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Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism


Ariane Chernock


Stanford: University Press, 2010

Hardback. x + 257 pp. $60.00. ISBN-13:9780804763110


Reviewed by Guyonne Leduc

Université Charles-de-Gaulle (Lille 3)



This book could be read as a complement to a collective volume edited by Martine Monacelli and Michel Prum, with a preface by Geneviève Fraisse, entitled Ces hommes qui épousèrent la cause des femmes : Dix Pionniers britanniques (Les Éditions de l'Atelier/Éditions Ouvrières, 2010) as it focuses on men who committed themselves to the advancement of the woman question in the late British Enlightenment, the meaning of the attributive adjective "modern" here.

Some elements of this little examined topic have already been examined in Sylvia Strauss's 'Traitors to the Masculine Cause': The Men's Campaign for Women's Rights (Greenwood P, 1982), in Alice Browne's The Eighteenth-Century Feminist Mind (1987), and in particular about Alexander Jardine, Thomas Holcroft, Martin Madan and Edward Christian, and in Anna Clark and Sarah Richardson's introduction to The History of Suffrage, 1760-1867 (Pickering & Chatto, 2000). Chernock's book develops her contribution "Extending the 'Right of Election': Men's Arguments for Women's Political Representation in Late Enlightenment Britain" published in Women, Gender and Enlightenment edited by Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor (2005).

In her present book, she sheds light on the tensions and contradictions in the debates concerning women's roles, sex differences and gendered roles among radical thinkers and rational Dissenters at the time of the commemoration of the centennial of the Glorious Revolution and on the eve as well as at the beginning of the French Revolution. She explores numerous primary sources little exploited so far (private correspondence, manuscripts, John Anderson's will...). The aim of her book is threefold: 1. to identify the main male prefeminists together with their ideas and their connections; 2. to examine their contributions so as to better analyse the process of gender construction and the construction of masculinity; 3. to redefine the central (and not marginal) place of the question of women's rights in the political platform of British radicals of the late Enlightenment in their wish to improve society—a place as crucial as fighting the slave trade—by "achieving civil rights for religious Dissenters, and extending the franchise" [6]. Women's rights were a vexed question at the time. The questioning of their so-called inferior status and dependence on men in their domestic functions based on religion, science and law meant questioning the hierarchy of gendered roles, and more generally, the social structure.

In the first chapter ("Becoming Champions of the Fair Sex" [11-36]) Chernock describes the ideological background of some radical thinkers' growing interest in the women's cause stressing the geographical location of their networks (London [William Godwin, Alexander Jardine, Benjamin Heath Malkin], Norwich [William Enfield, Thomas Starling Norgate, John Henry Colls], Manchester [Thomas Cooper, Thomas Garnett], Birmingham [Thomas Beddoes, Erasmus Darwin, Robert Bage] mainly); Chernock looks into their motivations that were not only philosophical and political—their belief in reason, their commitment to perfectibility and their belief in progress through reason—but that were also religious (Dissenters), social (their experience of ostracism as Dissenters who could better understand the marginalisation of women ) and personal (the importance of a mother or a wife).

The next chapters follow a logical thematic progression. Dealing with women's education, Chapter 2, "Cultivating Women" [37-59], takes up Alice Browne's distinction between "instrumentalists" (such as John Gregory, Thomas Starling, John Bristed...), who advocated women's education in a purely domestic perspective and "egalitarians" (such as Thomas Poole, Richard Wright, Robert Robinson, William Enfield, Erasmus Darwin, David Steuart Erskine [Lord Buchan]...), who thought that educated women could contribute to the public good as well as to the national prosperity; John Anderson opened a coeducational university in Glasgow (1796) which Thomas Garnett left in 1799 to join the Royal Institution in London.

"Publishing Women" [60-81] deals with the next logical stage: helping women so as to give them some economic autonomy, helping them enter public life, in particular the literary marketplace (being a writer was acceptable for a woman as a domestic occupation often compared to needlework and knitting) and to that end endeavouring to facilitate their contacts with networks of printers, booksellers, critics and friends. Several examples are provided in each case. In the wake of Samuel Johnson, who had helped several "blue stockings" (Elizabeth Carter, Elisabeth Montagu, Hannah More, Fanny Burney and Charlotte Lennox), one finds the bookseller Joseph Johnson who worked with Mary Scott, Anna Barbauld, Maria Edgeworth, Mary Hays, Priscilla Wakefield, and, mainly, Mary Wollstonecraft, who proved to be a profitable financial investment. Thomas Caddell played that role for Charlotte Smith and William Lane for several female Gothic novelists by launching the Minerva Press. Published women also had to win over the critical press. The Unitarian William Enfield published positive reviews of the works of Helen Maria Williams, Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Inchbald, as did the Catholic Alexander Geddes of works by Mary Hays and Priscilla Wakefield. Erasmus Darwin, George Dyer, William Godwin, William Hayley and Hugh Worthington respectively advised Anna Seward, Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Smith and Mary Hays,   

Chapter 4, "Revising the Sexual Contract" [82-105], delves into the logical consequences of the previous chapter. It borrows part of its title from Carol Pateman's The Sexual Contract (1988) and examines the question of property rights, primogeniture and the status of married women who had become invisible beings ("feme coverte" as a result of the Norman invasion). Some radicals thought it necessary to carry out, in the microcosm of the family (the basic social unit), the consequences of the Glorious Revolution and the political contract it entailed (without forgetting that less than 20% of adult males could vote). To fight married women's legal non-existence (marriage being an indissoluble sacrament and a pillar of patriarchy), primogeniture (Dyer, Bentham) and to claim for them an equal right to divorce (Thomas Spence, Bentham) meant questioning the very construction of masculinity and femininity (Wright did not wish it). Both constructions were questioned by those who advocated sex equality in marriage, if not the elimination of the marriage contract itself, and the right to free love for both sexes (Godwin, Blake, James Henry Lawrence) not out of libertinism but so as to create a perfect state. Abortion was also envisaged (Bentham, John Henry Colls). 

If equality could be realised in the family, why not in politics? That is the core argument of the last chapter, "Imagining the Female Citizen" [106-129]. In the late 1780s and 1790s, women's right to citizenship was dis­cuss­ed by John Gales Jones, William Hodgson, Thomas Spence, Thomas Cooper, George Philips, Dyer, Starling Nor­gate, Bentham, Edward Christian, Jardine, William Shepherd, etc. Mary Wollstonecraft had already suggested women's political role as the mothers of future male citizens. Radical thinkers' arguments referred to the natural right, to the study of the "ancient constitution", to the meaning of femininity, utility, and property; these arguments were to be taken up by another man, the Owenite socialist William Thompson, in An Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men in 1825 in answer to James Mill's ideas in his "Article on Government " published in 1820.

The conclusion, "The Champions' Legacy" [131-135], proves to be as didactic as the beginning and end of each chapter. It opens onto the 19th century after having highlighted "the depth and range of some men's commitment to feminism" [131] before Mary Wollstonecraft and her circle. Chernock demonstrates that the question of women's rights was not marginal in radical debates. An "Appendix" [137-148] gathers very useful biographical vignettes of some twenty-two prominent radicals. Useful notes [149-209], a bibliography distinguishing primary and secondary sources [211-244] and an index nominum et rerum [245-257] bring the finishing touch to this volume; some entries are missing in the index such as Browne (Alice), Pateman (Carole), and the Norman Yoke; and unfortunately various entries in the notes and bibliography cannot be found in the index.




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