Margaret Cavendish and the Imagined Female Academy
Women's writing in the long eighteenth century (1660-1830) was naturally diverse. Mary Astell, frequently referred to as the first English feminist, asked in her work, Some Reflections Upon Marriage (1700): 'If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?' More than a century later, Elizabeth Appleton, a private governess, emphasised duty to one's parents and superiors, and acceptance of one's lot in life. The story of this period is not simply one of a move towards a liberal understanding of the importance of the Female Academy.
One of the most important writers to imagine this Female Academy is one of the earliest represented here. Margaret Cavendish produced fourteen works, many of which engaged with - and popularised - the most important scientific debates of her day. As a result of her controversial work into scientific publishing, she became in 1667 the first woman ever invited to visit the newly-founded Royal Society of London, even if she could not qualify for membership; the institution did not admit women until 1945.
Not surprisingly her exclusion from a male scholarly community sharpened her awareness of women's disenfranchisement and in the utopian play, The Female Academy (1662), Cavendish heightened this exclusion to ironic extremes. She presented a separate institution that allowed learned ladies to withdraw from family life to engage in intellectual discussion. Margaret Cavendish formulated a feminist agenda calling for equal educational opportunities, a demand that would echo through generations of early feminist authors from Mary Astell to Mary Wollstonecraft.