Joanne Wright for the SSEMW Blog
In 1989, students and staff at Columbia University hung a 170-foot wide banner off the top of Butler Library featuring the names of women writers, from Sappho and Christine de Pizan to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and Virginia Woolf. As Laura Brown, who designed and made the banner, pointed out, “Great women do not get their names inscribed on buildings.” To this end, the Columbia University Banner Project provided a symbolic counterweight to the list of iconic Western men that permanently adorn the building in stone. Later, in 1994, when designing another banner to be hung in the same location displaying a more diverse range of women writers, students asserted, “Dante is not worthier than Toni Morrison in understanding culture.”
This banner activism, and the concomitant claims about the importance of recognizing the authority of women’s voices, is no less radical now than it was in the 1990s. These were politically symbolic efforts that directly connect to a long history of epistemic injustice, the lack of acknowledgment and recognition of women’s contributions, not just to literature, but to all fields of knowledge.
Now we are amidst the #MeToo movement that is giving credence, finally, to the “she said” portion of the popular but lopsided phrase historically skewed in favor of men’s accounts of sexual misconduct. As a result, there is a larger opportunity and imperative to connect multiple sites of struggle as well as to revisit historical women’s resistance to the epistemic injustices of the past.
For Margaret Cavendish, writing in the post-English Civil War period, the desire to have her writing considered as part of the societal conversation was paramount, as she understood very well the challenges her gender posed to the acceptance of her authority.
A much less known figure in the 1980s and 1990s, Margaret Cavendish would not have made the cut for a Butler Library banner, but given her rise in popularity, both in academia and as the subject of an acclaimed literary biography, she could well be a finalist now. Indeed, the English literary canon has proven open to revision and now includes many more women and marginalized voices than it once did. Yet Cavendish faces a much tougher climb in another area of critical interest to her: politics. While we also might state, “Harrington and Hobbes are not worthier than Margaret Cavendish in understanding politics,” there may not be an audience to hear it.
Indeed, Virginia Woolf’s distinction between what an indifferent reading public says to a male writer, “Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me,” and what it says to a female, “with a guffaw, write? What’s the good of your writing?” applies doubly in the case of a seventeenth-century woman writer offering an interpretation of the political world. Clearly, as the most published Englishwoman of her time, Cavendish’s ability to be heard, to get her voice into the public domain, should not be underestimated. It took vision, will, and perseverance to write and to channel that creative energy over a relatively short time span. Having the time to write, an avenue to publish, and an audience, she enjoyed a privilege not available to other women.
Yet, in the seventeenth century, Cavendish’s writings on politics and war were assumed to mimic the ideas of her husband and his circle of friends; in ours, she faces the disciplinary obstacle of political science, which, of all the social sciences and humanities, has proven most resistant to accepting other voices into its canon and continues to treat historical political thought as a rarefied discourse reserved for men. “Exclusion, exclusion, exclusion, is that all feminist political theorists can talk about?” said one highly regarded historian of political thought, while another conceded,“Cavendish is interesting but lacks a system of politics.” Reflecting the state of the discipline, these comments beg important questions: What kind of authority must one summon internally in order to feel entitled to create a system of politics? And how does one gain that entitlement, and that authority, when you are marginal to the conversation, when your ideas are given little rhetorical space?
If politics is about the proper distribution of goods and benefits in any society, the opportunity to have one’s voice heard must be understood to be key among those benefits. Political activism, while frequently centered on a concrete demand for some kind of good or benefit, always has an epistemological underpinning: having one’s voice heard and recognized is a precondition to receiving the goods one is seeking. As we read Cavendish’s political thought, we might wonder what she was aiming for, or whether she was Royalist or republican. But perhaps our interpretation of her political thought should focus less on its consistency and more on its ingenuity and impact.
As a privileged yet nevertheless excluded woman writer of politics, Cavendish takes up topics and themes different from her male contemporaries and she does so in unconventional ways. In Orations of Divers Sorts(1662), she covers the familiar terrain of royalist and dissenting views on political obligation, but with fulsome and empathetic consideration of all sides. In one of the judicial orations, she debates the question of political obligation through the lens of domestic violence and the imbalance of power within marriage. Long in advance of any systematic analysis of domestic abuse or marital power relations, Cavendish treats these topics, not normally registered in political texts, as worthy of discussion. Something similar happens in The Convent of Pleasure(1668), in which women air their frustrations with, and the injustices of, marriage in a short vignette while an engaging story of women’s empowerment and love unfolds in the main plot.
Perhaps most of interest to contemporary readers would be Letter #16 in Sociable Letters(1664) in which the question of women’s citizenship is addressed in startlingly insightful terms. “And as for the matter of Governments, we Women understand them not, yet if we did, we are excluded from intermeddling therewith, and almost from being subject thereto,” asserts Cavendish. If women do not take political oaths, nor hold offices or have any real authority, what obligation do they owe? Cavendish’s answer is clear: “if we be not Citizens in the Commonwealth, I know no reason we should be Subjects to the Commonwealth.” 
It’s hard to imagine a stronger challenge to the masculinity of political discourse than suggesting that women should act as though they are bound by nothing. Compare this to Hobbes’s political aspiration that subjects act as though they are firmly bound by an imaginary social contract. Not only does Cavendish broaden and deepen the discourse by identifying (if not solving) political problems not normally within scope of political thought, she has a way of cutting to the core of political issues and laying bare the power relations at work.
Can we situate Cavendish in a long tradition of consciousness raising that includes the Butler Library Banner Project and the now viral #MeToo movement? Even if that is too much of a stretch, it is worth noting that attempts to shine a light on the contradictions of gendered power relations and the challenges they pose to women’s full and equal citizenship have roots in the early modern era. Cavendish’s analysis of patriarchal social relations is unrivalled in her time; by getting her voice into the public domain and asserting her authority as a woman writer, she was able to leave something profound and provocative for the feminist “after-ages”.
Joanne Wright is Dean of the Faculty of the Arts and Professor of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick.
“Women and Men of Letters Share Butler’s Façade,” Columbia University Record, Vol. 15, No. 4, September 9, 1989, p. 3.
Sonia Arora, quoted in Lauren M. Rosenblum, “Banner lauds great women authors,” Columbia Daily Spectator, March 22, 1994, p. 7.
Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing(New York: Oxford, 2007). For discussion, see Lorraine Code, Rhetorical Spaces: Essays on Gendered Locations (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. ix-x.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Penguin Books, 1945), p. 54.
Political Science has a strong contingent of scholars working on intersectional gender politics and the politics of representation; however, the discipline has by and large maintained the status quo when it comes to the canon of political thought.
Comments to the author in personal conversation.
Margaret Cavendish, Sociable Letters, ed. By James Fitzmaurice (New York: Broadview Press,2004), p. 61.