The 18th century: Amazons of the pen
Mary Astell was one of the earliest true feminists, perhaps the first English writer to explore and assert ideas about women which we can still recognize and respond to. Throughout her life she identified with and spoke directly to other women, acknowledging their shared problems. Though she was deeply religious, she had little in common with her outspoken predecessors in the 17th – century sects. She was profoundly conservative; a life-long Royalist and a High Church Anglican, radical only in her perception of the way women’s lives were restricted by convention, and their minds left undeveloped and untrained.
Astell was born in 1666. Her father, a Newcastle coal merchant, died when she was 12 years old. In her late teens, Astell fell into a deep depression, writing poems about her lonely misery, and the fact that, for all her intellectual self-confidence, she could not envisage any tolerable future for herself. At the age of 21, she wrote a poem complaining about her frustration (which must have been shared by many other girls) and gloomily admitting that she could imagine no life that would allow her to use her talents or satisfy her ambition.
Nature permits not me the common way,
By serving Court or State, to gain
That so much valu’d trifle fame
She might, perhaps, have found satisfaction as a missionary:
That to the Turk and Infidel I might the joyfull tydings tell And spare no labour to convert them all But ah my Sex denies me this…
But a few months later, in what was surely an act of remarkable courage, she left home, setting out on the long and uncomfortable journey to London with only a little money, and the addresses of a few family contacts. She seems to have settled in Chelsea from the start, and would remain there for the rest of her life; she had some distant relatives there. But they were not very helpful, and she was soon depressed and unable to see any way forward. In 1688, desperate because she was ‘not able to get a liflyhood’, she wrote to William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, asking for help:
For since GOD has given Women as well as Men intelligent Souls, how should they be forbidden to improve them? Since he has not denied us the faculty of Thinking, why should we not (at least in gratitude to him) employ our Thoughts on himself their noblest Object, and not unworthily bestow them on Trifles and Gaities and secular Affairs?
Archbishop Sancroft, obviously impressed by her intelligence, and piety, responded with money, but, more importantly, with contacts. Before long, Mary Astell had come to know a circle of intelligent women, who became her life-long friends, sympathizing with and supporting her ideas. By 1694, she had written and published her first book, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, urging other women to take themselves seriously: they must learn to think for themselves, work to develop their own minds and skills, rather than always deferring to masculine judgement. One of her books was entitled Thoughts on Education; her work was pioneering, genuinely seminal – and it remains interesting because of her stress on the urgent necessity for women to be properly educated. Girls, she argued, must be taught to think for themselves, to judge clearly and
sensibly, rather than waste all their time in acquiring graceful social skills and accomplishments.
We value them [men] too much and our selves too little, if we place any part of our desert in their Opinion, and don’t think our selves capable of Nobler Things than the pitiful Conquest of some worthless Heart.
Astell always wrote clearly and sharply, often with an edge of wit: ‘your glass will not do you half so much service as a serious reflection on your own Minds’.
Astell’s analysis was certainly timely. Some modern historians have argued that the Reformation, and especially the closure of many convents, had actually made it harder for English women to get any kind of education. But women, Astell argued, were just as capable as men; all they lacked was a rigorous training that would ‘cultivate and improve them’. She generously supported other women, warmly praising, for example, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s collection of correspondence and travel writing, Turkish Letters:
Let her own Sex at least do her Justice… let us freely own the Superiority of the Sublime Genius as I do in the sincerity of my Soul, pleas’d that a Woman triumphs, and proud to follow in her train.
But ‘what poor Woman is ever taught that she should have a higher Design than to get her a Husband?’ she asked in her 1700 book Some Reflections Upon Marriage. She admitted, rather reluctantly, that marriage was necessary to propagate the species, but insisted that a wife is all too often simply ‘a Man’s Upper Servant’. Any woman who ‘does not practice Passive Obedience to the utmost will never be acceptable to such an absolute Sovereign as a Husband’, she warned. She had sketched her own ideal in her first book: a secular convent, where women could live together, retired from the world, in happy and studious innocence, ‘such a paradise as your mother Eve forfeited’. Adam would have no place in this Eden. In
Some Reflections, she developed the suggestion in greater and more practical detail, arguing the need for women’s colleges that would provide them, whatever their future, with a thorough education. Perhaps even more important to her, these colleges would also help unmarried women; they might, in fact, offer some women the choice of a life that was not dependent upon men.
As she became better known, Astell was often the target of mockery and crude lampoons: she eventually stopped writing, but was able to use her influence in very effective ways. In 1709, he persuaded some of her wealthier Chelsea acquaintances to support the opening of a charity school. Her project was timely: between May 1699 and 1704, fifty-four schools had already been set up in London and Westminster; by 1729, there were 132 in this area, and many women were becoming deeply involved in their planning and management; and, gradually, in teaching.
Astell’s consistently and austerely negative attitudes towards men and marriage undoubtedly limited her appeal for many women readers. But her great contribution to feminism was the way she urged women to take themselves seriously, to trust in their own judgement, to make their own choices in life by developing their talents and educating themselves. Her own achievements, she insisted, were not in any way exceptional; she had ‘not the least Reason to imagine that her Understanding is any better than the rest of her Sex’. Any difference arose only from ‘her Application, her Disinterested and Unprejudic’d Love to Truth, and unswerving pursuit of it, notwithstanding all Discouragements, which is in every Womans Power’.
It was only towards the end of the 18th century that other women would speak out as clearly and forcefully, or put forward a comparable, and as powerfully feminist, programme. But through the 18th century, the situation of women was changing, not always favourably. In an increasingly bourgeois society, fewer women were working alongside their husbands in family workshops or
businesses. It was perhaps harder for women to live independently, supporting themselves; and, it has been suggested, it was much harder to find a husband without a dowry. At the same time, far more women were being educated, at least to read and write. All through the century, ‘conduct’ books were addressed directly to women, though they mostly recommended the ‘womanly’ virtues of meekness, piety, and charity, and all stressed the central importance of modesty, which was often used as a polite synonym for chastity. But more women themselves were also writing and publishing, and in many different genres; they were numerous enough, indeed, to annoy the great Dr Johnson, who took time out to mock the new ‘Amazons of the pen’.
The greatest of these feminist ‘Amazons’ was Mary Wollstonecraft. Her Vindication of the Rights ofWoman was published in 1792, and still speaks directly to us. But she was by no means alone. Catherine Macaulay, for example, was, like Wollstonecraft, a radical who responded thoughtfully to the Revolution in France. She had already published a many-volumed History of England when, in 1790, she wrote Letters on Education, arguing, as Wollstonecraft would do a little later, that women’s apparent weaknesses were not natural, but simply the product of mis-education. Macaulay also attacked the sexual double standard, insisting that a single sexual experience does not transform a virgin into a wanton. She firmly rejected the notion that women were ‘the mere property of the men’, with no right to dispose of their own persons.
She certainly alarmed some readers; as one man remarked dismissively to a woman friend, ‘once in every age I would wish such a woman to appear, as proof that genius is not confined to sex… but. . . you’ll pardon me, we want no more than one Mrs. Macaulay’. Even a sympathetic reader like John Adams, the future American president, praised her, ambiguously, as ‘a Lady of masculine masterly understanding’. Mary Wollstonecraft knew Macaulay’s work, and sent her a copy of her own Vindication of the Rights of Men, along with a letter remarking that ‘you are the only female
writer who I coincide in opinion with respecting the rank our sex ought to endeavour to attain in the world’. ‘I will not call hers a masculine understanding’, Wollstonecraft wrote, ‘because I admit not such an arrogant assumption of reason; but I contend that it was a sound one, and that her judgement… was a proof that a woman can acquire judgement in the full extent of the word.’ She valued Macaulay, she continued, because she ‘contends for laurels’ while most women ‘only seek for flowers’.
Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759, to a not very successful would-be middle-class family; her early life is a chilling reminder of how little education was available to girls in that period. Most girls were taught at home – rarely very satisfactorily – either by their mothers, or by poorly trained governesses. In the later part of the century, private schools for middle-class girls flourished, but many simply concentrated on helping their pupils to be graceful and well-mannered, readying them for ‘good’ marriages. Wollstonecraft had briefly attended a day school in Yorkshire, but she was essentially self-educated. At one point a neighbouring clergyman lent her books, and she seems to have studied them rigorously, allowing herself nothing ‘for mere amusement, not even poetry’, but ‘concentrating instead on works which are addressed to the understanding’.
Like so many skimpily educated girls in her day, she found it hard to earn a living. She took a post in Bath as companion to an old lady when she was 19 years old, then came home to nurse her dying mother; later she scraped a living by taking in needlework. With her sisters and her closest friend Fanny Blood, she set up a school in Newington Green, which soon failed (not surprisingly, given their lack of both experience and training), though she at least made some friends among the Dissenting intellectuals who lived in the area. Fanny soon married and accompanied her husband to Portugal; in 1785, when Fanny was about to have a baby, Wollstonecraft went to Lisbon, but was heartbroken when her friend died in childbirth. In 1786, she was briefly employed as
governess (still without any training whatsoever) by the aristocratic Kingsborough family in Ireland; detesting her employers and critical of their lifestyle, she was bitter and miserable. She then came home to nurse her sister, who had broken down after childbirth.
She was in her early 30s when she was rescued from paralysing depression by Joseph Johnson, the radical publisher, who offered her work on his new Analytical Review. She began regularly reviewing and translating for him; she clearly educated herself by reading and writing. Moreover, the work, and her friendship with the radical intellectuals she met through Johnson, built up her confidence as a writer. He published her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, in 1787; it is a well-argued plea for girls to be given the chance to develop their God-given intelligence. But it derives real power from an undercurrent of personal feeling, a sharpness and urgency that clearly sprang from Wollstonecraft’s own difficulties in picking up an education as and how she could, as well as from her contempt for the frivolity of so many fashionable women. It was soon followed by Mary, A Fiction, which, for all its sketchiness, remains an interesting account of growing up in a society that offers girls little support and few prospects. (The titles of both her novels, Mary, A Fiction and the late, unfinished Maria; Or the Wrongs of Women, surely hint that the stories are directly rooted in her own experience.) Mary, who is intelligent and full of ‘sensibility’, struggles towards fulfilment in a society that offers her few opportunities. Wollstonecraft acknowledges – and begins to explore – some intriguing emotional paradoxes. Her heroine protests bitterly against masculine dominance and violence, but still dreams of protective fatherly love; she both pities her victimized mother and is full of resentment. The older woman is portrayed as indolent, wasting her time reading sentimental novels and dwelling on the love scenes. In the end, after a series of losses, Mary decides to live for others, becoming a dutiful ‘feminine’ woman, whose life, sadly, is an echo of her mother’s. Wollstonecraft may have lacked the skill to develop her characters fully, and the
book was not widely reviewed; but it remains an intriguing and revealing attempt to explore some of the dilemmas with which she herself was confronted.
By 1790, Wollstonecraft was feeling confident enough to tackle politics; A Vindication of the Rights of Man is a scathing – and occasionally unpleasantly personal – attack on Edmund Burke’s conservative Reflections Upon the Revolution in France. She accuses him of sentimentality, and, indeed, a kind of corrupt femininity; she compares him to a ‘celebrated beauty’ desperate for admiration; he is a fantasist, not a serious thinker. Her great feminist polemic, A Vindication of the Rights ofWoman, followed in 1792; she sets out to speak ‘for my sex, not for myself’, though she admits that ‘most of the struggles of an eventful life have been occasioned by the oppressed state of my sex’. She takes the simple but crucial step of extending the rights of man, which had been asserted during the French Revolution, to woman.
If the abstract rights of man will bear discussion and explanation, those of women, by a parity of reasoning, will not shrink from the same test… Who made man the exclusive judge, if women partake with him of the gift of reason?
Wollstonecraft admitted that, in the times in which she lived, women were inferior; oppressed from birth, uneducated, and insulated from the real world, most women, inevitably, grew up ignorant and lazy.
Taught from their infancy that beauty is a woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its prison.
Masculine gallantry and flattery are seen simply as attempts to keep women in their places, and the most ‘feminine’ woman is the one who best fulfils male fantasies. Femininity, she argues, is too often an artificial, class-based construct, no more than an anxious
girls, but for something new in her day: universal education, at least to the age of 9.
Any woman who tries to act like a human being, Wollstonecraft remarks, risks being labelled ‘masculine’, and she admits that the fear of being thought unwomanly runs very deep in her sex. But if ‘masculinity’ means behaving rationally and virtuously, she recommends that we all ‘grow more and more masculine’. Even though she defends women’s potential powers – their capacity for all kinds of intellectual activity – she was scathing about the actual behaviour of many of her contemporaries. ‘Told from their infancy and taught by the examples of their mothers’ that they must find a man to support them, they learn to exploit their charms and looks until they find a man willing to support them. They rarely think – and have few genuine feelings. But Wollstonecraft also accepted that, though better education for women is all-important, it cannot change everything: ‘Men and women must be educated in a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in.’ And without a radical change in society, there can be no real ‘revolution in female manners’. In this present state of things, she finds it hardly surprising that so many women are ignorant, lazy, and irresponsible.
It is interesting, and rather sad, that other women – even some highly literate ones – were among Wollstonecraft’s sharpest critics. Hannah More, for example, refused even to read Wollstonecraft’s book because its very title was ‘absurd’; while Hannah Cowley protested coyly that ‘politics are unfeminine’.
Wollstonecraft’s Vindication may seem, at first glance, dated. But she is an effective writer; her prose is down-to-earth, lively, and often tart. The book is still highly readable, and it remains one of the foundation stones of contemporary feminism. Her argument is circular and, because it is exploratory, often breaking new ground, can seem at times confused. She was sharply, sometimes bitterly, aware of the personal difficulties that women experienced in her
society. She argued, for example, that an understanding of childhood is central to any self-knowledge. The ability to recognize one’s own childishness is crucial to maturity: ‘till I can form some idea of the whole of my existence, I must be content to weep and dance like a child – long for a toy, and be tired of it as soon as I get it’. A few months later, she wrote sadly to the philosopher and novelist William Godwin that ‘my imagination is forever betraying me into fresh misery, and I perceive that I shall be a child to the end of the chapter’.
As we have seen, Wollstonecraft’s story Mary, A Fiction, based in part on her own childhood and her difficult relationship with her parents, is an intriguing attempt to explore the way women grow up. (It is also an occasionally heavy-handed celebration of her heroine’s sensibility, that capacity for true feeling that sets her apart from other people.) The book draws on Wollstonecraft’s painful recognition of the way unresolved feelings from childhood so often dominate, and even pervert, adult relationships; how, throughout our lives, we may be unknowingly re-enacting dramas rooted in the past. Women, she argued in the Vindication, are given little encouragement to become truly adult; they are ‘made women of when they are mere children, and brought back to childhood when they ought to leave the go-cart forever’. But any girl ‘whose spirits have not been damped by inactivity, or innocence by false shame, will always be a romp, and the doll will never excite attention unless confinement allows her no alternative’.
In Thoughts on Education, she had insisted that marriage should be based on friendship and respect rather than love; in the Vindication she claimed, dismissively, that most women remain obsessed by love, dreaming of happiness with some ideal and truly loving man, simply because their lives are so empty. But it is in part Wollstonecraft’s inconsistencies, her implicit recognition that there are no easy solutions to the problems she explores, that make her such an enduringly interesting writer. She sadly acknowledges that even the most sensible people are likely to fall prey to ‘violent and
3. Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first English women to write eloquently, and at times angrily, about the rights of women – and the wrongs they often experience. Her writings have never really gone out of fashion, and a great many modern women have responded eagerly, and gratefully, to her work.
constant passion’; as she found, to her cost, when, on a visit to Paris in 1793, she met and fell in love with the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Her letters, after a happy beginning, become increasingly desperate as she complains about his blatant indifference. Pregnant by Imlay and thoroughly miserable, she still managed to work hard on her Historical View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution. Her attitude to women revolutionaries was ambiguous, to say the least, and affected, perhaps, by her anxiety, given her personal situation, to assert her own respectability. When, in October 1789, Paris marketwomen marched to Versailles and invaded the palace to put their complaints to the king, Wollstonecraft had no sympathy at all. She remarked, shuddering, that they were ‘the lowest refuse of the streets, women who had thrown off the virtues of one sex without having the power to assume more than the vices of the other’.
After her baby, Fanny, was born, she undertook a trip to Sweden (taking along the baby and a nurse) on business for Imlay. Her Letters from the trip, published in 1796, are (unlike her letters from Paris) both perceptive and engaging. But when she arrived back in London, she found Imlay living with another woman. She survived a suicide attempt – having thrown herself into the Thames – and eventually married William Godwin.
The unfinished second novel that Wollstonecraft left behind when she died in 1797, Maria; Or the Wrongs of Women, is pure melodrama; but perhaps only melodramatic exaggeration could help her express her lasting sense of anger and frustration about the situation of women. Her heroine, Maria, has been imprisoned in a madhouse by her vicious and dishonest husband, who wants to gain control of her property. ‘Was not the world a vast prison, and women born slaves?’ she asks.
Perhaps the most interesting section of the book has Maria making friends with her warder, a woman called Jemima, whose story, she discovers, is at least as sad as her own. As a child she was victimized
by the classic cruel stepmother, then put out to work as an apprentice, only to be raped and impregnated by her master. After aborting her baby, Jemima became a pick-pocket, was seduced and abandoned, and began working in a ‘house of ill fame’. She seeks refuge in a work-house, and is then hired by the owner of a madhouse who, it turns out, preys on the inhabitants. For all its Gothic exaggerations, the novel makes a radical point: that both a middle-class and a working-class woman may find themselves helplessly exploited in a male-dominated world.
Wollstonecraft had defended her last novel angrily against criticisms from a male friend:
I am vexed and surprised at your not thinking the situation of Maria sufficiently important, and can only account for this want of – shall I say it? Delicacy of feeling – by recollecting that you are a man.
Her point was a serious one, and one that constitutes her legacy: women must speak out, tell their own life stories, articulate their feelings, acknowledge both their own hopes and their sense of being cheated and wronged.
Wollstonecraft left notes outlining the bleakest of futures for her heroine: ‘Divorced by her husband – Her lover unfaithful – Pregnancy – Miscarriage – Suicide.’ She probably could never have imagined a convincingly happy ending for her. Though Wollstonecraft herself, all too briefly, found peace and contentment with William Godwin, she died a few months after they married, giving birth to her second child: another Mary, who would grow up to marry the poet Percy Shelley, and to write that extraordinary and troubling novel, Frankenstein.