Public Voices, Public Selves:
Self-Fashioning and Gender in the Eighteenth Century
Over the past three decades women’s history has developed from a marginal topic into an accepted, even expected, approach to the study of the past. Along the way, historians from Gerda Lerner and Joan Scott onward have grappled with how exactly to write history that includes women. Some historians have focused on what Lerner calls "compensatory history," exploring the actions and experiences of exceptional, notable women. Others have focused on "contribution history," history that looks at the ways in which women contributed to the historical narrative we already know. Both approaches have been criticized, the first for focusing on women who were, by definition, not representative of some sort of average woman’s experiences, and the second for accepting a historical narrative that portrays women’s history as separate from and marginal to real or important history. With the increasing emphasis on gender rather than women some of those issues have been resolved, notably the need to consider women in relation to and as part of the rest of the world and not isolated from it. On the other hand, gender studies have tended to increase the focus on the relative power relations between men and women while consistently assuming gender as a distinguishable and relevant category (see, as examples, Fletcher and Wiesner).
Many writers have explored the fluidity of identity and self during the eighteenth century, and there is a consensus (among scholars such as Shoemaker, Stone, Todd, and Wahrman) that gendered identities in particular went through serious changes during the period. There has been heated discussion about what those changes were, what they meant and even when exactly they occurred. Did the industrial revolution and the growth of the public sphere mean that women were locked into docile and demure domesticity, were the changes mostly rhetorical and women’s lives go on much as before, did a group of women actually engineer a position of domestic moral superiority to create a platform for public debate? Were changed gender roles a result of anxiety created in England after the former colonies in America declared independence and so questioned the very core of national identity? (Vickery, Bannet, Gallagher, Wahrman)
For all of the debate, even those writers who argue in favor of women being actively involved in the formation of gender roles and identity seem to assume that for women as a group, being a woman was the defining element of their identity. For research purposes women in history have been defined by their gender as categorically as any legal disposal of them as femes covert ever managed.
Assuming gender to be the defining element of women’s identity may have been a useful way to learn something about what women as a group experienced and how women as a group were experienced–clearly all women shared certain experiences, expectations and legal restrictions. However, knowing those general restrictions does not necessarily tell us anything about how individuals negotiated their environment. It does not help us understand how women defied society’s expectations, much less how society could accept and even embrace public acts of disobedience against prescribed behavior.
In the first part of my dissertation I will set out the public expectations women in general and what current research says about women’s actual behavior (e.g. Bachsheider, Jones, Turner), to highlight the tension between the prescribed ideal and the actual practices of women in the public sphere.
In order to understand how individual women did negotiate or “overcome” their gender to claim a voice in the public sphere (where they were confronted with public reactions to their behavior and dependent for their success on something more than the indulgence of family and friends) my dissertation will then examine several women writers and public actors in eighteenth century Britain from different backgrounds and writing in different areas and investigate how they themselves described to their friends and to their public what they were doing. The core of the dissertation will be the close reading of their texts, essays, pamphlets and tracts as well as letters and other semipublic texts in order to map the tropes the women made use of to create legitimate public voices and survey how they themselves negotiated the issue of their gender.
After a summary of the parallels and differences in their strategies I will survey the texts of some of the women’s contemporaries will give an idea of what tropes were successful in establishing a public voice for the writers and to what extent and for what reasons the readers were willing to overlook their prescribed expectations for female behavior. Especially useful here will be to consider critics of the women under consideration, in order to establish whether gender expectations that would be flouted in favor of a popular idea became an easy means of deflating disfavored writers or whether the critics deflated the writers on the merits of their arguments. Finally, I will consider whether the self presentations of the women were affected by and modified in response to the reaction of their public.
The women whose writings and public selves I have chosen to explore were all active mostly during the eighteenth century, were all active in some sort of public activity and were relatively well known. I chose women who at least in part established their public position based on non fiction writing, since there has been some claim to consider novel writing an acceptable female endeavor (at least toward the end of the period).
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was a prolific writer of poems, historical narratives and especially letters. During her lifetime her official publication was limited, but it is clear that she intended her letters to be widely read and she was involved a several public writing endeavors (a collaboration on poetry with Alexander Pope, an article for Addison’s Spectator, etc). She organized and prepared for publication after her death a collection of letters written as she accompanied her husband on his travels as the Ambassador to Turkey, and she brought back from her trip the practice of smallpox vaccination that she introduced to England. Her interests, as she puts it in a letter to the Abbé Conti, span “from religion to tulips” (Montagu Letters, 178), and is sometimes described as an amateur anthropologist, strongly concerned with the relationship between cultural traditions and human nature.
Elizabeth Montagu (1720 – 1800), married to a nephew of Lady Mary, was a hostess, literary critic, and writer who helped organize and lead London’s bluestocking society. She came from money, her husband was wealthy and after his death she managed her money well enough to become one of the wealthiest women of her time. Her salon was frequented by, among others, Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, and Horace Walpole. She was a patron of a number of writers including Hannah More, Frances Burney, Anna Barbauld, Sarah Fielding, and Anna Williams, and herself published a piece of literary criticism entitled An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespear.
Mercy Otis Warren (1728 – 1814) represents the colonial perspective. She was a playwright, poetess, and historian who was very active in the ideological debate surrounding the American declaration of independence. In addition to writing satirical plays, poems, political pamphlets, and a history of the American Revolution, she corresponded with many of the founding fathers - her private writings include letters to and from Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and both John and Abigail Adams.
Catharine Macaulay (1731 – 1791) was a historian like Warren, and indeed the two were friends and correspondents. Macaulay’s English history was immensely popular during her lifetime and seen as a radical alternative to the politically conservative history published by David Hume. Macaulay was immensely popular during her lifetime and a staunch defendant of liberal political principles. She sparred with Hume and wrote a spirited defense of the French Revolution in response to Burke’s Reflections.
I am considering the inclusion of the philosopher Catherine Trotter Cockburn (1679–1749), novelist and playwright whose A Defence of Mr. Locke’s Essay (in which she argues that Locke’s epistemology sufficiently accounts for the origin of moral concepts and refutes charges that Locke’s theories exclude the possibility of immortality) earned her the appreciation of Locke himself and the admiration of Leibnitz. Also under consideration is the philosopher Mary Astell (1666-1739), a high Tory Anglican and believer in the divine rights of Kings whose political conservativism did not keep her from propagating some quite radical ideas about education for women in A Serious Proposal for the Ladies. Her correspondence with the Cambridge Platonist John Norris was published at his insistence as Letters Concerning the Love of God.
All of the women whose writings I explore came from the gentry, although their fortunes varied. They were all better educated than most women of their time, although some had been educated by their families and others were self-taught. All of them, except Mary Astell, were married, although some wrote as wives and others only as widows. They all established an active, legitimate public voice in fields that were considered outside the scope of female activity, in subject areas that spanned from political theory and history to theology, ethics, and literary analysis. My hypothesis is that the tropes they used to establish their public voices were as varied as their individual circumstances and, furthermore, that each writer used different tropes at different times and adapted her story depending on the reaction she got from her readers and correspondents.
In “The Self-Fashionings of Olympe de Gouges” Gregory Brown explores how the playwright and later abolitionist Olympe de Gouges constructed and modified a public self depending on what aspect, what category of person seemed most constructive to present at any given time. Thus she would at times address the world in terms of being a writer with certain connections, at times make her plea as a vulnerable woman, and yet at other times simply describe herself in terms of an outsider. I expect to find a similar variety of strategies and constructed public selves, each molded to fit the individual needs and possibilities of each woman.
In addition to shedding some light on how the individual women negotiated their public selves and approached, used, or “overcame” their gender, I hope to demonstrate the need for gender studies that explore gender differences without assuming that gender was always a stable or even relevant aspect of the presentation of self. Janet Todd suggests that women hung out different “signs” in their self presentation depending on what their environment expected and demanded of them. I suggest that although some of those signs reflected the gender of their writers, other signs did not rely on gender as an identifying marker at all. “Women” still is a useful category for historical study, but much remains to be done to determine how relevant a category it was to the lives of women in history.
Several aspects of my academic history have helped to prepare me for this project. An undergraduate degree in English Literature with a focus on the period 1550-1900 gives me a solid foundation in textual analysis and the literary environment I will be exploring. A masters degree in Humanities, with a focus on social and political theory and cultural anthropology, has given me a broad understanding of culture as something heterogeneous and contested, and has prepared me to explore the tension between individual agency and social construction of self in the present. Doctoral study focused on the cultural and intellectual history of early modern Europe has given me the requisite period background and exposed me to the historiographical debates in the field.
To assist me in further research and preparation of this dissertation, I have asked the following faculty members to serve on my committee. Dr Gerald Soliday, associate professor of historical studies, teaches early modern European social and cultural history, including the social history of literature. His knowledge of historical developments during the period, as well as his clear understanding of both the methodological and the interpretive issues involved will be invaluable to my work. Dr Daniel Wickberg, associate professor of historical studies, teaches American and European Intellectual History. His insights into the intellectual environment of early modern England and America will be of particular help to me, especially for the colonial section of the research.
Dr Pamela Gossin, associate professor of literary and historical studies, teaches classes on early modern professional women and auto/biographical writing. Her experience in both of these fields as well as her interdisciplinary approach will be particularly useful to me as I explore the use of letters, pamphlets and treatises as auto/biographical narratives. Finally, Dr Patricia Michaelson, associate professor in literature, teaches courses on eighteenth-century women writers in England. Her understanding of the period, in terms of literary trends and the general cultural environment, will contribute greatly to my research.
 Many of the letters are published, as are their other writings. What is not published can be found in manuscripts in archives or libraries located in New York, Boston, and London.