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Women Writers

Women Writers"Hannah More" (1821) portrait by Henry William Pickersgill. “Approved” women writers stayed within the domestic boundaries of literature and addressed their subject matter according to traditional values. Often using “flowery” prose, these writers purpose was often to instruct other women in proper behavior.
The Romantic Period encouraged individuals to explore the interior world of emotion and to express themselves through writing. The high value placed on personal reflection resulted in an upsurge in authorship more generally, but it also created a space for women to add their voices in greater numbers. For the most part, women were not educated to be experts in a particular field, but they were certainly able to reflect on the world through their feelings. Thus, during this period more women began to write expressive poetry, novels, letters, and other types of literature. Most writers adhered to the flowery style and domestic genres deemed appropriate for women. However, other women deviated from those social codes, employing the authoritative tone and direct style normally ascribed to men. Thus, not all women’s writing was well received by the public. Anglican clergyman Richard Polwhele wrote The Unsex’d Females: A Poem, Addressed to the Author of the Pursuits of Literature (1798) which “sorted” women writers into two categories: proper (feminine) and improper (unsex’d).

Amongst the approved women writers, Polwhele listed Hannah More, Frances Burney, Ann Radcliffe and Anna Seward. These “proper” women wrote within the confines of the domestic sphere by penning autobiographical fiction, diaries, letters, conduct books and the poetry of feeling. Intended for a primarily female audience, the works of these authors tended to follow convention, instructing women in proper behavior. Even when they seemed to argue for female empowerment, the suggestions of proper women writers remained conservative. For example, in “An Essay on the Character and Practical Writing of St. Paul” (1835), Hannah More argued that women were powerful in their subordination to their husbands. Other women writers at the time criticized this type of instruction, arguing that such manipulative tactics undermined women’s virtue.

Women Writers"Mary Wollstonecraft" (1797) portrait by John Opie. Radical, or “unsex’d” writers crossed genre and gender boundaries to address topics in traditionally “masculine” subjects, such as history, politics, and classical studies. These writers argued for more radical change and addressed both women and men using direct language.
Conversely, the work of radical women writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Robinson, Ann Yearsley, Charlotte Smith, Catharine Macaulay Graham, and Helena Maria Williams was often met with disapproval. These women breached the gendered codes, addressing topics in philosophy, science, history, poetry, theology, and the classics—genres typically associated with men only. The writings of these “unsex’d” women were political, challenging the status quo, and relied less on feeling than intellect. Abandoning the “soft phrases” normally attributed to women for the direct, authoritative language of men opened such women writers to attacks from critics, such as Polwhele. Despite such criticism, women in this “unsex’d” category continued to write and affected social change in the process.

Kat Powell

Select Bibliography

Favret, Mary A. Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics, and the Fiction of Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
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Feldman, Paula R. and Theresa M. Kelley. Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices. Hanover: University
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Janowitz, Anne. Women Romantic Poets: Anna Barbauld and Mary Robinson. Horndon: Northcote House Publishers
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Keane, Angela. Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s: Romantic Belongings. Cambridge: Cambridge
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Linkin, Harriet Kramer and Stephen C. Behrendt, Eds. Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening Doors of Reception.
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Opie, John. “Mary Wollstonecraft.” 1797. Oil on Canvas. National Portrait Gallery. Wikimedia. Web. 13. Apr. 2012.

Pickersgill, Henry William. “Hannah More.” 1821. Oil on Canvas. National Portrait Gallery Wikimedia. Web. 13 Apr.

Stafford, William. English Feminists and Their Opponents in the 1790s: Unsexed and Proper Females. Manchester:
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Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Oxford: Oxford, UP, 2008. Print.