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Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain (review)

From: Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 45, Number 3, Spring 2012
pp. 449-451 | 10.1353/ecs.2012.0040

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At the beginning of Women and Enlightenment, Karen O’Brien states that hers is not a “cultural history.” This is no small qualification. Indeed, biographical and cultural-historical approaches have so dominated scholarship on women in the period that, given its title alone, many readers will not see O’Brien’s intellectual history coming. Even if they do, perhaps as readers of her earlier work, they may assume that this is a book on women writers. It is not; indeed, this is perhaps the volume’s most important feminist contribution. For O’Brien’s topic is the role of women, as writers but also as the subjects of writing, in the intellectual movement we call Enlightenment. What she shows us with brilliant clarity is that focusing on women does not mean adding them to a preexisting narrative; instead, much more dramatically, it shifts our understanding of what Enlightenment is.

O’Brien argues that the British Enlightenment (her exclusive focus here) makes its greatest contribution to intellectual history in theories of society and social progress. But her study does not begin with the most obvious texts for that claim, in the philosophy and historiography of mid-century Scotland. Rather, it looks first to England and at philosophical accounts of women’s relation to the ethical and epistemological basis of society: the domain of Locke, Shaftesbury, and Mandeville, as well as, O’Brien shows, that of Masham, Burnet, and Cockburn. Here, O’Brien turns away from Tory figures like Mary Astell, who often begins accounts of eighteenth-century feminism, and toward what she believes is a more significant early Whig tradition in Latitudinarian Anglican women writers, a tradition to which the later Bluestocking writers are indebted. From here, O’Brien turns to two chapters on Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy and historiography, arguing that in this context writers develop “a vocabulary with which to describe women . . . as social agents” (70). Chapter two focuses on the historical underpinnings of moral philosophy, particularly on how women serve to indicate historical organization or social progress, in the work of writers as diverse as Francis Hutcheson and Montesquieu’s English follower Jemima Kindersley. Chapter three tracks the development of the history of “manners,” showing how writers of the period produce a “gendered ethnic consciousness” (121), of which Burke’s account of chivalry is the best known. At this point, the book’s argument turns to chapter-length studies of two major women writers of the late eighteenth century, Catherine Macaulay and Mary Wollstonecraft, contextualizing both in terms of their responses to gendered histories of manners in the Scottish Enlightenment and their indebtedness to the earlier feminist contributions of Latitudinarian women. The volume ends with a chapter that in looking forward to the nineteenth century shows the fate of ideas of Enlightenment ideas of social progress: first in the work of female historians, then in the relationship between women and political economy.

There is more to value here than space permits me to describe. At its best—and it is often at its best—O’Brien’s history gives surprising depth to ideas that we thought we knew well. Take Wollstonecraft’s refutation of Burke’s idea of chivalry in the second Vindication. O’Brien describes Burke’s position as not only a product of the renewed interest in medieval manners in the late century, but also as part of a much larger historiographical move toward a cultural history that positions women as “carriers of . . . cultural and ethnic heritage” (29). This larger context is significant, too, for what it allows us to see about Wollstonecraft, whose interest in history is sometimes reduced to a concern for women in the present moment. Rather, O’Brien shows us Wollstonecraft the radical historiographer: writing in tune with her Scottish Enlightenment precursors, particularly the conjectural historians, even as she attacks the category of “manners” itself; refashioning the assumption, present since Montesquieu, that “manners” should be judged by their effects rather than their moral force.

O’Brien casts as her most important interlocutors such major intellectual historians of Enlightenment as J. G. A. Pocock and John Robertson. There is no doubt of the significance of her endeavor here in making a case for...



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