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Emma Courtney, Feminist Ethics, and the Problem of Autonomy

From: The Eighteenth Century
Volume 54, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 297-315 | 10.1353/ecy.2013.0024



This article approaches Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney through recent work in feminist moral philosophy on the concept of autonomy, noting the striking ways in which Hays anticipates the concerns and ideas of modern feminist philosophers. It argues that Hays’s novel critically engages traditional thinking about the good life on three levels: it identifies the complex ways that social “prejudice”—and the internalization of that prejudice—undermines female independence; it simultaneously calls into question the masculine biases inhering in the concept of “independence” itself, particularly in philosophy’s privileging of reason over emotion, abstraction over particularity, and self-sufficiency over interdependence; and it highlights the ongoing challenges facing any specifically feminist ethics. The essay, moreover, insists on reading Hays as an Enlightenment writer, suggesting that the feminist critique of rationalism and atomism was immanent to the Enlightenment itself.

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