- "Reason's feminist disciples" : Cartesianism and seventeenth-century English women (2008)
- Twentieth-century scholars have thought little about the attractions of Descartes’ thinking. Especially in feminist theory, he has a bad press as the ‘instigator’ of the body-mind-split – seen as one of the theoretical bases for the subordination of women in Western culture. Seen from within seventeenth-century discourse it is the dictum that can be inferred from his writings that ‘the mind has no sex’ and which can be seen as an appeal to think about rational capacities in the utopian perspective of a gender neutral discourse. My work analyses this “face” of Cartesianism as it was adapted in favour of English seventeenth-century women. How were the specific tenets of Descartes’ philosophy employed on behalf of English women in the second half of the seventeenth century in England? My focus is on Descartes as a thinker, who – whatever his real or imagined intention might have been – provided women in seventeenth-century England with tools with which to change their status, in other words: with instruments of empowerment. So why were Descartes’ arguments so attractive for women? Descartes had argued for equal rational abilities among individuals in a gender neutral way. He had further critiqued generally accepted truth with his universal doubt. I believe this specific combination of ideas, affirming their rational capabilities, was seen by a number of women as an invitation to become involved in spheres of activity from which they were previously excluded. Moreover, a specific set of Descartes’ arguments provided a number of English women with a strategy to extend female agency. Not only did Descartes’ views legitimate female rationality, they also allowed an acknowledgement that this female intellect was equally connected to “truth” as that of their male contemporaries. As a consequence, women developed an increased self-esteem and inspiration to pursue their own independent study (and in some cases publishing). These ideas eventually helped to bring forward a demand for female education, as girls and women were still excluded from formal education in seventeenth-century England. My general thesis is that Cartesianism, as one of the earliest universalist theories on the nature of human reason, introduced new possibilities into the English debate over the nature and, hence, social position of women. It brought a radical twist to the already existing discussion on women by offering new critical tools which were taken up to argue on behalf of English women. In my work I examine the specific historical conditions of the reception of Descartes’ thought in England, the philosophical appeal of his ideas for women and analyse the writings of two English ‘disciples’ of Descartes: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle and Mary Astell.