The Female Voice: gender and print culture in Enlightenment Britain

Category: Research Projects


“Every blooming virgin will enchant her lover, not by tender looks, or gracious smiles, or the common arts by which affections are subdued, but by giving him an order to her printer.”  

So wrote Thomas Day (1748­‐89), author and eighteenth century Lunar Society member, in his scathing polemic against female authorship, which appeared posthumously in 1805.   

Day's comment reflects not only the rapid growth in female authorship throughout the 18th century, but also the negative responses that it aroused, as a challenge to the male gendered space of the printed page.  It was not merely the act of writing that was contentious as far as Day was concerned, but rather that, in the act of printing and of entering a public and therefore presumptively male space, women usurped the role of men, neglected their natural roles of wife and mother and undermined their own femininity.   Despite this Day was part of a network in which female authors were not only present but also conspicuous and successful. Moreover, these authors did not just participate in print culture; they used it to engage with the concepts of gender that Day believed to be ‘natural’ as well as ideas around power and voice.  

The female authors of Day’s acquaintance, Anna Seward and Maria Edgeworth, are only two of many female authors of the time, some radical and some traditional, that used print culture to engage with and question notions of gender and female selfhood.  By doing so they confronted the idea of the printed page as a male gendered space, in both the act of sending an order to their printer, and in the opinions they articulated.   

This research will analyse the engagement of women in Enlightenment print culture to identify how the ‘female voice’ was used to create and question ideas of gender and the female self.  It will attempt to trace the development of the debates around gender that were played out in print culture of the 18th and early 19th centuries, as well as the attempts made to restrict women from that culture and to normalise it as a male­‐gendered space.

Members involved in this research

Dr Kate Iles