Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Did women have an Enlightenment?

Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor (eds.)

Women, Gender and Enlightenment

(Palgrave, 2007)

768pp., £22.99 paper, ISBN 978-0-230-51781-3

Did women have an Enlightenment? Historians have long excluded women from the Enlightenment orbit. But images of ‘Woman’ loomed large in Enlightenment thought, and women themselves - as scientists and salonni√®res, bluestockings and governesses, polemicists and novelists - contributed much to enlightened intellectual culture. From Edinburgh to Naples, from Paris to Philadelphia, innovative minds of both sexes challenged conventional assumptions about female nature and entitlements, and imagined new modes of relating between the sexes. Viewpoints competed, with feminists utilising enlightened principles to argue for women’s rights while defenders of masculine privilege developed new rationales for male dominance grounded in Enlightenment science. This very important collection of interdisciplinary papers by forty leading scholars is a product of a research project on ‘Feminism and the Enlightenment 1650-1850: a Comparative history’ that ran for three years across the millennium. It combines searching historiographical essays with scholarly discussions of specific authors and covers questions of sex, gender and politics as they emerged in Enlightenment France, England, Spain, Italy, Scotland and the American Colonies. Each section had an authoritative introduction and the two concluding essays weigh up the entire volume. The cumulative effect is dazzling, in part because the repetitions and contradictions highlight the different ways in which events, ideas and personalities can be interpreted, depending on the particular focus. The scale of Women, Gender and Enlightenment, with its thirty-five essays, section introductions and biographies clearly demonstrates both the variety of the subject matter, but also the variety of approaches to this material.

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