Feminism and Eighteenth-Century Studies: Working in the Bordello of History

By Mowry, Melissa | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Feminism and Eighteenth-Century Studies: Working in the Bordello of History


Mowry, Melissa, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


Feminism's early interventions in the study of Anglophone culture over the long eighteenth century were bold and radically altered our understanding of the period. With Felicity Nussbaum's The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women, 1660-1750 (1984), Ruth Perry's The Celebrated Mary Astell (1986), Elaine Hobby's A Virtue of Necessity (1989), and Donna Landry's The Muses of Resistance (1990), to name just a few of the important studies, feminism shattered the literary canon and made courses on the early English novel and eighteenth-century literature unimaginable without figures like Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, Eliza Haywood, and Frances Burney. There is, among those who led the argument by founding the ASECS Women's Caucus and those of us who follow in their footsteps, a justifiable sense of pride and satisfaction in thus altering the way undergraduates and graduates encounter the eighteenth century. But this sea-change has also been shadowed by a sense of anxiety and an underlying fear that, in achieving its most prominent goal, feminism rendered itself obsolete. Once the question of the canon had been ceded, what was left for feminism to contribute to eighteenth-century studies?

The most sustained response to the question has come from scholars following the lead of "new formalism" who have argued either explicitly or implicitly that feminism's most valuable contribution to eighteenth-century studies now lies in the realm of epistemology generally and aesthetics in particular. (1) However, as Marjorie Levinson has argued recently, "new formalism" never really rose to the level of a "theory" because it never fully articulated what was at stake in its arguments and was, thus, ill-equipped to devise a methodology. (2) Likewise, the new "feminist epistemologies" have inspired nuanced, highly insightful, local readings of specific authors that seem ill-equipped to disclose how it is that they advance, participate in, or even foreground feminism beyond the fact that they tend to focus on women writers struggling with the gendered contradictions of their own and/or their readers' aesthetic pleasure. (3) While the effort to open a new frontier in feminism and eighteenth-century studies is valuable and, indeed, much work remains to be done by feminists on both the aesthetic and on epistemology, it is disturbing that the trumpeting of a "new feminism" is attended by a sense that we have finished our business with the past. I want to suggest here that, as feminists, our business with history is not done by half, and beyond that our business with History, as both a political and a social fiction, is exactly what we need to be focusing on.

Most recent analyses of feminism's relation to eighteenth-century studies have focused on the early recovery work. But, in the 1990s, a small group of scholars began to expand that project radically by making the case that feminist literary history had remained blind to the important work and writings of non-elite women. Hobby, of course, did critical work bringing to light the writings of radical and sectarian women; likewise Landry's Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women's Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796 revealed not only a brief moment in eighteenth-century literary history when laboring women had appreciative audiences for their writing but also the foreclosure of that moment. More recently, Paula McDowell's groundbreaking study The Women of Grub Street (1998) offered remarkable evidence and insight into women's role as both the producers and purveyors of print culture, as well as a more rigorous and self-aware model for how we might undertake the production of new knowledge about non-elite women. Peculiarly, these studies have not had the same effect on undergraduate and graduate curricula. With few exceptions, they have been embraced largely as background work that illuminates our understanding of "mainstream" literature but not as works that fundamentally reorient our understanding of eighteenth-century culture. …

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