Corresponding women project

. . . The party of free women is augmenting considerably; I hear every day of new acceders: Why do not they form a club and make a society of their own. The women who go astray have generally so much talent and sensibility, so much genuine goodness of heart, collected into a club, their society would become famous through Europe for its art and refinement, and all that was left of female observers of the conjugal vow, would be scudding away from their husbands as quickly as they could in order to get admitted a member of it. No man of course to be allowed to enter the club-house — if they want to see you they must come to your lodgings or harem that you keep for their reception. . . . .

— Claire Mary Jane Clairmont to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,
Tuesday, 16 September 1834;
EE letter ID: claiclJH0010312a1c

The 18th century was a period of great change, one of the most important of which was the gradual expansion, improvement and acceptance of women's rights and roles in society. This was a century of revolutions that, perhaps for the first time, made profound and lasting impact on subsequent history. Increasing wealth, and with the growth of the middle class an increasing distribution of wealth, a shrinking globe with an increasingly global consumer economy, and the redefinition of social relationships as economic ones (by Adam Smith and others), all contributed inevitably to a change in the position of women in the world. Increased literacy and the time to use that ability reading and writing (particularly of correspondence), gave women the opportunity to discover, create and share ideas and experiences within a traditionally male preserve.

Of course, few of these opportunities accrued to the poor working classes, though expanding economic structures, specialization of labour and centralization of production helped even working class woman to begin to loosen the sexual/maternal strangle-hold of tradition — a process that is still shamefully incomplete today. Electronic Enlightenment itself give material demonstration of the problem. Of some 60,000 published letters, only 3,762 have a woman author or co-author! This is not simply the result of biased selection by EE (biased by the desire to publish major figures of the period, most of whom are perceived to be male, by at least some degree of a gender bias in conventional history). It is still the case that of the thousands of instances of women's correspondence surviving in archives, very few publishers (perhaps still male dominated themselves) are willing to commit to major publication in this area — something EE is hoping to combat by this Project area!

Key heroes (heroines) of the period include several well known figures:

As the quotation at the top of this page suggests, however, a broader reading of women's letters provides other names that should be added to the list: including, here, Wollstonecraft's own daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851), and the latter's half-sister Clara Mary Jane Clairmont (1798–1879).

Unfortunately, not all these important women are well represented in EE (let alone their vast, unpublished sisterhood). As yet we have no letters to or from Mary Wollstonecraft, nor do we have any material associated with the major French playwright, political activist, feminist and abolitionist, Olympe de Gouges (1748–1793), author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791).

Robert V. McNamee
Director, Electronic Enlightenment
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

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