Women You Missed in History Class: Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673)

In 17th century Europe, women writers were practically unheard of.  It was seen as indecent for a woman to write and publish her work.  As a result, there were almost no women who published under their own names.  Margaret Cavendish was the exception to that.  Over her 20 year writing career, she published 23 books, and daring to do so earned her the nickname “Mad Madge.”  Records of her birth were lost during the English Civil War, but she was probably born in 1623 in Colchester, England, the youngest of eight children.  In 1643, she became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria and followed her in exile to Paris, where she met William Cavendish, then the Marquis of Newcastle, and they were married shortly after.  Margaret’s position as a marchioness and then as a duchess likely afforded her the privilege and ability to write and publish.

In 1653, she published her first two books: Poems, and Fancies and Philosophicall Fancies.  Her writing spanned many genres, including poetry, drama, fiction, philosophy, and autobiography.  Her 1666 Utopian romance, The Blazing World, is considered one of the first works of science fiction.  In spite of–or perhaps because of–being an extremely prolific writer and groundbreaking woman, her work was not well received at the time when she was publishing.  Male writers, including the well-known diarist Samuel Pepys, ridiculed her.  Her forays into the world of philosophy and rhetoric were slightly more successful, although she was still dismissed because of her gender.  In 1667 she was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society of London, but the male members of the society would not allow her more than a brief visit.

From her work, it’s unclear whether Cavendish can be considered an early feminist, but she certainly paved the way for feminists who would come along later.  Though she did write things like “it is against nature for a woman to spell right,” she also challenged traditional gender roles and spoke about internalized sexism in her writing.  She advocated strongly for the education of women and girls, “lest in time we should grow irrational as idiots, by the dejectedness of our spirits, through the careless neglects and despisements of the masculine sex to the female, thinking it impossible we should have either learning or wit or judgment, as if we had not rational souls as well as men, and we out of dejectedness think so too, which makes us quit all industry towards profitable knowledge.”

Cavendish’s work was not given the credit it deserved during her lifetime, but later generations have recognized her contributions to the fields of philosophy and literature, although she still remains relatively unknown outside of academia.  In Western philosophy and 17th century literature, white men’s voices overwhelmingly dominate the conversation.  That’s why it’s so important to recognize the voice of Margaret Cavendish, flawed as it may be, and her contributions to the field.



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