Thinking Back through our Mothers: The Lady’s Magazine on International Women’s Day

Today, 8 March 2016, is International Women’s Day. It is a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women all over the world. It is a time to look back at all our histories. A time to see where we were and to assess how far we have come. It is a time to remember (or in some cases to learn for the first time about) the work of women of the past.

It is also, of course, a time to take stock of where we are now. And it is a time to look forwards, to plan and to commit to the work that still needs to be done. It is a moment to pledge for parity –  this year’s International Women’s Day theme – to ensure that our literal and metaphorical daughters, sisters, nieces and cousins can realise their ambitions. It is reminder that we need to ‘respect and value difference’, to foster female leadership and to ‘develop more inclusive and flexible cultures’ that root out gender bias. [1]

Both as a working mother of two children (a girl and a boy) and as a teacher, I urgently feel the obligation to pledge for gender parity now for the sake of all our futures. As an eighteenth-centuryist, who spends much of her life vicariously (and very happily) living in the past, I believe passionately that looking backwards is one of the most powerful catalysts we have to propel us forwards.

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LM IV (Jan 1773). Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 

This isn’t just about assessing how far we’ve come. The very first thing that history, surely, teaches any of us is that there is no inexorable progress towards present-day, or even future, perfection. History is a game of gains and losses; of advancement and regression; of ‘uneven developments’, to borrow the words of Mary Poovey [2]. But taking the long view of that game, of its repercussions and the all-too real stakes for which the people involved have played, is more than instructive. History has the potential to let us see the present anew. It enables us to see through the fictions we have been told about how the world was, and to refract alternative possibilities for the future through the prism of the past.

 

 

 

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I think that the Lady’s Magazine (1770-1832) offers one such generative contact point between women’s pasts, presents and futures.

Now, I’m not saying that the Lady’s Magazine is straightforwardly (or even complicatedly) a feminist publication, although I do have a habit of telling anyone who will listen that the magazine called for a ‘revolution in female manners’ a good 14 years before Mary Wollstonecraft much more famously did so in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) (LM 9 [Jan 1778]: iii).

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LM I (Apr 1771): 418. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Birmingham Central Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Early feminist polemic certainly had its place in the Lady’s Magazine. The first of many times the periodical referred to womens ‘rights’ was in an essay ‘On the Strength and Bravery of the Female Sex’, signed Lucinda, which appeared in its fourth issue in January 1771 [LM I (Jan 1771): 261]. Extracts of Wollstonecraft’s work appeared in the periodical in the 1790s, alongside memoirs of and observations on the works and lives of the likes of Mary Astell, Madame Dacier, Emilie du Chatelet, and Damaris Masham. The political and cultural achievements of women from antiquity to its present and from all over the world were celebrated every month in the magazine in one-off biographies and biographical serials such as ‘Memoirs of Remarkable Ladies of Great Britain’ (1774-1776) and ‘The Lady’s Biography, Or the Lives of celebrated and illustrious Women, ancient and modern; adapted particularly to the Amusement and Instruction of the Fair Sex’ (1771-1772) .

The women remembered and celebrated in these columns excelled in classical learning, in literature, in the arts, on the stage, and in politics. They included notable women from Cleopatra and Empress Athenais, to Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Nell Gwynn, Sarah Siddons, and bluestockings Elizabeth Rowe and Elizabeth Carter. The magazine was always international in focus. It acknowledged and helped further to entrench the influence of important French women writers including Madame de Genlis and Madeleine de Scudéry, while it brought to readers’ attention via translations of works such as Geronymo Feijoo’s  Defence of Women (1726) the lives and work of Greek, French, German and Italian women (serialised 1810-1811).

The magazine was frequently passionate in its advocacy of women’s right to education and argued that historical precedent urged its necessity and efficacy. To quote from Lucinda’s aforementioned 1771 article

Women formerly had the supreme command at Lacadaemon. These brave people were always virtuous, [… and] conceived so high an idea of the prudence and wisdom of women, who had shown amazing judgment and penetration in a a thousand important affairs relative to the public welfare, that at length nothing was determined without their advice. At Athens also, the school of wisdom, and seat of the arts, women were consulted in the most critical circumstances, and the preference was always given to their opinion. Nicaulin, the famous queen; Semiramis, empress of Assyria; Elizabeth, queen of England; and many others have rendered it doubtful, whether it is more advantageous for a state to be governed by a male or a female administration. (LM I [Jan 1771]: 261)

Benito Feijoo

Portrait of Feijoo y Montenegro by Juan Bernabé Palomino.

Culture’s insidious masquerading as nature, or to use Lucinda’s own words, ‘bad education’ and ‘the malice of man[‘s]’ corruption of the ‘intentions of nature’ in degrading women and denying them parity of opportunity, would be a recurrent refrain of the magazine for its next six decades. Women were equally as educable as men. The history of women teaches us, above all, to quote Elenir Irwin’s extraordinary translation of Feijoo’s Defence of Women that: ‘the excellencies of men cannot be denied to women’ on any rational grounds (LM 41 [Dec 1810]: 531).

Despite such claims, the magazine’s until recent reputation as a conduct book by another name and association with gender conservatism is not wholly unwarranted [3]. The Lady’s Magazine could be deeply condescending towards women, and misogyny finds its home in many articles that tried to police what women wore, could talk about or even read. The opening line of the sanctimonious 1788 serial ‘Letters from a Brother to a Sister at a Boarding School’ speaks for many of the magazine’s bluntest male contributors: ‘Do you know, Mary, that you are very ignorant?’ (LM 39 [Mar 1788]: 107).

Men, in fact, have a lot to say about women in the Lady’s Magazine. Indeed, two of the things that most surprise first-time readers of the periodical are how many men clearly subscribed to and enjoyed it, and how much of its contents seems to have been authored by male authors from schoolboys to married men and elderly bachelors. While many female contributors challenged men’s right to attempt to police their lives and behaviour, calls to ‘bar the male creatures’ from the magazine were never heeded. (LM 31 [Mar 1780]: 125).

But despite the presence of men in the magazine and despite the misogyny that pours out in a number of contributions by men and women in its pages (misogyny never was nor ever will be an exclusively male preserve), I would argue until my last breath that the Lady’s Magazine has an important place in the history of women’s writing and in women’s history more broadly.

To document all the reasons why would take much more space than I have here. It’s partly why I am writing a book about just this subject. But suffice it to say for now, that the magazine provided an important space and place for women’s writing (current and past, British and international) that had significant impact. Careers were launched in the magazine’s pages, from those of George Crabbe to Gothic novelists Catherine Cuthbertson, George Moore, Mrs A. Kendall. Later writers such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, who wished ‘[w]ith all my heart … I had been born in time to contribute to the Lady’s Magazine’, were undoubtedly influenced by it [4].

LM IX ( Jan 1779): 148. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Cambridge University Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

LM IX ( Jan 1779): 148. Image © Adam Matthew Digital / Cambridge University Library. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Most of all, though, the magazine’s greatest achievement, as I have argued before, was its creation of a community of readers and reader-contributors in which women and what we might now call women’s issues took centre stage. They did so by never taking as read that any issue, topic or pursuit was inherently gendered. Mathematics, philosophy and astronomy were widely understood as male preserves at the time, but the magazine would argue forcefully for women’s right to access and practice these fields. It was, after all, not ‘astonishing’ that ‘a Newton should not have sprung up from our [the female] sex’, the pseudonymous Sukey Foresight argued, when ‘no lady […] ever experienced an education similar to Sir Isaac Newton’ (LM 31 [Apr 1780]: 181). By the same token, traditionally feminine subjects such as fashion, to which much page space in the magazine was dedicated, were widely discussed in and disseminated by the magazine, but their politics and place in women’s lives was always open to debate and always presented as only adorning those women equally committed to the ‘cultivation of their minds’ (LM 32 [Oct 1781]: 506).

Today, of course, communities for articulating and debating women’s issues have proliferated thanks, in large part, to the growth of the internet and social media. The conversation has expanded exponentially; its current reach would have been unimaginable to readers of the Lady’s Magazine whose own circulation seems to have been around (a still quite astonishing) 15000 copies a month at the height of its popularity. Just in our the online Twitter and Facebook communities focused around this research project, I regularly talk to hundreds of followers in the US, Tasmania, Russia, Japan and India. But as the conversation grows about gender parity there is also a danger that it could more splintered or more local in focus.

Today, the example of the Lady’s Magazine, no matter how conflicted its own gender politics is, reminds me that we need to hold on to the bigger picture. We need, I firmly believe, to keep an eye on the long view, on what women have gained and lost in recent decades and even over the course of centuries. We also need to look beyond national boundaries to advocate women’s access to education and their right to live lives of opportunity without prejudice and fear wherever they live in the world.

Notes

[1] http://www.internationalwomensday.com/Theme. <Accessed 7 March 2016>

[2] Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[3] See, for instance, Kathryn Shevelow, Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 188-89.

[4] Letter to Hartley Coleridge, 10 December 1840, The Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontë: Vol. I, 1829-1847, ed. Margaret Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 240.

 

Dr Jennie Batchelor

School of English

University of Kent

 

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