Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) - engraved from the painting of John Opie - Library of Congress

Conversation and Creation

8th March 2019

With International Women’s Day on Friday 8 March, Deborah Mulhearn takes a look at powerful eighteenth century women who laid the foundations for modern feminism…

Oscar-winning actor Olivia Colman, who recently received the coveted accolade for portraying the rambunctious Queen Anne in The Favourite, highlighted how women in the 18th century were just as ruthless as men in their pursuit of power, wealth and influence. As the rivalry between Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, the daughter of a Hertfordshire MP and the most powerful and richest woman of her day, and her cousin Abigail Hill shows, women did not necessarily need the vote to thrive in a man’s world.

Privileged women could enjoy influence and certain freedoms, often by unorthodox marriage arrangements that sometimes caused scandals, but also through their own brains and wit. The Countess of Suffolk, Henrietta Howard, for example, was a mistress of King George II but also an extraordinarily successful woman. She financed Marble Hill House, a Palladian villa on the Thames at Twickenham, from her own business dealings (albeit via the trans-Atlantic slave trade) and had influential friends in artistic circles, including the writers Horace Walpole, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. The fact that she was also deaf did not deter her from operating conspicuously in the distinctly male spheres of London’s property, political and intellectual life.

Many other wealthy women campaigned for women’s rights, but they are little known outside academia. Sarah Scott was a novelist who published anonymously or under a male pseudonym, including one novel about a fictional utopian community run by women. Sarah then tried to set up a real community in Buckinghamshire with another novelist, Sarah Fielding (sister of novelist Henry Fielding), who wrote what is considered the first children’s novel: The Governess, or The Little Female Academy.

Sarah Scott was the sister of Elizabeth Montagu, undisputed queen of the Blue Stocking Society who campaigned for women’s education. Elizabeth provided salons, perhaps what we’d now call ‘safe spaces’ for cultural discussion, where conversation and creation were the order of the day for women rather than the demands of domesticity.

‘Bluestocking was not originally a negative term, but an affectionate, clubbable description of an intellectual or creative woman who attained a certain identity and the appreciation of men and women of the period,’ says Lucy Peltz, senior curator of 18th century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and author of Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings and 100 Pioneering Women, published by NPG to celebrate the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act that first gave women the right to vote.

Women without access to wealth or power, however, had to find other routes to positions of influence, and their achievements are all the more remarkable. The brilliant Mary Wollstonecraft was a philosopher, novelist and intellectual who wrote Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and the more famous Vindication of the Rights of Women (two years after she had written the less well-known Vindication of the Rights of Men). These treatises laid much of the ground for later women’s movements and ideology. She was also the mother of Mary Shelley, writer of Frankenstein.

Historian Catherine Macaulay had an open-minded father who allowed her access to libraries and education. Macaulay wrote an eight-volume history of England and like a lot of intellectual women of this period was sympathetic to American claims to independence and the ideas of the French Revolution. Margaret King was a young Irish woman who was influenced by her radical governess, much to the dismay of her aristocratic parents. That governess was none other than Mary Wollstonecraft.

At a time when wet nurses were the norm, King advocated breastfeeding (giving wives a break from endless pregnancies), and cautioned against the wearing of stays and corsets as injurious to women’s health. Politically, she appalled her family by agitating against the 1800 Acts of Union – in her words, the ‘unfathomable abyss’ that united England, Ireland and Scotland. She then went to Germany and studied medicine dressed as a man and later worked with an Italian surgeon.

Other women used their looks and charms to advance. The stage was a well trodden if socially risky way for women to rise in society. But though they may have been excluded from formal education, they were just as much freethinkers as their intellectual sisters. Actresses were celebrities and fashion icons. We know them from their portraits, their fame reflected by the fact that they were often painted by the most eminent artists of the day. But these women often trod a fine line between admiration and censure. They were loved for their beauty and their on stage characterisations, but were also disapproved of for their racy lifestyles and multiple love affairs. Acting brought high stakes.

In her portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (opposite), on display at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, actress Frances Abington looks comfortably out at the viewer, with no trace of false modesty or submissive gaze. “This was unusual because women were almost always portrayed in various guise of politeness,” says Peltz, “and rarely looked straight out of a painting at you as a man would. But as long as they appeared to be ‘visibly appropriate’, they had some leeway.”

A ‘Mrs’ by virtue only of a disastrous marriage (she became successful enough to pay her husband to stay away from her), Frances started life as a flower girl, and possibly a prostitute, but rose to such a height that she could send her portrait back to Reynolds to have her dress and hairstyle updated, like an 18th century Instagram.

Mary Robinson was known as Perdita, from her portrayal of the heroine in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and was incredibly famous in her day. She was the mistress of the future King George IV when he was Prince of Wales, but he was only one of many lovers. She was a complex person, a fashionista who took opium and moved in aristocratic circles, but who also wrote radical and proto-feminist poetry and novels.

Elizabeth Inchbald was the daughter of a farmer who went on to become a popular and highly successful actress, playwright and novelist. It’s her play that is the ‘dangerous drama’ Lover’s Vows, performed in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Despite her wealth Inchbald remained grounded, preferring to scrub her own floors and help out her poorer relatives.

Lady Emma Hamilton’s story is perhaps the most stellar. Emma was no bluestocking and not really an actress either, but became one of the most famous women of her day because she was Horatio Nelson’s lover. A blacksmith’s daughter from the Wirral, she had no formal education, and rose to prominence as a muse to the painter George Romney. She was more than a pretty face, though. She was known to be charming and clever, kind and loyal. She had found an unusual outlet for her talents with her ‘Attitudes’, where she struck Classical poses for private guests at the Naples home she shared in a ménage a trois with her elderly diplomat husband and Nelson.

The German poet Goethe watched one of her performances, and reproted that he took ‘...exquisite delight in a lovely girl, English, and some twenty years of age. She is exceedingly beautiful and finely built. She wears a Greek garb becoming her to perfection. She then merely loosens her locks, takes a pair of shawls, and effects changes of postures, moods, gestures, mien, and appearance that make one really feel as if one were in some dream.’

Needless to say, Emma is usually depicted staring boldly out at the viewer in her many portraits.

Of course many women had no portraits, no biographies nor even entries in biographical dictionaries. Their stories are, however, slowly coming to light. Many wrote fascinating and detailed diaries of their lives that are being digitised and becoming available to read online.

Mary Lacy, Hannah Snell and Mary Ann Talbot had no connection other than their extraordinary careers as sailors. Despite it being officially forbidden for women to serve aboard ships in the Royal Navy, they did so disguised as men, even taking combat roles in battle during the French Revolutionary Wars. Amazingly, all three eventually petitioned for – and received – Admiralty pensions in their own names.

Businesswomen, often widows, were rare but not unheard of. Eleanor Coade ran a stoneware and sculpture manufacturers in Lambeth in the 1760s, inventing an artificial stone along the way. Sarah Clayton was a merchant and property developer in Liverpool in the mid-1700s, at the height of the slave trade, who took over the family business from her widowed mother. She was rich and influential, said to be the only woman, and one of only four Liverpool residents at the time who owned their own coach.

Scientific knowledge may have been growing rapidly in the 18th century, but it was difficult for women scientists to gain recognition. Few women scientists had careers in their own right. Caroline Herschel was probably the most famous of a group of ‘sky sweepers’, women astronomers who were essential to the discoveries of planets, comets and nebula, but hidden behind more famous men, often fathers, brothers and husbands. Caroline was sister of the more famous William Herschel, known for discovering the planet Uranus. But she is unusual in that she was recognised in her own lifetime and awarded for her work by the Royal Astronomical Society.

While these women were not feminists in the contemporary sense, they rose to be respected and admired on their own terms despite the odds stacked against them. “Even Emma Hamilton, while not a thinker with a burning desire to write and a kept woman, was exposed to culture and was resourceful and responsive to opportunities,” says Peltz. “The 18th century was an era of rational conversation, writing and enlightened sociability, and women were certainly part of that. There was perhaps a fifty-year period when successful, empowered women were valued as contributors to the national fund of knowledge. But this period of women’s relative freedom was also a watershed, and eventually there was a backlash against women like Wollstonecraft. These extraordinary women were pushed into the darkness of the 19th century.”

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