“Calm down, dear”

NPG D31911; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) in the character of a Roman matron lamenting the lost liberties of Rome by Williams, after  Katharine Read

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) line engraving by Williams, 1770, after a painting by Katharine Read © National Portrait Gallery, London.
A passionate democrat is lamenting the lost liberties of the Republic of Rome.

She was respected and celebrated in Britain, France and America, by politicians as diverse as Pitt the Elder, Mirabeau, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and George Washington, who wanted her to write the history of the American Revolution. As an historian and political theorist she was regarded as the adversary and equal of her male contemporaries David Hume, Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke, and was more progressive, more recognizably modern to us, than any of them.

Now, most of us have never heard of her. I bumped into her for the first time a month ago when I was looking for more 18th century women with “a taste for books”, as she put it.

The process of shunting her out of his-story, started in her lifetime. As she got older, her extreme radicalism, particularly her support of the French Revolution, and unconventional private life shocked a lot of people, who cast her out of their polite society. She didn’t seem to miss it. Middle-aged women who refuse to conform, who continue to innovate and prefer dancing on the precipice to knitting grandchildren’s socks are still not taken seriously today: audiences love to see them fall.

She had been born into recently landed gentry whose wealth had come from banking, typical of early 18th century social and economic mobility. Her political theories were rooted in the ‘Roundhead’ tradition of John Hampden, the true hero of parliamentarianism, not the tyrant Oliver Cromwell, who became crypto-king.

She ranged far left of the Whig ideology in which she had been raised, far outside the accepted lines of class, sex and age. Personal liberty and equality, and the courage of personal conviction, mattered more to her than social approval. When she was forty-seven, having been a widow for twelve years, she overturned every kind of received idea by marrying a twenty-one year old ‘surgeon’s mate’, the younger brother of a celebrity quack doctor.

She was still a star of liberty in the new American Republic, and was welcomed, accompanied by her husband, to George Washington’s house for a visit which lasted ten days. She was the President’s first choice to write the history of the Revolution; by then in her late fifties, she felt too physically frail for the task; only a terminal illness would have stopped her.

After her death, her husband, William Graham, erected a monument commemorating her wisdom in All Saints’ Church, Binfield, in Berkshire. Most other English people buried her intellectual achievements along with her body, and her radical contribution to political theory and history was forgotten in the next century.

This was partly because monarchical systems of government and opposition to universal suffrage triumphed in post-Napoleonic Europe, partly because she was a woman, a very inconvenient woman, whose intellectual challenge to a man’s world could be dismissed as menopausal hysteria, her rational voice shouted down in a chorus of “Calm down, dear” (remark made by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to fellow MP Angela Eagle during a parliamentary debate in 2011, in a badly-judged parody of a popular TV advert featuring Michael Winner).

NPG D17066; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by James Basire, after  Giovanni Battista Cipriani

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) by James Basire, after Giovanni Battista Cipriani,
line engraving, published 1767. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

Now, when we see that liberty and equality are as fragile as ever, she is understood and relevant again.

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Woman for Today

NPG 5856; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by Robert Edge PineCatharine Macaulay, born Catharine Sawbridge: social, political and economic radical, educationalist and republican historian,
in a portrait by Robert Edge Pine, oil on canvas, circa 1775 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Macaulay (2 April 1731 – 22 June 1791) argued that if distribution of wealth is not evenly balanced, society will break apart, and anarchy followed by tyranny will ensue.

She wrote:

“every citizen who possesses ever so small a share of property, is equally as tenacious of it as the most opulent member of society; and this leads him to respect and to support all the laws by which property is protected.”

and:

“….it is only the democratical system, rightly balanced, which can secure the virtue, liberty and happiness of society”.

She was a democratic republican who supported the American and French Revolutions.

She saw that power given to a privileges few corrupts them, and that they too readily lose accountability. The people, if their trust has been betrayed, have reasonable grounds to oppose autocratic government:

“the people may possibly object, that in delivering themselves passively over to the unrestrained rule of others ….they deliver themselves over to men, who, as men, and partaking of the same nature as themselves, are as liable to be governed by the same principles and errors; and to men who, by the great superiority of their station, having no common interest with themselves which might lead them to preserve a salutary check over their vices, must be inclined to abuse in the grossest manner their trust.”

She called for better education for women, like her younger contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft, so their sex could at last take their place in society as equal citizens to men.

She was a member of the Bluestockings circle of leading women intellectuals and artists; she was a correspondent, and inspiration, of the American political writer Mercy Otis Warren, who praised her “Commanding Genius and Brilliance of thought”. Together they shared ideas for improving society and denounced the tyranny of the British government as the violent behaviour of an “unnatural parent”.

NPG 4905; Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel

Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel, oil on canvas, exhibited 1779. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Another 18th century Leibovitz-style celebrity group portrait of nine extraordinary women, linked by their intellectual and artistic interests to form the Bluestockings.
They are still familiar names today for their achievements, including the novelist Charlotte Lennox, the painter Angelica Kauffmann and the anti-slavery campaigner Hannah More. Macaulay is seated on the plinth, holding her historian’s scroll.

Their self-conscious poses are a lot less awkward than the ones in last year’s M&S iffy ‘Leading Ladies’ advertizing campaign, and Marks might get some inspiration for womenswear from the neoclassical look.

Links:
Stanford Encyclopaedia entry for Catharine Macaulay

National Portrait Gallery ‘Brilliant Women’(2008 exhibition)
a stimulating introduction to the Bluestockings

Foreshades of Grey

or The Moral Dangers to Young Women of Reading

readingheloise

Depending on what you want from a book, you might say “I’ll have what she’s having” and sales of the book would exceed Fifty Shades of Grey and Harry Potter combined.
Bernard d’Agesci Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abélard
c.1780 Oil on canvas, Art Institute, Chicago. Image source: WGA

In the age of Enlightenment and Sensibility, women were encouraged to read moral novels for self-improvement, and discouraged to read anything politically or sexually exciting, so of course they did, with an all-consuming passion.

There was a real fear that if women’s imaginations were stirred too much, or if they lost themselves completely in a book, erotic or not, their weak feminine minds would be depraved.

The very private nature of the pastime was suspect; unsupervised reading of a novel might lead to masturbation.

So, as is the way of the world, portraits of girls reading became a popular soft-porn genre for men, sometimes unconvincingly disguised as moral warnings.

Moralists and misogynists could berate as much as they liked, but it was in no-one’s interests to stop women reading novels, either for instruction or diversion.

For all sorts of reasons, many people of both sexes were afraid of independent thinking, erudite women, like the Bluestockings, so they laughed at them, the premise of the jokes being that having more sex or children would set them right.

There were exceptions, women whose learning and writing was of so high a quality or relevance that it transcended gender prejudice. No sensible man could deny that these female authors were rational creatures.

NPG 5856; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by Robert Edge Pine

Catharine Macaulay, by Robert Edge Pine, oil on canvas, circa 1775 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Historian, political writer and activist, republican supporter of American Independence, opponent of inequalities in wealth, and proponent of co-education, linked to the ‘Bluestocking’ group of intellectuals, she explained she had been “a thoughtless girl till she was twenty, at which time she contracted a taste for books and knowledge…” She lost the respect of her contemporaries not for any flaw in her intellectual system, but because when she was forty-seven she married a man twenty-six years younger than her.

At the same time as women declared their intellectual and moral equality there was a huge increase in light literature. In the new enlightened culture, men and women both believed in the importance of educating girls, if only for the amelioration of the male condition, and this could be best achieved through presenting complex or lofty ideas in an entertainingly accessible way. Continue reading