Image: The Family of William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Over time women have played roles in intellectual history that have gone unnoticed. In the early modern period, women were formally excluded from many of the institutions formally committed to higher learning, such as universities, and very few scholarly tracts authored by women were published. However, this is not evidence that women did not participate in intellectual culture. Rather, given the patriarchal nature of early modern society, they were more likely to participate in the exchange of ideas through informal means, such as in conversation face to face, and within private communities, such as the family, or religious orders. “If we are to understand how women engaged with key ideas, we need to trace their engagement across informal sources, such as letters to a friend, and private sources, such as diaries.” – Dr Diana Barnes

This recovery work will begin with the ARC-funded Discovery Project “Toward a Female Stoic Tradition: Women’s Writings in England, 1600-1800”. In this innovative project Dr Diana Barnes, Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at UNE, and her collaborators aim to uncover a forgotten chapter in intellectual history: women’s engagement with the philosophical discourse of stoicism.

Speaking with Dr Barnes she described the main goal of the project as tracing women’s reference to, and adaptation of, stoic philosophy as it relates to 6 key areas of their lives: religion, war, marriage, mothering, education, and politics.

Not only will this research explore the interesting and important contributions of historical women within the field, it will also challenge the male-dominated story about early modern intellectual history. By doing so, Barnes and her team aim to gain a more nuanced insight into how women engaged with stoicism, and thus to advance a more accurate depiction of intellectual history.

“Preliminary research suggests that women’s use of stoicism was very widespread,” explains Dr Barnes, “but interestingly they exercised considerable ingenuity in adapting the discourse to their own interests and needs. As there are very few formal philosophical tracts written by women over the period 1600-1800, we will focus our attention on the genres women were more likely to write, such as letters, diaries, commonplace books and family receipt books.”

One of the things that makes this project exciting is that it brings together an interdisciplinary team. Dr Diana Barnes will collaborate with the Monash University based philosopher Associate Professor Jacqueline Broad and University of Adelaide political scientist Professor Lisa Hill. Barnes and her collaborators will draw together the research methods and insights of their respective disciplines. Dr Barnes explains that her part in the study includes researching women’s use of stoic ideas in their writing on religion and war. “This will involve careful rereading of sources with which I am familiar, but also extensive archival research to build the picture.”

Looking ahead Dr Barnes is confident that by developing a more detailed and in depth understanding of women’s engagement with stoicism, this project will initiate further research into modern women’s engagement with a range of other historical intellectual ideas and traditions.