Of the 17 female achievers Mike Rendell focuses on in Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era, many are household names: Fanny Burney, a novelist who laid the way for Jane Austen and others; Elizabeth Fry, prison reformer; Mary Wollstonecraft, pioneer feminist; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, advocate of inoculation against smallpox. Others are much more obscure. I am thinking of Jane Marcet, writer of scientific books that inspired Michael Faraday; Sarah Guppy, inventor; Hester Pinney, lacemaker and stockbroker; Hester Bateman, silversmith; Mary Darly, print shop owner; Anna Fry, chocolatier.
The achievements of all of these women were stunning when you consider the world they lived in. As the author explains in the introduction, the structure of society, its laws and customs, automatically put women in a deeply subordinate position to men. The laws of coverture, for instance, by which a woman’s legal existence was ‘incorporated and consolidated’ into that of her husband meant that in law a married woman was effectively not a person. The custom of primogeniture ensured that women were usually effectively disinherited. Marriage law shackled women in violent and unhappy marriages; they were at risk of losing their children if they left.
That women ran businesses, managed teams, influenced politicians, created, performed, gave birth, ran households and did a million other things should surprise no one. They have been doing so since the dawn of time. As Rendell is careful to explain, all the female achievers in the book had precursors and followers. Their work was often ‘painted over’ and forgotten, precisely because they were women. Perhaps what marks the Georgian era out is that despite the entrenched misogyny, legal disadvantage and reduced human rights that women faced things were beginning to shift. After all, an interval of just over 80 years separates the end of the Georgian era and the beginning of female suffrage. Even so, there remains, still, plenty more equality of education, opportunity and recognition, to achieve.
Rendell’s writing style is light and easy to read without being simplistic, and the chapters follow a formula in which the lives of the women are set in context, followed by a section looking at the impact each had on her field and the path she beat for other women.
Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era: The Eighteenth-Century Struggle for Female Success in a Man’s World
Pen & Sword History