Sunday, January 19, 2014

Catharine Macaulay – a dangerous woman writer in a scandalous marriage

by Diane Scott Lewis

Catharine Macaulay, (née Sawbridge), born in Kent in 1731—and an early advocate for women’s rights—has been discredited and disregarded for years due to her damaged reputation, a woman’s most important asset in the eighteenth century.

Educated by a governess, Catharine later described herself as "a thoughtless girl till she was twenty, at which time she contracted a taste for books and knowledge by reading an odd volume of some history, which she picked up in a window of her father's house."

A female contemporary, after conversing with Macaulay, remarked that she was "more deeply learned than becomes a fine lady."

In 1760 she married a Scottish physician, George Macaulay, and they moved to St. James’ Place in London. Six years later, and after one child, George—almost twenty years her senior—died.

Between 1763 and 1783 Macaulay wrote, in eight volumes, The History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line. She believed that the Anglo-Saxons had possessed freedom and equality that was lost at the Norman Conquest. To her the history of the English was the struggle to win back their rights that were crushed by the "Norman yoke."  Whigs welcomed the first volumes as a Whig answer to David Hume's "Tory" History of England. In 1768 relations between Macaulay and the Whigs cooled. Volume four of the history was published, which dealt with the trial and execution of King Charles I. Macaulay thought Charles's execution was justified, praised the following Commonwealth and showed republican sympathies. This caused her to be abandoned by the Rockingham Whigs.

Macaulay with the Bluestockings

Macaulay remained one of the leading political activists of her day. She was closely associated with the radical Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights. Her final important pamphlet, the 1790 Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke on the Revolution in France, in a Letter to the Earl of Stanhope, supported the French Revolution and its demands for liberty and equality. Her works were critically acclaimed, financially successful and politically influential in her own period—highly unusual for a woman.

She wrote in 1790 in her Letters on Education, as Mary Wollstonecraft (who was tremendously influenced by Macaulay’s work) did in 1792, that the apparent weakness of women was due to their lack of quality education.

Her Letters on Education also dealt with morality, non-violence, and the treatment of children, slaves, and the poor, and she’s remembered as one of the earliest advocates for gender equality and co-education.

In 1778, at the ripe old age of forty-seven, she married William Graham, the younger brother of a close friend. Graham was only twenty-one. The marriage, as well as the increasingly radical nature of her writings—her attacks on the government—damaged her reputation in Britain. She was accused of marrying a man of inferior status, and too many years her junior. The marriage, however, seemed to have been a happy one.

Still popular in America, (she’d criticized the policy of the British Government in the lead up to the American War of Independence) she was associated with the leading Revolutionaries there, even visiting with George Washington at Mount Vernon in Virginia.

Plagued by increasingly ill-health, she died in Berkshire in 1791.

Unfortunately, Macaulay’s status as a scandalous woman writer with a damaged reputation (according to the mores of her time) has allowed her to be disregarded by later historians of eighteenth-century literature and politics. Recently, her significance as a writer and political thinker has been recognized. Her work is thankfully the focus of a growing number of studies.

For further reading on Macauley's writings:

See more on Diane Scott Lewis.


  1. This reminded me of Dan Hannan's book -

  2. Thank you for this post. I, and other historical romance novelists, write feisty heroines. Nice to know they really existed!


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