Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Female Constructions

If the world of masculinity is a complex and rapidly changing one, so too is the world inhabited by women. In the lecture we will consider some of the earlier debates about women's sensibility and consider the arguments made about changing conceptions of women's nature and their virtues. In the seminar, we will focus on attempts towards the end of the century to re-present women and their emotional, sentimental and sexual lives from a woman's point of view, focussing on Wollstonecrafts Vindication of the Rights of Women and her Maria, and on Mary Hays' Memoirs of Emma Courtney.

But consider first what they were up against:

The English Padlock

Miss Danae, when Fair and Young
(As Horace has divinely sung)
Could not be kept from Jove's Embrace
By Doors of Steel, and Walls of Brass.
The Reason of the Thing is clear;
Would Jove the naked Truth aver:
Cupid was with Him of the Party;
And show'd himself sincere and hearty:
For, give That Whipster but his Errand;
He takes my Lord Chief Justice' Warrant:
Dauntless as Death away He walks;
Breaks the Doors open; snaps the Locks;
Searches the Parlour, Chamber, Study;
Nor stops, 'till He has Culprit's Body.

Since This has been Authentick Truth,
By Age deliver'd down to Youth;
Tell us, mistaken Husband, tell us,
Why so Mysterious, why so Jealous?
Does the Restraint, the Bolt, the Bar
Make Us less Curious, Her less Fair?

The Spy, which does this Treasure keep,
Does She ne'er say her Pray'rs, nor sleep?
Does She to no Excess incline?
Does She fly Musick, Mirth, and Wine?
Or have not Gold and Flatt'ry Pow'r,
To purchase One unguarded Hour?

Your Care does further yet extend:
That Spy is guarded by your Friend.—
But has This Friend nor Eye, nor Heart?
May He not feel the cruel Dart,
Which, soon or late, all Mortals feel?
May He not, with too tender Zeal,
Give the Fair Pris'ner Cause to see,
How much He wishes, She were free?
May He not craftily infer
The Rules of Friendship too severe,
Which chain Him to a hated Trust;
Which make Him Wretched, to be Just?
And may not She, this Darling She,
Youthful and healthy, Flesh and Blood,
Easie with Him, ill-us'd by Thee,
Allow this Logic to be good?

Sir, Will your Questions never end?
I trust to neither Spy nor Friend.
In short, I keep Her from the Sight
Of ev'ry Human Face.—She'll write.—
From Pen and Paper She's debarr'd.—
Has She a Bodkin and a Card?
She'll bunny her Mind.—She will, You say:
But how shall She That Mind convey?
I keep Her in one Room: I lock it:
The Key (look here) is in this Pocket.
The Key-hole, is That left? Most certain.
She'll thrust her Letter thro'—Sir Martin.

Dear angry Friend, what must be done?
Is there no Way?—There is but One,
Send Her abroad; and let Her see,
That all this mingled Mass, which She
Being forbidden longs to know,
Is a dull Farce, an empty Show,
Powder, and Pocket-Glass, and Beau;
A Staple of Romance and Lies,
False Tears, and real Perjuries:
Where Sighs and Looks are bought and sold;
And Love is made but to be told:
Where the fat Bawd, and lavish Heir
The Spoils of ruin'd Beauty share:
And Youth seduc'd from Friends and Fame,
Must give up Age to Want and Shame.
Let Her behold the Frantick Scene,
The Women wretched, false the Men:
And when, these certain Ills to shun,
She would to Thy Embraces run;
Receive Her with extended Arms:
Seem more delighted with her Charms:
Wait on Her to the Park and Play:
Put on good Humour; make Her gay:
Be to her Virtues very kind:
Be to her Faults a little blind:
Let all her Ways be unconfin'd:
And clap your Padlock—on her Mind.
Matthew Prior 1708

Core Reading

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman - look especially at chaps: 1-4, 6-9, 13 -

Mary Hays, Memoirs of Emma Courtney -

But it is also important to recognize that there were wider reflections at the time about the changing roles of women - which writers like Hays and Wollstonecraft would have been aware of. See especially (and read one of):

Henry, Lord Kames, Sketched of the History of Man Bk 1, Bk 1, ch 6 Progress of the female sex.

James Millar, The Origins of the Distinction of Ranks Ch 1, Of the Rank and Condition of Women (available on-line in the Library of Liberty (see library:

It is useful to think about how far Hays/Wollstonecraft is/are engaging with this wider sociolgical reflection on the place of women.

If you have time, you can also look at:

Maria or the Wrongs of Woman -

Earlier writings by women about women and their place include:

Kate Aughterson (ed.), Renaissance Woman: Constructions of Femininity in England (1995) (You might find an alternative collection in this author's The English Renaissance : An Anthology of Sources and Documents which is available on line through the library - chapter 7 deals with gender and sexuality).

Desommond M. Clarke, The Equality of the Sexes: Three feminist texts of the 17th C (2013) HQ1075.E69

Lucrezia Marinella The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the defects and vices of Men (1600/1999) Available as an e-book through the library.

And see the collection of 18th Century pieces in

Vivien Jones ed., Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity (1989) - a very useful compilation from different authors on women and their conduct.

Briget Hill's Women Alone: Spinsters in England 1660-1850 (Yale, 2001) is also very good on the perils of not being married.

Suggested Secondary Reading

Claudia L Johnson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft (2002) - onlineLink opens in a new window. Esp ch 9

Marissa Linton, 'Virtue Rewarded? Women and the Politics of Virtue in 18thc France' Parts I and II in History of European Ideas (2000) - online

John Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability: the Language of Feeling in the 18thc (1998) - onlineLink opens in a new window

Faramerz Dabhoimala, The Origins of Sex (2013) - at HQ31.D133. Readable and not uncontroversial book that seeks the origins of the sexual revolution in Enlightenment ideas.

You can find critical essays on a selections of women's life writing from the 18thc and 19thc in Amy Culley (ed.), British Women's Life Writing (2014) - available as an ebookLink opens in a new window

Class questions:

How far do these texts capture a new set of voices about the experience of being a woman and of a critique about the way in which women are brought up.

With which classes are these texts predominantly concerned? And from which classes is the threat to women seen as originating.

How far do these texts acknowledge and condone women's sexuality, and how far is it occluded?

What claims or rights do these authors want women to be accorded? And what degree of equality do they advocate?

Critiques of women by woman potentially introduce a conflict between them - how far is that a problem for the claims these women are making?

Should we think of these women as feminists? Does Wolstonecraft's 'maternalism' militate against her feminism? And how should we assess her contribution to arguments for women's rights?