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Book of the Week — Biographium Fæmineum

“Souls are of no sex, any more than wit, genius, or any other of the intellectual faculties.”

Biographium fæmineum. The Female Worthies: or, Memoirs of the Most Illustrious Ladies, of all ages and nations.
London: Printed for S. Crowder, and J. Payne in Paternoster-Row;
J. Wilkie, and W. Nicoll, in St. Paul’s Churchyard;
and J. Wren, in the Strand, 1766

CT3201 B56 1766

Women’s History Month traces its origins back to the first celebration of International Women’s Day in March 1911. It was not until the late 1970s, however, when a school district in California decided to participate in Women’s History Week, that the idea of extending the celebration began to gain traction in organizations, communities, and other school districts around the country. In February 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8 as National Women’s History Week, stating that “the achievements, leadership, courage, strength, and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.” The following year, responding to the growing popularity of Women’s History Week, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) co-sponsored the first Joint Congressional Resolution proclaiming a Women’s History Week. Throughout the next several years, the week extended to a month and by 1986 fourteen states had declared March as Women’s History Month.

It may come as a surprise but women’s history has actually been celebrated for many hundreds of years, dating as far back as the first century AD with the Greek biographer, Plutarch. Plutarch is credited as founding the genre of Exceptional Women, although the idea of citing illustrious women is more ancient still. In antiquity, however, history often only took notice of women when the description of political and military affairs required it. From such accounts, Plutarch then focused his attention on the female presence to compile a moral treatise titled, Muliereum Virtutes — the virtues of women. In it, Plutarch defiantly declared, “man’s virtues and women’s virtues are one and the same.”

In the late medieval and early modern eras, notions of virtue, morality, and worth were exemplified in tales of romance and chivalry. A collection of nine male “worthies” first appeared in the heroic song Les voeux du paon, written by Jacques De Longuyon in 1312. The song mentioned three Pagans, three Jews, and three Christians drawn from history, scripture, and legend and included Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Hector of Troy, David, Joshua, Judas Maccabeus, King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon. These nine worthies personified the ideals of chivalry and military excellence. By the late fourteenth century a group of female worthies joined their male counterparts. The Nine Worthy Women, Les Neuf Preuses, consisted of queens and female leaders who were also known for military prowess. The female worthies tended to be less individualized and did not always fit well into the Pagan-Jewish-Christian rubric. In fact, many of the early lists focused on mythical queens, goddesses, and the Amazonian women warriors. One exemplar of nine worthy women that did fit the pattern was found in a set of woodcuts made by the German craftsman Hans Burgkmair. This set included Lucretia, Veturia, Virginia, Esther, Judith, Jael, Helena, the mother of Constantine, Saint Bridget of Sweden, and Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. By the early modern period, the tradition had become so popular in Britain that pageants sometimes featured the living embodiments of all eighteen worthies, male and female. Such line-ups were always variable.

Female worthies were long celebrated as objects of curiosity, exemplars of behavior, agents of human history, and credits to their sex. But the female worthies did not belong to a single literary genre or medium, and could appear in group biographies, treatises, poems, or even paintings. The discourse surrounding female worthies became the prime vehicle for the dramatic growth of women’s historical knowledge. Though it was men who typically penned these collective female biographies, by the end of the eighteenth century female authors began to dominate the genre. Elizabeth Elstob paved the way for such writers. In 1709, Elstob — the foremost female scholar of her time — embarked on a mission to catalog all of the world’s most famous women with the goal of presenting a convincing case toward the value of female education. Unfortunately, Elstob’s project was abandoned due to financial reasons. Her work was later taken on by amateur antiquarian George Ballard. Despite Ballard’s Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain (1752) being narrower in scope than Elstob’s original prospectus, the volume breathed new life into the tradition of female worthies by emphasizing the lives of sixty-two educated women. 

Following closely on Ballard’s heels was John Duncombe’s The Feminead (1754) and later, the two-volume biographical dictionary Biographium Fæmineum (1766) which we see here. The preface declares, “Souls are of no sex, any more than wit, genius, or any other of the intellectual faculties.” This collective biography of women includes one-hundred and eighty short entries on women dating back to ancient times, but also features contemporary women such as Mary Astell, Mary Chudleigh, Madame Dacier, Anne Killigrew, Laetitia Pilkington, Elizabeth Rowe, Jonathan Swift’s “Stella” and Lady Mary Wroth. Although the editor of this collection has never been identified, one can assume that it was likely a man that argued in the preface that, while men were clearly superior to women in the Garden of Eden, a greater equality of the sexes was a consequence of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. The book showed by historical example the ideals of womanhood in order to counter “these days of vanity and profusion” when upper-class women spent their time in “the theatres, assemblies, the gardens, and card tables.”

Whereas before writer’s might have lamented the scarcity of information about women of the past, during the eighteenth century catalogs of female worthies expanded far beyond naming just nine women. Some of these collections were still organized according to virtues and military prowess, but others now included a separate pantheon of intellectual and political cohorts. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the literary worthies proved to be even more dynamic. This stemmed from the newfound success of contemporary female writers who found celebrity among the growing inventories of extraordinary women. Emboldened by such success, more women began to construct their own histories and tributes to the female worthies. Notable titles included Mary Seymour Montague’s An Original Essay on Women (1771), Mary Scott’s The Female Advocate (1774), Catharine Macaulay’s History of England (1763-83), and Charlotte Cowley’s The Ladies History of England (1780).

The commercialization of culture in the late eighteenth century made it possible to read about female authors in the daily press, purchase their latest works, or buy their likeness in engravings or porcelain figures. Contemporary British worthies were so numerous, various and well-publicized that women no longer had to look back into ancient history to find their role models, because now such women were living in their midst. Due to overcrowding, some long standing worthies suffered in reputation, meanwhile pantheons were constantly assembled and reassembled based on shifting circumstances, values and tastes. 

Simultaneously a new genre of political history began to emerge. Established in the 1790s by Dugald Stewart, Scottish Conjectural History rose to prominence in conjunction with philosophical history written by the likes of David Hume, William Robertson, and Edward Gibbon. The focus shifted from “high politics” to more social and cultural phenomena, such as manners, customs, and local opinions.  Because women in their domestic and social capacities had a role in shaping and transmitting manners, historians finally began carving out a unique space in history for them.

Beginning with Plutarch’s virtuous women, to “the woman question” or querelle des femmes of the Renaissance, the popularization of female worthies in eighteenth-century Britain, the Suffragettes of the nineteenth century, and the feminist movements of our modern times, there has been a battle of the sexes over the moral character and abilities of women. For centuries, literature has played an active role in defining not only “Women’s History” but also establishing the rights of women in the Western world. Today, we continue to celebrate inspiring women as evidence of ongoing extraordinary female achievement.

Suggested Reading:

“Female Worthies and the Genres of Women’s History”
Philip Hicks
London: Palgrave Macmillan UK
Historical Writing in Britain, 1688–1830, p.18-33


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