‘Women that would plague me with rational conversation’: Aspiring Women and Scottish Whigs, c. 1790–1830

  • Jane Rendall


The women whom, fifty years later, Eliza Fletcher represented as like herself, ‘aspiring or ambitious’ in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh society were, like Francis Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review from 1802, heirs to the Enlightenment in Scotland. The significance of the Scottish Enlightenment for the language employed about the condition of women in the early nineteenth century, and potentially for the social and political practice of women of the middling to upper ranks has still to be identified. Much recent work has suggested that both the conjectural histories of the condition of women shaped by John Millar and Lord Kames, and the language of ‘complacency’ and female sensibility employed by Henry Mackenzie and his associates, served to differentiate more sharply a ‘private and intimate domestic realm’ within which alone women’s moral powers and influence might be fulfilled.2 But most recently Mary Catherine Moran has argued that conjectural histories of the condition of women may be read rather as indicators of progress and refinement in the manners of men, implying a passivity for women, even if she also identified Millar’s qualified endorsement of a social role for women in a modernising commercial society as in ‘an intermediary social sphere that was thought to guarantee both civic and domestic virtue’.3 The emphasis of Millar and others on a progressive improvement in the situation of women, as a significant index of the development of a commercial and civilized society characterized by free institutions, could however be employed in more challenging ways.


Civic Virtue Rational Conversation Intimate Friend Literary Woman Unhappy Marriage 
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© Jane Rendall 2005

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  • Jane Rendall

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