The poem is of interest to those interested in the history of women, as well as revolutionary politics, for several reasons: it demonstrates the continued viability of the tradition of misogynist literature; it is an example of the British backlash against the ideals of the French Revolution; it is representative of the strategic conflation of women writers with revolutionary ideals during this period; and it helps illuminate the obstacles faced by women writers at the end of the eighteenth century.
The Unsex'd Female is complicated, however, by the tumultuous political situation at the time of its publication. The American Revolution had occurred only two decades earlier, the events of the French Revolution were even more recent, and the Haitian Revolution, the most successful of the African slave rebellions in the Western Hemisphere, was in process. Ideas about enfranchisement, liberty, and equality were widespread. To Polwhele and others who shared his perspective, these ideas were perceived as attacks on religion, the monarchy, and the government. Women's advocacy of access to education was confused with the most outrageous actions ascribed to the revolutionaries: free love, irreligion, and violent upheaval. Some commenters went so far as to blame the French Revolution on "a notorious dereliction of female principle" and "the dissipated and indelicate behaviour and loose morals" of French women. Many of those who had initially supported the French Revolution turned away from the excesses of the Terror, and Britain was gripped by a strong backlash against any ideas that seemed in the least revolutionary. Janet Todd writes that "Britain, once priding itself on being the most politically enlightened and liberal state in Europe, came to define itself in increasingly conservative, patriotic, and anti-French terms. "Gallic" and "French" came to mean, in the popular imagination, "revolutionary," so when Polwhele writes of "Gallic freaks" (l. 21) he is not merely describing fashions in clothing. Those Britons who sympathized with the French Revolution were known as "Jacobins." Those who opposed it were "Anti-Jacobins." The Antijacobin, or Weekly Examiner (1797-1798), the Anti-Jacobin Review, and the British Critic (1793-1843), were among the conservative journals that grew up during this highly polarized period. Polwhele, a conservative member of the Anglican clergy, was himself a contributor to the Anti-Jacobin Review. According to Eleanor Ty, although feminist thought had existed for decades, the women of the 1790s seemed "particularly threatening to the anti-Jacobins" because of "the outspoken claiming of their 'rights' shortly after and coinciding with the events in France that culminated in the Revolution.
(See also A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.)
The Unsex'd Females was originally published anonymously in London in 1798 by Cadell and Davies in a standalone, one volume edition. The American edition of 1800 also included A Sketch of the Private and Public Character of P. Pindar, an attack on the anti-monarchical satiric poet John Wolcott (1738 - 1819), a pairing publisher William Cobbett apparently saw as "a marketable combination" for a presumably Tory readership.
The Unsex'd Females was "well known" among the responses to Wollstonecraft and her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. One reviewer comments this "ingenious poem" with its "playful sallies of sarcastic wit" against "our modern ladies, though others found it "a tedious, lifeless piece of writing. Critical responses largely fell along clear-cut political lines. Mathias, whose Pursuits of Literature had been so inspirational to Polwhele, was himself somewhat tepid in his enthusiasm for the work.
The poem betrays a particular animus for Mary Wollstonecraft and, by extension, others Polwhele considered to be of her radical, pro-French camp: writers Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Ann Yearsley, Mary Hays and Ann Jebb, and artists Angelica Kauffman and Emma Crewe. Strangely, perhaps, only Hays, Jebb and Smith shared political sympathies with Wollstonecraft, and Smith, by 1798, had turned her back on her previous ideas. The others, though, in different ways, all fell afoul of restrictive ideas of female (and class) decorum. Yearsley, for example, a labouring-class poet who had a dispute with her patron, Hannah More, is accused of longing "to rustle, like her sex, in silk" (l.102). According to one editor, "one can only conclude that Polwhele attacks these women not for what they are, but for what they are not: they are unsexed, unfeminine, either because they are immodest, or unsentimental, or insubordinate. Women must do more than simply avoid setting a bad example: they must provide a positive model of chaste, sentimental, subordinate femininity. Of this transgressive group, Polwhele invites the reader:
Survey with me, what ne'er our fathers saw,
A female band despising NATURE's law,
As "proud defiance" flashes from their arms,
And vengeance smothers all their softer charms. (ll.11-14)
His remarks on Wollstonecraft, "whom no decorum checks" (l.63), stray from the literary and political into the personal; he invokes her complicated personal history and, of her death in childbirth, comments in a note: "I cannot but think, that the Hand of Providence is visible, in her life, her death… As she was given up to her 'heart's lusts,' and let 'to follow her own imaginations, that the fallacy of her doctrines and the effects of an irreligious conduct, might be manifested to the world; and as she died a death that strongly marked the distinction of the sexes, by pointing out the destiny of women, and the diseases to which they are liable" (29-30).
After a catalogue of the various evils of the age, the poem ends on a positive note when it turns to a group of writers, many of them Bluestockings, who reverse the dangerous literary, philosophical and political trends outlined in the earlier sections. The approved writers, in contrast to the "witlings" (l.9) previously described, are lauded for their facility in combining morality and feminine decorum with literary publication, and comprise a number of Polwhele's acquaintance: Elizabeth Montagu is praised for her ability to "refine a letter'd age" (l.188) and Elizabeth Carter for hers to "with a milder air, diffuse / The moral precepts of the Grecian Muse" (ll.189-90). Frances Burney is praised for her ability to "mix with sparkling humour chaste / Delicious feelings and the purest taste" (ll.195-96). "And listening girls perceive a charm unknown / In grave advice, as utter'd by [[Hester Chapone|[Hester] CHAPONE]]" (1ll.91-192). Anna Seward, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Ann Radcliffe, artist Diana Beauclerk, and, most centrally, Hannah More, who is set up as a sort of "anti-Wollstonecraft," complete the list of proper women writers:
… round their MORE the sisters sigh'd!In The Unsex'd Females, Polwhele initially seems to divide women writers according to their sexual reputations, but a closer examination reveals that he positions them largely symbolically. Why, for example, would Emma Crewe be in Wollstonecraft's group while Diana Beauclerk is in More's, particularly as the two knew each other and worked together? Beauclerk, in fact, had her own scandalous history: divorced by her husband for adultery, revealed to have had a child by her lover while still married, she was hardly a "proper lady." She was, however, a well-connected, well-established member of the aristocracy who painted charming, decorative pieces. Hannah More herself, while hardly a revolutionary, held a number of ideas uncannily similar to those of Wollstonecraft, ideas about the importance of female education, for example. Polwhele's polemical structure is not concerned with these nuances, however, and he positions these writers strictly according to his overarching scheme.
Soft on each tongue repentant murmurs died;
And sweetly scatter'd (as they glanc'd away)
Their conscious "blushes spoke a brighter day." (ll.203-206)
Polwhele had a variety of targets. In addition to literary and artistic improprieties, he deplored the popular female pastime of amateur botany. While this may seem a strange preoccupation to a contemporary reader, Polwhele was in fact intervening in an ongoing, and quite heated debate about the propriety of girls and women learning about the reproduction of plants, a debate that arose in part after Erasmus Darwin published an English translation of the work of Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, as well as his own poem, "The Loves of the Plants" (1790):
With secret sighs the Virgin Lily droops,To Polwhele this is practically pornography and he graphically depicts the repercussions should women and girls be allowed to practise botany:
And jealous Cowslips hang their tawny cups.
How the young Rose in beauty's damask pride
Drinks the warm blushes of his bashful bride;
With honey'd lips enamour'd Woodbines meet,
Clasp with fond arms, and mix their kisses sweet. (ll.15-20)
With bliss botanic as their bosoms heave,
Still pluck forbidden fruit, with mother Eve,
For puberty in signing florets pant,
Or point the prostitution of a plant;
Dissect its organ of unhallow'd lust,
And fondly gaze the titillating dust. (ll.29-34)
Perhaps ironically, these lines in particular were singled out by the anti-Jacobin British Critic, apparently unaware of the authorship of the poem, as being in "bad taste.
According to Ann B. Shteir, "Polwhele's objections [to women practicing botany] combine critiques of female scientific practices with critiques of other 'Gallic' and 'revolutionary' practices, such as acknowledging sexuality and teaching children about sex. In a note, Polwhele writes that "Botany has lately become a fashionable amusement with the ladies. But how the study of the sexual system of plants can accord with female modesty, I am not able to comprehend… I have, several times, seen boys and girls botanizing together" (8). His concerns about propriety dovetail neatly with what Robin Jarvis describes as the "intellectual backlash provoked by the French Revolution" whereby "by the mid-1790s scientific opinions were no longer ideologically neutral.
Polwhele is concerned with the moral ramifications of the intellectual activities of girls and women, most centrally writing. He does not, however, restrain his comments to academic pursuits; he inveighs, for example, against French fashions in dress and draws a clear line from French style to French philosophy:
With equal ease, in body or in mind, To Gallic freaks or Gallic faith resign'd,
The crane-like neck, as Fashion bids, lay bare,
Or frizzle, bold in front, their borrow'd hair;
Scarce by a gossamery film carest,
Sport, in full view, the meretricious breast. (ll.20-24)
There is a long-standing tradition of satirising the more extreme aspects of fashion, and women's fashion in particular. The less restrictive fashion of this period came in for considerable caricature. Polwhele, with his anti-French, nationalistic tone, contributes to a sub-set of such satires, a sub-set which expresses unease with feminism in terms of the "controversy concerning female fashions.