Privileged from the Needle: Obstacles to Early Modern Scholarly Women
When asked what the topic of my PhD is, I usually answer (not very snappily) “British early modern women philosophers”. Obviously, it’s a bit more complicated than that. However, the women I’m studying are little enough known that that usually suffices: women philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries tend to get overlooked both by historians of philosophy and by scholars of early modern women writers – and the chances are that the general public won’t even be aware that such women existed. In this post I introduce two women philosophers – Damaris Masham (1658/9–1708) and Catharine Trotter Cockburn (1674/9–1749) – and explore what their private letters can tell us about the ways in which their positioning as women, housewives and mothers affected their philosophical activities.
Masham and Cockburn were connected by their relationship to John Locke and his philosophy, and were also personally acquainted. Masham was Locke’s close friend and companion: in 1689 he moved into the house in Essex she shared with her husband, and lived there until his death in 1704. Cockburn never met Locke personally. Her first philosophical work, however, The Defence of Mr. Locke’s Essay of Human Understanding (1702), was a clearly-argued defence of Locke’s thinking against a specific critic. Although published anonymously – as was customary for women publishing scholarly writing at the time – Cockburn’s name became known to Locke, and he wrote her a letter of thanks.
Like Cockburn, Masham published philosophical treatises – also anonymously. Her published works are A Discourse Concerning the Love of God (1696) and Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life (1705). Both are highly engaged with theological and philosophical debates of the time: the Discourse in particular is part of a philosophical debate concerning the extent to which we should love God’s creations, and whether or not created things in the world have a real effect on us, which can appear highly abstruse to modern readers. More accessible perhaps is Occasional Thoughts, in which Masham skilfully weaves her arguments regarding the relationship between religion and morality into her case for women’s education. Cockburn’s works are similarly enmeshed in the philosophical conversations of the early eighteenth century: her primary sphere of interest is moral philosophy, emerging at the beginning of the eighteenth century as an independent area of philosophical inquiry.
In their published philosophical texts, Masham and Cockburn don’t reveal their gender or personal circumstances to their readers. This is explicitly a deliberate choice for Cockburn, who writes to her friend Thomas Burnet of Kemnay regarding her Defence of Locke that she has “resolve[d] to conceal myself. A woman’s name would give prejudice against a work of this nature”. It seems likely that Masham’s self-concealment is also deliberate. This is in marked contrast with the writings of Mary Astell, Masham’s and Cockburn’s contemporary. Astell’s best-known work, the feminist treatise A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) is very explicitly by a woman – although anonymously published – and addressed to a female readership.
Although Cockburn and Masham conceal their gender and lived experiences in their published texts, their extensive private letters to their friends and family are full of self-expression and autobiographical detail. They both comment on how domestic labour affects their intellectual endeavours. In Masham’s letters to John Locke, she remarks that “Matrimonie and Familie Cares have Alter’d me very much. Though I was Always Dull, I find that I am now a Thousand times more so than formerly” (Masham to Locke, 24/11/1685), and refers to “Household Affaires” as the “Opium of the Soul” (24/11/1685).
Cockburn also alludes to the impediments the role of housewife brings to her scholarly work. In a letter to her niece in 1732, she writes “Sundays being privileged from the needle, I have found time of late to read three short pamphlets … by Dr. Burnet …” Some years later, she similarly comments: “… in the summer I am so much employed at my needle, that I read little, and write less.” Even before her marriage, in 1704, she makes clear to Burnet that family relations affect her abilities to study: “I have so little time to myself, when I am in the family, that I found my writing go on very slowly; so resolved to stay, till I have finished what I am about, in a place, where I am solitary as I can wish …”
This desire for solitude in order to engage in intellectual activity is also found in Masham’s letters. She writes “The World through long Acquaintance begun almost to Claime All my Thoughts … But as it is a True Bondage in my esteeme … I assure you it is my Principle Care and Business to Free my self from It” (Masham to Locke, 17/04/1688). She even states that philosophical activity is possible only for those “that have a freedom from the Affaires of the World” (17/04/1688).
Perhaps we can see here an anticipation of Woolf and A Room of One’s Own: although Masham, wife of a baronet, and Cockburn, wife of a clergyman, had a high degree of socio-economic privilege relative to most of the population in early modern England, they still found lack of time and solitary space a hindrance to their philosophical activities. Both women write about domestic labour hindering their intellectual pursuits; both women write about the injurious effect their family has on their studies; both women express a desire for solitude in order to engage in philosophical activity. In their letters to friends and family, we find an open acknowledgment of the barriers their gender brings to their work as philosophers: a stark contrast with their careful self-concealment and adoption of impersonal modes of philosophical discourse in their published writing. Masham’s and Cockburn’s letters should intrigue anyone keen to understand more about the life of scholarly women in the early modern period. With their letters, we can do so through their own, highly self-reflective words.
Simone Webb is a first year PhD student in Gender Studies at UCL. Her research focuses on genre in the works of Damaris Masham, Mary Astell and Catharine Cockburn, with a particular emphasis on “private” genres of philosophical writing such as the letter, and the interaction and interdependencies between generic form and philosophical content. She’s especially interested in philosophies of love, friendship, sociability and the self in the writings of these philosophers. She can be found tweeting about them – and aspects of the academic life – at @SimoneWebbUCL.