Browse all Reviews
Over years of supervising student dissertations I have been petitioned by many with a wish to undertake a study of gender (or more particularly women) and the Scottish Enlightenment. I usually caution against this. Gender relative to the Enlightenment is so very difficult to pin down. The Enlightenment, after all, wasn’t something that anyone knew they were doing or experiencing.
Lady Grisell Baillie (1665–1746) graces the front cover of this volume, her poise and thoughtful, questioning expression a fitting overture for a book that is peppered with images of 18th-century Scottish women, literally making them more visible.
In recent years, historians have begun to explore the political experiences of Victorian women outside the well-trodden suffrage narrative. As a consequence, we have a far greater understanding of how certain women were able to negotiate, exploit and overcome the legal and ideological constraints society placed upon them.
This important work is long overdue. It identifies two gaps in the existing historiography.
Rachel Beer first caught my attention some 20 years ago when I was trawling through Who Was Who looking for journalists. She was unusual because she was the editor of The Sunday Times in the 1890s, when no other national newspaper had a woman editor. She was also deeply conscious of her background, proud of being a member of the wealthy and important Jewish family of Sassoon.
The history of the Enlightenment can sometimes appear as a male narrative, dominated by canonical male writers, with women appearing only as subjects denied an equality of rationality and relegated to a feminine domesticity.
Growing out of recent work on gender, scholars are now turning their attention to the history of masculinity. A key aspect of this subject is how masculinity is constructed, since, in the words of Michael Roper and John Tosh, 'masculinity is never fully possessed, but must perpetually be achieved, asserted and renegotiated'.