The Irrational Woman in the Age of Reason

by Bárbara Pérez Curiel

As mirrors of reality, cultural products contribute to normalizing, more directly or indirectly, practices and ideas of the context in which they are created. Sometimes, however, they are also spaces of resistance where certain of these conventions are not normalized but rather exposed as what they are: constructions that can be challenged and transformed. Eliza Haywood’s first novel is one of these spaces. Her amatory fiction Love in Excess; or the Fatal Enquiry was published in three separate volumes between 1719 and 1720, several decades before Olympe de Gouges’ and Mary Wollstonecraft’s “feminist” treatises—Declaration of the rights of women and female citizens (1791) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), respectively—directly questioned some aspects of the theories championed in Europe during a period that came to be known as the Age of Enlightenment and which entitled some men, but not women, to inalienable human rights.

The contradiction of theoretically defending freedom and equality as universal rights and practically upholding oppressive regulations, practices, and institutions—such as slavery and the legal submission of women—was a thorn in the flesh of the philosophy and political theory of the Enlightenment. Examples of this incongruity can be found across the diverse landscape of opinions of Enlightenment thought as well as in the ideas of individual thinkers. Thomas Jefferson provides a clear instance of the latter, as he argued the following in the Declaration of Independence of the United States (1776): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. But later, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), he claimed to “suspect” that “the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind”. And that “this unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people”.

At the same time, women’s freedom was undermined in new aspects during the Enlightenment period, an era that witnessed the elevation of human reason to supreme authority, but also an escalation of the exclusion of women from it, an exclusion that can be easily traced back at least to Aristotle’s Athens, (2) and that has historically justified women’s “natural” subjugation to the superior, rational man. In the so-called Age of Reason, rationality was expected to free people from unquestioned traditions, superstitions, and irrational beliefs. Thus, a fundamental endeavor undertaken by philosophers, such as Kant, was to reconcile religion and reason. And while Christianity was pushed into the realm of rationalism, women were pushed further out of it.  “Sapere Aude! was never a call for women.

As Michael McKeon observed, “Alongside capitalism, modern patriarchy emerges”. (3) The consolidation of capitalism and liberalism can only be seen as a process of advancement of liberties if women’s experiences are, as have traditionally been, ignored. Women’s subjugation was actualized in the new political models established in Europe—and by Europe in the rest of the world—during the modern period, when women were barred from most economic activities. The creation of a public, masculine sphere and a private, feminine one—which pushed women to absolute financial dependence on marriage—occurred alongside the development, fostered by the medical and biological investigations of the time, of a deterministic understanding of sexual difference. “In the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—continues McKeon—England acquired the modern wisdom that there are not one but two sexes; that they are biologically distinct and therefore incommensurable; and that they are defined not by behavior, which is variable, but by nature, which is not”. (4) Justifications for women’s exclusion from reason and its public expressions were now enshrined in modern science. This was the context in which Mary Astell asked: “If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves?”. (5)

In order for the new ideas of universal human rights to be compatible with the existence of literal slavery (which, of course, included women) and the denial of civil and political rights to all women, these groups had to be excluded from the status of full humanity, which in the Age of Reason became synonymous with being irrational. The notion of reason was constructed both as the essential element that defined humanity and as something which, by definition, ostracized women and non-white people. In her classic book The Man of Reason (1984), Genevieve Lloyd analyzes the construction of this notion in the Western philosophical tradition (understood as going back to Plato) and argues that reason has been defined through the overcoming of features traditionally associated with femininity, such as the tendency to emotionality. Lloyd, as explained by Karen Jones, claims that “whatever the conception of reason, the feminine and all it stands for has been excluded from it, and that this exclusion has shaped our understanding of both what it is to be an ideal inquirer and what it is to be feminine”.  (6)

Love in Excess, whose publication roughly coincided with the beginning of a decade during which women writers dominated the literary market (7), navigates the emotional states and intellectual strategies associated with the normative sexual roles available to upper-class, European women in the eighteenth century, a context where the single definition of female success was marriage. Haywood’s work points to the contradictions at the core of the expectations imposed on these women, who, on the one hand, are regarded as rationally inferior and therefore prone to passions, while, on the other, are expected to (rationally) tame such penchant if they do not want to risk being cast away. The social status of women, normatively portrayed in mainstream cultural and scientific narratives as creatures incapable of proper reasoning, depended on the same capacity for reason and temperance they were supposed to naturally lack. Count D’elmont himself, the male protagonist of Haywood’s story, reflects on this conundrum: 

But when he considered how much he had struggled, and how far he had been from being able to repell desire, he began to wonder that it could ever enter into his thoughts that there was even a possibility for woman, so much stronger in fancy, and weaker in her judgment, to suppress the influence of that powerful passion; against which no laws, no rules, no force of reason, or philosophy, are sufficient wards. (8)

Through the character of Alovisa, D’elmont’s first wife, Haywood’s narrator shows the consequences on women’s psyche of the social norms that forbade them, as stated in the novel, “to make a declaration of their thoughts” to a man. Alovisa’s repressed passion for D’elmont (who eventually marries her for ambition) drives her to incarnate, as in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the irrational woman her society expected her to be: “she raved, she tore her hair and face, and in the extremity of her anguish was ready to lay violent hands on her own life”. (9)

By exhibiting these conditions, Haywood implies that Alovisa embodies the cliché not because that is her nature, but because she is forced to repress an essential aspect of her humanity, the same one D’elmont can so freely express and act upon. The Count’s intense passions never pose a threat to him (they, however, put the women he desires, and those who desire him, in serious risk). The contrast of the situations of D’elmont and Alovisa suggests that men’s rationality is, at least partially, a result of their license to be passionate, while women’s irrationality is a consequence of the written and unwritten rules that force them to suppress their emotions. If the enlightened ideal of reason freed men, it trapped women in a dichotomy that served to consolidate their modern subjection. Haywood goes beyond merely questioning women’s assumed inferior rationality: Her work contests the binary opposition of reason and passion by showing their interdependence and how its arbitrary construction works against women.

According to Juliette Merritt, “Haywood’s writing demonstrates a sustained exposé of the conditions of female existence; to read her is to witness an analysis of those conditions and a set of strategies through which women can enhance their social power”.  (10) In Love in Excess, the character of Melliora—as if she were herself a reader of Haywood—clearly follows a strategic approach to her repressive reality. Unlike Alovisa, Melliora is capable of restraining her feelings and manages to prevent being ruined by D’elmont, as is the case of Amena, who is sent away to a convent, and of Alovisa, who dies trying to discover the identity of her husband’s lover. Nevertheless, Haywood does not use Melliora’s example to condemn the fallen women (the case of Melantha, whose promiscuity is not an impediment for her happy ending, is noteworthy). Instead, Love in Excess portrays a diversity of female characters whose fates, either tragic or happy, depend to a large extent on their possibilities to successfully navigate the unfair conditions they were born into. 

When examining early examples of challenges to male supremacy in modern Western European history, we should not underestimate the weight of millenary theories supporting the notion of women’s natural subordinate status, which was further pushed into the collective common sense by the rationalist discourse of the Enlightenment. When Haywood and other early eighteenth-century women wrote, their intellectual, creative, and moral inferiority was enshrined in language, law, science, and any other major social narrative, a differentiation that served as the basis of the double standards through which the actions of men and women were adjudicated. Thus, shedding light on the arbitrariness of the theoretical justifications of their subordination represented an endeavor that was as difficult as it was crucial. 

In order to guarantee its continuity, the strongest asset any hegemonic system has consists in its ability to make the state of affairs appear as natural, and its defiance as either useless or even sacrilegious; the less visible the mechanisms of its construction are, the most inevitable it appears. “Every established order —said Pierre Bourdieu— tends to produce (to very different degrees and with very different means) the naturalization of its own arbitrariness”. (12) Therefore, the greatest threat to any established order lies in its exposition as a fabrication. By de-naturalizing key discourses of its cultural environment that excluded women from full citizenship, Haywood’s Love in Excess contributed to the articulation of alternatives to it, alternatives first essayed in fiction but that ended up infiltrating laws, politics, and vocabularies in a process that has not yet been completed.

Bárbara Pérez Curiel is a Mexican writer, editor, and translator. She is interested in literature, culture, politics and, mostly, their intersections.


(1)  A term that first came into usage at the end of the nineteenth century (Kramarae: 798).
(2) In his Politics, Aristotle wrote: “As regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject” (Haarmann: 84). 
(3) Michael McKeon, “Historicizing Patriarchy: The Emergence of Gender Difference in England, 1660- 1760,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3, 1995, p. 295.
(4) Ibid., p. 301.
(5) Mary Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage, in Political Writing, Patricia Springborg (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 18.
(6) Karen Jones, “Gender and Rationality”, The Oxford Handbook of Rationality, Alfred Mele & Piers Rawling (eds.), Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2004, p. 305.
(7) Franco Moretti distinguishes three periods in the development of the novel in the eighteenth century and notices that in two of them (1720-1730 and 1780-1820) female authors dominated the market. During each of these intervals, he argues, “gender and genre are probably in sync with each other—a generation of military novels, nautical tales, and historical novels à la Scott attracting male writers, one of domestic, provincial and sensation novels attracting women writers, and so on” (p. 89).
(8) Haywood, Eliza, Love in Excess; or the Fatal Enquiry, a Novel. In Three Parts, fourth edition, printed by D. Brown, London, 1722, p. 152.
(9) Ibid., p. 7.
(10)  Merritt, Juliette, Beyond Spectacle: Eliza Haywood’s Female Spectator, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Buffalo and London, 2004, p. 22.
(12) Bourdieu, Pierre, Outlines of a Theory of Practice, Richard Nice (trans.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977, p. 64