wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Roy Porter

The Creation of the Modern World

Scripture, the law and other authorities jointly confirmed male superiority and the subordination of women. 'By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law,' stated the leading jurist William Blackstone; 'that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that other husband.' Every wife, bar a queen regnant, glossed The Laws Respecting Women (1777), was under her husband's authority, as was her movable property: 'She can't let, set, sell, give away, or alienate any thing without her husband's consent.' An anonymous poet grumbled:
In youth, a father's stern command
And jealous eyes control her will,
A lordly brother watchful stands
To keep her closer captive still.

The tyrant husband next appears,
With awful and contracted brow;
No more a lover's form he wears:
Her slave's become her sovereign now.
Such mandates were echoed by other males who set themselves up as experts. In his comprehensive History of Women, published in 1779, William Alexander listed, not uncritically, the judicial exclusions to which they were subjected. 'We allow a woman to sway our sceptre, but by law and custom we debar her from every other government but that of her own family,' he observed, 'as if there were not a public employment between that of superintending the kingdom, and the affairs other own kitchen, which could be managed by the genius and capacity of women.' Historically, women had been condemned to an unenviable role, 'for the most part, but improperly, or slightly educated; and at all times kept in a state of dependence, by the restrictions of a severe legislation'. There were grounds for optimism, however, added the Scottish surgeon in a typically enlightened gesture. Women had begun as 'slaves', but society was advancing, and progress always went hand in glove with improvements in the status of women—it was, indeed, a litmus test of the civilizing process.

Sentiments abounded which sound slighting, if not contemptuous or downright misogynistic:
That bold, independent, enterprising spirit, which is so much admired in boys, should not, when it happens to discover itself in the other sex, be encouraged, but suppressed. Girls should be taught to give up their opinions betimes, even if they should know themselves to be in the right.
This pronouncement, surprising though it might seem, came from the pen of a woman, Hannah More. Other writers—and not only men—endorsed the gendered status quo, deeming it ordained by God and Nature. 'You must lay it down for a Foundation in general,' dogmatized the Earl of Halifax in his Advice to a Daughter (1688), 'that there is Inequality in the Sexes, and that for the better Oeconomy of the World, the Men, who were to be the Lawgivers, had the larger share of Reason bestow'd upon them.' Men were thus not merely on top, but their superiority lay in an unequal divine apportioning of that essential Enlightenment quality, reason. 'Women are only children of a larger growth,' ribbed a fellow peer, Lord Chesterfield: 'they have an entertaining tattle, and sometimes wit, but for solid, reasoning good sense, I never in my life knew one that had it, or who reasoned or acted consequentially for four-and-twenty hours together.' Others, while avoiding such insults, nevertheless colluded in their underlying assumptions. Hannah More again, who penned Strictures on the Modem System of Female Education (1779), held that the 'real' aim of the education of girls should be to make them 'good daughters, good wives, good mistresses, good members of society and good Christians'. 'Keep your knowledge of Latin a dead secret,' Sir William Hamilton alerted his niece when launching her into fashionable society: 'a lady's being learned is commonly looked upon as great fault.' Such advice was given by men and women alike, in the conviction that they had a lady's true interests at heart.

Many bridled at such humiliations. 'We Live and Dye,' ventured Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, in 1663, 'as if we were produced from Beasts, rather than from Men.' 'There is no part of the world where our sex is treated with so much contempt as England,' observed Lady Mary Wordey Montagu a couple of generations later; 'we are educated in the grossest ignorance, and no art omitted to stifle our natural reason.' Given the smug rhetoric praising British liberty over oriental despotism, it is richly ironic that, domiciled in Constantinople as the wife of the British ambassador, she concluded that Turkish ladies were freer than their English counterparts. Envying those she befriended at the baths, Lady Mary contrasted the female solidarity she saw there to London's backbiting tea parties. Polygamy notwithstanding, Turkish women enjoyed some freedom on account of the veil, that 'perpetual Masquerade' which 'gives them entire Liberty of following their Inclinations without Danger of Discovery'. Wryly, she saw herself as the captive one, imprisoned as she was in the 'machine'—her stays, within which the local women assumed her Lord had caged her.

Lady Mary's resentment towards the conspiracy of conventions perpetuating female subservience was widely shared. Like Jane Austen later, Judith Drake, author of an Essay in Defence of the Female Sex (1696)—which had gone through five editions by 1750—observed that nothing could truly be learned about women from books, because their authors were typically men, and 'as men are parties against us their evidence may justly be rejected'. Citing nevertheless the authority of 'some learned Men', she countered that 'all Souls are equal, and alike, and that consequently there is no such distinction, as Male and Female Souls'.