Feminists versus Gallants: Manners and Morals in Enlightenment Britain

  • Barbara Taylor


Mary Wollstonecraft’s status as an Enlightenment philosophe earns her divided notices. For admirers of Enlightenment, Wollstonecraft’s identification with what she described, significantly, as the ‘masculine and improved sentiments of an enlightened philosophy’ wins her kudos.3 By contrast, those who condemn Enlightenment as sectarian — a ‘conspiracy of dead white men in periwigs to provide the intellectual foundation for Western imperialism’, in Eric Hobsbawm’s satiric formulation4 — criticise her complicity in it. The judgements, until recently, have been more polemical than substantively historical, with little detailed attention to Wollstonecraft’s place in the constellation of writers, ideas, and intellectual practices retrospectively labelled Enlightenment.5 Probably for this reason, both sides in the argument tend to exaggerate her Enlightenment allegiances, and to underestimate the complexities of her intellectual position. Far from an uncritical spokeswoman for a monolithic ‘Enlightenment’, Wollstonecraft elaborated her philosophical stance against the grain of mainstream enlightened opinion. This was particularly evident in her major feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) where, far from echoing Enlightenment perspectives, she mounted a systematic assault on ‘modern’ writings on women which, in her view, portrayed women ‘as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species’.6 If the Rights of Woman is a work of Enlightenment philosophy, in other words, it is one that highlights important tensions in Enlightenment thought, particularly in enlightened thinking on gender issues.7


Eighteenth Century French Revolution Polite Society Woman Writer English Poetry 
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    Mary Hays, quoted in William St Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys: the Biography of a Family (London: Faber, 1989), p. 146.Google Scholar
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    Laura Runge, ‘Beauty and Gallantry: a Model of Polite Conversation Revisited’, Eighteenth-Century Life, 25 (2001), pp. 43–63. However, see Karen O’Brien’s introduction to this section for a discussion of positive attitudes to chivalry among some British literary women (pp. **).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Quoted in Gary Kelly, Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstoncraft (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), p. 147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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© Barbara Taylor 2005

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  • Barbara Taylor

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