Writing against Sophie: Mary Hays's Female Biography as enlightenment feminist critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile

Shane Greentree*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mary Hays's Female Biography (1803) stands as a good example of collective biography, and a landmark in women's history writing. Scholarly debate continues on whether this epic text further develops Enlightenment feminism or marks a retreat from 1790s radicalism into early nineteenth-century domesticity. I wish to reexamine this question and argue for Female Biography being continuous with feminist thought by reading it as a critical response to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile (1763). Rousseau's restrictive ideal of female education was widely repudiated by 1790s feminist writers, and Hays's work can also be seen in this light, for her biographies present a strikingly opposed view of the proper education of women. To this end, I examine Hays's innovative depiction of childhood education, and the great emphasis she places upon her subjects' reading and intellectual development. In opposition to Rousseau, she argues for the importance of rational education for women to develop their true potential. To examine this contrast further, I conclude by examining “Catherine Macaulay Graham,” among the most revealing statements of Hays's rationalist feminism. Through comparing Hays's depiction of Macaulay's upbringing with that of the fictional Sophie, in particular, Macaulay's reading practices and rejection of the “customary avocations of her sex and age,” Hays makes her into an apt symbol of her broader vision, into somebody who prospers specifically by consciously refusing a Rousseauian childhood.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-88
Number of pages16
JournalEighteenth-Century Life
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2017

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