"The voice of reason": Rational feminism in eighteenth-century literature
White, Carolyn Dorow
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation discusses rational feminism as part of the eighteenth century's call for the improvement of the condition of women. Rational feminism is based on a belief in the rational capacity of women and the necessity of developing it. Criticism of the eighteenth century has often associated rational feminism with two key figures, Mary Astell (A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, 1694) and Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792), whose works form bookends enclosing the century. Other texts by Eliza Haywood, Sarah Fielding, and Charlotte Lennox demonstrate that rational feminism appears variously in the middle of the century. These novelistic forms suggest that as an expression of feminism, reason becomes separated from publicity and politics, and united with domesticity and marriage in the midcentury years. Chapter one provides a critical, historical, and intellectual background for rational feminism as well as distinguishing between its manifestations in Astell and Wollstonecraft. Chapter two examines Haywood's Adventures of Eovaai, Princess of Ijaveo (1736), which portrays reason in a dichotomous relationship with the body and identifies this dichotomy as an artificial choice imposed by patriarchy whereby private and public roles for women become mutually exclusive. Chapter three argues that in Fielding's Governess: or, The Little Female Academy (1749), the body and publicity are dissociated from women. Reason comes into the home to produce rational motherhood as well as pleasure, which Haywood linked to the body. In chapter four's The Female Quixote (1752), Lennox makes reason a source of male heterosexual desire and the very basis of the companionate marriage. Lennox questions the terms of such marriage, which demands a specifically female form of rationality, just before Wollstonecraft embraces it as a locus of female rational fulfillment. The conclusion defines the project's intervention in the use of reason as a concept and the historiography of feminism in the eighteenth century.
Women's studies; English literature