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Introduction: the progress of society

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 September 2009

Karen O'Brien
Affiliation:
University of Warwick
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Summary

Let me observe to you, that the position of women in society, is somewhat different from what it was a hundred years ago, or as it was sixty, or I will say thirty years since. Women are now so highly cultivated, and political subjects are at present of so much importance, of such high interest, to all human beings who live together in society, you can hardly expect, Helen, that you, as a rational being, can go through the world as it now is, without forming any opinions on points of public importance. You cannot, I conceive, satisfy yourself with the common namby-pamby, little missy phrase, ‘ladies have nothing to do with politics’… Female influence must, will, and ought to exist on political subjects as on all others; but this influence should always be domestic, not public – the customs of society have so ruled it.

(Maria Edgeworth, Helen, 1834)

This is a study of the implications of the Enlightenment for women in eighteenth-century Britain. It explores the impact of the great discovery of the British Enlightenment – that there is such a thing as society, that humans are principally intelligible as social beings, and that society itself is subject to change – on both male and female writers of this period. It considers the degree to which investigations of society by Enlightenment writers were inflected, even, at times, motivated by their growing interest in women as distinct and influential social members.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2009

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