the upper classes. Such circumstances sharpened both the struggle for leadership within the professional and middle classes and these classes’ competition with other classes.

In this conflict of loyalties, identities and distinctions, gender difference was increasingly important and complex.13 The extent to which women identified with or distinguished themselves from the men of ‘their’ class or social group was and is a difficult question. R. S. Neale argues that ‘while men might have the illusion of freedom, women never could’, for ‘all family relationships, marriage, love and morality were determined by, and the servants of, property; they were facets of total alienation’. Thus ‘the value stance expected of women may be encapsulated in the word propriety—one might say that among the landed classes propriety was to women as property was to men’.14 This may have been even more the case for women of the professional class, whose capital and property were, in the first instance, intellectual and moral—of the ‘mind’—the basis of ‘propriety’ as conduct.

Within the professional middle class gender differences also parallelled and reinforced class differences. Wives of merchants and tradesmen could participate in their husbands’ businesses but wives of professional men could not.15 The leisured and cultivated ‘lady’ of the landed classes was distinguished from the mere ‘woman’ because she possessed a class-based culture that exhibited the status and wealth of the men and families of her class. Therefore she was emulated by middle-class women, and many socially ambitious middle-class men wished their women to become ‘ladies’. Yet the sacrifice of women to mere family interest and ambition—that is, the interest and ambition of men—was widely deplored in all classes. The courtly lady who used or was used in sexual intrigue for political ends—the so-called ‘mistress system’ of court politics and patronage—was widely condemned, and the upper-class or would-be upper-class coquette symbolized the decadence and injustice of the court system.

It is true that women subordinated within the upper classes could seem parallel to a bourgeoisie that felt itself subordinated by the upper classes. On the other hand, since women were subordinated in all classes they would seem to have good reason to betray family or class in order to marry up the social scale or to be seduced by a more powerful and (therefore) attractive social superior. Both quasi-feminist sympathy for women and anti-feminist resentments and fears are represented in plays, novels, newspaper scandals and trials for adultery and ‘crim. con.’ during the century ‘Woman’ could either symbolize a class’s own sense of its weakness or embody its ideal image of itself. The ideal was developed as ‘domestic woman’, representing the values and practices of the professional middle class in particular, as distinct from what was seen as the merely public and social sphere dominated by the upper classes.16 ‘Domestic woman’ was a figure embodying social and cultural values, but it affected women because of their role in everyday domestic life, social customs and relations, habits and patterns of consumption, and the class-based exercise of choices and distinctions.

In living out such distinctions cultural consumption was increasingly important, for economic and technological change were creating another revolution: the commercialization of culture which made possible or necessary a greater range of consumer goods and services, a larger field for exercise of the social distinctions and conflicts just described.17 New modes of manufacture and marketing were intertwined even before the Industrial Revolution, and were dependent on social emulation, the fashion system, a culture of novelty and patterns of consumption stemming from the dominant landed gentry, aristocracy and court class. A wide range of products and services, including professional ones, flourished on historic patterns of emulation, but the commercialization of culture made cultural revolution more obvious, more comprehensive and more powerful.

Like the cultural revolution, the consumer revolution was a field of struggle. The landed class’s culture of conspicuous consumption was related to court culture of display and magnificence. Bourgeois social critics saw such display as an instrument of power, dazzling the common people and blinding them to the corruption and decadence of court government. Display was also politically dangerous for the gentry and middle classes because it conflicted with rational use of capital and forced its victims into the court patronage system, to recoup over-expenditure on display or ‘luxury’ by means of sinecures, ‘places’, offices of state, monopolies and commercial privileges. Together, ‘luxury’ and the patronage system were thought to undermine both the merit system and the market system, be it a market in goods, services or talent. The ‘men of merit’, that is, the professional men, dependent on intellectual capital, had the greatest stake in the critique of display, ‘luxury’ and ‘fashion’, but upper-class losers in the patronage system also joined this critique in a temporary coalition with bourgeois cultural revolutionaries.

Members of the middle classes who succumbed to ‘luxury’ or ‘fashion’ were in double jeopardy. They lacked the public credit and base of family financial support available to members of the landed classes, and had to manage their capital carefully or risk falling into the ungenteel lower middle classes or even lower. Moreover, commercialized consumption reproduced and disseminated upper-class culture by providing consumers in other classes with cheaper versions of the novelties being consumed by their ‘betters’. These novelties covered a great range of material culture and ‘manners’, including clothing, dinnerware, health products and services, arts and architecture, travel, ‘correct’ pronunciation, education, courtship practices and so on. Thus criticism of fashion, luxury and display addressed both upper-class culture and emulation of that culture by the middle classes and, later, the lower classes. Women were thought to play an important role in fashion, luxury and display, partly because of their role in court culture. Numerous eighteenth-century satires depict a woman ruining her husband or family through extravagant emulation of her ‘betters’. The fashionable woman symbolized the middle classes’ emulation of their ‘betters’ through cultural consumption; but she also represented the consumer revolution’s commodification of women, making them into objects as well as agents of conspicuous consumption for competing men and social classes.

A major form of cultural consumption was print. Yet print culture was historically associated with the professional middle class and in the eighteenth century became a major way of disseminating their cultural revolution. The ‘rise of the reading public’, much commented on at the time, was facilitated by increasing numbers of circulating libraries, publishers and booksellers, newspapers and magazines.18 Well-appointed circulating libraries, exclusive book clubs and stylish but inexpensive reprints also enabled middle-class people to participate in book culture as a genteel avocation.19 Literary culture, as distinct from merely professional writing, was both an aspect of the consumer revolution and a way of disseminating it, for miscellany magazines and ‘books of the day’—especially novels—purveyed information on manners, fashion, high society, public issues, the arts, ‘proper’ language and so on to readers who would otherwise find it unobtainable. Even when this fashion system was being condemned in some magazine or novel, readers were learning how the system worked, and bourgeois social critics often saw ‘books of the day’ as disseminators of ideology and culture hostile to their own interests. Print could be seen to both foster and disable the sense of common interest and nation-wide identity among the ‘reading public’—the professional and other middle classes.

Since Renaissance Humanism at least, these classes had participated with the upper classes in literature as a broad, classically based culture.20 But in the eighteenth century literary culture moved from domination by aristocratic coteries and patronage to domination by the market-place and the ‘reading public’. ‘Literature’ ceased to mean predominantly ‘the extant writing on a particular subject’ and came to have its modern sense of ‘written verbal art’. Yet ‘literature’ was increasingly commercialized, specialized and professionalized, while maintaining a façade of genteel belletrism. The professional class had a vested interest in literature in both main senses. Many professionals specialized in the interpretation and production of literature in the older sense, from Holy Scripture to official documents, contracts, legislation, technology, plans and projects, and scholarly or scientific research of various kinds. But many professionals needed literature in the new sense for the social aspects of their work, associating with cultivated patrons, employers and colleagues through a broad, shared literary culture. More importantly, literature in both senses made up a discursive order that enabled the professional bourgeoisie, who were widely scattered through Britain, to communicate among themselves according to a shared set of assumptions and conventions, thereby reproducing themselves daily, in the act of reading, as members of a national class.

A sense of common identity, transcending local ties and limits, could readily be conveyed through print. Ephemeral periodicals such as newspapers and magazines repeatedly made a common culture available—daily, weekly or monthly—to widely scattered professional and middle-class readers, through their nature as much as through their contents. Print culture seemed superior to both the oral, communal culture of the lower classes and the social culture of the landed classes. Lower-class culture had to be reinforced by frequent contact in everyday life; upper-class culture depended on social contacts in country and town houses, and at seasonal social, political, judicial and administrative gatherings. The rise of what Benedict Anderson calls ‘print capitalism’ gave the professionals and their followers greater potential to become a national class than their social rivals—unless those rivals also participated in the new print culture.21 But if they did so, it would be on the terms of the professional people who increasingly commanded print culture as the ‘reading public’.

Literature in the new sense addressed a wider readship than narrowly professional writing. Writing as verbal art supplemented and validated writing on a particular, usually professional subject, ennobling it by association. Yet ‘written verbal art’ was also in some ways writing as an end in itself, distinct from and transcending mere professional writing. Literature as belles-lettres, a genteel avocation, especially in the older, aristocratic literary culture, seemed to relegate professional writing to a merely utilitarian, vulgarly middle-class sphere. But in the latter half of the eighteenth century literature as verbal art was becoming professionalized, while remaining distinct from other professional writing, and validating the entire domain of writing as professional craft and art.22

In Mary Wollstonecraft’s lifetime both print culture and literature became the class property of the professional bourgeoisie, used as instruments in a class-based cultural revolution. But print culture and literature were also divided by gender distinctions. The learned discourses and noble genres were conventionally reserved for men, both as practitioners and readers, and included theoretical and abstract writing such as philosophy, science, political economy, aesthetics and rhetoric; scholarly writing such as natural science, technology, topography, encyclopaedias, historiography, classical studies, biblical studies, textual criticism and editing, and literary and other criticism in the arts; controversial writing such as political polemics or theological disputations; and the noble or sublime genres such as tragedy and epic. By contrast, most women writers kept to kinds of writing that could be seen as extensions of women’s domestic range of education and experience: useful and practical subjects, and lighter, entertaining, desultory, occasional and personal forms of belles-lettres. These included educational writing and books for children; conduct books for girls and young women; devotional verse and prose; comedy; verse narrative; poems of domestic or quotidian life and subjective experience; and of course prose fiction, seen in the later eighteenth century as the women’s genre. The gendering of writing reinforced and was reinforced by the domestication of women of the middle and upper classes. ‘Books of the day’ or ephemeral, entertaining, ‘polite’ kinds of literature were especially associated with women, strengthening the association of women with the fashion system. The gendering of writing left women in a paradoxical relationship to it—at once merely domestic and merely ‘fashionable’.

Though print and literary culture were class property, divided by gender, highly commercialized and implicated in social emulation, they were also major disseminators of the professional middle-class cultural revolution. In this cultural work women writers played an important if undervalued role, partly because the genres left to women popularized the professional cultural revolution and made it available to a wide range of ‘the reading public’. Writing was also highly suited for representing central themes and practices of the cultural revolution, particularly the subjective self, the ‘domestic affections’ and domesticity and the ‘national’ community. These themes were appropriated from other social classes but made to embody the values, self-image and interests of the professional middle classes and their followers. These themes were subjects of controversy and conflict in the cultural revolution, but before 1800, at least, they were often expressed through a particular construction of the figure ‘woman’, in which women writers could reasonably claim interest and expertise.

Practices of subjectivity, or what Michel Foucault calls ‘technologies of the self’, can be found even in early historic cultures, and such practices may in fact have been made possible by writing.23 But in the middle third of the eighteenth century there was rapid development of subjectivity as complex, autonomous, authentic and pre-social or extra-social.24 This idea of the self was appropriated from late Renaissance and seventeenth-century court culture, or rather from oppositional and marginal culture within court society.25 By the early eighteenth century much courtly literature depicted subjectivity as true personal merit in the face of the merely public, social, political rank of court personages, a refuge from and a critique of mere courtliness. Significantly, court literature often embodied this subjectivity in a heroine. For a woman could represent anyone, man or woman, subject to domination, courtship or seduction by another—usually more powerful and male. Such a model of subjectivity could also appeal to the non-courtly classes, whether gentry or bourgeoisie, lower down the chain of court patronage or frustrated in attempts to infiltrate other patronage systems.

Subjectivity was a social practice paradoxically pretending to be extra-social; but writing seemed to solve the paradox. Writing and reading are solitary practices but they are also cultural and social practices available to anyone who is literate. The ‘rise of the reading public’ coincided with a rapid and diverse development in the writing of subjectivity, from Lockean ‘mental philosophy’ to religious devotional literature, from personal lyric poetry to Rousseauist autobiography, from Sentimental novels to political theories of the ‘rights of man’ based on the ‘natural’ inviolability of the personal self. As appropriated by the professional class, subjectivity was equated with the kind of moral discipline and intellectual training necessary to professional men who had to make their way in a hostile, competitive, seductive and uncongenial social world. This moral and intellectual discipline was represented as ‘virtue’ and ‘reason’—words that recur often in eighteenth-century philosophy and social criticism, including the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft.

This culture of subjectivity realized through writing distinguished and defended the middle-class individual from both upper and lower classes. The ‘lower orders’ were depicted as lacking in developed, complex subjectivity; their ‘merely’ social and communal culture was seen as parallel to the ‘merely’ social, courtly, fashionable society of the upper classes. Thus subjectivity was used by the bourgeois cultural revolution to counter a social, public and political domain thought to be occupied by the dominant but ‘merely’ social courtly upper classes on one hand and by the un-individualized, communal and subordinated lower classes on the other.

The bourgeois cultural revolution used the ‘domestic affections’ and domesticity in a related way, to provide authentic social relations for the subjective self, in contrast to what were seen as the vitiated, self-interested, exploitative social relations of a courtly society. The domestic affections subsumed friendship as well as family relations, for ideas of ‘family’ and ‘friend’ were themselves altered by the cultural revolution.26 The upper-class family was seen as an unofficial joint stock company based on the landed estate, the lower-class family as a collective and communal production unit. The cultural revolution refashioned both as the family based on conjugal, parental and filial relations, excluding servants and more distant relations and excluding obvious economic production from the home. This kind of family was based on neither landed property nor communal production, but was to ‘produce’—or reproduce—the moral and intellectual individual suited for middle-class and especially professional life.27 Nevertheless, this reproduction was to be different for males and females: the former were to be trained for professional and public life while the latter were to be trained as companions for such men and as sustainers of the authentic domestic realm. ‘Friend’ ceased to mean someone sharing or assisting in a material, social or political interest, and came to mean someone with mutual moral, intellectual and emotional interests. In these new senses family and friends were appropriated from upper-class and lower-class culture by being domesticated and feminized.

Domesticity was the daily culture of family and friends in the new sense. It included the idea of home as a refuge from a hostile and competitive social world. It included the constitution of the quotidian, local and particular as ‘real’ life in contrast to the courtly and cosmopolitan, which were represented as artificial, fantastic and a mystification of ‘reality’. It included ‘domestic education’, or the development of the moral and intellectual self necessary to master a competitive, seductive social world. Domesticity included the cult of the cottage or bourgeois pastoral, the separation of home from place of work, and the rise of the suburb. It led to domestication of the arts—parlour music rather than concert or ceremonial music; drawing and watercolour rather than formal painting; genre painting rather than history painting; engravings rather than paintings; private theatricals and closet drama rather than the public theatres; privatization of formerly public spaces; gardening that could be carried out by the individual without large income and gardening staff; family reading; needlework; and a host of other activities.28 This domesticity may have originated in various aristocratic and bourgeois practices, but it contrasted with courtly social relations—the mistress system, ‘gallantry’, libertinism, mingled sexual and political intrigue and notorious intra-family rivalries, such as the hostility between George III and his son the Prince of Wales. The literature of domesticity developed with the rise of the professionals in the 1730s and 1740s and became a flood in the second half of the century, from the novels of Samuel Richardson through Rousseau’s La nouvelle Héloïse to the ‘conversation poems’ of Coleridge.

Subjectivity, the domestic affections and domesticity together formed the basis for new ideas of national identity, community and culture.29 Older forms of national identity, as loyalty to a ruling dynasty, had given way in Britain to national identity as a complex of social, economic, political and regional ‘interests’. These ‘interests’ were dominated by the ruling class as a network of interrelated families based on large landed estates. ‘Patriotism’ in the eighteenth century often meant opposition of the landed interest to a court faction supposedly leading king and country to domestic ruin and to defeat by external enemies, trading competitors and imperial rivals. In the latter part of the century, however, national identity and culture were represented as residing in ‘the people’ and rooted in domestic affections and social sympathies of particular kinds.

Great Britain was a complex state whose disparate regional cultures seemed to find expression in antiquarianism, local natural history, ‘popular antiquities’ or folklore, literary ‘fakelore’ or forgeries such as Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ and Chatterton’s poems, and collecting and imitating popular ballads. In fact, these activities assimilated the local and regional to a national culture of writing commanded by the professional bourgeoisie. Writing transformed local and regional class cultures into apparently classless ones by transposing them from speech communities to the national community of print. Transcribing the oral culture of the common people transformed it into a culture subject to the interests and expertise of the professional middle class.30 The ‘imagine community’ of the nation that could only be experienced in print was an alternative to the ‘political nation’ of large landed families who controlled national politics and local administration. It was also an alternative to the ‘nation’ as the common people, especially during the Revolutionary decade of the 1790s.

Women, or rather ‘woman’, had a central place in these major themes of the professional middle-class cultural revolution. ‘Woman’ was a figure or persuasive device in the rhetoric of cultural transformation rather than the actual women of any class or all classes.31 ‘Woman’ linked the major themes of the bourgeois cultural revolution and was therefore central to the rhetoric of revolution. Some women, especially in the professional and other middle classes, saw themselves in this figure of ‘woman’, participated in it or helped construct it in writing. Other women, including Mary Wollstonecraft, argued that ‘woman’ oppressed women and betrayed the middle-class cultural revolution. ‘Woman’, like other themes and figures, was both an instrument of the cultural revolution and a field of struggle within it.

For one thing, ‘woman’ was a major figure for the new subjectivity. In courtly literature woman is often represented as a vessel of feeling. Excluded from the public, political and martial spheres and subordinate in the ceremonial of court life (except by dynastic accident), women were associated with the private, personal, aesthetic and amorous domains. Because love was seen as a personal and aesthetic experience, not a public or political one, courtly amorous culture was often depicted as presided over by women. Professional middle-class culture of the eighteenth century appropriated woman in this role, but dropped the associations with sexual-political intrigue and modified courtly love to romantic love as a personal, subjective absolute.32 Yet elements of courtly ‘gallantry’ remained, and it was these that Revolutionary feminism attacked.

Woman as emblem for both romantic and courtly love was an ambiguous figure—both subject and object in an upper middle-class culture that was ambivalent about the courtly culture it was appropriating and refashioning. In professional culture, and increasingly in the culture of the commercial and manufacturing bourgeoisie and the master artisans, women were excluded from the public domain and restricted to the domestic sphere. Yet this restriction was thought to exaggerate their emotional, affective, subjective development. The ambiguous character of woman as emblem of subjectivity and romantic love also shows that woman represents more than femaleness or femininity. Woman was subject par excellence, to be courted yet denied independence, equality and power, and thus could stand for the bourgeois subject regardless of sex and for the bourgeoisie in general, especially if subjectivity were equated with desiring inwardness in any individual or the social class as a whole.

Such desiring inwardness is the seducible element, open to ideological penetration and subjection by the social other. In professional middle-class culture woman as subject was a counter to the public, social, political domains seen to be dominated by the social other. But woman was also a figure for class anxiety and uncertainty, cast as erotic desires and relations, amorous seductions and betrayals. For this reason ‘woman’ became a central topic of concern in the various Enlightenments—movements of social and cultural criticism emphasizing ‘reason’ as an objective and transcendent criterion against ‘unenlightened’ culture of both court and common people. In the Enlightenments’ gendering of intellectual and cultural values, woman as desiring subject often represented ‘unreason’.33

For this reason woman was redefined as domestic in order to appropriate the positive values she represented for the Enlightenments as social critiques of the Old Regime.34 The culture of Sensibility, or Sentimentalism, which was based on Enlightenment rationalism and materialism, developed the two themes of subjectivity and domesticity in a wide-ranging feminization of culture in the 1770s and 1780s, to some extent in opposition to the masculinist values of the Enlightenments.35 Woman is defined as domestic in order to confine her there, in contrast to negative figures of femininity: the too public, too political, independently desiring woman of the courtly upper classes; the too social, ‘managing’ woman of the commercial and trading bourgeoisie; and the labouring, sexually available woman of the servant and other lower classes.36

‘Woman’ constructed for a particular class interest and culture was then made to stand for women of all classes. Nature as biology was invoked, not for the first or last time, to extend woman’s physical roles as mother and wife to the moral and social domain of the domestic affections. As friendship came to be seen as less a business or social relationship and more a personal, affective one, woman was made responsible for the home as a place fostering the extra-domestic friendships of husband and other family members. Yet female friendships outside the family caused anxiety to many social critics. Domestic woman became a female version of the professional man, distinguished from woman as partner in a family-owned business and woman as ornament in courtly upper-class life. She was to be a non-labouring worker, overseeing the household, the management and early education of children, and encouraging various class-based cultural values and practices. Woman of the professional bourgeoisie was to provide a moral-intellectual service, ostensibly without remuneration. In this too she was a female version of the male professional, requiring the same kind of self-discipline and method (‘virtue’ and ‘reason’), but not the same intellectual training, and working in a distinct, parallel sphere.

To fulfil this role, however, domestic woman required a proper education. A decorative and aesthetic role was retained for her in emulation of upper-class woman. Education in the decorative and entertaining arts, or ‘accomplishments’, was to make domestic woman a proper companion for the professional man after the rigours of his professional work and after his trying experiences in a hostile and competitive public social world. This function was parallel to that of woman in court culture, but domestic woman was also to have a form of the moral and intellectual training required by professional men. This would guard her from excessive courtliness, from questioning her lot, from temptation to a more glamorous social life and from personal or domestic extravagance damaging to the family interest. The exact nature of domestic woman’s training was debated, but its general aim was to distinguish her from both courtly upper-class woman and vulgarly middle-class or lower-class woman, yet to exclude her from the public sphere and assign her a subaltern role in the professional middle-class family. She was assigned a diminutive or domestic version of the intellectual and artistic culture of men. Because of her restricted sphere of experience and observation, domestic woman was supposed to be a specialist in ‘real life’, local observation, the detail of quotidian life, domestic heroism and the ‘trivial sublime’, or intimations of grandeur and transcendence in common life. In short, domestic woman was a figure for distinguishing traits of professional middle-class culture; but by being domestic she was also distinguished and firmly subordinated within that culture.

This domestication of culture and social relations was important for the reconstruction of the national identity, culture and destiny in the interests of the professional bourgeoisie. The site of the essential, authentic national identity was shifted from the public and political sphere to the domestic and personal, in order to wrest the power to define the national interest from the courtly and landed classes. This process was important for the cultural revolution’s ability to respond to events outside Britain, especially the French Revolution. Even before the 1790s woman’s role in the ‘national’ culture was seen as an extension of her central role in domesticity, and Britain’s vicissitudes abroad were represented by their effects on domestic relations and affections, and on woman as wife, mother, sister and daughter. During the 1790s and the Revolutionary aftermath of Romantic nationalism woman was also made the repository of national ‘folk’ culture, as the essence and unifying element in a society that Revolutionary threat, domestic political upheaval, feminist protest, regional revolt and international crisis revealed to be dangerously divided by class, region and gender.

Prescriptions for the construction of domestic woman can be found everywhere in writing of the period. Yet the plentifulness of such prescriptions suggests that woman was also emblem of the professional middle class’s ideological, social and cultural vulnerability and sense of powerlessness, and therefore that women were seen as a problem in those classes. These prescriptions took the form of conduct books—instructions for the construction of woman for the bourgeois cultural revolution. The conduct books in turn merely gave systematic statement to themes widely diffused in literature of all kinds, including philosophy, history, essays, plays and especially novels.37

One of the most reprinted conduct books was The Lady’s New Year’s Gift; or, Advice to a Daughter by George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, first published in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution. Just over a century later, in another revolutionary year, Wollstonecraft published an extract from it in her anthology The Female Reader. Halifax, like most conduct-book writers, recommends religion to allay the dangerous passions, personal and social, to which women were supposed to be subject. Passion is what rebels against difference as oppression and desires the social other through a mingled erotic and social drive. As Halifax puts it, ‘A devout mind hath the privilege of being free from passions, as some climates are free from all venomous kinds of creatures.’ Poison or venom was a common figure for the silent, invisible, perverting or fatal operation of alien ideology. Behind Halifax’s platitude is a sophisticated understanding of the social and personal function of religion for the subjugated and divided, be they a class, a race or a sex.38 Halifax then prescribes a domestic role for women, rooted in nature and divine will, and advises against excessive socializing, gaudy dress and self-display—attributes of courtly society. In order to fulfil their domestic role, women are told to ‘get understanding, and practise virtue’, but Halifax is less specific on how this should be done than later conduct writers would be. ‘Reason’ and ‘virtue’ commonly represent the intellectual and moral training used to subject women within professional middle-class culture and to secure them against seduction from above or contamination from below.

Halifax’s views continued to appeal to the professional middle classes, but they were modified and even challenged. In 1696 Mary Astell, in An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex, declared that ‘souls are equal’. Mind should therefore be developed in women as well as men if women were to gain salvation and also play their role in emergent professional middle-class culture. Similar views were widely disseminated in the early eighteenth century through such advocates of fusing genteel and professional cultures as The Spectator. In 1739 ‘Sophia, a Person of Quality’ argued in Woman Not Inferior to Man that the difference between the sexes was due to education, custom and circumstances. Relying on a Lockean materialist epistemology, she (if she was a she) argues that women have more delicate senses than men and, since all knowledge is acquired through the senses, women should ‘at least keep pace’ with men in learning and should be debarred from no profession, including the military. Like the Revolutionary feminists half a century later, she condemns the appropriation of courtly subjection of women by the professional middle class.

By mid-century ‘domestic woman’ had been constructed for the professional middle-class revolution, not only in Britain but also in France and elsewhere on the Continent.39 This movement coincided with the emergence of the professional middle class as a major social and cultural force, but the ambivalence in middle-class patriarchy between courtly woman and domestic woman remained.40 For example, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume asserted the importance of women to national culture, but did so by appropriating aspects of courtly woman and courtly gallantry. In his essay ‘Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences’ (1742) he argues that the modern age had superior ‘politeness’, or intellectual culture, because ‘modern notions of gallantry, the natural produce of courts and monarchies’, enabled ‘the company of virtuous women’ to modify the natural harshness of the male character. Hume opposes confining women to the domestic sphere because their polishing influence on men would be lost. This Enlightenment sociology of ‘progress’ in the arts and sciences is an embourgeoisement of court culture, fusing courtly and bourgeois values and practices in a feminization of culture.

The most influential appropriation of courtly woman for the bourgeois cultural revolution, even in Britain, was that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was the leading writer of the intellectual and cultural movement known as Sensibility, related to and overlapping the Enlightenment.41 In his novel La nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and his educational quasi-novel Émile (1762) Rousseau idealizes domestic woman and the domestic affections and contrasts them with the corrupt courtly mistress system and gender relations based on coquetry and gallantry which filtered down through the rest of society by the process of social emulation. In his influential essay on political theory, Du contrat social (1762), he takes the family based on domestic affections as the model for the state. Rousseau follows the Enlightenment and Protestant Nonconformist view of woman as an equal soul and mind with man; but he also asserts that woman has a different moral and intellectual character. Whereas man thinks, reasons and abstracts, woman feels, sympathizes and puts into practice. Therefore woman should obey man; but lest man become a tyrant, woman may use coquetry to achieve a balance of power. Within the family and state man should have ultimate authority, modified by woman’s kind of knowledge, not through reasoning, for that is man’s domain, but by woman controlling her erotic desire in order to govern man’s and thereby influence his judgement. In this way Rousseau appropriates the courtly mistress system of political and amorous intrigue to bourgeois domesticity.

Rousseau’s influence on the construction of domestic woman in Britain was reinforced by Dr James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1766). Fordyce was a man of the Scottish Enlightenment and a popular preacher, and his combination of familiar conductbook precepts with Rousseau’s domestication of courtly woman took Sermons through at least twenty editions by 1800. Following Hume, he envisages woman gentrifying man through a bourgeois form of courtly love called ‘honourable love’: ‘that great preservative of purity, that powerful softener of the fiercest spirit, that mighty improver of the rudest carriage, that all-subduing, yet all exalting principle of the human breast, which humbles the proud, and bends the stubborn, yet fills with lofty conceptions, and animates with a fortitude that nothing can conquer’. Such love is contrasted to ‘that false and vicious gallantry which gains ground amongst us every day’ and which is ‘effeminate’ rather than feminized. Fordyce goes on to link the influence of woman through ‘honourable love’ to the national destiny, particularly in the face of the historic enemy, France, which Britons equated with court government and court culture.42 The themes, arguments and even the words and rhythms of Fordyce’s ‘honourable love’ passage would be echoed in Edmund Burke’s paean to ‘antient chivalry’ in Reflections on the Revolution in France, thereby making this appropriation of courtly woman central to the counter-Revolution. Not surprisingly, Rousseau, Fordyce and Burke were all objects of Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist polemic in the 1790s.

Thus ‘woman’ was a central figure in the rhetoric of the cultural revolution—so important that the cultural revolution could be seen as a feminization of culture, advancing the claims and position of women, permitting women to participate in the cultural revolution, and even taking the form of feminist movements such as Bluestocking feminism, Enlightenment feminism, Sentimental feminism, Evangelical feminism and Revolutionary feminism, each of which proposed a somewhat different figure of ‘woman’ and her attendant ‘rights’ as part of the bourgeois cultural revolution. But men of the revolutionary classes could also see themselves in these figures. ‘Woman’ could signify differently to men and women in the cultural revolution, yet both could read themselves in that figure, and in this way were brought together in the revolution. In fact the cultural revolution was not only class-based but gender-biased. ‘Woman’ of the cultural revolution oppressed middle-class women in ways not found in the classes which the revolution attacked, and as Margaret Walters writes, ‘during the eighteenth century, when some women were beginning to articulate their rights, the distinction between the sexes was in fact becoming harder and sharper’, and middle-class women ‘more firmly excluded from public affairs and the world of work’.43 For this reason ‘woman’ was not only a powerful figure in the rhetoric of cultural revolution but a field of struggle, fought over by factions contending for leadership and definition of that revolution.

Mary Wollstonecraft attempted the most thorough feminist transformation of the cultural revolution in her time, though her career and her feminism were made possible by that revolution. She was constructed as a self-divided being by the interlocked class and gender distinctions of her society, but this very division enabled her to recognize that culture, language, discourse and identity were not free spaces for the natural play of individuality but structured by power relations of several kinds in order to shape personal and social identity in the interests of dominant social groups, be these groups defined by class or gender, or both.44 Accordingly, she constructed an identity and career as social critic in order to cope with her self-division and attack the social and cultural causes of it. Inevitably, this identity was paradoxical in terms of her culture—a woman of ‘mind’, ‘a woman who has thinking powers’, a ‘female philosopher’.

The cultural revolution made possible Wollstonecraft’s identity as social critic, as a woman of ‘mind’; she then turned her ‘mind’ to one of the few professional careers available to women—that of professional writer. The French Revolution then provided the occasion for turning her ‘mind’ and career to Revolutionary feminism. As Virginia Woolf puts it,

The Revolution . . . was not merely an event that had happened outside her; it was an active agent in her own blood. She had been in revolt all her life—against tyranny, against law, against convention. . . . The outbreak of the Revolution in France expressed some of her deepest theories and convictions.

Or as Toril Moi puts it, Wollstonecraft’s ‘essay on the rights of woman was made possible by the emancipatory if bourgeois-patriarchal ideas of liberté, égalité and fraternité’.45

‘Mind’ is a key word in Wollstonecraft’s life and writings, and by it she meant the moral-intellectual being required by professional men. As she defined it, ‘mind’ included reason and imagination, feeling and critical thought, according to the full definition in Johnson’s Dictionary. She accepted that most women’s careers would be domestic—nurturing professional culture, reproducing it in the next generation and disseminating a diminutive version of it to the lower ranks who came within women’s domestic sphere. But she argued that women needed ‘mind’ themselves if they were to fulfil the career prescribed by the cultural revolution’s ideal of ‘woman’. Wollstonecraft also argued that some women should be allowed to enter professions outside the home, and she even suggested that, to further their civism and patriotism, women should have electoral rights. But the central argument of her Revolutionary feminism was the need for distinct but parallel careers of ‘mind’ for (middle-class) men and women, if the professional middle class were to revolutionize society in their own image and interests, especially in a time of Revolutionary crisis.

Ultimately, Revolutionary feminism became a casualty of that crisis. It exposed contradictions in the cultural revolution in Britain, as far as women were concerned and involved. But at a time of sharply increased competition within the cultural revolution for leadership and power, such exposing of contradictions could seem dangerous to the revolution itself. The 1790s saw increased resistance not only to feminism but to the feminization of culture within the British cultural revolution, just as the French Revolution of 1793 to 1795 aimed to reverse the supposed feminization of culture and politics in the Revolution of 1789 to 1792. The failure of the first phase of the French Revolution, which corresponded to the character and aims of the bourgeois cultural revolution in Britain, led to a withdrawal from Revolutionary feminism in Britain along with withdrawal from coalition with ‘progressive’ elements of the upper and lower classes. In the 1790s most British cultural revolutionaries turned to ‘femininism’ or even anti-feminism; Revolutionary feminism and its immediate heirs were marginalized, suppressed or adopted by rival revolutionary programmes.


1. On cultural revolution and state formation, see Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer, The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985); on revolutionary élites and state formation, see Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); on culture, domination, and resistance, see Joan Cocks The Oppositional Imagination: Feminism, Critique and Political Theory (London and New York: Routledge, 1989) chs 1-3.

2. Philippa Levine, Victorian Feminism, 1850-1900 (London: Hutchinson, 1987) p. 14.

3. See, for example, Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty Travitsky (eds), The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990); Elaine Hobby, Virtue of Necessity: English Women’s Writing, 1649-88 (London: Virago Press, 1988); Katharine M. Rogers, Feminism in Eighteenth-Century England (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press; Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1982); Alice Browne, The Eighteenth-Century Feminist Mind (Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1987).

4. Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago, Ill. and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984) ch. 1.

5. For a review of the problems of definition and a survey of accounts of class in this period, see R. J. Morris, Class and Class Consciousness in the Industrial Revolution, 1780-1850 (London: Macmillan, 1979); for a broader treatment, see R. S. Neale, Class in English History, 1680-1850 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981).

6. Gordon E. Mingay, The Gentry: The Rise and Fall of a Ruling Class (London and New York: Longman, 1976); Lawrence Stone and Jeanne C. Fawtier Stone, An Open Elite? England, 1540-1880, abridged edn (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

7. Geoffrey Holmes, Augustan England: Professions, State and Society, 1680-1730 (London and Boston, Mass.: George Allen and Unwin, 1983); Harold Perkin, The Origins of Modern English Society, 1780-1880 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1969) pp. 213-17, 428-9. On the triumph of the professional bourgeoisie in the present century, see Harold Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880 (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), which argues that ‘the professional society’ superseded a society based on class.

8. Penelope J. Corfield, The Impact of English Towns, 1700-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).

9. Alan D. Gilbert, Religion and Society in Industrial England: Church, Chapel and Social Change, 1740-1914 (London and New York: Longman, 1976).

10. For an account of the process in Scotland, see Charles Camic, Experience and Enlightenment: Socialization for Cultural Change in Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1983). See also Wilfred Prest (ed.), The Professions in Early Modern England (London: Croom Helm, 1987).

11. Edward P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past and Present, vol. 50 (Feb. 1971) pp. 76-136; Robert W. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society, 1700-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973); Bob Bushaway, By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England, 1700-1880 (London: Junction Books, 1982).

12. On the 1790s, see Carl B. Cone, The English Jacobins: Reformers in Late 18th Century England (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968); Albert Goodwin, The Friends of Liberty: The English Democratic Movement in the Age of the French Revolution (London: Hutchinson, 1979).

13. For a brief survey of the social position of women, see Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century, rev. edn (London: Penguin Books, 1990) pp. 21-34.

14. Neale, Class in English History, pp. 199-200. See also Joan Kelly, Women, History, and Theory (Chicago, Ill. and London: Chicago University Press, 1984) pp. 1-18; Christine Delphy, Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression, trans. Diana Leonard (London: Hutchinson, with The Explorations in Feminism Collective,1984) pp. 71-6; Pamela Abbott and Roger Saps-ford, Women and Social Class (London and New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987).

15. Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 (1930; London: Virago, 1969).

16. See Nancy Armstrong, ‘The Rise of Domestic Woman’, in The Ideology of Conduct: Essays in Literature and the History of Sexuality, ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (New York and London: Methuen, 1987) pp. 96-141.

17. Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London: Hutchinson, 1982); Maxine Berg, The Age of Manufactures: Industry, Innovation and Work in Britain, 1700-1820 (London: Fontana, 1985); Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1987).

18. John Feather, A History of British Publishing (London and New York: Routledge, 1988) Part 2.

19. Devendra P. Varma, The Evergreen Tree of Diabolical Knowledge (Washington, D.C.: Consortium Press, 1972).

20. Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe (London: Duckworth, 1986).

21. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

22. See J. W. Saunders, The Profession of English Letters (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964) ch. 7.

23. See Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Methuen, 1982) pp. 178-9; François Furet and Jacques Ozouf, Reading and Writing: Literacy in France from Calvin to Jules Ferry, English trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Paris: Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1982) p. 310; and Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton (eds), Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988).

24. Stephen D. Cox, ‘The Stranger Within Thee’: Concepts of the Self in Late Eighteenth-Century Literature (Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980).

25. On court culture, see Norbert Elias, The Court Society, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983).

26. See Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Glasgow: Fontana/Croom Helm, 1976).

27. Eli Zaretsky, Capitalism, The Family, and Personal Life, rev. edn (New York: Harper and Row, 1986); Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, abridged edn (Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin Books, 1979); Randolph Trumbach, The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Academic Press, 1978); Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (London: Hutchinson, 1987); Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby (eds), A History of Private Life, vol. 3, Passions of the Renaissance, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1989).

28. On the place of needlework in the construction of femininity, see Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (New York: Routledge, 1984) ch. 6.

29. Gerald Newman, The Rise of English Nationalism: A Cultural History, 1740-1830 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987).

30. Anderson, Imagined Communities, pp. 39-40.

31. ‘Woman’ is now thought to indicate an essentialist view of women, in contrast to a ‘materialist’ view that treats women and the gender category ‘woman’ as socially and historically specific. See Annette Kuhn and AnnMarie Wolpe (eds), Feminism and Materialism: Women and Modes of Production (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978); Denise Riley, ‘Am I That Name?’: Feminism and the Category ofWomenin History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1988) ch. 1. I use ‘woman’ throughout, often with quotation marks, to refer to the cultural and rhetorical figure of the late eighteenth century, and ‘a woman’ or ‘women’, though usually without quotation marks, to refer to people who would have been considered women at that time.

32. See John Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988) ch. 2.

33. See Jane Rendall, The Origins of Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France and the United States, 1780-1860 (London: Macmillan, 1985) ch. 1; and Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason: ‘MaleandFemalein Western Philosophy (London: Methuen, 1984).

34. See Jean Bethke Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981) ch. 3.

35. See Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, ch. 7; Jean Bethke Elshtain, Meditations on Modern Political Thought: Masculine/Feminine Themes from Luther to Arendt (New York: Praeger, 1986) pp. 46-7.

36. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, abridged edn (Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin Books, 1979) p. 404.

37. Nancy Armstrong, ‘The Rise of Domestic Woman’, in The Ideology of Conduct: Essays in Literature and the History of Sexuality, ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (New York and London: Methuen, 1987) pp. 96-141; Joyce Hemlow, ‘Fanny Burney and the Courtesy Books’, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 65 (1950) pp. 732-61.

38. See Peter Berger, The Social Reality of Religion (1967; Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin Books, 1973).

39. Paul Hoffmann, La Femme dans la pensée des lumières (Paris: Ophrys, 1977); French Women and the Age of the Enlightenment, ed. Samia I. Spencer (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1984) Part 5.

40. Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

41. For ‘an attempt at definition’ of Sensibility, see R. F. Brissenden, Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade (London: Macmillan, 1974) pp. 11-55, and the works cited there.

42. James Fordyce, Sermons to Young Women (1766), 8th edn, corrected and enlarged (Dublin, 1796) pp. 11, 18.

43. Margaret Walters, ‘The Rights and Wrongs of Women: Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, Simone de Beauvoir’, in The Rights and Wrongs of Women, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley (Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin Books, 1976) p. 305.

44. On discourse and power, see Diane Macdonell, Theories of Discourse: An Introduction (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986). For a different way of envisaging language and culture as a field of struggle, relying on a Lacanian model of the construction of the subject, see Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing (Chicago, Ill., and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

45. Virginia Woolf, Women and Writing, ed. Michèle Barrett (London: Women’s Press, 1979) p. 98; Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London and New York: Methuen, 1985) p. 64.

Dawn Keetley And John Pettegrew (Essay Date 1997)

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SOURCE: Keetley, Dawn and John Pettegrew. "Introduction: Part I: Identities through Adversity." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 3-7. Madison, Wis.: Madison House Publishers, 1997.

In the following essay, Keetley and Pettegrew discuss the challenges that women colonial dissenters faced.

The first European settlers in New England brought with them family structure that vested authority unambiguously in the hands of the father. Woman's place in this "patriarchal" institution was clearly delimited; less autonomous individuals than wives and mothers, women throughout the North American colonies were subject to an intricately organized hierarchy that placed them below father, husband, brothers, and even adult sons. Unable to inherit either the land or the offices of their fathers, women became virtually invisible in the public life of the thirteen colonies. With its strict gender stratification and divisions of labor, the patriarchal family served as a model for and basis of social and political relations and institutions. In the 1637 trial of Anne Hutchinson for dissent from the Puritan church, for instance, the issue of Hutchinson's revolt against the subordinate status of women was inextricable from her religious rebellion. As one of her accusers proclaimed: "You have rather bine a Husband than a Wife and a preacher than a Hearer; and a Magistrate than a subject"—thus drawing a direct line between Hutchinson's religious unruliness and her perceived political and sexual disorder.

Patriarchal power in the colonies was not absolute, however. Due to the centrality of the household in an agrarian, primarily subsistence economy, women did create important economic and social roles for themselves. The case of Margaret Brent illustrates both how women could gain some power in the political sphere of colonial life, and also how the law inevitably circumscribed that power. In 1648, Brent petitioned the Maryland Assembly for the right to vote, an unprecedented act that was nevertheless in keeping with Brent's active legal and political career. She never married and frequently served as her brothers' business advisor and legal representative. A major landowner in her own right, Brent also represented herself in court cases, and for her acumen she was named the executrix of Maryland's governor—a close friend—when he died in 1657. It was on the grounds of her legal right to protect the former governor's interests that Brent sought the vote. Although her request was denied, the record shows that Brent "protested."

Aside from the economic and legal actions of a handful of prominent, land-owning women, the first stirrings of feminism in the colonies were the individual acts of rebellion against one institution—the Puritan church. Dissenting women, however, necessarily challenged those other institutions from which religion was inseparable, notably family and gender. Paradoxically, these early feminists drew their power to challenge established religion and the sexual hierarchies it instituted from Puritanism itself. Religious dissenters in New England carried the Puritan idea of the "aloneness" of believers in their relation with God so far that even the ministry became an obstacle to faith. "Grace," which was located within the self, accrued liberating possibilities in that it potentially challenged the hegemony of the clergy—the powerful elite of both church and state. The radical potential of the individual and its corollary—the spiritual equality of each individual regardless of sex—caused tensions in a society based on female subordination and finally created an avenue for women to question that subordination. The assertion of one's inner feeling of God's grace, of a distinctly personal revelation, could be used to justify rebellion against any and all of the authoritarian structures in which the individual was situated. Conversely, any woman who questioned the church was also perceived to be disavowing her place in secular and family life, of transgressing even her sex. In subsequent centuries it was this "wayward" and radically individualistic Puritan woman who would become an icon of the feminist individual, challenging a culture that on the one hand celebrates individualism and on the other hand limits, by gender and race, its realization.

One major strand of dissent was the Antinomian heresy, in which Anne Hutchinson played a central part. Antinomianism placed the private experience of religion above the formal rules of orthodox Puritanism, stressing that questions of salvation were decided between an individual and God, without the intervention of ministers. Hutchinson came under attack from the Puritan clergy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony precisely because of her defiance of their authority; she held meetings in her home every Sunday to discuss the day's sermon, even as rumors began to circulate that both the religious and political leadership were being criticized. Ordered to appear before a convocation of ministers, Hutchinson was ultimately excommunicated and banished; she and five of her six children were killed by Indians five years later on Long Island.

Another strand of religious dissent in colonial North America was Quakerism. Like the Antinomians, the Quakers believed in the "Inner Light"—rather than the authoritarian, institutional structures of the church—as a means to truth and salvation. The Society of Friends empowered women through their belief in spiritual equality and also in the development of co-equal status in church organization, including encouraging women to preach. The women's movement of the nineteenth-century was in part made possible by the legacy of Quaker women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; indeed, a large number of the first nationally-known women's rights advocates were Quakers, including Sarah and Angelina Grimké, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony.

One of the most prominent of early Quaker women was Mary Dyer, who exemplified the Quaker belief in religious freedom and also non-violence, two values that would persist and flourish within the women's movement. Like Hutchinson, Dyer was tried and convicted in Massachusetts for religious dissent; she became the only woman executed for defying the Puritan authorities. Dyer protested, specifically, the 1658 Massachusetts law that banished all Quakers from the colony on pain of death. She had come to Boston after the passage of the law in order to support two friends who were imprisoned; after being banished twice by the authorities, Dyer returned to Boston, refusing to leave peacefully after the magistrates executed her friends and fellow Quakers. Accusing the magistrates of "disobedience," Dyer warned them in a letter of 1659 of the dire consequences of their sins. She paid for her challenge to Puritan authority and for her convictions about the freedom of conscience with her life.

When trying dissenters, Massachusetts courts inevitably delivered a sentence of banishment, forcing "heretics" into areas beyond the bounds of the Puritan theocracy such as Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. In a sense, this banishment functions as a metaphor for a second legacy that early American rebellious women bequeathed to subsequent generations of feminists: an oppositional or "liminal" impulse—an unruly existence, in other words, beyond the pale of established structures. Whether by choice (as in the case of the religious dissenters) or not (as in the case of Mary Rowlandson, forcibly removed from her town by Indians), some colonial women lived outside the confines of patriarchal society. While they spoke from beyond the literal and institutional borders of their culture, however, these women shaped and changed that culture, contributing in part to the loosening of oppressive hierarchies.

Perhaps the epitome of the liminal woman—of her social marginality, of her occupation of the borders of society—is the figure of the witch. Accusations of witchcraft reflect the anxiety of a culture that anticipates its own dissolution and thus demonizes and expels that which it fears is the cause of incipient social breakdown. Often that "culprit" in colonial New England was the independent, unmarried woman, more frequently the victim of witch-hunting than any other group. Carol Karlsen has added that "witches" were often women without brothers or sons—women, that is, who "stood in the way of the orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to another."1 Clearly having gained enough power to provoke such deep-seated fears in the first place, the "witch" was at the same time a victim of those social processes that she defied.

Both Susannah Martin and Martha Carrier were victims of the Salem witchcraft "hysteria," which began in 1692 when a group of adolescent girls claimed to be possessed and began naming several of their neighbors as having consorted with the devil. Out of the 200 people (mostly women) who were accused of witchcraft in Salem during the course of the summer of 1692, thirteen women and six men were finally executed.

Some of the women executed as witches at Salem were clearly nontraditional women who did not conform to ideals of Puritan womanhood. A contemporary, Thomas Maule, for instance, estimated that two-thirds of the accused in the Salem witchcraft trials had either rebelled against their parents or committed adultery. Certainly, women accused of witchcraft were often on the margins of society, frequently unmarried and sometimes with a history of outspokenness. Susannah Martin had been involved in altercations with her neighbors; she expressed anger toward her accusers at her trial, using her own reading of the Bible to try to discredit them. Martha Carrier, charged with at least thirteen murders, had argued with neighbors over land and threatened a male antagonist with physical violence; in her examination, she charged the magistrate as the only "black [i.e., satanic] man" she had seen and insisted that she be believed over a group of hysterical girls. Like Mary Dyer, Martin and Carrier died because of their integrity; the public legacy of all three women helped to ensure that the execution of "deviant" women in New England would not last.

That women began to develop a distinct identity and voice in colonial America was a prerequisite for the subsequent emergence of a collective and public feminist movement. Only as women began to define and represent themselves could they start to transcend gender roles imposed from without by the state, the church, the law, and other social and cultural forms. Women in America first found a public voice and identity through religion, again discovering, paradoxically, a certain amount of freedom in the system that also oppressed them. Puritanism incorporated an emphasis on self-scrutiny, often in the form of written conversion narratives and spiritual autobiographies, in which one would detail personal struggles on the path to salvation. At a time when women had virtually no social or institutional frameworks within which to express themselves, written or spoken words of religious introspection and nascent subjectivity became the first step to subverting patriarchal discourse and power.

Two of the earliest autobiographies by women in America were those of Mary Rowlandson and Elizabeth Ashbridge, both of which began to shape women's distinct consciousness and individuality. Published in Boston in 1682, Mary Rowlandson's narrative tells the story of her three-month long captivity by the Naragansett tribe of Native Americans. Rowlandson's account of her experience with the Naragansetts is one of the earliest of the captivity narratives, regarded by some as the first distinctively "American" literary genre. In her account, Rowlandson is clearly directed by the Puritan belief in the providential nature of the colonists' encounter with the Indians; she interprets each event as part of God's divine plan to test his "chosen people" through their encounter with the "evil" natives. Placed in exigent circumstances, however, Rowlandson's individuality—separate from the Puritan orthodoxy—starts to emerge; she finds her own food, makes things to trade with her captors, and even shifts her opinion about Indians, refusing to recognize them as simply evil.

Elizabeth Ashbridge quite literally creates herself anew in her autobiography of 1774; there is virtually no record of her other than that which her own hand transcribes. Evidence suggests that Ashbridge was authorized by her local Quaker meeting at Goshen, Pennsylvania, to travel and to preach and that it was generally acknowledged that she spoke with an increasingly authoritative voice. Ashbridge's text is a spiritual autobiography—the story of her struggle to achieve grace and a divine life, a story given symbolic expression in the dream she has of a woman bearing a lamp. As a Quaker, Ashbridge's "lamp" is, of course, the Quaker "Inner Light" that Mary Dyer died for over a century earlier; it is also the light of personal faith for which Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated. Like both Dyer and Hutchinson, Ashbridge's story is not just a quest for spiritual freedom though; her text, makes explicit her challenge to patriarchal institutional authority in secular areas of life such as the family, a challenge that was more covert in the religious struggles of Hutchinson and Dyer. Ashbridge's search for her personal truth is undertaken not just in the face of male-dominated religion but also in the face of tyrannical social and sexual relations, and her trials include, an exploitative master and a coercive, abusive husband. Finally, Ashbridge does achieve not only freedom of conscience but also a relatively autonomous identity.

Another literary genre at which women excelled in the colonial period was poetry, which was originally a distinctly masculine discourse in Puritan New England. Women poets not only stepped into the public sphere themselves, giving future women writers intellectual forebears, but they also carried on women's cultural work of defining their own subjectivity, making their own preoccupations part of the store of public knowledge. Anne Bradstreet first encroached on that terrain in 1650 when her book of poems, The Tenth Muse, was published in London, the first book of original poetry written in America. Publicly challenging the preconception that poetry was a masculine endeavor, Bradstreet asserts in "The Prologue" that "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue / Who says my hand a needle better fits." In both "The Prologue" and "The Author to Her Book," Bradstreet reflects on and defends her own role as a woman poet. Like proponents of women's education in the late-eighteenth century, Brad-street insists that her intellectual work is not incompatible with domestic duties and child-rearing.

About a century after Bradstreet issued her volume of poetry, Phillis Wheatley became the first African-American to publish a poetic work, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Wheatley's poetry was a distinct assertion of subjectivity at a time when most Anglo-Americans believed that African-Americans had none; there was even a "hearing" shortly after publication to determine if Wheatley was in fact the writer of the poems, since intellectual output from a black woman and a slave at that time was considered scarcely credible. Wheatley's writing, then, began to replace the patriarchal constructions of women—especially African-American women—with their own authentic self-constructions. Wheatley's poetry, however, contributed to political issues other than the subjectivity of women and slaves. "On Being Brought from Africa to America" expresses a spiritual vision that necessitates an equality between the races inimicable to the institution of slavery. And "The Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth" reflects Wheatley's interest in the politics of the pre-Revolutionary ferment. Her poetry represents, albeit somewhat obliquely, the first entry of an African-American woman into the political issues of slavery and British imperialism.

To write about "feminism" in the colonial period is to commit somewhat of an anachronism; and those few historians who have even broached the topic of feminism in early America do so tentatively. The "disorder" of colonial women was not, after all, directed self-consciously against the collective situation of women as women. Anne Hutchinson is probably closest to such an ideal, as she did specifically argue for the right of women to exercise religious freedom and as she drew a crowd of largely female followers. (A contemporary of Hutchinson wrote that "'the weaker sex' set her up as 'a Priest' and 'thronged' after her.")2 But these early rebels and intellectuals laid the groundwork for future feminist action—daring to transgress their allotted place, daring to oppose patriarchal authority within the institutions of the church and the family, and daring to move into masculine literary territories. Colonial women developed, in great adversity, an individuality that they expressed publicly.


  1. Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: Norton, 1987), 116, 213.
  2. Lyle Koehler, "The Case of the American Jezebels: Anne Hutchinson and Female Agitation During the Years of Antinomian Turmoil, 1636-1640," William and Mary Quarterly 31 (1974): 61.

Jane Donawerth (Essay Date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 12, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8853

SOURCE: Donawerth, Jane. “Women’s” Poetry and the Tudor-Stuart System of Gift Exchange.” In Women, Writing, and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain, edited by Mary E. Burke, Jane Donawerth, Linda L. Dove, and Karen Nelson, pp. 3-18. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

In the following essay, Donawerth details how women of Tudor and Stuart times circulated their writings through gift exchanges.

If women were constrained by early modern English culture to be “chaste, silent, and obedient,” and if “silent” extended to writing, how did so many women come to circulate their writings in manuscript or print?1 Drawing on early modern letters and documents, as well as on anthropological theory, I suggest that many women gained authority to write by envisioning their poems as part of the Tudor-Stuart gift-exchange system, which helped to weave the social fabric of court, community, and extended family.

Letters by sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century English women show that women participated in and even managed a precapitalist gift-exchange system that was still a fundamental basis of English social life and economy. Centered on the family but extending across all classes to the family’s political affiliations, the system circulated food, cloth and clothing, jewelry, animals, medicines, cash, prayers, relics, and favors.2 For example, in the 1530s in France, the Lisle letters record exchanges between family members of money, cloth, clothing, and jewelry. In addition, gifts circulated between the Lisle family and the de Riou household, where the girls lived and learned French: the girls requested or the parents sent a “mastiff,” “birds,” “a needlecase,” “a couple of lanners [falcons],” a “horn,” “shoes and hosen,” and “an English greyhound”;3 Mme. de Riou was not paid, for teaching French was also a gift.4 The cover illustration is taken from an accouchement set—bowl and platter—that was designed to be a gift to the mother at a christening after childbirth; it depicts the bustling happy scene of attending on a new baby and mother. The exchanges recorded in the Lisle letters established the “reciprocal dependence” of gift exchange rather than the “reciprocal independence” of barter systems (to use the terms of anthropologist C. A. Gregory). The major purpose of exchanging gifts rather than payments was to establish social bonds.5

In a further exchange in the Lisle letters, Anthoinette de Saveuses, a nun who was cousin to Mme. de Riou, convinced Lady Lisle to offer her husband’s intercession with the French king to restrain Mme. de Riou’s husband from gambling away his wife’s fortune; in gratitude the nun returned prayers, medicine, and a religious relic (Byrne, Lisle Letters [abridged], 121-24 [no. 99]). And in 1537, gifts of quails to the pregnant English queen, Jane Seymour, prompted her to invite one of the Lisles’ daughters to live as a lady-in-waiting at court, giving the daughter an opportunity to make an aristocratic marriage (Lisle Letters, abridged, 205-7 [nos. 176-79]). Personal attention and signs of affection were part of the recognized value of a gift, which, as anthropologists Caroline Humphrey and Stephen Hugh-Jones explain, is a mode of “non-monetary exchange which derive[s] from, and create[s] relationships” (18).

In his classic treatise on gift exchange, Marcel Mauss analyzes the three principles of such a system of nonmarket exchange of goods and services: one must give gifts, one must receive gifts, and one must reciprocate (13, 39-42). A sixteenth-century humanist reader could have read these rules in Seneca’s De Beneficiis (esp. sigs. Air, Aiiir, Bir, Eivv, and Gir-v). We can see the principle of reciprocity at work in Mary Stuart’s 1587 letter to her brother-in-law Henry III of France: facing execution, she asks him to recompense her servants and to pay for masses for her soul, and obligates him with a gift of medicine— “two stones, rare for the health” (Travitsky, ed., Paradise of Women, 206-7). In an elaborate exchange recorded in a letter by Elizabeth More, Lady Wolley, to her father on 16 September 1595, Sir Robert Cecil gave Queen Elizabeth three partridges, and she gave them to Lady Wolley, “wth expresse charge that [she] should send them” to her sick father. But Lady Wolley instead returned them to Cecil at Cecil’s request, writing her father to send thanks to the queen: in this case, the gift had gone through the hands of four people and, in a matter of minutes, returned to the original giver. Such a cycle is not unusual according to Mauss.6 Lady Wolley managed this gift exchange for her family, standing in for her sick father and maintaining her family’s political connections by giving the partridges back to one of Elizabeth’s chief advisors. She follows both the requirement of receiving the gift by having her father pretend to receive the partridges and the principle of required giving by returning the partridges to Cecil. The episode further shows that gifts were not given once and consumed but were circulated, gathering value by the hands they had been through and establishing the bonds of community.7

In 1603, Arbella Stuart, cousin to King James, wrote Mary Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, that she would give the queen “2. paire of silk stockins lined with plush and 2. paire of gloves lined” and the king “a purse” “I am making” for New Year’s presents. The letter demonstrates the English custom of gift giving on New Year’s Day. It further illustrates that the value of a gift was linked to personal concern rather than cash equivalent, for Arbella criticizes the queen, who “neither liked gowne, nor peticoate so well, as somm little bunch of Rubies to hang in hir eare, or somm such dafte toy“—that is, who preferred jewelry to clothing embroidered by the woman who gave it. The letter also suggests that embroidery on New Year’s gifts was done by the women who gave them, even among the aristocracy.8 Many lists of the monarch’s New Year’s gifts are extant, demonstrating “the affirmation of peaceful solidarity and the establishment of rank” (“Beyond the Market,” 70) that Natalie Zemon Davis assigns as the primary cause of early modern gift giving.9 Queen Elizabeth’s New Year’s donors, for example, are listed in hierarchical and gendered order: earls and viscounts; marquesses, duchesses, and countesses; bishops; lords; baronesses; ladies; knights; gentle-women; and (nonknighted) gentlemen.10 Indeed, Mauss argues that holiday gift exchanges are ceremonies of recognition of identity, competitions for esteem (8 and 40). “The ritual exchange of gifts,” maintains Lisa Klein about Elizabeth’s court, “fostered allegiances and affirmed hierarchical relationships” (461).

The New Year’s lists suggest that the gifts themselves were stratified and gendered. To Elizabeth in 1598, all the earls gave gold coins except for the earl of Northumberland, who gave a gown of pink taffeta; many of the marquesses and countesses gave gold, but others gave pendants (of gold, diamonds, and pearls), kirtles, petticoats, handkerchiefs, and “loose gowns”; the bishops all gave gold coins; many lords gave gold, but others gave gowns, pendants, mantles, and jewels; a few baronesses gave gold, but others gave waistcoats, taffeta cloaks, loose gowns, embroidered accessories, and, in one case, a painted wooden gilt stool with “stawberries in silkewoman’s worke”; only two ladies gave gold, and the rest gave bracelets, mantles, ruffs, kirtles, pendants, petty-robes, smocks, cloth, and “attire for the head”; only four knights gave gold, whereas the rest gave kirtles, pendants, and pettyrobes; no gentlewomen gave gold, but instead pendants, bracelets, handkerchiefs, gloves, smocks, ruffs, mantles, lawn (a kind of cloth), and a stool; nonknighted gentlemen gave gilt cups, a lump of silver, gloves, ruffs, ginger and other spices, and a book of arms.

Thus, it was more appropriate for lords and ladies to give gold coins and for gentlefolk to give spices or gloves or kirtles, but it was also more appropriate for men to give coins or gowns and for women to give feminine crafts—embroidered smocks or petticoats, looking glasses, worked combcases, and ruffs.11 Indeed, in the lists of gifts from women, the most frequently recurring phrase is “embroidered all over” (Nichols, Progresses, 2:68). For example, in 1577-78, the current countess of Pembroke, Mary Sidney Herbert, gave the queen “A dublet of lawne embrowdred al ouer with gold, siluer, and sylke of divers collors, and lyned with yelow taphata.” The ability to give gold was a good indication of status in sixteenth-century England: in the same class, women who gave gold usually gave smaller amounts than did their men-folk, and the value of the gold went down as one descended the hierarchy by class, until gentlemen and gentlewomen could not afford it. In the lists I found, only men gave books, and only women gave smocks. But some women did give books, since Elizabeth gave her translation of Marguerite de Navarre’s “The Mirror, or Glass, of the Sinful Soul” as a New Year’s gift to Catherine Parr in 1544-45.12 Gifts were given to the monarch in the morning, and the monarch reciprocated in the afternoon (Fumerton, 219-20 n. 41) by giving silver plate, the Tudor equivalent of savings bonds. As Arthur Marotti points out, New Year’s was also an occasion for giving poems (“Transmission of Lyric Poetry” 22-24).

Thus, women of Tudor and Stuart times participated in this gift-exchange system and often even managed it. In this system, women who were subordinates could garner influence and trade power,13 and despite the hierarchy, class boundaries could be crossed more freely than in the mainly masculine patronage system, where the purpose was to establish loyalty to a faction rather than more general social bonds.14 Unlike market exchanges, this gift-exchange system figured into the value of the gifts the marks of caring, of personal concern, and of previous owners attached to them—Golding’s translation of Seneca’s De Beneficiis calls it the “goodwill” of the giver. As a result, the prayers and needlework of women were as important as cash or jewelled “toyes”; even if money circulated, it was not in itself the standard of value.15 Indeed, the letters recording these exchanges need to be considered part of the gifts. Arbella Stuart, for example, wished the countess of Shrewsbury to refrain from sending letters to others at court, for her letters were “a favour I desire onely may be reserved still for my selfe” (no. 35, 194).

This gift-exchange system also included other writings as gifts. The earliest poem by a woman in English that I know of is enclosed in a Valentine’s Day letter from Margery Brews to John Paston III in 1477: Margery assures her fiancé in doggerel verse

An yf ye commande me to kepe me true
whereever I go,
I wyse I will do all my myght yowe to love
and never no mo.
And yf my freendys say that I do amys, thei
schal no me let so for to do,
Myn hearte me byddys ever more to love yowe.
(Norman Davis, 1:106, no. 76)

As anthropologists argue about gifts in general, this poem as gift obligates the recipient by sending with it part of the donor’s self (Mauss, 12). Because marriage negotiations between father and prospective son-in-law were foundering on the issue of money, this gift may also be a political move by the would-be bride to offer some of herself in order to lower the bridegroom’s demands. Constance Aston Fowler’s early-seventeenth-century commonplace book seems also to be a record of literary gift exchange, housing poems sent her by friends and especially by her brother: “‘Send me some verses,’” she writes in a letter to him, “‘I want some good ones to put in my booke.”’16

Much of English Renaissance poetry by women may fit into this system. Elizabeth Cary notes in her dedicatory poem that The Tragedy of Mariam (1603?)—presumably a manuscript book now lost—was a gift for her sister-in-law Elizabeth, which had been preceded by another play (also now lost) given to her brother-in-law (Tragedy of Mariam, 66). In Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania, Pamphilia gives her poems to her cousin Amphilan-thus before he goes off to battle, a reference to the sonnet sequence “Pamphilia to Amphilanthus“ that closes the 1621 printed Urania and that perhaps was also a dedication and gift by Lady Mary Wroth to William Herbert, who was her lover (Poems, 24-27). In the rest of this essay, then, I read sixteenth-century poems by English-women—Anne Lok, Isabella Whitney, and Mary Sidne—as gifts, asking what difference this context makes.

Anne Vaughan Lok, from the London merchant class, hosted and corresponded with John Knox, and spent several years with her children in exile in Geneva during the reign of Queen Mary.17 Home in 1560, she published a translation, Sermons of John Calvin, Vpon the Songe that Ezechias made after he had bene sicke, with a sonnet sequence meditation on Psalm 51 to fill up the end pages of the book.18 The book is dedicated as a New Year’s gift to Catherine Willoughby Bertie, duchess of Suffolk, who had also been an exile in Geneva: “I wishe your grace continuall health of life and soule for your preseruation, not onely for this newe yeare, but also for the tyme that shall ex-cede all extent of yeares, besechinge you to accepte bothe my worke and prayer” (sigs. A7v- A8r).19 Thus, the first sonnet sequence in English, as Thomas Roche has pointed out, by a woman,20 was also presented as a New Year’s gift to another woman and so was part of the Tudor gift-exchange system.21

Designed to wish good health of body and soul to the duchess for the New Year, the book is presented by Anne Lok as both a prayer and a medicine, gifts regularly exchanged by women as we have seen in their letters. Lok distributes the making of the gift among a spiritual community: “This receipte God the heavenly Physitian hath taught, his most excellent Apothecaire Master John Calvine hath compounded, and I, your grace’s most bounden and humble, have put into an Englishe box and do present unto you” (sig. A3r-v). The book is a cure for the diseased mind, and just as we feel gratitude to a physician for curing our body, we must feel gratitude to God for curing our souls and to Calvin for making the medicine available to us. Anne Lok requires no thanks from the duchess because of the enormous duty she owes her; Calvin takes as recompense, Lok assures us, any Christian’s profit from his medicine; and the duchess is a model of thankfulness to God, expressed through her “profession of his worde” and her “godly conuersation” (sig. A3v). The epistle thus characterizes Lok’s book as a medicine, a prayer, and a gift—“This medicine is in this litle boke brought from the plentifull shop & storehouse of Gods holye testament” (sig. A6r). Lok invokes both the rule that a gift must be returned (the gratitude owed to God and Calvin) and the resulting community—not only God, Calvin, Lok, and the duchess, but also all “trewe beleiuyng Christians” (sig. A4r).22

Extending the medicinal metaphor to the poetry, Lok uses the sonnet sequence as a meditation aimed at restoring spiritual health:

With swete Hysope besprinkle thou my sprite:
Not such hysope, nor so besprinkle me,
As law unperfect shade of perfect lyght
Did vse as an apointed signe to be
Foreshewing figure of thy grace behight.
With death and bloodshed of thine only sonne,
The sweet hysope, cleanse me defyled wyght.
Sprinkle my sould.

The fourteen-line sonnet in iambic pentameter from which I quote is written in plain style. It offers a meditation on verse 7 of Psalm 51, quoted in the poem’s margin as “Sprinkle me, Lorde, with hisope and I shalbe cleane: washe me and I shalbe whiter then snow.” Anne Lok’s psalm meditations were published in the same year as the Geneva Bible and typeset in similar but reversed fashion—biblical verse on the side, commentary in the middle. Indeed, the two works may be linked, although Lok does not quote from the Geneva translation; in the Geneva gloss to Isaiah 38, Hezekiah’s penitential song, which is the text of the sermon by Calvin that Lok translated, the commentators recommend considering these two biblical poems together: “He left this song of his lamentacion and thankesgiuing to all posteritie, as a monument of his owne infirmitie & thankeful heart for Gods benefits, as Dauid did, Psal 51.”23

Throughout her sonnet sequence Lok has heightened the metaphors of sickness of the soul and medicinal cleansing. The hyssop used to treat leprosy represents here the grace that cures sin.24 Anachronistically placing Christ at the center of this psalm, Lok also provides an extremely reformed reading of David’s lament: in the quoted poem she stresses Christ’s mercy over the “law unperfect shade of perfect lyght,” or faith over works fulfilling the law.25 Throughout the sequence she emphasizes the healing powers of faith: translating the Geneva Bible’s “God of my saluacion” as “God of my helth” and praying “my broosed bones . . . / Shall leape for ioy.” Thus, this poem as a gift is also conceived as a medicine, something women in this culture made and exchanged among themselves.

Lok also uses the metaphor of a recipe for herbal medicine to link her own meditation on David’s Psalm 51 to the sermons by Calvin on Isaiah 38 that she translates: Hezekiah’s song, the subject of Calvin’s sermons, ends with a recipe that heals him to show God’s mercy (Isaiah 38:21). Several of Lok’s wordings in her meditative elaboration of David’s psalm recall Hezekiah’s song: her Sonnet 6 (first line), like Isaiah 38:18-19, argues that the Lord needs to save the speaker so that s/he can praise him, telling of his mercy; Lok’s Sonnet 10, like Isaiah 38:13, emphasizes God’s ability to break the speaker’s bones; and Lok’s Sonnet 16, like Isaiah 38:20, sees the singing of songs—by extension, the writing of poems—as an expression of gratitude for God’s salvation. Lok thus places herself among poets who include Hezekiah and David, and she signs her poem with puns on her name—“look,” “lock,” and “bul-lock“ (especially in Sonnet 11).

Dedicated to the duchess of Suffolk, Lok’s book may be seen as a gift with political designs on its audiences, meant to build community, religious and social. The duchess was connected to many reformers in the new religion: Hugh La-timer dedicated a book of sermons to her and served as her chaplain; her sons studied with Martin Bucer at Oxford; and she supported both John Foxe and Miles Coverdale in her household (Hogrefe, Women of Action, 91-102). She was a popularizer of the word, supporting sermons, martyrology, and translations of the Bible and of continental reform treatises. At New Year’s in 1560, she must have just returned from Geneva, and January 1 was also the anniversary of her exile from England in 1555 (Hogrefe, Women of Action, 86-103). As a gift to the duchess of Suffolk, Lok’s book would further bind the duchess into the English Protestant community and would obligate her to help build the New Jerusalem.

Especially in the final four sonnets, Lok’s meditations on David’s psalm restate a principle of the reformed community: faith not works. Sonnet 18 suggests that a Christian must not count on an exchange of “cattel slayne and burnt . . . / On altars broylde” (5-8) but must instead rely on “thy swete sonne alone” (9), God’s gift of grace. In return for God’s gift (“The praise of that I yeld for sacrifice” [14]), one gives one’s self, one’s prayers, even a poem, all of which are more appropriate than going to mass. The true gift that God requires of his people is a “trobled sprite,” a “broken and an humbled hart” (Sonnet 19, margin and 3-4, 11-12, and 14). In Sonnet 20 Lok suggests that, having given a gift, the speaker can then ask God to reciprocate with his grace for the New Jerusalem—“Defend thy chirch” (9). In Sonnet 21, I thus read “in thy walled towne” as London: reformed Christians in this new London under Elizabeth will offer God a new gift—“Many a yelden host of humbled hart” (6). Quoting from scripture in the margin of Sonnet 21, Lok lays her own name among the “bul-lockes” as a gift for God on the altar of her heart, asking other English Christians to do the same.

Isabella Whitney, a London poet of the gentry working class who left service because of illness, similarly uses the metaphor of herbal medicine to describe her poetry as gift. A Sweet Nosgay of pleasant posye (1573),26 Whitney’s second collection of poems, self-consciously employs gift exchange as a structural metaphor for a life well lived and well ended.27 Echoing the diversity of popular miscellanies, the text organizes prose, verse, moral maxims or “flowers,” a collection of verse letters to family members, and the “Auctors Testament” or will around the theme of the author’s life-threatening illness. Demonstrating how to live and leave the good life through the unifying conceit of the exchange of gifts, these writings transform deathbed advice from sad to joyous. In her dedication to George Mainwaring, Whitney puts her writings in the context of gift exchange. Her poems are flowers, picked from Plat (a pun on the name of the author she used as source for her proverbs), made into a nosegay to prevent pestilence, and given to her friend as recompense for past benefits. “The Auctor to the Reader” figures the reader as recipient, too: “the Flowers are good, / Which I on thee bestow” (sig. A8r).

Whitney begins and ends this section of maxims in Nosgay by presenting her poems as herbal medicine, the kind of gift frequently made and exchanged by women. In “The Auctor to the Reader,” the speaker advises,

But in a bundle as they bee,
(good reader them accept:)
It is the gever: not the guift,
thou oughtest to respect,
And for thy health, not for thy eye,
did I this Posye frame:
Because my selfe dyd safety finde,
by smelling to the same.
(sigs. A5-A6)

“Smelling” refers to the bouquets of herbs that Londoners smelled to ward off plague and other airborne diseases. This section concludes with “a soueraigne receypt”: using the “Iuce of all these Flowers,” the poet explains, make a “conserue” to “preserue” your health (sig. C5r). Whitney’s poems are thus a series of intertwined secular moral maxims—such sentences were often called “flowers”—put together for the moral health of her readers. As gifts, they are meant to create a bond of “respect” to the donor. Hovering behind these moral maxims drawn from the ancients are the many forms of Christian charity, here recast as obligations in the gift-exchange cycle. Advocating friendship, charity, and “the contented mind,” and discouraging the dis-eases of love, Whitney’s versified maxims also sketch the virtues expected of those involved in gift exchange: the requirement to give (no. 6, sig. B2v), especially to friends (no. 58, sig. B7v), the contented mind that doesn’t “gape” after gifts (no. 81, sig. C2r), charity to neighbors (no. 97, sig. C3v), and the capacity to reward those who ask least (no. 99, sig. C4r).

Whitney extends this metaphor into the epistles to her siblings that are gathered after the “Nosgay.” In “To Her Sister Misteris A. B.,” for example, she reciprocates a gift already given from her sister: if she didn’t write, her older sister might think she had “vainely . . . bestowed expence” on the younger. We see again the linking of family and binding of community through reciprocal exchange of letters and gifts: “for nature dyd you bynde: / To doo mee good: and to requight, / hath nature mee inclynde” (sigs. D1r-D2r). As her epistle to her two younger sisters shows, as well as later letters in the sequence from family members consoling her during her illness, moral advice counts as a gift, as well as material goods. The section of letters to the speaker’s family thus defines charity as the family’s provision of spiritual and material support; it depicts the family as an institution for facilitating gift exchange even when its members are separated from each other.

The benefit of family is linked to the ars moriendi theme of the next section in Whitney’s sequence. The letters from and to family in this section constitute a conversation about the poet’s ill health, her desire to die, and the proper attitude of a Christian humanist toward suffering—all within a supporting network of extended family. The letters are an enactment of an exchange of love expressed as advice, but this very human exchange of gifts is not enough. This section adds the divine—the speaker praying for God’s gift of patience: “Wherfore (my God) geue me that gyfte, / As bedyd IOB vntyll: / That I may take with quietnesse, / What soeuer is his wyll” (sig. D6r).

The fictional “I” of this set of poems does not recover but ends her sequence with her last will and testament, her last act in a joyous cycle of gift exchange that affirms her life and the leaving of it. In this last section, the speaker leaves to Londoners all the gifts of the streets of London.28 Much like the New Year gift lists, Whitney’s poem details the wealth that circulates in the gift-exchange cycle: “Linnen,” “silke,” “Juels,” “Plate,” “Siluer,” “Golde,” “Hoods, Bungraces [‘bongrace,’ veil or hat to protect from the sun], Hats or Caps,” “French Ruffes,” “Lawne,” and “Purse or kniues . . . combe or Glasse” (sig. E4r). Her death is not an ending because the abundance of gifts that constitute material life on earth continues—the giving and enjoyment go on without her. She uses her goods and moves on, leaving those goods to others—with joy.

Whitney’s sequence of prose and verse writings is thus a joyful ars moriendi: the gift cycle works effectively as a symbol of preparing for death—through nourishing moral health and education, through establishing a community of kin and friends to support oneself in despair, through acknowledging the joy of the life one leaves to others—because the gift represents not only the humanist Christian’s solace (God who freely gave his son), but also the thingness, the joyful materiality, of life.

Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke, was a patron and poet, sister to the poets Sir Philip Sidney and Robert Sidney, whose mother had been lady-in-waiting and advisor to Queen Elizabeth.29 The manuscript book of the Sidney translation of the Psalms includes Mary Sidney’s dedicatory poem to Elizabeth (1599), “Even now that Care,” in which she uses not the metaphor of herbal medicine, but the metaphor of cloth to describe the gift (24) that she and her brother have made:

but hee did warpe, I weau’d this webb to end;
the stuffe not ours, our worke no curious thing,

And I the Cloth in both our names present,
A liuerie robe to bee bestowed by thee.


As editors have shown, Sir Philip Sidney translated the first 43 psalms, but the countess translated the remaining 106 and revised her brother’s work (Psalms, xi and xxv-xxvi). Mary Sidney presents his beginning and her ending the project as warp and woof of a piece of cloth, which they have made into a “liuerie robe” that Elizabeth may bestow on another: the poetry is like a piece of cloth in the gift-exchange system. But the poet also imagines the psalms as wearing this English translation as a livery. As in traditional gift-exchange cycles, the recipient has already given what is returned: Mary and Philip return to Elizabeth the English language that she already owns.

In this dedicatory poem Mary Sidney changes the tenor of the metaphor of cloth yet a third time, presenting David’s prayers in the psalms as “holy garments” that “all sort to none but thee” (63-64)—clothing once worn by King David, put on in meditative exercises by every Christian, but fitting exactly only a similar holy monarch and poet, Queen Elizabeth. Mary Sidney also offers her translation of the psalms as a gift personally fitted to Elizabeth, and the personal concern is presented as part of that gift. As often happens in the gift-exchange system, then, this gift also represents an obligation: that Queen Elizabeth be like David, the king who originally wore these clothes, the king whom Protestants used to figure a militant Protestant intervention in European affairs.30 The poem to Queen Elizabeth by Mary Sidney after her brother’s death, like many of her brother’s works before his death, thus attempts to garner influence over the queen’s religious policies. Here the gift becomes explicitly political. As Margaret Hannay points out, “by reminding the Queen of Philip’s death in the first half of the dedication, Mary Sidney was continuing the family tradition of seeking to influence Elizabeth toward a more radical Protestant stance. By comparing her to the Psalmist in the second half of the dedication, she was continuing the tradition of admonitory flattery, which was a standard element in the dedication of Scripture to sovereigns in both England and France” (Philip’s Phoenix, 91). In the end, according to this poem, servant and monarch give each other the best gifts when they simply act the roles God gave them: the poet must “Sing what God doth,” and the monarch must “doo What men may sing” (95).

Many women writers offered their poetry as a gift within the gift-exchange system. Seeing poetry as part of this system in which they had operated all their lives must have made it easier for them to write and to publish. Poetry, like herbal medicines and needlework, was a gift made by women in the household to give to family and friends, and to be judged not only by the cash value or craftsmanship but also by the affectionate care intended. As Klein suggests, such gifts show “women as active participants in cultural exchange, using their material objects to forge alliances” (462). As a gift, however, poetry still might be a means to establish a larger political support community and even to influence political decisions. Also, like many gifts, once given, it could be given again.

In an essay that includes a pun in French, “Des marchandise entre elles“—the merchandise among themselves, among her selves—Luce Irigaray asks,

But what if the “goods” refused to go to market? What if they maintained among themselves “another” kind of trade? Exchange without identifiable terms of trade, without accounts, without end. . . . Where use and exchange would mingle. . . . Utopia? Perhaps. Unless this mode of exchange has always undermined the order of trade and simply has not been recognized . . . [and we have been] forbidden a certain economy of abundance.


In the Tudor-Stuart gift-exchange system, was it possible for the goods to get together among themselves—for women who were legally proper-tyless, who were sometimes themselves counted as merchandise—to circulate gifts? Certainly, in this system women could own and give many things: the nun’s prayers, medicines, and relics mentioned in the Lisle Letters; the black velvet dress passed to Mary Sidney from her mother; recipes, medicines, spices, and embroidered “work”from women’s hands on dresses, petticoats, and purses; and poems. The poems I have discussed were written by women and given to other women. Poems, especially, may circulate in an “economy of abundance,” for they do not require much in the way of raw materials, and because given, they still are not spent.


1. Many scholars have analyzed the early modern English ideal of the “chaste, silent, and obedient” woman: see Pearl Hogrefe, Tudor Women, 3-9; Suzanne W. Hull, Chaste, Silent, and Obedient; Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters, 103-40; Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy, 149-91; Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories”; and Margaret W. Ferguson, “A Room Not Their Own.” On women’s publication despite the cultural prescription to be silent, see Margaret Hannay, introduction to Silent But for the Word, 1-14; Margaret Ezell, Patriarch’s Wife, 62-100; Elaine Hobby, Virtue of Necessity, 1-23; Ann Rosalind Jones, Currency of Eros, 11-35; Mary Ellen Lamb, Gender and Authorship, 3-19; Betty Travitsky, introduction to Renaissance Englishwoman in Print, 19-20, 25-28; Wendy Wall, “Isabella Whitney”; and Tina Krontiris, Oppositional Voices, 1-23.

2. See Davis, “Beyond the Market,” 69-88, who emphasizes the communal interchange; and Lisa Klein, “You Humble Handmaid,” 459-93, who emphasizes the power and class politics of gift exchange. See also, Ronald Sharp, “Gift Exchange,” 250-53; and Mark Burnett, “Giving and Receiving,” 288-89, and 299-301.

3. See Lisle Letters (abridged) edited by Muriel St. Clare Byrne, 113 (no. 84), 115 (no. 88), 119 (no. 96), and 120 (no. 97).

4. See Fumerton, 36-43, who suggests that children, too, were circulated in the Tudor-Stuart gift-exchange system.

5. Gregory, 42. See also introduction to Humphrey and Hugh-Jones, 12. For the quotations from Marcel Mauss’s classic treatise, see 5, 59, and 80. On gift exchange, see also, Pierre Bourdieu, “Selections from The Logic of Practice,” 190-230, and “Marginalia,” 231-41, in Schrift.

6. Elizabeth More, Lady Wolley, no. 130 in Kempe, 317-18. Elizabeth McCutcheon pointed out these letters at a 1990 conference; for a summary of her workshop, see Travitsky and Seeff, 103-5. Mauss discusses circular gift exchange or returning to the giver, 30.

7. In the Shakespeare Birthday Lecture at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1993, Peter Stallybrass discussed the “magic” of cloth and clothing that had been circulated as gifts in Elizabethan England as appropriated for theatrical performance.

8. Letter no. 35, to Mary Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury, in Stuart, edited Sara Jayne Steen, 194-95. I learned of this letter at a 1990 conference; for a summary of Sara Jayne Steen’s workshop, see Travitsky and Seeff, 103-5.

9. My thanks to Karen Robertson for the references to the lists of New Year’s gifts. Her responses to my paper on gift exchange at the Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance Conference at Villanova University, 1 October 1993, as well as those by Carole Levin, Margaret Jaster, and Lori Newcomb, have helped me greatly. I have looked at the following New Year’s gift rolls: the 1556 list of gifts to Mary, in Nichols, Illustrations, no page numbering; the lists of gifts to Elizabeth I in John Nichols, Progresses, in vol. 1: 1561/2, 1571/2, 1572/3, 1573/4 (and the 1574 list of gifts from Elizabeth’s progress); and in vol. 2: 1576/7, 1577/8, 1578/9, 1588/9, and 1599/1600. I have also looked at two gift rolls in vellum manuscript (my thanks to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.): Great Britain, Sovereigns (Elizabeth), Lists of New Year Gifts, 1584/5 and Great Britain, Sovereigns, Elizabeth, List of New Year Gifts, 1598-99. For lists of other extant New Year’s rolls, see A. Jefferies Collins, 247-53.

10. Based on the Folger manuscript lists under Great Britain, Sovereigns. In the Folger manuscript for 1584/5, listing Elizabeth’s gifts, there are no members of the royal family, twenty-one earls and viscounts, eighteen marquesses and countesses, eighteen bishops, fourteen lords, twenty baronesses, nineteen ladies, fifteen knights, thirty-four gentlewomen, and thirty-four nonknighted gentlemen. In several of the lists recorded by Nichols, gifts from members of the immediate royal family precede all others; in the list in Nichols’s Illustrations of Mary’s New Year’s gifts, bishops preceded all but earls and viscounts—perhaps a difference in Mary’s and Elizabeth’s placing of the church in the hierarchy.

11. In the list of gifts given to Mary in 1556, all the earls and viscounts gave gold coins, except for one, who gave a gilt cup; all the bishops gave gold coins (smaller amounts), except for one, who gave “Christophersen, a book written, couered with crymson vellat”; many of the duchesses, marquesses, and countesses gave gold coins, but others gave “a cushen-cloth, frenged and tasselled with golde,” gilt salt and pepper sets, and “a smoke [smock], wrought all ou’ with silke, and color [collar] and ruffes of damaske golde, purle, and siluer”; the viscountesses gave gold coins and handkerchiefs; most of the lords gave gold coins, but one gave crystal cruets and another embroidered handkerchiefs; many of the ladies gave gold coins, and the rest gave clothing, embroidered works, toiletries, and condiments—smocks, gloves, handkerchiefs, ruffs, waistcoats, cushion-cloths, a sacrament cloth, purses, combcases, “a faire christall glase [mirror],” and figs, orange water, and sugar loaves; most of the knights gave gold coins, and others gave a spice box, handkerchiefs, waistcoats, hose, a lute, a map of England, “a booke of Spanish, couered with blake vellat,” and “a prymer, couerid with purple vellat”; the chaplains gave gold coins or religious items—a psalter, a book of prayers, a “table” embroidered with the passion; a few gentlewomen gave gold coins, but others gave part-lets, ruffs, kerchiefs, smocks, silk bags, handkerchiefs, gloves, combcases, a picture of the Trinity, a gilt holy water sprinkler, a walnut stool, gilt spoons, turkey hens, geese, capons, swans, oranges, lemons, and pip-pins; some of the nonknighted gentlemen gave coins, while others gave cushions, handkerchiefs, fans, pots of conserves, oxen, cups, pomegranates, a cloak, a crossbow, rosewater, sugar loaves, ginger, nutmeg, a painting of “the Maundy,” “a book in Laten, entitelid ‘Vita Christ,’” “an Exhortacion to younge men,” and a book in French (Nichols, Illustrations, no page numbering).

12. On Elizabeth’s translation of Marguerite de Navarre’s “The Mirror or Glass of a Sinful Soul” for Catherine Parr as a New Year’s gift, see Travitsky, Paradise of Women, 76-77; and Lisa Klein, 476-81. On women giving books as gifts, see also Georgianna Ziegler’s essay in this volume, “‘More Than Feminine Boldness’: the Gift Books of Esther Inglis.”

13. See Barbara Harris, “Women and Politics,” esp. 260 and 268, on the conflation of private and public in women’s political actions; 265-67, on gift exchange; and 271 and 275 on New Year’s gifts.

14. I am following the anthropologists in distinguishing between gift exchange, with its goal of unified community, and patronage, with its goal of political faction. See S. N. Eisenstadt and Louis Roniger, “Patron-Client Relations,” 42-77, who argue that patronage differs from gift exchange in three ways—patronage is voluntary not obligatory, it is always hierarchical, and it establishes solidarity around the faction of the patron rather than solidarity with the more general society or community. See also Lewis Hyde on the differences between “commodity exchange” and gift exchange, Gift, 4. Frequently historians and literary critics of the early modern period do not distinguish between these different uses of gifts: see, for example, Robert Evans, Ben Jonson, 23-30, who subsumes all these relationships under the category of patriarchal, hierarchical patronage; or Krontiris, Oppositional Voices, 14, who writes, “Like the position of the courtier, that of the lady-in-waiting was part of the larger system of patronage, which was based on an exchange of favours.” Clearly, gift exchange and patronage overlap, but it is useful in my essay to start with the distinction inasmuch as all women participated in gift exchange, but fewer women than men participated in the patronage systems in Tudor and Stuart Britain.

15. In gift exchange, money may be circulated but cannot be the standard to determine value of other gifts (Strathern, 175). See Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Gifts,” in Schrift, 26, on the value of a gift as resulting from giving part of oneself.

16. On Constance Fowler, see Ezell, The Patriarch’s Wife, 72.

17. See Patrick Collinson, “The Role of Women,” 258-72; my thanks to Virginia Beauchamp for remembering this essay from reading it fifteen years earlier! My thanks, too, to Carole Levin, for pointing out to me the letters by John Knox “To His Loving Sister, Mistres Anne Locke”: see The Works of John Knox, Vol. 4, no. xxxii and xxxiii, 237-41.

18. The endpages containing the sonnet sequence are not paginated the way the other pages are. My thanks to Linda Dove, who introduced me to Anne Lok by bringing me a reference to Thomas Roche, Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences, 155. Because we have continued our discoveries about Anne Lok in conversation with each other, I will never properly sort out my great debt to her reading of Lok’s poems, especially to her unpublished essay, “Anne Lok’s ‘poore basket of stones’: Building a Reformed Church in Tudor England.” On the question of the authorship of Lok’s sonnets, see Hannay, “‘Wisdome the Wordes,’” 79, n. 4; and Susan Felch.

19. See Collinson, 265; on the duchess of Suffolk, see Hogrefe, Women of Action, 86-103.

20. Roche, 155. As Davis notes, “printed books could be part of systems of gift and obligation in the sixteenth century, passing beyond the transactions of buying and selling (“Beyond the Market,” 69); and “the world of gifts expanded as an alternative to the market and market values. . . . Books were dedicated or given for broad social purposes that went beyond strict reciprocity” (87).

21. In contrast, the second translation with accompanying poetry published by Anne Lok (now Anne Vaughan Lok Dering Prowse), Of the Markes of the Children of God, a sermon translated from Jean Taffin, seems much more in line with anthropologists’ definitions of patronage systems than with the gift-exchange system. Prowse dedicates the work to the countess of Warwick, “a professour, but also a louer of the treueth” (sig. A3v), apparently aiming to build a radical Protestant faction around the Sidney family and former Marian exiles, addressing an audience of English Protestants (sig. A3r-v).

22. According to Lok’s preface, however, this true-believing community cannot include papists (sig. A3v), because they provide poisonous medicine, “the pangs wherof when the deceiued sick man feleth, he to late spieth the falshod of the murtherous phuysician” (sig. A4r).

23. Thus Lok links herself as a poet to these two great biblical models, Hezekiah and David. Linda Dove first noticed this connection between these songs in the Geneva Bible.

24. See Hannay, “‘Wisdome the Wordes,’” 65-82, esp. 72 on hyssop as treatment for leprosy. Hannay argues that Lok interprets negatively, as painful, in her translation of Psalm 51, the process of grace that the countess of Pembroke interprets positively, as gift, in her translation. I would suggest, instead, that Lok interprets as comfort the necessary, healing pain, whereas Sidney interprets as comforting God’s erasure of pain—neither pictures a God who delights in punishment. See also Susanne Woods’s more optimistic reading of Lok’s poetry in “The Body Penitent,” 137-40.

25. Contrast the verse translation by Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, of part of Psalm 51, “L’ire de Dieu par le sang ne s’appaise,” which stresses works, in Travitsky, 260, and 200-201.

26. All quotations are from Isabella Whitney, A Sweet Nosgay (1573) from Floures of Philosophie (1572) by Hugh Plat and a Sweet Nosgay (1573) . . . by Isabella Whitney. On the few facts and speculations available on Whitney’s life, see Travitsky, Paradise of Women, 117-18, and Jones, Currency of Eros, 37. My fellow editors tell me that the giving of “spiritual bouquets” is still practiced. Mary Burke’s mother made them for her mother as a child, and Karen Nelson received one from the Phillipines as a wedding gift in 1990.

27. In Currency of Eros Jones suggests that Nosgay centers on the moral maxims, the epistles illustrating the Senecan themes of the maxims (37-43). In “Writing Public Poetry,” 252-53, and 256-57, Elaine Beilin views Whitney as humanist who adapts the classical genre of the epistle to the purpose of social satire. In “Isabella Whitney and the Female Legacy” (35-58) Wall reads Nosgay in the tradition of the female legacy or mother’s advice manual, and argues strongly that we must read all the writings together as a patterned whole; Wall also briefly places Whitney’s work in the context of gift exchange: “By including letters sent between family members and friends and by referring to the text’s place in a gift/patronage cycle, Whitney sets up a textual exchange system within the work” (47). See also Wendy Wall, Imprint of Gender, 297-98.

28. “When she carefully details the streets of London,” argues Wendy Wall, “describing the teeming activity and bounty they offer, Whitney casts this world as the object of her own generous bequeathing. She thus creates a myth of ownership to which she asks her reader to bear witness.” (“Isabella Whitney,” 50); see also Wall, Imprint, 301. I would argue, instead, that Whitney is creating a myth of community, where since gifts circulate abundantly, individual ownership is transient and unimportant.

29. On Mary Sidney’s life, see Hogrefe, Women of Action, 105-27; Gary F. Waller, Mary Sidney; and Hannay, Philip’s Phoenix.

30. On the Protestant politics of the Sidney Psalm translations, see Waller, “‘This Matching,’” 22-31; Hannay, “‘This Moses,’” 217-26, and “‘Princes you as men must dy,’” 22-41.

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_____. “‘This Moses and This Miriam’: The Countess of Pembroke’s Role in the Legend of Sir Philip Sidney.” In Sir Philip Sidney’s Achievements, edited by M. J. B. Allen, Dominic Baker-Smith, and Arthur F. Kinney, with Margaret M. Sullivan, 217-26. New York: AMS, 1990.

_____. “‘When riches growes’: Class Perspective in Pembroke’s Psalms.” Sidney Newsletter 13 (1994-95): 9-19.

_____. “‘Wisdome the Wordes’: Psalm Translation and Elizabethan Women’s Spirituality.” Religion and Literature 23, no. 3 (1991): 65-82.

Harris, Barbara J. “Women and Politics in Early Tudor England.” Historical Journal 33, no. 2 (1990): 259-82.

Hobby, Elaine. “‘Discourse so unsavoury’: Women’s Published Writings in the 1650s.” In Women, Writing, History 1640-1740, edited by Isobel Grundy and Susan Wiseman, 16-32. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1992.

_____. Virtue of Necessity: English Women’s Writing 1649-1688. London: Virago, 1988.

Hogrefe, Pearl. Tudor Women: Commoners and Queens. Ames: Iowa State Univ. Press, 1975.

_____. Women of Action in Tudor England. Ames: Iowa State Univ. Press, 1977.

Hull, Suzanne W. Chaste, Silent, and Obedient: English Books for Women 1475-1640. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1982.

Humphrey, Caroline, and Stephen Hugh-Jones, eds. Barter, Exchange and Value: An Anthropological Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992.

Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1983.

Jones, Ann Rosalind. The Currency of Eros: Women’s Love Lyric in Europe, 1540-1620. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990.

Kempe, Alfred John, ed. The Loseley Manuscripts. London: John Murray, 1836.

Klein, Lisa M. “Your Humble Handmaid: Elizabethan Gifts of Needlework.” Renaissance Quarterly 50 (1997): 459-93.

Knox, John. First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Geneva, 1558.

———. “To His Loving Sister, Mistres Anne Locke.” In The Works of John Knox. Vol. 4, edited by David Laing, 237-41. Edinburgh: James Thin, 1895.

_____. The Works of John Knox, edited by David Laing. 6 vols. Edinburgh: James Thin, 1895.

Krontiris, Tina. Oppositional Voices: Women as Writers and Translators of Literature in the English Renaissance. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Lamb, Mary Ellen. “The Agency of the Split Subject: Lady Anne Clifford and the Uses of Agency.” English Literary Renaissance 22, no. 3 (1992): 347-68.

_____. Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Nichols, John. Illustrations of the Manners and Expences of Antient Times in England, in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, Deduced from the Accompts of Churchwardens, and Other Authentic Documents. London, 1797.

_____. The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth. 3 vols. London, 1823.

Roche, Thomas P. Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences. New York: AMS, 1989.

Schrift, Alan D., ed. The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Sharp, Ronald A. “Gift Exchange and the Economics of Spirit in The Merchant of Venice.Modern Philology 83, no. 3 (1986): 250-65.

Stallybrass, Peter. “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed.” In Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, edited by Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers, 123-42. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986.

Stuart, Arbella. The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart, edited by Sara Jayne Steen. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994.

Travitsky, Betty S. “Placing Women in the English Renaissance.” Introduction to The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, edited by Betty S. Travitsky and Anne M. Haselkorn, 3-41. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

_____, ed. The Paradise of Women: Writings of Englishwomen of the Renaissance. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981. Reprinted New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989.

Travitsky, Betty S., and Anne M. Haselkorn, eds. The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Travitsky, Betty S., and Adele F. Seeff, eds. Attending to Women in Early Modern England. Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1994.

Wall, Wendy. The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993.

_____. “Isabella Whitney and the Female Legacy.” ELH: English Literary History 58, no. 1 (1991): 35-62.

Waller, Gary F. Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke: A Critical Study of Her Writings and Literary Milieu. Salzburg Studies in English Literature: English and Renaissance Studies, no. 87. Salzburg: Institute for English and American Studies, Univ. of Salzburg, 1979.

_____. “‘This Matching of Contraries’: Calvinism and Courtly Philosophy in the Sidney Psalms.” English Studies 55 (1974): 22-31.

Whitney, Isabella. The Copy of a Letter, Lately Written in Meeter, by a yonge Gentilwoman: to her unconstant Louer. With an Admonition to al yong Gentilwomen, and to all other Mayds in general to beware of mennes flattery. London, 1567.

_____. The Floures of Philosphie (1572) by Hugh Plat and a Sweet Nosgay (1573) and The Copy of a Letter (1567) by Isabella Whitney. Introduction by Richard J. Panofsky. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimilies and Reprints, 1982.

_____. A sweet Nosgay, or pleasant posye, contayning a hundred and ten Phylosophicall Flowers. London, 1573.

Woods, Susanne. “Aemilia Lanyer and Ben Jonson: Patronage, Authority, and Gender.” Ben Jonson Journal 1 (1994): 15-30.

_____. “The Body Pentitent: A 1560 Calvinist Sonnet Sequence.” ANQ: American Notes and Queries 5, nos. 2-3 (1992): 137-40.

Ziegler, Georgianna. “Hand-Ma[i]de Books: The Manuscripts of Esther Inglis, Early-Modern Precursors of the Artists’ Book.” English Manuscript Studies (forthcoming).

Eve Rachele Sanders And Margaret W. Ferguson (Essay Date January 2002)

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SOURCE: Sanders, Eve Rachele and Margaret W. Ferguson. "Literacies in Early Modern England." Critical Survey 14, no. 1 (January 2002): 1-8.

In the following essay, Sanders and Ferguson discuss the wide range of levels of literacy that existed in sixteenth-century England.

Literacy, in the sixteenth century, was construed as multiple, variable, subject to redefinition by edict from above and by practices from below. The importance of regulating changes in skills and behaviors, in particular, increased reading of the Bible, was hotly debated as the Reformation got underway. In England, the Tudor state intervened erratically, first encouraging the reading of the English Bible for all, then forbidding its reading to all but a privileged few. In 1538, every parish church was required by a royal injunction to purchase an English Bible and place it in the choir.1 The Great Bible, published in 1540 with a new preface by the Archbishop of Canterbury, stressed the ideal of an England peopled by 'all manner' of readers of Scripture in the vernacular: 'Here may all manner of persons, men, women, young, old, learned, unlearned, rich, poor, priests, laymen, lords, ladies, officers, tenants, and mean men, virgins, wives, widows, lawyers, merchants, artificers, husbandmen, and all manner of persons, of what estate or condition soever they be, may in this book learn all things'.2 Only three years later, however, in 1543, the self-vauntingly named Act for the Advancement of True Religion and for the Abolishment of the Contrary attempted to undo that opening of the floodgates by lowering them again to allow for only a trickle of elite readers to have access to Scripture. Reading the Bible in English was prohibited outright for women, artificers, journeymen, serving-men of the rank of yeoman and under, husbandmen and laborers; noblewomen and gentlewomen could read the Bible silently; only noblemen, gentlemen, and merchants were permitted to read it aloud to others.3

The contradictions of that early effort to police reading and writing, the contentitiousness of it signaled by backtracking on earlier initiatives, provide a window onto the topic of this special issue of Critical Survey and its theme of literacies in early modern England. The interjecting of social categories into the debate over scriptural literacy indicates the breadth and complexity of concerns stimulated by greater access to books by a greater portion of the population. In the emerging brave new world of cheap print and increasingly widespread skills in decoding vernacular texts, who would be allowed to read what? And to whom? How would various social rubrics—sex, marital status, age, occupation, wealth and class—determine who would have entry to institutions in which books were read in more or less formally determined ways? The list of no less than twenty-two different categories of potential Bible readers (men and women, young and old, learned and unlearned, etc.) invoked by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer illustrates by its exhaustiveness the mixed and uneven nature of the skills and approaches that reading designated at that time. In the hands of 'priests' or 'lawyers', in those of 'tenants and mean persons', or of 'virgins, wives, and widows', the Bible—or any other book—would have been read with different levels of fluidity, different accents, different purposes, assumptions, pleasures.

This volume presents a collaborative effort to investigate the implications of literacies (in the plural) for early modern culture. We speak here of 'literacies' because the phenomenon under scrutiny in these essays resists reduction to the kind of mono-lingual three R's (two R's if numeracy is excluded) often taken for granted today as a quantifiable standard for use in economic development programs, a standard for measuring uniform 'basic skills'. In early modern England, as the work of a growing number of scholars has shown, acquiring the ability to decipher, sound, and reproduce the letter of the emergent, not-yet-standardized national language was far more variegated, both in its procedures and in its results, than previously understood or acknowledged. Reading and writing took place in two stages, the second of which never arrived for the majority of young learners, those who would have had to abandon schooling for economic or ideological reasons about when they turned seven, the approximate age at which instruction in writing and the rudiments of Latin grammar began for the privileged rest (poorer children were expected to dedicate their labor to their families at that age; girls of all classes faced the additional hurdle of prescriptions discouraging female writing).4

Different type fonts and forms of script shaped different experiences of literacy. Letters learned by beginners were printed in Gothic type. Roman type, for them, was near-unreadable code. So, too, were various forms of handwriting, including the most common, italic and secretary, scripts more advanced writers alternated between or combined into a 'mixed hand'.5 Factors such as these—varieties of script forms and type fonts, kinds of language instruction ranging from English-only to classical Latin and Greek, variable access to kinds of books and tiers of educational institutions—all helped the emergence of multiple literacies in this period: reading-only literacy, scribal-literacy, English-only literacy, vernacular foreign-language literacy, Latin-literacy, scriptural literacy, heraldic literacy, legal literacy, etc. Moreover, the relatively standardized English of the printing press, which helped serve the Protestant nationalist agenda of the Tudor state, still had to vie with rival languages, Irish and Welsh, and with its own regional variants. To illustrate that point, the printer William Caxton recounted the story of an English merchant who was rebuffed when he found himself in a different region of England and tried to purchase 'eggys' from a local household.6 The word meant nothing to the farmwife who answered the merchant by saying she didn't speak French (in her dialect the word was 'eyren'). As this anecdote conveys, a transaction as simple as the purchase of eggs between residents of different English shires could be frustrated by lack of a common vocabulary. English itself was multiple, a designation for a host of regional dialects that emerged as a national language only gradually through concerted efforts at standardization, uniform curricula, state supervision. Moreover, as Cranmer's crisscrossing categories—sex, marital status, age, occupation, wealth and class—of potential Bible readers indicates, the varied literacies of different social groups applied in overlapping ways to the same individuals. Early moderns found themselves at the interstices of competing languages, symbolic systems for writing and deciphering them, social, institutional and professional settings requiring particularized textual and linguistic competencies.

The work of our colleagues and our work in this area contributes to a still-forming field. Literacy studies, along with the related fields of the history of reading and the history of the book, center on a set of connected topics: acquisition of reading and writing, variable practices of those skills, books and documents as material artifacts. This domain is capacious enough to accommodate the work of scholars in many disciplines, both in the social sciences and in the humanities, and to foster as well an unusual degree of information sharing and collaboration between disciplines. From our particular vantage points within that larger field, literacy studies matter outside of the contribution they make to our knowledge about reading and writing as central cultural practices in the history of much of the world (nearly all of it if we include post-Colonial history). From where we stand, from our positions as teachers in departments of English, we believe that literacy studies matter also because of the new perspectives they bring to our understanding of familiar subjects (writers, readers) and objects (books, manuscripts) of literary studies. Materials and approaches made available through literacy studies are enabling crucial reconceptualizations of received literary tradition. As a growing body of research shows, works that literary scholars have always studied—poems, plays, prose romances, sermons, letters, diaries—take on new dimensions and meanings in the context of broader changes in language and society that shaped the writing, acquisition, circulation, and reading of such texts.

This questioning of literature via literacy has sparked disagreements and debate; it has also furthered among a number of scholars a consensus about several points. First, 'literacy' is in need of redefinition. The term requires updated explanation if it is to refer usefully to the specific configuration of practical skills, in potentially multiple languages, differentially valued, that reading and writing present in a given society. Second, literacy, if we use the singular to denote the phenomenon in a general sense, was in the early modern period a domain of social contest. Most of the population of Europe between the fourth and the eighteenth centuries was unable to read or write in any language; literacy conveyed status in sixteenth and early seventeenth-century England precisely because the majority lacked advanced instruction (schooling beyond the elementary level) at a time when ordinary dealings increasingly required it (selling livestock, answering legal charges, participating in local government, etc.).7 Finally, for all of the disparities it helped to consolidate, particularly with respect to those who lacked writing, literacy was also a source of unanticipated agency for readers. The market for books, partly responsive to the purchasing preferences of readers, gave book buyers some influence over titles and content; moreover, the uses to which readers put what they read were unpredictable, often contrary to expectations, implicit or explicit, on the part of authors or censors.

The essays in this volume present a diversity of perspectives on early modern literacies. Together, they illustrate the work of redefining literacy currently ongoing in the field. Mary Ellen Lamb's analysis of the play The Old Wives Tale challenges the notion that literacy and its social distribution can be understood in binary terms: literacy versus illiteracy, men versus women. She argues that that representation of literacy as a polarized phenomenon did not reflect a social reality but rather a social agenda. The very coinage 'old wives' tales' reflects a bias to promote Latinate classroom culture over and against the culture of oral narrative. In her view, literacy was a multiple phenomenon rather than a single one conceptually defined against 'illiteracy', not only because there were gradations of difference between more or less educated individuals, which were not keyed invariably to sex, but also because even the Latin-based grammar school was not impervious to oral culture, ballads and old wives tales, narratives linked with illiteracy and the illiterate. Works by writers ranging from George Peele to Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare testify to the lasting traces of orally-transmitted narratives even on minds schooled in humanist classrooms. Similarly, Janet Starner-Wright and Susan Fitzmaurice challenge the notion of a hard and fast divide between print and oral cultures. In their discussion of The History of Edward II, published in 1680 and believed by many modern critics to have been written by Elizabeth Cary, the authors argue that Cary, like other history writers of her day, draws upon conventions of print publishing interchangeably with those of traditional storytelling, mixing Latin phrases with proverbial sayings.

This destabilization of existing social and cultural categories by writers and readers shows why literacy was a site of contest. In her study of Roman capital letters, Bianca F.-C. Calabresi argues that uppercase letters, which evoke classical tradition and royal decrees, had the effect of bestowing dignity and high status on those who learned to form them (uppercase letters were considered an advanced skill that could be acquired only after mastering that of writing lowercase ones). To take the example of the forged letter that appears in Twelfth Night, Maria's use of Roman capitals in inscribing that document displays her social aspirations and, indeed, achieves them in part. As Elizabeth Rivlin also reminds us in her reading of The Comedy of Errors, the fact that literacy was perceived as a marker of hierarchy made it also an instrument for upsetting hierarchy. The drama, then, highlights the conflictual dimensions of literacy by heightening our sense of how ambiguous writing can be as a marker of position, hence how indeterminate or superficial also the nature of social standing itself. Judith Rose explains that among Quakers requiring women to write down their prophecies constituted a means of restricting their expression: 'once women's prophecies were written down, they could be censored, witheld, or circulated only in manuscript; they were therefore more manageable, less incendiary'. Following the Restoration, however, what had been a source of restriction during the Civil War era turned into a force for enabling women's expression when Quaker schools, unlike other educational establishments, included writing on the curriculum for girls. Ironically, innovations introduced as instruments for the containment of one generation provided another with tools for social mobility and intellectual training.

The shift in perspective that brings into clearer focus the activities of Quaker prophets, old wives and man servants, also brings to our attention the behaviors of readers, another previously under-examined category of participants in literate culture. Previously, only the author or the text (after the proverbial 'death of the author') was ascribed proprietary rights over meaning or play of meaning; more recently, due to the painstaking work of many scholars, the reader now is understood to have played a crucial role as well in working out the meanings texts accrued. Readers were not (and are not) passive recipients of content; they argued with the texts they read; they emended and corrected them, cut from the pages elements they found valuable or objectionable; they added to them their own owner marks, marginal comments, insignia, poems, unrelated notes and scribblings.8 Often, readers formed associations and at times larger social networks through their reading. In the roles of consumers, they exerted influence as well over textual production. As Jennifer Hellwarth demonstrates, early modern midwifery manuals give clear indication that their authors, male medical practitioners, though dismissive of midwives, nevertheless were reliant on a female readership for information and financial support. This point about the agency of the reader arises in a more figurative context in Rivlin's essay. She notes that one of the servants in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors is shown at first to be a passive recipient of blows that inscribe his body as a text, as 'if the skin were parchment and the blows … were ink' (3.1.13); however, the servant then asserts his own explanation of those marks—his own bodily text—and emerges as an independent reader-interpreter. The humor of the scene depends not only on the mercurial qualities of the identities of the two pairs of identical masters and identical servants but also on those of writing itself, at once indelible in its mark and unstable in its meaning.

'Reading, viewing and listening', Roger Chartier has commented, 'are, in fact, so many intellectual attitudes which, far from subjecting consumers to the omnipotence of the ideological or aesthetic message that supposedly conditions them, make possible reappropriation, redirection, defiance, or resistance'.9 The present collection of essays adds to our understanding of the subjective and social dimensions of literate practices, their availability to personal and communal adaptation and innovation. Scholars, as readers themselves, interpret newly texts that have been read differently before; in so doing, they redefine meanings and concepts in ways that may go against doxical or ideological definitions. The definitions of literacy emerging from current discussion among scholars in this field are multiple, provisional, and often counter-intuitive. They are opening conceptual territory for newly important types of evidence (the marked copy of a book rather than the clean copy, the margin along with the central text, the 'paratext' or prefatory materials preceding the 'main' text) and newly shared questions: is it possible to measure literacy with any precision if we define it to be multiple and compound? In early modern England, how did literate practices participate in the formation of the self? (And, in this age of computer literacy, how do they continue to do so to this day?) What is the relation between literacy and literature? These questions continue to be the work of many volumes and many scholars. They point the way to some larger implications of the multiple literacies documented here.


  1. Joan Simon, Education and Society in Tudor England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 175.
  2. C. H. Williams, ed., English Historical Documents 1485-1558 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 827.
  3. H. S. Bennett, English Books and Readers: 1475 to 1557 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 27.
  4. W. J. Frank Davies, Teaching Reading in Early England, 1973; rpt. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1974.
  5. Keith Thomas, 'The Meaning of Literacy in Early Modern England,' in The Written Word: Literacy in Transition, ed. Gerd Baumann (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 97-131.
  6. Margaret Ferguson discusses the anecdote and its implications for the linguistic diversity of English in her book, Dido's Daughters: Literacy, Gender and Empire in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). Caxton tells the story in the preface to his translation of Virgil's Aeneid (Eneydos, as Caxton's title has it) published in 1490.
  7. Keith Thomas points out that in early modern England, 'It … became increasingly common to require that holders of local offices should be literate and to discharge them if they were not.' Moreover, literacy was an asset in commercial transactions as well, since 'anyone involved in business ran the risk of being cheated if he could not read a document or a set of accounts' ('The Meaning of Literacy in Early Modern England,' in The Written Word: Literacy in Transition, ed. Gerd Baumann [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986], 110).
  8. In his 1473 English translation of a French collection of philosophers' sayings, The Dictes and Sayeings of the Philosophers, Caxton acknowledges the proprietary attitudes of contemporary readers toward their books when he recommends that any reader offended by certain misogynistic maxims of Socrates (omitted by the translator and reinserted by Caxton) simply remove that passage, 'wyth a penne race it out or ellys rente the leef oute of the booke'; for the reader's convenience, Caxton printed the passage as a detachable appendix at the back of the book (cited by Susan Schibanoff, 'Taking the Gold Out of Egypt: The Art of Reading as a Woman,' in Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, eds. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986], 85). Stephen Orgel provides the example of an owner of Holinshed's Chronicles who added to his copy heraldic shields of families figured in the narrative; a subsequent owner of the volume cut out some of the shields ('Records of Culture,' in Books and Readers in Early Modern England. Eds. Jennifer Andersen and Elizabeth Sauer [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002], 282-9).
  9. Roger Chartier, Cultural History: Between Practices and Representations, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988), 41.

Hilda L. Smith (Essay Date 1998)

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SOURCE: Smith, Hilda L. “Introduction: Women, Intellect, and Politics: Their Intersection in Seventeenth-Century England.” In Women Writers and the Early Modern British Political Tradition, edited by Hilda L. Smith, pp. 1-14. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

In the following essay, Smith notes difficulties in trying to determine seventeenth-century women’s understanding of politics and their roles in the political arena.

Relating women’s intellectual history to British political thought in the early modern era leaves one in a perpetual state of schizophrenia. With rare exceptions, scholars working in these distinct areas do not pursue the same primary texts, or trust the judgments of the same set of contemporary scholars. Women’s intellectual contribution to the era has been studied mostly through biography, or through a focus on individual authors, with a very few—Aphra Behn; Mary Astell; Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle; and Margaret Fell Fox—garnering the overwhelming attention. Otherwise, women have fallen within categories formed by broader alliances: sectarian women, Leveller women, sympathizers for royalist or revolutionary causes. Or, they have been tied to their genres, as writers of meditations, poets, tractarians, playwrights, and authors of domestic advice.1

There has been, and perhaps this is wise, little attempt to characterize women’s writings generally, and virtually no attempt to do so for those of non-fiction authors whose primary interest was politics. In contemplating disparate approaches to seventeenth-century women’s political writings, a number of questions arise in this volume based on traditional assumptions concerning women and politics. How can women write about what they cannot do? or about what is considered outside, and, by some, antithetical to their nature? or about which they have been kept essentially ignorant? All of these realities covertly and overtly confronted women when they wrote about political topics in the early modern period. How could they presume to give advice across such a large divide? And, when an individual woman did offer such advice, what was her inspiration, what empowered her to speak?

In other words, what did politics mean for the women included in this volume, and early modern women more broadly? To what extent and in what proportions was it composed of office holding (either by a female monarch or by lesser officials), of attendance at court, of involvement in parliamentary elections, of jury service, or of broadly defined duties and obligations of property holders and burghers in their locale? Certainly, as with others of their era, they would have thought more about obligations, less about privileges, and little about rights when discussing politics.

In offering analyses that begin to deal with these broader questions, while presenting a range of women authors not often known outside of feminist scholarly circles, this volume addresses a dual purpose. The first is to analyze and place in context the works of a range of women writing on politics from the fourteenth through the eighteenth century. The second is to provide an analysis of the political and intellectual structures in which these, and other, women operated. This volume will treat women’s significant contributions to peace theory, to political thought, to revolutionary debates, to religious disputes, and to the operation of government more widely. But it will also discuss how their societies defined the political and where that definition intersected with views of women’s nature and appropriate roles.

Women intellectuals faced a myriad of institutional and scholarly resistance to their writing and their ideas. Central to this resistance was the identification in the minds of their readers, and among later scholarly commentators, of learning with a few academic institutions and professional societies which excluded women. Intellectual histories for the period focus almost wholly on the writings of a few great male thinkers, and institutional histories focus overwhelmingly on Oxford, Cambridge, and the Royal Society in England, the University of Paris and the French Academy in France, and Lutheran theologians in the Imperial German states. Even with the great growth of popular political and legal publications by the mid-seventeenth century, there was still an acceptance of traditional institutions as offering not simply the atmosphere most conducive to scholarly creativity, but also its validation. The court was a competing institution for intellectual and cultural productivity in both France and England, and women fared better there than among more strictly academic institutions. Yet in both linguistic and visual imagery a scholar, an author, a learned or wise “person” was clearly situated within university and professional circles and embodied a male figure.

Reflecting their existence outside the boundaries of institutionalized learning, women were not expected to produce scholarly treatments on a range of topics. Rather, the types of writings expected from them were circumscribed. If they chose to write on religious subjects, most appropriate were works of private meditation or stories of personal faith, but not theological treatises or anything verging upon a sermon. Nor were they to critique ecclesiastical structure, as a number of Puritan and Quaker women did. And, if women wished to write works of advice, they should be directed to other women (or children if the authors were mothers). There was probably no category of acceptable political writings on the part of women, but, again, personal memoirs or pleading for the views or needs of male political allies was most apt to be tolerated. A female author was to avoid wide-ranging analyses and criticisms of the political system, or of a single political leader. And few women authors, at least during the seventeenth century, dealt with political topics unfiltered through a religious lens. During times of crises, Leveller and Quaker women used arguments that blended a need for immediate action or redress, biblical and historical injunctions to act, and the contention that they were as responsible for the well-being of society as their male colleagues. But they did not demand their own political rights—only, at points, a political voice.2

Why not? I should like to throw out a couple of suggestions: one, that these seventeenth-century women considered women’s exclusion from all public and political roles less certain than we’ve come to believe today; thus they did not have to offer an explicit demand for such status when at least some women held it. And, women during the seventeenth century had at once a broader and more inclusive understanding of politics than we possess today. They considered local office holding, political obligations of families among the governing class, as well as voting and political rights, as constituting politics, while we would be more apt to equate the term only with the latter. Thus it was necessary for women writers to deal with broader issues of women’s situation in seventeenth-century England, than simply a demand for political rights.

Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle’s Sociable Letters (1664) offers one of the best examples of a seventeenth-century author grappling with the integrated realities that circumscribed women’s political standing. Cavendish was both a royalist and a feminist who raised some of the most profound questions about the intersection of women’s place in government, the common law, marriage, and motherhood during the 1600s. In her oft-quoted, evolving understanding of women’s place in the state, she started with women’s ignorance: “and, as for the matter of governments, we women understand them not.” But Cavendish did not stop there. She next contended that women were almost not a part of government, then pointed out their not swearing either to loyalty or supremacy, and finally concluded with women’s separation from the state: “If we be not citizens in the Commonwealth, I know no reason we should be subjects to the Commonwealth.” It is not easy to decipher the duchess of Newcastle’s intent, but I should like to stress her argument that women cannot be forced to serve two masters, a husband and the state. She was inclined to believe that women were not subjects at all, but, she concluded, if they were, “it is to our husbands.” Ignoring the political standing of single women, Cavendish based her arguments on the married state.

Yet she was hardly alone in lumping all women under the disabilities of the wife. The most famous example was likely from the 1632 treatise, Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights which noted that all women were understood “either as married or to be married.” While women were not tied to the universalizing principles of individualism that were emerging for men during the century, they were defined by a particularist set of qualities denoting their essential and proper state as one of dependence, not individuality.3

For seventeenth-century women, it was likely more difficult than for men writing about politics, to ignore familial constraints while investing the state with power and authority, and the citizen with independence and judgment. Thomas Hobbes, for example, acknowledged little conflict between empowering women as mothers in the state of nature when he claimed in De Cive that “every woman that bears children, becomes both a Mother, and a Lord” and his definition of the family within civil society that not only empowered the father, but treated the mother as non existent. “A Father, with his sonnes and servants growne into a civill Person by vertue of his paternall jurisdiction is called a FAMILY.”4

Women who wrote about politics, and did it from a consciously woman-centered perspective, embraced both the realities of some women’s power and the need to define the state more broadly so that the family’s reflection and engendering of political status would be recognized. But historians of political thought have, for the most part, ignored gender conflicts in earlier texts or in their own work. For them, politics have only occurred in a public arena, within established modes of governing, and among definable institutions. While feminist political theorists, along with women’s historians, have raised questions about the issues of women’s exclusion from such a realm, they have done less to redefine the realm altogether. Questions have been raised in two areas: first, the feminist contention that the personal is political and thus what happens in the home, the school, the office, etc. is clearly based on power relationships, sets of strategies, and covert and overt agreements about the parameters of discourse and action. And, second, a myriad set of arguments contend that masculine and feminine qualities and spheres must be taken into account in defining the political, so that supposedly non-gendered terms such as public, reason, objective, and (on the negative side) less nurturing, em-pathetic, emotional, and sensitive are termed masculine, while the feminine is posited in opposition to positive male qualities and embodies those considered lacking in men.5

Such thinking is seen as anachronistic when applied to early modern political thought and political realities. And this criticism does not seem off the mark. As many social historians have contended, the distinction between private and public is to a great extent a product of the nineteenth century and the growth of bourgeois culture—but already under construction with the growing importance of sensibility during the eighteenth century. In the seventeenth century when the household functioned more clearly as a unit of the state in which the father established public order and enforced accepted moral and religious values for his various dependents, the distinctions between public and private, political and nonpolitical, were less clear. And, when dynastic politics and a court system meant socializing, plotting marriage and kinship strategies, and included a patronage system that used the standing and contacts of both male and female members of the governing class, then what was masculine and feminine, private and public, political and nonpolitical was blurred.6

Yet, the broadly gendered nature of early modern politics and citizenship has received little attention. Gender constructions are employed without their significance for actual men and women being clarified. Examples are numerous, but one example appears in John Guy’s essay in The Varieties of British Political Thought, 1500-1800, where he delineated the importance of counsel to a prince in Tudor political thought. Generally a discussion of the role of gender is simply absent, but, when noted, it is usually as an unanalyzed aside such as in Guy’s essay where he states: “In this mode imperium was represented as male and consilium as female: their relationship was conjugal. (A married woman shared in the administration of her husband’s household and mitigated his imperium just as equity tempered the rigour of the common law.)”7 Leaving this gendered terminology, he concludes that “good counsel” negotiates the difference between “order and chaos,” and that advising rulers away from tyranny and toward “the ways of virtue and honesty” constituted “the touchstone of government.” As with others, Guy does not mention women’s absence as counselors or as authors of any of the classic humanist texts on the subject, nor assess what this gendered quality might mean for the men offering counsel and the men (and some women) who received it. Later in the same volume William Lamont, after presenting a long list of early and mid-seventeenth-century thinkers, without a single female voice, states that scholars are “not listen[ing] attentively enough to what the seventeenth-century source is saying”; and follows with, “if what he or she is saying seems actually contradictory” one must expand the set of contextual works. Although relevant writings by women clearly existed for Lamont’s topic, the Puritan revolution, they appear only in this feminine pronoun.8

Also, two of the essays in Varieties of British Political Thought discuss Henry Parker’s early arguments for parliamentary supremacy by undercutting Charles I’s authority as built upon patriarchal authority within the family. Yet neither mentions Parker’s clearly gendered argument about both the place of independent men in the state and the role of the wife in the household. The husband, he contends in Observations upon some of his Majesties late Answers and Expresses (1642), wields greater authority than the king because “the wife is inferior in nature, and was created for the assistance of man”; but, he continues, “it is otherwise in the State between man and man, for that civill difference which is for civill ends, and those ends are, that wrong and violence be repressed by one, for the good of all, not that servility and drudgery may be imposed upon all for the pompe of one.” Yet, as is typical of other histories of political thought, such references to gender-based justifications in disputes over the legitimacy and sovereignty of a ruler are not explored.9

As we reassess the history of British political thought through the lens of gender, how would we come to see it differently? I think up to this point we do not have sufficient knowledge or a sufficiently integrated perspective to answer this question. Feminist scholars have contended the following: the writings of political theorists are masculine and thus have no relevance for women; or certain constructs such as the social contract were not intended for or do not work for women; or the canonical works of political thought are studied and thought of in a manner not afforded works by women; or such works, when in the rare instances they speak about women, do so outside their systematic analysis of the state; or, it is all pretty irrelevant for real women interested in politics because the canonical texts, and their later analyses, are mostly not about women, but about the supposedly “feminine,” and its symbolic expressions. While each of these points of view may hold merit, it is difficult to bring them together to offer an integrated critique of political theory. We need, therefore, to think more clearly about how we apply gender when speaking of political writings and political actions in the past.

In considering early modern England, two propositions might prove useful: (1) that women had a clear, widespread, and real presence in political and economic structure and (2) that language was so constructed as to deny both the reality and the significance of their standing. Certainly the reality of women’s standing is intertwined with how contemporaries and later scholars have defined it. In dealing first with the second point, it seems hard to grasp when language is meant to be gender inclusive or exclusive. Are there any principles or clues that can guide us here? One such pattern has struck me: that when an author wants to highlight the universal significance of a phenomenon or quality, he is most apt to ignore women, and the only sure, but not the only, indication of inclusion is a precise reference. For example, in Tudor politician Thomas Starkey’s proposed council of fourteen to govern for parliament when not in session, his language was purposely inclusive, yet so framed that women were not directly represented. His council was “to represent the whole body of the people . . . to see unto the liberty of the whole body of the rea[l]m, and to resist all tyranny which by any manner may grow upon the whole commonalty.” Made up of clergy, judges and four “of the most wise citizens of London,” its composition and representation surely did not incorporate women. But Thomas More, who was upset over anti-clerical sentiments being written in English, lamented that the work’s author “would have the lay people both men and women look on them.” Obviously “lay people” would have sufficed, but More wanted to emphasize that he meant to include women among those who could not normally read Latin. To what extent, then, are we to believe thinkers meant to include women only when they specifically referred to them?10

In studying the gendered nature of early modern English guilds, I was struck by the large amount of evidence, in statutes, in aldermanic records, and in apprenticeship rolls, to support the view that women were full members of guilds, that they wore livery, and that members of guilds were consistently called “brethern and sistern” or “freemen and freewomen,” but that later historians utilized terms such as brothers, brotherhood, or members, that obscured the reality of women’s standing. Earlier documents might use generic nouns such as members, but that term would be followed by a descriptor that noted it referred to both sexes. An example comes from Henry VIII’s charter to establish a separate guild for London cloth workers in which he stated that the master and wardens should “make and have among the Citizens of the same City, being then Brethren and Sisters of the same Fraternity of Cloathworkers and the most sufficient thereunto, one livery or Robe.” Later accounts, however, ignored the defining clause and employed only the inclusive noun, leading others to think that only men were intended. And many property-owning women shared with their male counterparts an amalgam of office holding, appointing others to office and voting. Perhaps what is needed is more serious attention to the underlying gender distinctions in terms, even when we assume that we know their meanings; and to wonder whether we are asking the right questions about women’s political standing in the seventeenth century, or the early modern period more broadly.11

If we focus too narrowly on issues of rights, and voting, as constituting political standing, are we imposing a more recent understanding of politics than seventeenth-century authors would have employed? We need to ask more directly just what realities did early modern women take as a given about the standing of women from the governing classes; did they assume a greater role for women than we have seen or acknowledged based on our current-day lens and lack of a detailed or integrated picture of women’s political actions on the local level, or even at court?12

Finally, it is important to give more attention to the gendered nature of male citizenship, and especially its tie to a system of male maturation in which men prepared to be independent adults, head families, own property, do politics, and be active economic actors. Much has been written on the growth of modern individualism, but less has been done about its gendered nature. Such investigations should lead to a revision of the accepted public/private divide. As men prepared for their independence in forms that ranged from apprenticeship to the Grand Tour, there evolved institutions both to support them and to provide ideological, professional, and emotional support. They included grammar schools and universities, guild structures, professional societies, local county societies, and even life at court. These institutions allowed men to take their private world with them into the public. Thus the nurturing, supportive function ascribed to the family which has enabled men to do productive work outside the home existed for them outside of the home as well. This support included payment in kind: high table and housing offered by universities; funeral arrangements, banquets, social honors by guilds; and recognition and camaraderie among a range of political, professional, and social groupings.

For example, when lawyers and judges were required to go on assize rounds, they could count upon the bar mess to provide them with all the comforts of home. In an account of the eighteenth-century bar, Daniel Duman (while failing to indicate its gender implications) notes that the bar mess was mostly involved with eating, entertainment, and drinking, but “in addition the messes acted as guardians of the professional conduct of the members and fostered a feeling of professional brotherhood and communal spirit among the barristers.” Such ties between the socialization of adult males and their economic status blurred the distinction between personal and public life and created a system which taught and conferred a particular status and then rein-scribed its nature and significance continually through the symbols and institutions that supported it. And there were so many institutions that continually aided men, inscribed their status, and supported their public and individual successes, that it is hard to argue that men embodied a distinctly public world, separate from the private world of the home. Surely this ability to integrate the support of the private into the world of the public was essential in distinguishing between men and women, even though individual women, usually single or widowed, did quite comparable things to their brothers.13

How can we, then, relate the reality of women’s active political and economic roles to these institutions that validated and supported men’s public standing? Women’s public economic activities were broadly accepted, but when economic effort was used to buttress public standing or become the basis for citizenship, authorities resisted such a connection for women. Yet guild membership and urban citizenship empowered men in their political efforts in England both during the Civil War and in the 1680s. While often performing the same functions as men, or similar ones, women seemed most excluded from the validation of public recognition and symbolic expressions of economic independence and the qualities of citizenship.14

Such confused realities are connected to women’s failure to employ universalizing symbols, tying the public and political role of their group to discussions of what constituted political standing and national identity more broadly, as did men. For example, John Wildman, when defending in 1650 the free election of city officers by a cross-section of London freemen, unhampered by the dominant power of the mayor and council of aldermen, claimed that the privileges of London citizens, “in their elections of their chief officers,” were tied to “those very foundations of Common Right which the parliament have declared to us.” Such privileges were based on the principle “that the original of all just power under God proceeds from the People.” In opposing aldermanic self-perpetuation, he does not include the interests of independent women, but does threaten the mayor and aldermen thus: “take some speedy course that the blood of the Fatherless and the Widow may not stick to these walls.”15

In this rhetorical claim, as in so many others, women are characterized in a restricted way: as the whore of Babylon, as silly women open to the lure of competing religions, as the needy exemplified as widows, as the unlearned who are taken in by superficial arguments, or, on the positive side, as the naturally pious, or good, or caring, or peaceful. But it is difficult to imagine when women might say: “we as midwives, as rearers of children, as seamstresses, etc.” represent that group tied to “those very foundations of Common Right which the parliament have declared to us.” They may be included at some points, but it seems they can virtually never link their identity as a group of women, or women in a certain role, to the central qualities of the nation, or of humanity. To function effectively in politics, and as political thinkers, is it necessary for women to be able to incorporate such universal symbols of human nature and aspirations in their goals or vision of themselves? What is the power, then, of Wildman’s call to the rights granted all the people, during an internal dispute with the mayor and aldermen of London? And how much has men’s continual use of such imagery, and later scholars’ failure to de-construct such use on grounds of gender, contributed to the identification of men with the political realm? And, on the other side, how much has women’s rare (and even more rarely successful) use of such universal symbols contributed to their absence (and supposed absence) from that realm?

To answer these questions, we need to complicate our understanding of gender values in early modern political thought. Not merely will we gain clues from listening to women who have been omitted from the canon, but we will gain from seeing male theorists’ views of the relationship of gender to the state in more complex terms. Both Hobbes and Locke held internally inconsistent, or at the least, evolving opinions about the nature of men and women, their relationship, their roles within the family, and their connection to the state. Hobbes shifts from his independent, powerful mother within the state of nature to a powerless/nonexistent wife under the state, and Locke shifts from equal honor due both parents in his First Treatise to a state formed by male property owners to protect their individual interests in the Second. Yet examining Hobbes’s language in his discussion of the nature of dominion offers some clues as to conflicted views about sex difference and its relevance to the state.

He notes:

Among children the Males carry the preheminence, in the begining perhaps, because for the most part (although not always) they are fitter for the administration of greater matters, but specially of wars; but afterwards, when it was grown a custome, because that custome was not contradicted; and therefore the will of the Father, unlesse some other custome or signe doe clearly repugne it, is to be interpreted in favour of them.16

One possible reading of this passage, and one that I lean toward, is that of a man hedging his bets and displaying discomfort with an easy acceptance of male superiority or male rule. Hobbes, for whom logic and reason were paramount, finally finds justification for any sexual difference in power and ability only on grounds of custom. Before he reaches the refuge of a customary explanation for male preeminence, he includes four phrases which question or limit the nature of male superiority: “in the beginning perhaps,” “for the most part,” “although not alwayes,” and “specially of wars.” And, even after reaching the point where male superiority “was grown a custome,” he still does not seem home free and continues to write hesitantly in support of language concerning custom-bestowed ability and authority. The legitimacy of custom is acceptable only “because that custome was not contradicted,” and remained subject to the following limitation: “unless some other custome or signe doe clearly repugne it.” And his final positive phrase is hardly an outright acceptance of patriarchal authority “[it] is to be interpreted in favour of them.”17

Analyzing such language more carefully can aid a reassessment of the operation of gender in early modern politics. We can clearly learn much both through reading the political writings of women and through analyzing the gender assumptions embedded within the intellectual and political structures of the period. This volume is intended as a step in that direction.


1. Treatments of women’s writings during the seventeenth century, among more recent works, include my Reason’s Disciples: Seventeenth-Century English Feminists (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), Sara Heller Mendelson’s The Mental World of Stuart Women: Three Studies (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), and, among those studies treating women’s religious works, Phyllis Mack’s Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), Patricia Crawford’s Women and Religion in England, 1500-1720 (London: Routledge, 1993), and Hilary Hinds’s God’s Englishwomen: Seventeenth-Century Radical Sectarian Writing and Feminist Criticism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996). Recent studies and editions of an individual writer’s publications include: Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World and Other Writings, ed. Kate Lilley (London: Penguin Books, 1994) and The Sociable Letters, ed. James Fitzmaurice (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997); Mary Astell, The First English Feminist: Reflections upon Marriage and Other Writings, ed. Bridget Hill (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), and most recently, Astell, Political Writings, ed. Patricia Springborg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), as well as a biography by Ruth Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986). Annotative bibliographies and commentaries on seventeenth-century women’s writings include Elaine Hobby’s Virtue of Necessity: English Women’s Writing, 1646-1688 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988) and Hilda L. Smith and Susan Cardinale’s Women and the Literature of the Seventeenth Century: An Annotated Bibliography Based on Wing’s Short-Title Catalogue (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990). For the eighteenth century, there are no broad studies of women’s non-fiction writing, but there is a collection of women’s writings compiled by Bridget Hill (London: Allen and Unwin, 1984) and studies, biographies, and editions of the work of individual writers including The Republican Virago: The Life and Times of Catharine Macaulay, Historian by Bridget Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), Virginia Sapiro’s A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft in seven volumes, edited by Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler (London: Pickering, 1989) and Janet Todd’s edition of Mary Wollstonecraft: Political Writings (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), as well as biographies of Wollstonecraft by Eleanor Flexner (New York: Coward, McCann and Geohegan, 1972), Jennifer Lorch (New York: Berg, 1990), and Claire Tomalin (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974). The vast majority of scholarship on women’s writings during the 1700s has been on their works of fiction, especially as early novelists.

2. There has been a great deal of scholarship on the nature of women’s writings. Perhaps most useful for an assessment of their religious and political views, and the prescriptions for such views for the period 1640-60, appears in Pamphlet Wars: Prose in the English Revolution, ed. James Holstun (London: Cass, 1992). The nature of women’s religious writings and efforts is drawn most fully in Phyllis Mack’s Visionary Women. Of the 637 works published by women from 1641 to 1700, 55 percent were on religious topics, and of these, 171 titles were from Quaker women (Smith and Cardinale, Women and the Literature of the Seventeenth Century, xii-xiii). A recent treatment of women Levellers by Ann Hughes, “Gender and Politics in Leveller Literature”, appears in Political Culture and Cultural Politics in Early Modern England, eds. Susan Ammusen and Mark Kishlansky (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995). Greatest attention to women’s personal censorship is presented in Elaine Hobby’s Virtue of Necessity, and a recent and broad overview of the prescriptions for, and the nature of, women’s writings (while tilted toward literary works) can be found in Women and Literature in Britain, 1500-1700, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

3. Margaret Cavendish, Sociable Letters, 25-26; The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights: Or, The Lawes Provision for Woemen (London: Printed by the Assignes of John More, 1632), 7.

4. Thomas Hobbes, De Cive, the English Version, ed. Howard Warrender (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 122-26. In addition to this assessment of women’s authority within the state of nature, and their ultimate exclusion from the family in its relationship to the state, Hobbes similarly discussed women’s standing in chapter 20 of The Leviathan, which includes the following:

there be always two that are equally parents: the dominion therefore over the child, should belong equally to both; . . . which is impossible; for no man can obey two masters. And whereas some have attributed the dominion to the man only, as being of the more excellent sex; they misreckon in it . . . If there be no contract, the dominion is in the mother.

(Leviathan, Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a
Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil
, ed. Michael
Oakshott, Oxford: Blackwell, 1947, 130-31)

5. While works on traditional political thought and works in feminist political theory differ fundamentally in approach and subject matter, they are similar in one respect. Both consistently omit treatment of women’s political writing. Two important collections which have recently appeared on early modern political thought, Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain, eds. Nicholas Phillipson and Quentin Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) and The Varieties of British Political Thought, 1500-1800, ed. J. G. A. Pocock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) continue the pattern of omitting women authors—although there is a mention of one or two in the Pocock volume—and not treating women as political actors. Of feminist approaches to political thought, an older work such as Susan Okin’s Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979) does offer historical grounding for conceptions of women by political theorists, but the work moves from Plato to Aristotle to Rousseau to Mill, and only mentions Mary Wollstonecraft once. More recent treatments, such as the collection Feminists Theorize the Political, eds. Judith Butler and Joan Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992), include mention of some women writers (here, George Sand and Hannah Arendt), but seldom placed within their intellectual context and rather studied as a lesson for current feminist theorizing. Other works such as Wendy Brown’s Manhood and Politics: A Feminist Reading in Political Theory (Totowa, N.Y.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1988) and Christine di Stefano’s Configurations of Masculinity: A Feminist Perspective on Modern Political Theory (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), conceptualize political theory and politics as a masculine arena; while offering useful critiques of the often unstated equation of male with political, still one effect of these works is to deny the existence of women’s political writings, or to remove such writings from the intellectual and political debates they helped shape.

6. There are numerous treatments of the role of the family and gender in the construction of local communities and national politics in early modern England, as well as women’s role at court. For discussion of these topics see Susan D. Amussen, An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England, 1560-1720 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), Keith Wrightson, English Society, 1580-1680 (London: Routledge, 1993), and an article by Barbara Harris on women’s role in the Tudor court (Historical Journal 33(2) [1990]: 259-81), Linda Levy Peck’s discussion of women’s role in “Benefits, Brokers and Beneficiaries: The Culture of Exchange in Seventeenth-Century England,” Court, Country and Culture: Essays on Early Modern British History in Honor of Perez Zagorin (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1992), 109-28, and on the importance of the duchess of Portsmouth in access to power and policy formation during the reign of Charles II in Nancy Klein Maguire, “The Duchess of Portsmouth: English Royal Consort and French Politician, 1670-85,” The Stuart Court and Europe: Essays in Politics and Political Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 247-73. For the best discussion of the developing ideology of sex differences that underlay the separate spheres ideology of the nineteenth century, see G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

7. John Guy, “The Henrician Age,” in Pocock, The Varieties of British Political Thought, 16; Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain includes a range of less prominent political writers, but still omits any women authors, or any analysis on the place of women or the role of gender in politics except in mentioning individual queens.

8. William Lamont, “The Puritan Revolution: A Historio-graphical Essay,” in The Varieties of British Political Thought, ed. Pocock, 19.

9. The Varieties of British Political Thought, 132-33, 152-56.

10. Ibid., 19; Thomas More, Selected Letters, ed. Elizabeth Frances Rogers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), 95-105.

11. The Charter of the Company of Clothworkers of London (London, 1648), 1-4; The Ordinances of the Clothworkers’ Company together with . . . fullers & Shear-men of the city of London, transcribed from the Originals (London: Clothworkers Company, 1881), 13-22.

12. The most comprehensive study of women’s early political standing remains C. C. Stopes, British Free-women: Their Historical Privilege (London: S. Sonnenschein, 1894).

13. Daniel Duman, The Judicial Bench in England, 1727-1875 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1982).

14. See Natalie Davis’s essay on the gendered nature of the crafts in sixteenth-century Lyon in her Society and Culture in Early-Modern France (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1975) and Merry E. Wiesner’s discussion of women as skilled artisans in Working Women in Renaissance Germany (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986).

15. London’s Liberties, Or a Learned Argument of Law & Reason, upon Saturday, December 14, 1650 (London: Printed by Ja. Cottrel for James Calver, 1651), preface, 4-5.

16. Hobbes, De Cive, 128.

17. For alternative interpretations of Hobbes’s treatment of questions relating to gender and women’s family and political status see Christine Di Stefano, “Masculinity as Ideology in Political Theory: Hobbesian Man Considered,” Women’s Studies International Forum 6 (1983): 633-44, Carole Pateman, “‘God Hath Ordained to Man a Helper’: Hobbes, Patriarchy and Conjugal Right,” British Journal of Political Science 19 (1989): 445-64, and Gabriella Slomp, ‘Hobbes and the Equality of Women,” Political Studies 42 (1994): 441-52. Di Stefano emphasizes the masculinist quality of Hobbes’s competitive vision of man; Pateman accepts his equal state for women in the state of nature while focusing on his empowering the husband within civil society in such a way that the wife loses political standing, and Slomp is more favorable to Hobbes’s contention of sexual equality. However, she interprets the passage quoted here as restricting his acceptance of women’s equality. In addition, Hobbes’s emphasis on women’s equal standing is often considered something found primarily in his early writings—it was presented most fully in the De Cive—but, he continued to insert gender into his writings quite late in life and in a manner that differed from his contemporaries. In defending himself against the charge of atheism, he includes the following passage in a work written in 1680, Considerations upon the Reputation, Loyalty, Manners, & Religion, of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, where he states his opponents are offended by: “his Attributing to the Civil Soverign all Power Sacredotal. But this perhaps may seem hard, when the Sovereignty is in a Queen: But it is because you are not subtle enough to perceive, that though Man may be male and female, Authority is not” (Considerations . . . Written by himself, By way of LETTER to a Learned Person. London: Printed for William Crooke, 1680, 40).

Isabel De Madariaga (Essay Date November 2001)

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SOURCE: de Madariaga, Isabel. "Catherine the Great: A Personal View." History Today 51, no. 11 (November 2001): 45-51.

In the following essay, de Madariaga explores the life, accomplishments, and political writings of Catherine the Great.

Since I first took Catherine seriously as a ruler, some forty years ago, I have grown to like her very much. This is not therefore going to be an exercise in debunking, it is a personal portrait of someone who has become a close friend.

For nearly two hundred years the Empress Catherine II of Russia (1762-96), or Catherine the Great, as she is known, has had a very bad press as a German usurper from a minor ducal family, without any claim to the Russian throne. Women on the throne were an anomaly and it was expected that they would rule through favourites or husbands. But Catherine had blotted her copy book in a more serious way: she had mounted the throne as the result of a military coup d'etat in June 1762, over the body of her murdered husband, Peter III, the grandson of Peter the Great. From Catherine's point of view at the time it was a question of 'who whom', as Lenin later put it. Peter was supposed to have been about to repudiate her, disinherit her son and marry his mistress. Catherine's many friends in the army joined in a plot to de-throne Peter and seized power with her full approval and participation. She circumvented the men who helped her to seize the throne in 1762 and was wise enough never to enter into a publicly recognised marriage. She shocked opinion even further by having many publicly acknowledged lovers at a time when virtue was still demanded of a woman. By modern standards, Catherine was not really promiscuous. She had only twelve well-documented lovers in some forty-four years. But neither Victorian England nor Victorian Russia approved. Alexander Herzen (1812-70), the great Russian revolutionary, who later sought asylum in England, exclaimed in the mid-nineteenth century that 'the history of Catherine the Great cannot be read aloud in the presence of ladies'.

The prejudice was so great that for a long time it prevented an objective study of the events of Catherine's reign, and fostered the assumption that she had achieved nothing. Nineteenth-century historians, often populists or Marxists viewed her proclamation of the tenets of the French enlightenment as hypocrisy—as did the poet Alexander Pushkin in his young days—because she did nothing to free the serfs. With the coming of the Bolsheviks, the publication of Catherine's official papers ceased almost entirely and study of the class war superseded study of the action of individuals. It is only since the fall of Communism that Russian historians have been freed to undertake fresh documentary research, and to approach their past in an objective spirit. Historians have thus rescued their most impressive and intellectually distinguished ruler from the undeserved neglect she has suffered in the country she ruled over so successfully for thirty-four years.

Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, the name of the girl baptised Catherine on her conversion from Lutheranism to the Orthodox religion, arrived in Russia in 1744, aged fourteen, and was married at sixteen to a seventeen-year-old who failed to consummate the marriage for some years. The reigning Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great's daughter, was so perturbed at the lack of an heir to the throne that she conveyed a message to Catherine urging her to produce one, if not by her husband, then by someone else, which Catherine duly did, and her son Paul, probably fathered by a courtier known as 'handsome Serge' Saltykov, was born in 1754.

The Empress Elizabeth died in 1762, and Catherine's husband became emperor. He soon showed himself as unsatisfactory as a ruler as he had proved as a husband. It was not so much what he did, but the way in which he did it. His gracelessness and his lack of judgement alienated all the powerful social groups, including his wife for whom he had ceased to have any regard: 'she will squeeze you like a lemon', he had said 'and then she will throw you away'. But Catherine through her lover, the guards officer Grigory Orlov and his four dashing brothers, won over the army to her cause, and by sheer force of personality, many of the high officials as well, even those close to Peter III. Her supporters proclaimed her not as regent for her son Paul, as some had hoped, but as ruler in her own right, as Empress regnant.

What sort of woman was she? By the time she came to power, she had spent eighteen years steering her way through the many pitfalls of the Russian court. During this time she had given birth to one son by a lover, to a daughter, who died, by another lover, Stanislas Poniatowski, and to a second son by her lover Grigory Orlov, born in secret only four months before her coup, who was not recognised by Peter III. She had had to manoeuvre between the many factions in the Russian court, her friends had been removed, some disgraced and sent into exile, leaving her at times in considerable solitude. And yet always she had had to share a bed with a totally uncongenial man, who for instance court martialled a rat caught in her bedchamber and executed it. She took refuge from boredom in reading, mainly history, politics, and philosophy, a great deal of French literature and a life of Henri IV of France, who became her model of a king. In this way Catherine accumulated a considerable fund of knowledge of the theory of government, and of comparative politics. She was greatly influenced by Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois which became for a while her bedside book and profoundly affected her legislation; she read Voltaire, of course, with whom she began a regular correspondence. When Diderot met with obstacles over the publication of the Great Encyclopedia in France, Catherine offered to publish it in Russia. A translation fund she established published works by Voltaire, Rousseau, Mably, Gulliver's Travels, Robertson's History of America, and in 1778 a translation of Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (from the French) which exercised a great influence on her political and legal thinking until her death.

Brought up a Lutheran, religion sat very lightly on her. She fulfilled all her Orthodox religious duties punctiliously, was courteous to the Russian hierarchy but gave the Church no access to political institutions, and confiscated its lands. She turned a blind eye to the presence and activities of the Old Believers, wound down Orthodox missionary activity among Muslims and pagans and allowed 'reputable' religions to build churches, run their own schools and practise their religion freely though under state inspection of their organisation and finances. In theory, religion was no obstacle to participating in elective local government posts—even for Jews whose number within the borders of Russia increased considerably after the first partition of Poland in 1772. Who knows what she believed in? She would attend all-night services in church but sat at a little table out of sight where she could pass the time with a pack of cards, playing patience.

Catherine was also extremely hardworking. She rose early, read or wrote, copied out her drafts, and discussed them with her advisers. Thousands of sheets of paper covered in her handwriting have survived, and her writings, both political and belles lettres, occupy twelve substantial volumes. The most outstanding of them was her Great Instruction, published in 1767 in order to lay before an assembly of elected representatives of the nobles, the townspeople, cossacks, tribesmen and state peasants (not the serfs) the general principles on which laws should be codified by this assembly. The Instruction, comprising some 650 articles in all, defined the functions of social estates and laid down the means of establishing the rule of law and the welfare of the citizens. Catherine drew on a number of important German and French thinkers of the time, and there is even a suggestion that she may have known about the work of Adam Smith. She was very proud of her compilation, which was published in over twenty-five languages, including English. It was so radical that it was condemned by the Sorbonne in Paris.

From the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, Catherine drew her condemnation of torture in judicial proceedings in her Great Instruction:

The innocent ought not to be tortured; and in the eye of the law every person is innocent whose crime is not yet proved.

This axiom, which sounds so familiar to an English ear, was completely novel in eighteenth-century Russia. One cannot say that the Empress succeeded in eliminating torture entirely from Russian legal procedure, but she did succeed in reducing its sphere of operation. It is not unfair to Catherine's predecessors to state that she was the first ruler of Russia to have any sense of legality, of what the rule of law meant. Indeed, there was no university in Russia until 1755, no teaching of jurisprudence except by Germans who taught in Latin. The first professor of Russian law (trained in Glasgow) teaching in Russian was appointed by Catherine II in 1773. As a result Russian officials were prone to override the decisions of judges in favour of what they might regard to be common sense, convenient, or politically desirable.

In a document intended to teach her subjects how to draft laws, Catherine spent some time in defining how laws should be written: in the vernacular, in simple, concise language, bearing in mind that they were written for people of moderate capacities; they should be published as a small book which could be bought as cheaply as the catechism, and which should be used in schools to teach children to read. Napoleon had the same idea.

What is striking about Catherine's Instruction is that it formed part of a plan to shake up the political culture of Russia in a dramatic way. It was a pedagogical instrument designed to instruct public opinion in the assembly which was to draft her new code. It was read through in public every month from cover to cover from August 1767 until the Assembly was disbanded in autumn 1768 on the outbreak of war with Turkey. The deputies were thus subjected to a flood of unheard of ideas in what amounted to a speech from the throne.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider this aspect of Catherine as a ruler. She had a profound understanding of the nature and importance of public opinion, and of the need to mould it. Her correspondence with Voltaire, Diderot, Falconet, Grimm and others, served to promote her interests and to portray her personality and ideas in the most attractive light. Thus the proceedings of the Assembly were public, and accounts of its activities were published in the Moscow and St Petersburg gazettes. No such gathering had been held in Russia since the seventeenth century, nor was one to meet again until after the revolution of 1905. It is a tribute to Catherine's political courage, that a mere five years after seizing the throne, she did not fear that such a gathering might provide a focus for opposition to her rule. Indeed, the sluices were opened for a freedom of speech unheard of in Russia and rendered possible by the fact that the deputies needed only to start their contributions with the words: 'As the Empress says in para xyz of her Instruction '.

Much of Catherine's future programme of legislation is to be found in embryo in her Great Instruction, and in the documents collected by the Assembly, which provided her with a vast amount of information about the state of her realm. What of the serfs who were not represented? There was of course much information about them available in the form of the murder of landowners and local risings on private estates which had to be put down by troops. Catherine herself was opposed to serfdom and she took some steps to introduce non-servile tenures on imperial estates which proved highly unpopular with the serfs. Chapter XI of her Instruction dealt with serfdom and slavery. She showed it to some of her advisers who cut out vast portions. The leading Russian dramatist of the period, A. P. Sumarokov, complained that the nobles would have neither coachman nor cook nor lackey, for they would all run away to better paid jobs, whereas at present the nobles all lived quietly on their estates. Catherine did not agree; she noted in the margin of Sumarokov's comments: 'and have their throats cut from time to time'.

It was only in 1907 that the suppressed portions of Chapter XI were brought to light, so that the Empress's real views were simply unknown to the general public for more than a century. She had, for instance, suggested that serfs should be entitled to purchase their freedom, or that servitude should be limited to a period of six years. Subsequently she stopped up many holes which enabled people to be enserfed, but she did not pursue total emancipation. Historians have also criticised her for giving away thousands of 'free' peasants to her favourites and public servants, thus enserfing them. Stated bluntly like that of course it sounds terrible, and what actually happened is probably not much better. For, in fact, three-quarters of the peasants she gave away were already serfs on estates acquired in the partitions of Poland. This has been known by historians since 1878, but … shall we say forgotten?

What marks Catherine's approach is the careful planning of a programme of interrelated measures, steadily pursued over a number of years. Local government and the judiciary were remodelled in 1775, with elected participation by nobles, townspeople and state peasants and separation of the new network of courts based on social rank from the administration. Local responsibility for certain welfare functions such as schools, hospitals and almshouses was also established, and a national network of primary and secondary schools, free and co-educational, which even serf children could attend with the permission of their owners. The civil rights of nobles and townspeople were set out in terms which reflect English legal thought in charters issued in 1785. Some of Catherine's work survived until 1864, some until the Bolsheviks in 1917.

Thus far the ruler. What of the woman? After Sergey Saltykov, Catherine found another lover, Count Stanislas Poniatowski, a Polish noble, who came to St Petersburg in the suite of the English ambassador, Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, and may well have introduced Catherine to the pleasures of collecting. Poniatowski was handsome, well bred, cultured, and fell genuinely in love with Catherine, who in turn found a soul mate and an intellectual companion for the first time in her life. In dangerous and sometimes farcical circumstances Catherine conducted her affair and gave birth to their daughter. But a political crisis in 1758 cut short their relationship, and Poniatowski returned to Poland. Love for a handsome guards officer, Grigory Orlov, as well as concern for her own safety led Catherine into a new affair, in which she proved remarkably faithful since it lasted twelve years.

In 1772, kind friends warned Catherine about her lover's infidelities and she dismissed him. Emotionally vulnerable and at a loss, Catherine was also faced with a political crisis: by the winter of 1773, the Pugachev revolt was in full swing, the war against the Ottoman Porte marked time, and her son Paul attained his majority, which might threaten her hold on the throne. At this point her whole emotional life changed gear for good. She summoned to her side Grigory Potemkin, ten years her junior, a man who had reached the rank of Lt General on the battlefields, whom she knew since he had played a minor part in her coup d'etat, and who had the authority to impose himself on the armed forces, the imagination and the political acumen to make his way to the top of the political tree, and the energy to sweep all rivals aside. He also offered her total devotion, both as a woman and as his liege lady. (I use this archaic phrase deliberately because it represents how he thought of her to his dying day.) He was a handsome man (though he had lost an eye), imposing, witty and well-educated. Their meeting was explosive, and led to a stormy, passionate and well-documented love affair. Potemkin was conscious that his position was insecure and was very jealous of Catherine's past lovers. He sulked and made scenes, but so great was Catherine's trust in him that it is generally accepted now that she went through a religious ceremony of marriage with him, thus giving him, as her husband, the security he needed. For after barely two years, the passion between them wore out, though the love remained. Catherine needed him as her partner in government, particularly in military affairs, and he loved her and served her unconditionally. They found a way out of their dilemma by separating sex from love: Catherine chose a series of lovers, one after the other, and he chose his mistresses, starting with three of his nieces who became protégées of the Empress and much loved by her. To the surprise of Catherine's public servants and courtiers, Potemkin continued in greater favour than ever, and remained by the Empress as unacknowledged prince consort until his death fifteen years later in 1791.

But there were occasional difficulties with Catherine's lovers. She seems to have been easily bored, and broke with several of them, sending them away to travel abroad or to live in Moscow, well endowed. Some of them deserted her. We cannot tell how important the sexual aspect of this relationship was to her, but what is clear from her letters to others is that there was a strong dose of maternal feeling for them. She valued them as participants in her intellectual and artistic occupations.

As a woman, Catherine was generous, considerate and humane and not at all vindictive. There are endless examples of her servants' love for her. An early riser, she would make up her fire herself in order not to rouse her stoker. My favourite example of her thought for others occurred one day when she entered a room in the Winter Palace where a young soldier, supposedly on guard, was sitting reading at a table. Horrified at being caught off guard, he sprang to his feet. The empress asked him what he was reading and talked for a while with him. A few days later she gave orders to set aside a room and to establish a library for the palace staff. Her easy manners and lack of social pretensions were commented on by all who attended court. When she travelled to the Crimea in 1787, she stopped in many towns on her way to attend receptions and emerged from the crush with her cheeks covered with rouge from kissing the highly made-up bourgeois ladies. Her simplicity of manner is what made working for her pleasurable. She chose her senior advisers—her ministers—well and kept them on for years. Prince A. A. Vyazemsky, to all intents and purposes her Home Secretary and Finance Minister, worked for her from 1764 to 1792, and when he became too ill to continue, her minister of commerce from 1772 to 1792. When she received the news of the death of Potemkin in 1791 she had to be bled, wept for days, and was never the same again. None of her senior public servants was ever exiled or sent to Siberia, so that high office became a safe occupation. She spoke freely to her advisers and welcomed frank speaking to her; she did not dismiss her staff for making mistakes, not even for losing battles, she merely encouraged them to do better next time. This contributed greatly to the stability of the regime and the sense of security and continuity in government.

Catherine loved the theatre and wrote for it herself. 'I cannot see a sheet of blank paper without wanting to write on it.' She wrote short pieces for a satirical journal, and quite a number of plays, 'because I enjoy it'. She was among the first to take an interest in Shakespeare, whose plays she read in German translation. She commented:

… imitations of Shakespeare are very convenient, for since they are neither comedies nor tragedies and have no other rules but tact, but a feeling for what the spectator can bear, I think we can do anything with them.

She tried to imitate Shakespeare in a play called How to have both the linen and the basket, based on the Merry Wives of Windsor, and also wrote historical plays like 'From the life of Ryurik, an imitation of Shakespeare without the dramatic unities' in which there are many echoes of Henry IV parts I and II. She wrote fairy tales for her grandchildren, treatises on conduct, education and bringing up children (I should perhaps mention that children in the Foundling Homes she established were given muesli for breakfast). She issued an ukaz recommending the cultivation of potatoes with instructions on how to cook them and potatoes were even served in the palace. She even devised a special garment for babies which could be easily pulled off with one tug of a tape, and sent the pattern to the King of Sweden for his wife.

So far I have shown the side of Catherine that won her many admirers. I must now try to find a few faults. First of all she was vain, vain of her achievements, but also of her role as a woman on the throne who outshone many men as a successful modern and reforming ruler, as a correspondent of leading minds in Paris and Germany, as an art collector. She was proud of the victories of her armies, and determined to assert the equality of Russia—a newcomer—with the other great powers in Europe. She was delighted at the successful dispatch of several Russian Baltic fleets to the Mediterranean in 1769-74. It did indeed astound most European countries, and could not have been achieved without the help of Britain. But her letter to her ambassador in London notifying him of her intention reads almost like that of a gleeful little girl:

We have aroused the sleeping cat, and the cat is going to attack the mice and you will see what you will see, and people will talk about us and nobody expected us to make such a rumpus …

As she grew older her vanity took on a Russian nationalist flavour with an unpleasant tendency to browbeat her enemies. Her strong nerves enabled her to overcome the anxieties of indecisive campaigns, but during the Ochakov crisis in 1791 she had to be bullied into climbing down by the pressure of Potemkin, more aware than she of the military danger of a Prussian attack on land and of a possible British naval attack in the Baltic, but she was saved from total surrender by the collapse of Pitt's policy in England. There is one aspect of her increasingly brash attitude to other powers which I personally find unforgiveable and that is her treatment of her ex-lover Stanislas Poniatowski as a man, and of Poland as a nation. The destruction of Poland was carried out with a ruthlessness and an undercurrent of raillery which is extremely unpleasant and Catherine's bullying of Stanislas himself was downright cruel. For she could be ruthless in defence of her own position, and the existing political and social structure.

Yet she had an original and creative political mind, and the disciplined temperament of a statesman. To the end of her life she continued to ponder over possible ways of associating elected representatives of the Russian nobility, towns-people and peasantry with a decision-making body in the government of Russia, drawing often on English models. Her attitude to government can be summed up in a remark attributed to her by Potemkin's one-time secretary, V. S. Popov. When he expressed his surprise to her at the blind obedience with which her every order was treated:

She condescended to reply: It is not as easy as you think. In the first place my orders would not be carried out unless they were the kind of orders which could be carried out. You know with what prudence … I act in the promulgation of my laws. I examine the circumstances, I take advice, I consult the enlightened part of the people and this way I find out what sort of effect my law will have. And then when I am already convinced in advance of general approval, then I issue my orders, and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience. And that is the foundation of unlimited power.

Further Reading

Catherine II, T he Correspondence with Voltaire and the Instruction of 1767 in the English Text of 1768. Edited under the title Documents of Catherine the Great by W. F. Reddaway (Cambridge University Press, 1931); Carol S. Leonard, Reform and Regicide: the Reign of Peter III of Russia (Indiana University Press, 1992); Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (reprint forthcoming, Phoenix Press, January 2002); Isabel de Madariaga, Catherine the Great: A Short History (Yale University Press, 1991); Isabel de Madariaga, Politics and Culture in Eighteenth Century Russia (Longmans, 1998); T. Alexander, Catherine the Great—Life and Legend (Oxford University Press, 1989); Simon Sebag Montefiore, Prince of Princes, The Life of Potemkin (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001).

Dympna C. Callaghan (Essay Date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 12, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7704

SOURCE: Callaghan, Dympna C. “The Ideology of Romantic Love.” In The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics, edited by Dympna C. Callaghan, Lorraine Helms, and Jyotsna Singh, pp. 59-101. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1994.

In the following excerpt, Callaghan examines Romeo and Juliet to determine its influence on societyńs notions of desire.

“To this end . . . is this tragicall matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends . . .”(Evans, 1057). Thus Arthur Brooke defines the ideological project of his poem, The Tragicall History of Romeous and Juliet (1562), which was to become Shakespeare’s primary source for Romeo and Juliet. The lovers’ “unhonest desire” was always a compelling feature of the story, but in Shakespeare’s version the fate of that desire is presented as profound injustice as much as proper punishment.1 For Brooke’s rendition of the story bears a moral aversion to what Shakespeare’s tragedy accomplishes in producing for posterity the lovers’ desire as at once transgressive (“unhonest”) and as a new orthodoxy (tragically legitimated). It is precisely this ambivalence that is at the heart of the play’s appeal as one of the preeminent cultural documents of love in the West.

Romeo and Juliet was written at the historical moment when the ideologies and institutions of desire—romantic love and the family, which are now for us completely naturalized—were being negotiated. Indeed, the play consolidates a certain formation of desiring subjectivity attendant upon Protestant and especially Puritan ideologies of marriage and the family required by, or least very conducive to the emergent economic formation of, capitalism.2 The goal of this chapter is to examine the role of Romeo and Juliet in the cultural construction of desire. Desire—variously generated, suppressed, unleashed, and constrained—is particularly significant for feminist cultural studies because in its most common formulation as transhistorical romantic love it is one of the most efficient and irresistible interpellations of the female subject, securing her complicity in apparently unchangeable structures of oppression, particularly compulsory heterosexuality and bourgeois marriage.

It would be wrong to suggest that romantic love is devoid of positive and even liberatory dimensions. As Denis de Rougement has shown in Love in the Western World, its advent in the twelfth century represents something of an improvement on earlier organizations of desire. It seems likely, however, that the extra-marital love that flourished among the feudal aristocracy was considerably less restrictive for women (though not actively empowering) than was the marital version that emerged with early capitalism. Feudal romantic love was generally constructed as the unrequited passion of a male subject leading ultimately to his own spiritual self-transcendence, as opposed to the emergent construction of romantic love as mutual heterosexual desire leading to a consummation in marriage, a union of both body and spirit. One of its crucial features, a signal of its effectiveness, is that the ideology of romantic love centers from the Renaissance onward on women’s subjective experience. Yet this focus serves to control and delimit intimate experience rather than to allow the fullest possible expression of female desire. It is also true that when we are in its throes, romantic love is a classic instance of false consciousness. Among its oppressive effects, the dominant ideology of(heterosexual, monogamous) romantic love relegates homosexuality to the sphere of deviance, secures women’s submission to the asymmetrical distribution of power between men and women, and bolsters individualism by positing sexual love as the expression of authentic identity. Men are not, of course, immune to these effects, but they are more likely than women to derive benefit from them. My analysis of this phenomenon proceeds first by examining the ideological function of Romeo and Juliet in the Renaissance and in the present, and then moves on to critique the discourses (those of psychoanalysis and history) which should enable the historicization of desire in Renaissance studies, but which in certain key respects actually impede it. Here, my approach is necessarily and deliberately synoptic because I endeavor to place desire in terms of the determinate, global conceptual categories of Marxism. The final sections of the chapter address the complex operations of desire within the play itself.

Reproducing the Ideology of Romantic Love

Shakespeare’s text has been used to perpetuate the dominant ideology of romantic love, and its initial ideological function has intensified since its first performance. The play enacts an ideological propensity to posit desire as transhistorical. For what is extraordinary about the version of familial and personal relations—of desire and identity and their relation to power—endorsed by Romeo and Juliet is that they are in our own time so fully naturalized as to seem universal. Feminist psychoanalytic critic Julia Kristeva writes: “Young people throughout the entire world, whatever their race, religion, or social status, identify with the adolescents of Verona . . .” (210). According to Kristeva and countless Shakespeareans, the play constitutes a universal legend of love representing elemental psychic forces of desire and frustration purportedly characteristic of the human condition in every age and culture.3

The iteration of a particular configuration of desire does not end, therefore, in 1595 when the first performance puts it in place, but rather is a phenomenon that has been perpetuated, indeed universalized, by subsequent critical and theatrical reproductions of the play.4 As Joseph Porter points out, Romeo and Juliet “has become far more canonical a story of heterosexual love than it was when it came to Shakespeare’s hand” (141). Consider, for example, that in its Elizabethan production,Romeo and Juliet were portrayed not by an actor and actress but by a suitably feminine-featured male performer and a slightly more rugged youth, and that the erotic homology produced by this situation was compounded by the presence of the profoundly homoerotic Mercutio. The play’s initial ideological project—the valorization of romantic love between the young couple—thus becomes consolidated and intensified with subsequent re-narrations. Indeed, the affective power of the story and of romantic love itself—its “dateless passion” (Evans et al., 1057)—occurs not in spite of its repetition but rather depends precisely on reiteration.

The narrative mechanisms of the text itself tend towards self-replication. Shakespeare’s play perpetuates an already well-known tale, and Act V produces “closure” on desire only by opening up the possibility of endless retellings of the story—displacing the lovers’ desire onto a perpetual narrative of love (see Whittier, 41; Jones).5 The lovers’ story is recapitulated by the prologue, by the lovers, and by the Friar. The Prince offers the concluding incitement to “more talk”: “never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” (V. iii. 307; 309-10). The play’s ending thus constitutes a means of monumentalizing (quite literally in the golden statues of the lovers) and thereby reproducing ad infinitum, “whiles Verona by that name is known” (V. iii. 300), the ideological imperatives of the lovers’ most poignant erotic moments. Crucially, then, the social effectivity of the ideology of romantic love is characterized fundamentally by its capacity for self-replication. Thus, the narrative imperative of Romeo and Juliet to propagate the desire with which it is inscribed constitutes a resistance to historicization that has been extended by criticism’s production of the play as universal love story. In this respect, the mimetic dynamic curiously mirrors the capitalist mode of production, whose goal is not immediate use but accumulated and multiplied future production (see Kamenka and Neale, 18). The play’s inclination towards replication and multiplication is a maneuver that propagates a version of erotic love which is consonant with the needs of an emergent social order.

Romeo and Juliet, then, marks the inauguration of a particular form of sexual desire produced in accordance with the specific historical requirements of patriarchy’s shifting modality. As Eli Zaretsky argues in his pathbreaking study Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life, “courtly love anticipated ideals of love and individualism that the bourgeois located within the family and that were generalized and transformed in the course of capitalist development” (38). In the early modern teleology of desire, the family, newly emphasized as the focus of political, social, legal, and economic organization becomes the social destination of desire.6 Thus, Romeo and Juliet both instantiates the ideology of romantic love as universal, timeless and unchanging and yet is marked by its own historical specificity. The degree to which Romeo and Juliet appears to constitute the transcription of the universal features of the experience of love indicates its profoundly “ideological” nature; that is to say, the play’s ideological project has become the dominant ideology of desire. In this way, the text both positions itself within and reproduces the hegemonic. Romeo and Juliet consolidates the ideology of romantic love and the correlative crystalization of the modern nuclear family.

Disciplining Desire: Psychoanalysis and History

The tendency to posit desire as transhistorical, as we shall see, is not confined to Shakespeare’s text. Freud himself conflated psychic, social, and historical processes, most notoriously perhaps in his account of the origins of patriarchy in Totem and Taboo. Here, the primal father is overthrown and eaten by his sons, who in their guilt, after a considerable period of time, reinstate the father’s strictures, which by now they have all too thoroughly and literally ingested: “Each single one of the brothers who had banded together for the purposes of killing their father was inspired by a wish to become like him and had given expression to it by incorporating parts of their father’s surrogate in the totem meal” (505). Posited as a fact of prehistory, this is a far more literal manifestation of the rivalry between father and son inherent in the Oedipus complex.7 Freud also argued that we all carry a philogenetic memory of this “real” event, a claim he repeated in his last work, Moses and Monotheism.8 The point here is not to add weight to the already heavy indictment against Freud; rather, what is critical is that he posited a real event as the origin of the human family, a site of the individual psychic scenario, and was himself (particularly in these texts which are examples of his speculative, as opposed to his strictly psychoanalytic writings) grappling with, or conversely evading, the problem of “real history.”9

In contemporary critical analyses, the understanding of desire as transhistorical is similarly produced by the way psychoanalysis (the dominant critical apparatus of desire) is positioned in relation to questions of historical specificity.10 Feminism, far from resolving this conflicted relationship, is in fact heavily invested in it. This is because, on the one hand, constructions of gender and sexuality are seen to be historically specific and, on the other, fundamental aspects of patriarchy are stubbornly tenacious—well nigh universal. The law of the father has been an apparently immutable force in psychic and social organization and is enacted in and structured by the Oedipus complex,11 and the desire which is a necessary condition of human subjectivity comes into being under the “Law of the Father.” There are always “two parents of the opposite sex and their relationship to each other and their off-spring, and its to them” (Mitchell, Woman’s Estate, 169; see also Coward, 15, and Weeks, 159). Juliet Mitchell argues, “this pattern is as inherent in our culture as it is in our biology . . . and we must remember there always is a father and it is the idea of him that Freud was commenting on” (Woman’s Estate, 169-70). He is the history into which the (proto) subject is inserted. Mitchell contends: “He [Freud] examined the ‘eternal’ structures of patriarchy in what is for us their most essential particularity: the bourgeois, patriarchal family . . . The Oedipus complex is universal while the particular form used to redescribe it is specific” (Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 380-1; see Kaplan, 167).12 The danger here for feminism is that the way psychoanalysis describes the structure of patriarchy may actually corroborate its oppressive order, in that the family in which human beings advene desire is posited as unchanging and unchangeable. That is, the oedipal situation becomes coterminous with the patriarchal family. Crucially, this conceptualization of the family—culturally constructed at the level of both the psychic and the social as the organizing principle of desire—is the mechanism that produces desire as transhistorical.

Psychoanalysis, then, does not theorize the way in which the family itself is socially determined, but rather attempts to explain the family in terms of itself, projecting the family of developed capitalist society onto all periods of history. This does not make psychoanalytic interpretation irrelevant to a materialist history of desire; it is the most compelling narrative of the psychic structuring of desire we possess and one that forestalls a purely functionalist understanding of its operations. Rather, psychoanalysis is relevant only insofar as it can be seen to undermine certain of its own assumptions—that is, when it can help to uncover the production of desire in patriarchal structures that are shifting and heterogeneous rather than static, monolithic, and universal.

While the “universalism” of psychoanalysis cannot be equated unproblematically with the universalizing of the liberal humanist tradition because the former disrupts rather than secures the coherent subject of the latter, it remains ironically true that in their dominant disciplinary formations psychoanalysis and history, despite their alleged antithesis, can be seen to rely upon strikingly similar notions of the patriarchal family. In Renaissance studies psychoanalysis is largely viewed as causally belated if not downright anachronistic, on the grounds that it erases temporal specificity by proposing a universal psychic scenario embedded in its foundational procedures and assumptions. History, in contrast, is typically understood as the common sense of our area of inquiry. Yet the history referred to is still what Jameson calls “the common garden-variety empirical history,” that constitutes “bourgeois historiography” rather than “a genuine philosophy of history” (132; see also Cressy, 124). The result of this theoretical and ideological blind spot in the otherwise deservedly influential work of many social historians of the early modern era, such as Alan Macfarlane, David Cressy, and Keith Wrightson, is a prevailing tendency toward ahistoricism about desire and the nuclear family.

The ahistorical treatment of desire in early modern social history is especially apparent in the debate about the degree of continuity between Puritan ideals of love with those of prior and succeeding centuries.13 It is now generally accepted that the conventional notion of the extended feudal family is misleading (Sharpe, 59-60). Even Lawrence Stone, much indicted for his insistence on change, does not deny a basic continuity: “most of the features of the modern family appeared before industrialization and among social groups unaffected by it and . . . even those exposed to it responded in different ways” (The Family, Sex and Marriage, 665).14 This fact does not, however, obviate the need to account for the increasing pervasiveness of the ideology of nuclear familialism in early modern England, which required, produced, and interpellated female subjectivities of a different (though not necessarily “improved”) order from those of preceding centuries (Newman, 20; Davies, 59). The permutations of the ideology of the family are significant for feminism because, as we have noted, that ideology constitutes a central structure in the psychic and social dimensions of women’s oppression (Barrett, 251; Swindells and Jardine, 69). With the advent of capitalism, and the notion of private property, there is a new conception of the family as an independent economic unit within a market economy (Zaretsky, 32). The problem is that when social historians critique the naïve model of the shift from feudal clan to nuclear family and the now obsolete theory that Protestantism invariably offered conditions for women much improved from those of an allegedly benighted pre-Reformation Catholicism, they tend to collapse historical distinctions altogether and to relegate the ideological to the realm of ideas of a purely cognitive kind (Houlbrooke, 36). Further, the stress on the slow, almost imperceptible, evolution in the internal constitution of the household from the “extended” to the “nuclear” family is, as Eli Zaretsky points out, whether consciously or not, ideologically motivated: “Viewed in this way, the seeming inertia of the family has been in marked contrast to the continuous upheaval of political and economic history, a contrast that lends plausibility to the view that ‘history’ is the realm of politics and economics while the family is confined to ‘nature’” (32).

In a recent essay, David Cressy indicts literary scholars for their allegedly naïve notions about the radical discontinuity in the history of the family attendant upon the advent of Protestantism, and especially their recourse to Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marriage:15

This is not just a professional squabble among historians, nor is it a technical dispute about sources. The disagreement goes to the heart of how we do history, about how we make sense of the past. Should we choose material to support pre-drawn conclusions, or should our argument be distilled from the sources? Is the past baffling and contradictory, or can we reduce it to patterns? . . . Nor are we dealing with a simple matter of taste, synchronic versus diachronic styles, or a predisposition toward watersheds and rifts rather than slow glacial flows. It comes down to evidence versus agenda.


Clearly, it is important to move away from the reductive notion of history as straight-arrow teleology, but Cressy then returns us to an empiricist history which is essentially inscrutable, “baffling and contradictory.” This is paradoxical since at the same time sources are seen as more or less transparent documents that will speak to the objective, “more cautious . . . more reliable” (130)historian who has laid all predrawn conclusions aside. Stone is not, of course, beyond the reach of criticism: he makes generalizations on the evidence of aristocratic families alone, for instance. For all that, what is at issue here is not simply the merits of Stone’s book, but the politics of historiography. Cressy does not see that what constitutes “evidence” is itself the product of an “agenda” whether it be an explicitly political one concerned with struggle, conflict, and change, or merely a condition of bafflement.

Similarly, Keith Wrightson, whose book English Society 1580-1680, tries to account for both continuity and change, defines his conceptual hold upon the period in question as simply the product of “a personal attempt to bring together, to come to terms with and make sense of what has been revealed both of the nature of English society and of the course of social change within the century” (12, my emphasis). For Wrightson, change is never a matter of changes in state and economic structure; it is always a matter of “local diversity” (222):

Within the flexible structure of the neighbour-hood there already flourished a cultural emphasis on the interests of the individual nuclear family which was a powerful enough incentive to override traditional social obligations where there was gain to be made. Such attitudes needed only the opportunity to express themselves more fully, and in the fiercely competitive climate of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they found it.


The family becomes naturalized, as does change itself—a “climate” which permits already existing conditions to flourish. Once again, the critique of Stone is instructive and indicative of a particular way of reading history:

[T]here is little reason to follow Professor Stone in regarding the rise of the companionate marriage as a new phenomenon of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It seems to have been already well established . . . It may well be that these are less evolutionary stages of familial progress, than the poles of an enduring continuum in marital relations in a society which accepted both the primacy of male authority and the ideal of marriage as a practical and emotional partnership.

(Wrightson, 103-4)

In Marriage and Love in England 1300-1840, Alan Macfarlane (incidentally, Stone’s best-known detractor) concedes like most other historians that while “the strengthening of the husband-wife bond is part of . . . emotional and economic nucleation” (174), which is regarded as one of the preconditions of modernity, and a distinctive feature of western families—“it is not the pivot of social structure in the majority of societies” (174)—he proceeds to go back and forth across centuries and genres to show that things were always the same from Anglo-Saxon England to the nineteenth century:

As far back as we can easily go, there is evidence of the same insistence. If we leap back to the early thirteenth century we find in the encyclopedia by Bartholomaeus Anglicus a similar emphasis on love, “fellowship”, affection, consideration . . . [T]he revolution to conjugality and companionate marriage, which is both unusual and so influential, had occurred at least by the time of Chaucer in England, if not long before.


In fact “continuity—a perfectly valid if not entirely accurate postulate—has been erased by the complete collapse of historical difference. It would undoubtedly be futile to argue that human beings have not felt genuine emotional intimacy and overwhelming desire through the ages, but the form, figure, and meaning of these phenomena are historically specific. Macfarlane’s text is symptomatic of a prevailing tendency toward ahistoricism among early modern social historians about the social construction of desire institutionalized as marriage and the nuclear family. He devotes a chapter on romantic love almost entirely to literary “evidence.” The argument for the ubiquity of a uniform romantic love is not adequately supported by the great list of literary quotations Macfarlane offers by way of historical verification. I am not arguing here that literary texts are irrelevant to history: my own text takes Shakespeare’s play as a cultural document of a particular historical circumstance. But I find it impossible to agree with Macfarlane that Romeo and Juliet figures as the acme of and the evidence for timeless love:

The passion of love in its myriad manifestations is brought into conflict with a thousand obstacles, and the resolution of these difficulties keeps audiences in the past and today in a state of suspense and enchantment . . . reaching exquisite perfection in Romeo and Juliet.


Romantic love is here completely divorced from social considerations so that it becomes a transhistorical “emotion.” In short, desire is placed resolutely outside history, untouched by temporal and other differences.16

Paradoxically, then, historians arrive at a view of the family which bears an uncanny resemblance to its situation in psychoanalysis. The family, it turns out, is for social historians, as much as it is for a psychoanalytic theorist like Juliet Mitchell, “a relatively constant unit in relation to the entire course of social history. As such, it has a certain autonomy and inflexibility, whatever the stage of economic development of the society as a whole” (Woman’s Estate, 159).17 The point here is not that such an assertion, whether enunciated by psychoanalytic critics or social historians, is ludicrously retrograde; it is rather that both psychoanalysis and history are epistemological configurations whose ostensible antipathy has obscured their shared participation in the cultural processes whereby the family is peculiarly insulated from historical change, and thus desire, produced within the family and circulated among families, is excluded from the process of historicization.

A final example from the debate about Stone will perhaps make clear why, despite its shortcomings, the overall conception of his book remains useful. For Stone, the modern family of capitalist development is presented as a more significant site of sexual and emotional satisfaction than its early modern precursor. He has been attacked for the proposition that there could have been little emotional investment in families in former times because of arranged marriages and high rates of infant mortality; people surely loved one another and grieved for one another in the past as now. However, when social historians critical of Stone take up this point, they use this issue as a way of asserting the universality of emotional investment in family life. That “affection, co-operation and mutual give-and-take” may have existed in early modern domestic arrangements, or even “passionate attachment” (Sharpe, 69, 62) is not, therefore, identical with the ideology through which these relations are constituted. The conceptual tools of social historians simply do not allow for a distinction between sexual passions and the ideology of romantic love with which we are concerned. As a result, they are blind to the distinct, historically mutable material effects of ideology. Of course, neither does Stone have a theory of ideology, and so it is only a Marxist-feminist reading of Stone that can account for social change in the social institutions which structure and regulate human intimacy.


1. There is in Shakespeare’s play only a dim residue of this earlier moralism in the Friar’s caveat that “these violent delights have violent ends” (II. vi. 9); see Bullough.

All references to the play are to the Riverside edition, edited Evans et al.

2. For a useful guide to the literature on the debate about the transition from feudalism to capitalism, see Taylor. See also: Anderson (1979; 1983); Baechler; Baechler et al.; Brenner; Hirst; Katz; Kamenka and Neale; Medick; Mooers; Wallerstein.

3. For example, Arthur Kirsch who uses a Christian/Freudian approach comments: “Central to my understanding of the treatment of love in Shakespeare has been the assumption that the plays represent elemental truths of our emotional and spiritual life, that these truths help account for Shakespeare’s enduring vitality . . .” (ix). In such criticism, Freud merely discovered a different way of expressing what Shakespeare had already said. History becomes the changing stage scenery of a continuum—the costumes may change, but the essence remains unchanged (6).

4. Even when the text was staged in a version thought more suited to the times, the result was the enhancement of its message for a post-Puritan world wherein the ideals it presented required a certain modification. See Barnet on the theatre history of the text. The Restoration saw the popularity of a happy ending (Evans et al., 1802).

5. For Kristeva, however, such repetition is born not of ideological necessity but of a psycho-linguistic one. Commenting on the centrality of night imagery in the play, she argues: “it is not nothingness, lack of meaning, absurdity. In the polite display of its black tenderness there is an intense longing that is positive with respect to meaning . . . Let me emphasize the nocturnal motion of metaphor and amor mortis: it bears on the irrational aspect of signs and loving subjects, on the nonrepresentable feature on which the renewal of representation depends” (214, ellipsis in the original).

6. As Susan Amussen puts it, in nascent modernity “[b]oth economic realities and political and social thought, then, draw us to the family as a central institution” (2). Further, Sharpe points to the irrefutable arrival of one new family type: “the legitimate family of clergymen” (61).

For debates on the family see also: Chaytor; Houl-brooke; Outhwaite; Stone.

7. “The fact, too, that in this situation he regards his father as a disturbing rival and would like to get rid of him and take his place is a straightforward consequence of the actual state of affairs” (“Some psychical consequences,” 672).

8. Freud’s insistence on this point leads Rosalind Coward to argue that we cannot defend the ahistoricism of Freud’s theories by arguing that they are applicable to a specific, if inordinately lengthy, period of time, namely the patriarchal era (189; see also Weeks, 158-9).

9. There is a sense too in which the processes of psychoanalysis and those of conventional historiography are analogous. Freud saw himself as something of an archeologist of the psyche: “the analyst’s final reconstruction of the repressed psychic life of the analysand was the objective historical truth about repressed psychic reality” (Novick, 558).

10. Even Deleuze and Guattari, who reject the oedipal construct, merely replace its universality with the fragmentation of desire, a displacement which ignores gender categories and is in danger of ignoring choice, reason, and history along with them. See Weeks, 173-6, for an excellent critique of Anti-Oedipus.

For Valerie Traub, whose goal is to articulate the historical specificity of women’s homoerotic desire, it is imperative “to tease out the mutually implicated but distinct relation between gender and eroticism . . . Such a project involves specifying erotic discourses and practices; describing institutional delimitations on erotic practice; detailing the resistance of subjects to the ideological and material constraints upon their erotic lives; and tracing the play of erotic discourses and practices throughout history” (“Desire and the difference it makes,” 90). For this reason it is important to understand the binarism “desire and history” as ideologically constructed rather than as natural and self-evident. Jeffrey Weeks points out:

“Desire” dances on the precipice between determinism and disruption. After Freud, it cannot be reduced to primeval biological urges, beyond human control, nor can it be seen as the product of conscious willing and planning. It is somewhere ambiguously, elusively, in between, omnipotent but tangible, powerful but goal-less. Because of this it can lay claim to universality, to being out of time and beyond identity, infiltrating the diverse spaces of our social lives, casting out delicate strands which embrace or entrap, isolate or unify. But it also has a history. The flux of desire is hooked, trapped and defined by historical processes which far from being beyond understanding, need to be understood.


11. The principal objections to the use of psychoanalysis in conjunction with materialist criticism have been, as one Renaissance critic put it, that it is “ahistorical, Europocentric, and sexist . . .” (Brown, 71). (On phallocentricity see also Michael Ryan, 104-11). As a result, psychoanalysis has a complex history within the women’s movement; for that matter, it has also acquired something of a troublesome geography given its very different place in British, American, and French feminist struggles. This, of course, omits Australia, another western nation which has taken Lacan to its bosom (see, for example, Grosz). There is vehement (and justifiable) antipathy to psychoanalysis among feminist activists in the American tradition of Kate Millett, which is the response to the repressive, normalizing elements of psychoanalysis as well as to the practices of clinical psychology (which does not adhere to the fundamental—and most radical—principles of psychoanalysis as Freud formulated them). Yet there is also a strong Francophone tradition in the US represented by, for example, Shoshana Felman, Jane Gallop, and Alice Jardine. In France, there has been opposition to Freud and Lacan (the forms of psychological theory which can properly be labelled as psychoanalytic), but it has been within the intellectual perimeters of psychoanalysis rather than a repudiation of psychoanalysis as such (Irigaray, Montrelay, Kristeva, etc.). These feminist proponents/opponents of psychoanalysis while they are vigorously political (more obviously so than their American Fran-cophone counterparts) can hardly be described as materialists. In Britain, on the other hand, where there is a strong tradition of intellectual Marxism, psychoanalysis has been seen as less antithetical to materialism than elsewhere, a tendency reinforced early on in the women’s movement by Juliet Mitchell’s path-breaking defence of the radical potential of psychoanalysis, Psychoanalysis and Feminism. However, even in Britain one can think of examples of materialist feminists who are quite opposed to psychoanalysis, for example Michèle Barrett, whose widely influential book, Women’s Oppression Today, offers a riposte to Mitchell, and more recently Chris Weedon’s Feminism and Poststructuralism which repeatedly delineates the shortcomings of psychoanalysis for feminism. Jane Moore and Catherine Belsey have lately argued, in a position representative of the British compromise on feminism and psychoanalysis, that psychoanalysis versus feminism is a reductive binarism in which “for” or “against” are the only possible positions. This is itself, they contend, a failure to historicize the role of this discussion within feminism where different questions have been asked at different historical moments. Thus, for example, “. . . Millett is concerned with the way patriarchy victimizes women, while Mitchell and Rose are concerned with evidence that victims of patriarchy are in a position to strike back” (7).

There is, then, a pervasive sense that materialism and psychoanalysis are incompatible and yet a Marxist tradition from Trotsky, which is quite the reverse, with perhaps its most recent manifestation in Terry Eagleton’s declaration that “psychoanalysis is nothing less than a materialist theory of the making of the human subject” (163). That tradition of critical engagement with the most radical aspects of psychoanalytic theory in Marxist criticism includes, for example, Louis Althusser’s “Ideology and ideological state apparatuses” and “Freud and Lacan” (in Lenin and Philosophy) and Fredric Jameson’s, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. It also includes, of course, famous attacks on psychoanalysis such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Colonial and post-colonial criticism has also engaged with psychoanalysis since it was Freud who first drew the analogy between the operations of colonialism and psychic repression (Brown, 71), and which has been taken up most powerfully by Nigerian writer, Franz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon is concerned with the political constructions of identity, and the way in which in our very psychic interiority we take up race and national identities within ideology and in the service of the hegemonic order. Similarly, Cora Kaplan has argued that this is equally true of gender and class: “Our identities are still constructed through social hierarchy and cultural differentiation, as well as those processes of division and fragmentation, described in psychoanalytic theory” (175).

To return to the specifics of the feminist tradition, there is a tension on the one hand between the desire to register the fact that constructions of gender and sexuality are historically specific (Newton and Rosen-felt, xvi) and, on the other, that certain fundamental aspects of patriarchy are stubbornly tenacious, and that they are enacted and structured even at the level of consciousness itself. Further, although gendered identities are constructed as stable, they are profoundly unstable and subject to a resistance which is at the heart of psychic life (Newton and Rosenfelt, xviii).

One of the sources of this tension, I contend, is in the desire to critique liberal humanist understandings of the subject, particularly its emphasis on the individual in the notion of an autonomous psychic interiority, which thus transcends history. Yet psychoanalysis, perhaps more than any other contemporary discourse, has effected a Copernican revolution in the sphere of the subject. The autonomous, unified coherent self of liberal humanism has been replaced by a fragmented subjectivity constituted in language rather than in some otherworldly realm of souls. Nonetheless, psychoanalysis and the “universalism” allegedly present there is unreasonably, in my view, equated with the universalizing of the liberal humanist tradition.

For a useful overview of this issues from a humanist perspective, see Gardiner.

An example of the dilemma from the perspective of feminist Renaissance studies is Valerie Traub’s essay on the repressed maternal body of the history plays. She writes, “The salient difference between the Henriad and psychoanalysis . .. is less ideological than sytlistic” (“Prince Hal’s Falstaff,” 458). Thus Traub emphasizes the historical continuity of the phallocentric repression of the mother as a significant actor in the oedipal drama.

12. Elsewhere in the book, however, Mitchell comments, “The degree of specificity and universality has, I think, still to be worked out” (363). Addressing the argument that Freud’s theories can only be applied to the nineteenth-century Vienna in which he formulated them she writes: “Certainly, then, psychoanalysis, as any other system of thought, was formed within a particular time and place; that does not invalidate its claims to universal laws, it only means that these laws have to be extracted from their specific problematic—the particular material conditions of their formation” (xviii).

13. For a summary of this debate, see Houlbrooke, chs 1 and 2.

14. For Stone’s comments on developments in academic historiography, see Novick, 620.

15. The use of Foucault, let alone Freud or Lacan, is viewed as “an exercise in anachronism and dislocation” (Cressy, 125). Similarly, Cressy charges that literary scholars engage in a naïve use of the work of Lawrence Stone. However, he does not cite Mary Beth Rose’s critique of Stone, which addresses the limitations but also suggests why he is useful for literary scholars who are more attuned to concepts of ideology than empiricist historians (Rose, 2-3).

In a somewhat lengthy meditation on the age of marriage in early modern England, Peter Laslett worries the question of Juliet’s age (fourteen) and that of her mother (twenty-eight):

The more the point is laboured, the less credible the view that there was anything realistic whatever in the literary intentions of the play in these respects.

If we ask ourselves what those intentions were, we might suppose that Shakespeare was playing upon the rather hazy information of the bulk of his audience about the maturational differences between aristocrats and the mass of people . . . Much more plausible is the view that he was deliberately writing a play about love and marriage amongst boys and girls without any recognition of the facts about the age of women at their weddings or at sexual maturity.

(The World We Have Lost, 85)

The reason for this, Laslett concludes, is that writers of literature have a penchant for the unusual, the out of the ordinary. He concludes that, as a result, literary evidence is almost systematically unreliable.

16. It is significant that Macfarlane (“The cradle of capitalism”) is not entirely convinced of the fact that there was a transition from feudalism to capitalism. Because he can find capital in the feudal era, he questions the “supposed transition” from one mode of production to another. Macfarlane here ignores one of Marx’s most fundamental definitions of capitalism. That is, “capital” always exists, but it only functions as such within specific sets of economic and social relations, just as gold has value only within particular relations.

17. Interestingly enough, it is in Lawrence Stone’s The Past and the Present that we find the sort of unambiva-lent pronouncement about the (antithetical) relation between psychoanalysis and history that we would expect from a historian:

Nothing in the historical record disproves Freud’s theory about how at different stages of infantile development different erogenous zones become the foci of sexual stimulation, thus providing a logical explanation of the later relationship between oral, anal, and genital pleasure. Nor does the historical record do anything to belittle the importance of sublimation, or of the unconscious operating with a secret dynamic of its own. What it does do, however, is to cast very great doubt upon the assumption that particular kinds of infantile traumas upon which Freud laid so much stress have been suffered by the whole of the human race at all times and in all places. It is now fairly clear that four of the main traumas Freud looked for and found among his patients, and therefore assumed to be universal, are dependent on particular experiences which did not happen to the vast majority of people in most of the recorded past, but which were peculiar to middle-class urban culture of late Victorian Europe.


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Leah Marcus (Essay Date October 2000)

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SOURCE: Marcus, Leah. "Elizabeth the Writer." History Today 50, no. 10 (October 2000): 36-38.

In the following essay, Marcus praises Queen Elizabeth's oratory strengths.

In July 1597, a dashing young Polish ambassador made his debut at the Elizabethan court. The English welcomed him with pageantry that was more splendid than usual and prepared to celebrate a 'great day.' But the young ambassador's formal Latin oration of greeting froze the cordial environment, offering the aging Queen Elizabeth a series of rebukes rather than the diplomatic platitudes that had been expected. What happened next was predictable to those who had seen the Queen in action before, but astonishing to those less acquainted with her oratorical skills. Sir Robert Cecil marvelled in a letter to the Earl of Essex, 'to this, I swear by the living God that her majesty made one of the best answers extempore in Latin that ever I heard, being much moved to be so challenged in public, especially so much against her expectation.' Her reply to the Polish ambassador expressed her astonishment at 'so great and insolent a boldness in open Presence' and tartly corrected his 'ignorant' misapprehension of 'the law of nature' and 'of nations,' and 'what is convenient between kings.' She closed with a suggestion that he 'repose himself' or 'be silent,' depending on how much indignity one wishes to infuse into the translation of Elizabeth's Latin.

The learning and rhetorical skill displayed in this public rebuke were characteristic of Elizabeth I. Typically, her public speeches were not penned in advance, but delivered more or less impromptu. She was at her best when she was most spontaneous, both as a speaker and as a writer, and she was much admired by her contemporaries for both talents. No doubt, those who admired her literary skills saw them through the usual haze of flattery that surrounds a reigning monarch's every gesture. And we moderns have been hesitant to acknowledge the power of many of Elizabeth's writings out of fear that we will be suspected of a similar uncritical adulation. Nevertheless, as we begin a new century, her work is of increasing interest to historians and literary scholars. Her reputation as a writer is arguably higher now than it has been at any time since her own era.

For all their acknowledged brilliance in delivery, Elizabeth's speeches are elusive, precisely because they did not exist in advance copies. Lacking modern recording devices, contemporaries who wanted to preserve her utterances were required either to take down the queen's words in rudimentary shorthand as she spoke them or, more likely, record them from memory as soon as possible after the end of the speech. Frequently, they record their frustration at not having captured her performance adequately. In 1601, for example, Sir Roger Wilbraham, the Queen's solicitor general for Ireland, complained as he attempted to record her speech of December 19th, besides the fact that 'I could not well hear all she spake, the grace of pronunciation and of her apt and refined words, so learnedly composed, did ravish the sense of the hearers with such admiration as every new sentence made me half forget the precedents'.

Because they were written down after the fact, different manuscript versions of Elizabeth's speeches often display strikingly different wording. In the first of her impromptu 1586 replies to a parliamentary delegation urging the queen to consent to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, for example, one manuscript has Elizabeth complaining about 'pettifoggers of the law, who look more on the outside of their books than study them within.' The version Robert Cecil printed shortly after the speech's delivery is more polite: 'you lawyers are so nice in sifting and scanning every word and letter that many times you stand more upon form than matter, upon syllables than sense of the law.' In this case, the difference in wording may be a result of the Queen's own revision, for we possess in her own hand corrections made to the speech in preparation for its publication. But to make her corrections, she had to rely on someone else's written copy made from memory after her delivery of the speech. We can judge pretty closely what she wanted her public to read, since her written corrections correlate fairly closely with the speech as printed. But how does that version compare with the speech as she actually delivered it? We can make educated guesses, but we will never know certainly.

The Queen's most famous speech before Parliament was undoubtedly her 'Golden Speech' of November 1601, delivered in answer to the Commons' complaint about her toleration for monopolies that restricted trade and impoverished her subjects. Here, as usual, contemporaries bemoaned the fact that their written recollections of the speech preserved it so imperfectly. One copyist recorded, 'Many things through want of memory I have omitted, without setting down many her majesty's gestures of honour and princely demeanor used by her. As when the speaker spake any effectual or moving speech from the Commons to her majesty, she rose up and bowed herself. As also in her own speech, when the Commons, apprehending any extraordinary words of favour from her, did any reverence to her majesty, she likewise rose up and bowed herself.' In the case of the Golden Speech, however, the version published immediately after the event is even less reliable than usual as a guide to the speech in delivery as we have it recorded by MPs present at the occasion. The official printed version is a disappointingly short abstract that omits most of the 'golden' language for which the speech became famous. The uncertainty of contemporary evidence is surely one reason why it has taken us so long fully to acknowledge Elizabeth's formidable skills as an orator.

Roger Wilbraham's adulatory remarks are typical of auditors' responses to speeches at the end of Elizabeth's reign, when the Cult of Elizabeth was in full swing and her oratorical powers had become the stuff of legend. Four decades earlier, she was probably just as eloquent but aroused a rather different reaction from MPs. Most of her addresses from the first years of her reign were designed to deflect parliamentary petitions urging her to marry and declare a succession. She ended her very first speech before Parliament (February 1559) by deftly parrying their demands and declaring, 'And in the end this shall be for me sufficient: that a marble stone shall declare that a queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin.' Later speeches on the same general topic are less pacific towards those who would coerce her into procreation. In a 1562 conversation with the Scottish ambassador, she complained that to declare a succession would be like holding up her own winding sheet before her eyes. In November 1566, incensed that parliamentarians were tying their grant of funds to run her government to her promise to marry and declare a succession. Elizabeth lashed out against their presumption: 'When I call to mind how far from dutiful care, yea, rather how nigh a traitorous trick this tumbling cast did spring, I muse how men of wit can so hardly use that gift they hold. I marvel not much that bridleless colts do not know their rider's hand, whom bit of kingly rein did never snaffle yet.'

After 1567, Elizabeth spoke less frequently before Parliament. We have only one full-length speech from the 1570s, and only the speeches on the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, from the 1580s. One of her most arresting productions was her famous 'Armada Speech', delivered before the troops at Tilbury who were awaiting Spanish invasion in 1588. As we would expect, this stirring address exists in several versions which display intriguing differences. The earliest known published version of the speech dates from 1654, and is, according to the compiler of the volume in which it appears, based on the recollection of Lionel Sharp, an adherent of the Earl of Leicester who was present at the speech's delivery. This version has the Queen protesting her fearlessness to appear in public, despite threats of assassination: 'And therefore I am come amongst you, as you see at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live or die amongst you all.' A manuscript that can be dated closer to the time of the speech's actual delivery has Elizabeth promising, 'Wherefore I am come among you at this time but for my recreation and pleasure, being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live and die amongst you all.' In this version, death in battle becomes her highest pleasure, a blood-feast of daring and sacrifice. We cannot be certain whether the published version is a later tidying clarification of the Queen's highminded sprezzatura in the face of the Spanish threat, or whether it is closer to what she actually said than the surviving manuscript. As usual, the early evidence allows us to come close to recapturing what she uttered, but leaves us at a tantalising distance from certainty.

Elizabeth's speeches are arguably her most glorious literary production, even though, in the forms we have, they are imperfect records of performance. But she also produced poems, prayers, and hundreds of letters. The Armada threat of 1588 inspired her to intense literary activity. Beyond the Armada Speech itself, we possess two public prayers of thanksgiving for the Armada victory, one of which shows the Queen in high, vatic mode as a priestess of her people, thanking God for creating the four elements by which, acting in concert, the Spanish fleet was destroyed:

Everlasting and omnipotent Creator, Redeemer, and Conserver, when it seemed most fit time to Thy worthy providence to bestow the workmanship of this world or globe, with Thy rare judgment Thou didst divide into four singular parts the form of all this world, which aftertime hath termed elements, they all serving to continue in orderly government the whole of all the mass: which all, when of Thy most singular bounty and never-earst-seen care Thou hast this year made serve for instruments both to daunt our foes and to confound their malice.

Elizabeth's enigmatic French verses, which record a mystical rise into otherworldly constancy and spiritual equilibrium, may have been inspired by the Armada victory, as was a little-known 'Song' that was, according to the heading of the single known copy, 'made by her majesty and sung before her at her coming from Whitehall to Paul's through Fleet Street' in public celebration of the scattering of the Spanish ships. In this highly psalmic poem, she offers herself as a sacrifice in thanksgiving for the victory:

Look and bow down Thine ear, O Lord.
From Thy bright sphere behold and see
Thy handmaid and Thy handiwork,
Amongst Thy priests, offering to Thee
Zeal for incense, reaching the skies;
Myself and sceptre, sacrifice.

Given the importance of its occasion, it is astonishing that the Queen's 'Song' has until now been so little known.

The most famous of Elizabeth's political verses is 'The doubt of future foes', written in 1570-71 in response to the Northern Rebellion and the abortive plot to place the Duke of Norfolk and Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne of England. Her contemporaries admired this poem greatly for its extended 'dark conceit', a threat of death, half submerged in allegory, against Mary, the 'daughter of debate,' and Elizabeth's rebellious subjects. The poem begins:

The doubt of future foes
Exiles my present joy
And with me warns to shun such snares
As threatens mine annoy

and ends with the promise to prune her 'foes' with an instrument of war:

My rusty sword through rest
Shall first his edge employ
To poll their tops who seek such change
Or gape for future joy.

Like her speeches, this poem is securely attributed to Elizabeth and exists in a number of manuscript copies, all of them different in their precise wording. But her less obviously political poems are more elusive, and many of them may be lost for good. Most of them were composed as verse conversations with courtiers like Sir Thomas Heneage and Sir Walter Ralegh, and were carefully kept from circulation. To the extent that they have survived, it is often because of the fortuitous durability of the surface on which they were composed or copied. Two of Elizabeth's lyrics survive only as marginalia in religious books, and the verse exchange between Ralegh and Elizabeth was printed decades later, shorn of its personal references and the names of its authors, as a broadside ballad entitled 'The Lover's Complaint for the Loss of His Love' and 'The Lady's Comfortable and Pleasant Answer.' Even when Elizabeth's lyrics were copied, their attribution to the Queen was frequently recorded in the manuscript, and then cancelled out—a clear marker of the ambivalence her subjects felt about daring to preserve her verses.

Luckily, with Elizabeth's numerous letters, we are on firmer ground, because they are, like the speeches, always acknowledged as hers. To read her correspondence from the first awkward girlish production addressed to her father 'the most illustrious and most mighty King Henry the Eighth' through to the instructions to Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, for the submission of the Earl of Tyrone at the very end of her reign, is to survey the major events of the Elizabethan age through the perceptions of its major actor. Elizabeth's letters are fascinating for their diversity and stylistic range: pleas for her life during her 'troubles' under the reign of her sister Mary, love letters (or so, at least, she wanted them to appear) to the Duke of Alencon, advice about rule in numerous impatient harangues to James VI of Scotland and Henry IV of France, condolences, pleasantries and intimate advice to her courtiers. As usual, Elizabeth's writing is at its best when she is in her mode of high indignation, as in a characteristic opening to James, 'I rue my sight that views the evident spectacle of a seduced king, abusing Council, and wry-guided kingdom'. Elizabeth usually gets high marks for her diplomatic skills, but we have not fully acknowledged how much of her success can be traced to her brilliance with language.

Further Reading

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Alexander, Meena. "Introduction: Mapping a Female Romanticism." In Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley, pp. 1-17. Savage, Md.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1989.

Examines how women authors faced the "anxiety of authorship" and social constraints.

Berry, Philippa. Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen. London: Routledge, 1989, 193 p.

Considers literary representations of Elizabeth I.

Burroughs, Catherine B. "English Romantic Women Writers and Theatre Theory: Joanna Baillie's Prefaces to the 'Plays on the Passions'." In Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837, edited by Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner, pp. 274-96. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Discusses Baillie's closet theatre theory in the context of the tradition of women writing about the stage.

Dixon, Annette. "Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons 1500-1650: A Thematic Overview." In Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons in Renaissance and Baroque Art, edited by Annette Dixon, pp. 119-179. London: Merrell Publishers Limited, 2002.

Features dozens of plates of art depicting the power of female rulers.

Garrard, Mary D. "Artemisia and Susanna." In Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, edited by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, pp. 146-71. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1982.

Analyzes the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi that portray Susanna of the Apocrypha.

Glenn, Cheryl. "Inscribed in the Margins: Renaissance Women and Rhetorical Culture." In Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance, pp. 118-72. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997.

Explores Renaissance rhetoric and the contributions made by Margaret More Roper, Anne Askew, and Elizabeth I.

Gutwirth, Madelyn. "Gendered Rococo as Political Provocation." In The Twilight of the Goddesses: Women and Representation in the French Revolutionary Era, pp. 3-22. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Examines some of the underlying issues of rococo art.

Hellwarth, Jennifer Wynne. "'I wyl wright of women prevy sekenes': Imagining Female Literacy and Textual Communities in Medieval and Early Modern Midwifery Manuals." Critical Survey 14, no. 1 (January 2002): 44-63.

Considers the cultural implications of the prefaces to medieval midwifery manuals.

Hull, Suzanne W. Women According to Men: The World of Tudor-Stuart Women. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 1996, 240 p.

Describes the world of English women from 1525 to 1675 using the written words of contemporary men.

Kelly, Joan. "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" In Feminism and Renaissance Studies, edited by Lorna Hutson, pp. 21-47. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Contends that during the Renaissance women experienced a diminishment of public and personal power.

Miller, Nancy K. "Men's Reading, Women's Writing: Gender and the Rise of the Novel." Yale French Studies, no. 75 (1988): 40-55.

Criticizes past attempts at writing a history of women's involvement in the development of the eighteenth-century novel.

Rose, Judith. "Prophesying Daughters: Testimony, Censorship, and Literacy Among Early Quaker Women." Critical Survey 14, no. 1 (January 2002): 93-110.

Contends that attempts to contain literacy among Quaker women actually led to greater self-empowerment.

Schor, Naomi. "The Portrait of a Gentleman: Representing Men in (French) Women's Writing." Representations, no. 20 (autumn 1987): 113-33.

Analyzes descriptions of men by Mme. de Lafayette, Mme. de Staël, and George Sand.

Smith, Hilda L. "Humanist Education and the Renaissance Concept of Woman." In Women and Literature in Britain, 1500-1700, edited by Helen Wilcox, pp. 9-29. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Examines the definition of the concept of "woman" during the Renaissance, particularly for humanist writers.

Spongberg, Mary. "'Above Their Sex'? Women's History 'before' Feminism." In Writing Women's History since the Renaissance, pp. 63-85. Hampshire, England: Pal-grave MacMillan, 2002.

Documents female historical writers from the Renaissance to the French Revolution.

Sturkenboom, Dorothée. "Historicizing the Gender of Emotions: Changing Perceptions in Dutch Enlightenment Thought." Journal of Social History 34, no. 1 (2000): 55-75.

Uses eighteenth century Dutch periodicals to investigate prevailing ideas on the genderedness of emotions.

Summit, Jennifer. "The Reformation of the Woman Writer." In Lost Property: The Woman Writer and English Literary History 1380-1589, pp. 109-61. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Discusses the political significance of religious women's writing.

Turner, Cheryl. Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century. London: Routledge, 1994, 261 p.

Studies the rise of women's fiction and the beginnings of the professional woman writer.

Walker, Kim. "'Busie in my Clositt': Letters, Diaries, and Autobiographical Writing." In Women Writers of the English Renaissance, pp. 26-46. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Explores how literate Renaissance women pushed the boundary between private and public writing.

Wall, Wendy. "Dancing in a Net: The Problems of Female Authorship." In The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance, pp. 279-340. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Explores the different reactions of Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney, Amelia Lanyer, and Mary Wroth in response to the inhibiting factors affecting their writing.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. My Gracious Silence: Women in the Mirror of 16th Century Printing in Western Europe, edited by Axel Erdmann. Luzern, Switzerland: Gilhofer & Ranschburg, 1999, 319 p.

Examines women writers' responses to societal admonitions that they remain silent.

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Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages


Women in the 19th Century