Female Philosophers: Women and the ‘Word War’ of the 1790s
Perhaps the most far-reaching legacy of the French revolutionary crisis for British women writers is also one of its least studied phenomena — the emergence of the ‘Female Philosopher’ as a public political role for women with international ambitions. Counterrevolutionary writers like Richard Polwhele, Hannah More and Jane West helped create the category of the Female Philosopher, but unlike other hostile formulations such as ‘unsex’d females’ or ‘English Jacobins’ that have remained current in modern scholarship, the Female Philosopher has received little attention. This is regrettable because, unlike these other oppositional categories, the Female Philosopher retains some potential value to Romantic women writers, some of whom identified themselves as philosophers and wrote in defence of the ‘rights of woman’, a 1790s struggle that we recognize as an important origin of modern Western feminism. John Thelwall famously lamented that he and his radical allies must reluctantly endure the epithet ‘Jacobin’ as if it were a stigma akin to the mark of Cain, since after the Reign of Terror during the short-lived Jacobin Republic (1793–94), virtually no British radical would willingly associate themselves with this discredited group.1 But as Anne Plumptre suggested in the epigraph from her novel above, ‘Female Philosopher’ opened up as much progressive and feminist potential as it invited misogynist invective.
KeywordsModern Philosopher French Revolution Slave Trade Woman Writer Paradise Lost
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- 27.Barbauld, Remarks on Mr. Gilbert Wakefield’s Enquiry into … Public or Social Worship (J. Johnson, 1792), in Works 2: 446, 448.Google Scholar