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Reviewed by:
  • Women, Feminism, and Religion in Early Enlightenment England
  • Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Women, Feminism, and Religion in Early Enlightenment England. By Sarah Apetrei (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2010) 325 pp. $95.00

Apetrei's welcome study examines a number of women who wrote and published works in which they defended female dignity and autonomy in England during period from 1680 to 1710. The first half of the book examines rationalist author Mary Astell and her circle, and the second half a series of female visionaries and millenarians associated with the Quakers, Philadelphians, and other dissenting and spiritualist groups. Previous scholarship has tended to focus on either one or the other of these groups. Astell and others in this period who criticized women's subjection and advocated for better education for women are generally viewed within a secular tradition of "defenses of women" that begins with Christine de Pizan and moves through Mary Wollstonecraft to the suffrage movement. Apetrei places the visionaries within the context of religious radicalism, those in this era generally viewed as less innovative and interesting than those who acted during the English Civil War.

Apetrei connects the philosophical rationalists and the visionaries through her central argument that both groups were motivated by religion—religion "was the very origin and goal of feminism" (36)— because both viewed women's worth as rooted in God's creation. They argued, in fact, that women's greater propensity to Christian virtue than men's made them particularly suited to address the challenges facing the English church and English society in what they perceived to be a time of crisis.

In making her case, Apetrei places her subjects effectively within complex streams of early modern philosophical and theological debate. She carefully lays out the different varieties of rationalism, arguing that Astell's use and understanding of "right reason" was more Platonic than Cartesian. Platonists viewed reason as a quality imparted by a beneficent and merciful God, subject to legitimate use as a counterbalance to authority; for Astell and her followers, authority included Scripture as well as male ecclesiastical officials. Although the visionaries have generally been seen as "enthusiasts" who downplayed the importance of reason, they, too, used God's granting of "right reason" to both sexes as a recommendation of their arguments against orthodox Calvinist predestinarians and as a justification for women's wider social role.

Apetrei's argument relies primarily on the published and unpublished works of the female writers that she studies, but she also makes innovative use of lists of private and institutional library holdings to trace the difficult issue of who might have actually read these works. In addition, she uses hand-written marginal notes in the books known to have been in Astell's personal library to explore what kind of reader Astell might have been.

Apetrei explicitly reclaims the word "feminist" for female (or male) thinkers in this era who argued for women's autonomy and condemned women's subjugation. She also frequently employs another word that [End Page 286] has been out of fashion in gender scholarship recently, experience. With its insightful analysis of religious subjectivity, the book reclaims experience—and perhaps even, in the author's words, "a distinctive 'female experience'" (45)—as a worthy object of historical study.

Merry Wiesner-Hanks
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee


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pp. 286-287
Launched on MUSE
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