ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Mary Hays: Forgotten Feminist

Mary Hays, the 18th-century English writer, remains an unfamiliar name despite the recent efforts of feminist literary theory to reclaim the lost tradition of women’s writing.

The 1790s marked the beginning of one of the most revolutionary periods in England. A group of thinkers, today known as the English Jacobins, were becoming increasingly inspired by the revolution in France. Among them, William Godwin, Thomas Paine and Robert Bage argued for revolutionary social, economic and legal reform, actively interrogating long-held hierarchies of class and rank in their writings. The text they all engaged with was Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), an overt defence of the French monarchy and of institutional authority in general. Women writers were actively articulating their voices alongside their male contemporaries in this period.

Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Smith, Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Hays, Mary Robinson and Amelia Opie propagated equality and economic and social liberation of all individuals. Their works inscribed not only class consciousness but also an awareness of their inferiorised status, twice oppressed on account of their class and gender. These women came to be seen as a grave threat to the moral codes of 18th-century British society. In his acerbic and deeply chauvinistic poem “The Unsex’d Females” (1798), Richard Polwhele characterises this group of writers as “A female band despising NATURE’s law.” These writers were articulating the condition of being a woman in their times—dispossessed, marginalised and oppressed.

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Updated On : 19th Apr, 2021
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