Commemorating
International Women’s Day:

Women on the Frontlines of Popular Enlightenment

By Ralph Dumain

Since I set up this web site, whenever March approaches I remind myself of my intention to write something dedicated to the historical role of women relevant to the Autodidact Project, and every year I get sidetracked and only remember after the moment has passed.  My intention was to emphasize the key role that women have played in building  institutions of independent scholarship, popular enlightenment and education.  This was also supposed to be an opportunity to explain aspects of this web site that may puzzle some of my readers.  Before the moment passes again, I want to pass along the results of an exchange with one of my readers that prompted the need for clarification.  This is for you, Ann.

First, there was some bewilderment over the table of people of interest on my site map, including my non-representation of women on this list.  Not all of the people listed were/are in fact autodidacts (e.g. Hegel was a professor), but they are pertinent to the subject or the perspective I am developing or related interests in some way.  This table, like the rest of my site, has grown ad hoc, developing with my interests and explorations.  Hence it was never conceived and executed in a systematic and comprehensive fashion.

At the time of my initial response (4 July 2002), I listed all the women I could find whose contributions I included on my site.  The issues covered were not women’s issues per se, but intellectual contributions to medieval studies, black history, the theory of comedy, the life and work of C.L.R. James, and the concept of cynical reason, along with poems and memoirs.  The contributors at that time included Ottilie Assing, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy B. Porter, Cynthia Ozick, Sheila Delaney, Anna Grimshaw, Teresa L. Ebert, and others.

Women were already heavily represented as authors (though not as subjects) in my various bibliographies.  At that moment I had covered only one female autodidact known to me, Clémence Royer, the subject of a book on my want list for some time.  Granted, this was a poor representation of female autodidacts, not to mention women’s contributions to knowledge and learning in general.

At this point I found it necessary to explain what I was doing, as I had not clarified my rationale for building this site, though I had long intended to do so.  So far I have left it to my audience to get an intuitive feel for what interests me.  One thing I try to do is to dig out obscure information or contributions from particular perspectives that might not be easily found elsewhere.  I cannot and do not intend to compete with the documentation activities of Black Studies or Women's Studies as organized scholarly disciplines—just to name two key historically marginalized groups—so I build up my sources selectively depending on my discoveries and interests.  I also have not taken upon myself the responsibility of seeing to it at all demographic groups are properly represented.  I probably have more material on Black Americans than on any other group, but this too is related to ongoing projects and specific interests rather than an attempt to be comprehensive.  Given my limitations, I can only welcome the input and contributions of others who would like to help by filling in any perceived gaps.

The following day (5 July 2002), I amplified on the general definitional problem.   I have no hard-and-fast definitions of either autodidacts or institutions.  Universities go way back, but because of their feudal origins, intellectual innovation took place outside of their auspices up to fairly recent times.  Professionalization as a modern phenomenon begins in the 18th century, I think.  So, outside of formally organized institutions such as the Royal Academy (for the sciences), or various art academies, I suppose that a lot of historical intellectual innovation by influential people (not just marginalized segments of the population such as artisans, workers, women, ex-slaves) could be considered informally organized.  However you cut it, women have played key roles in intellectual, literary, artistic, and political networks for the longest time.  The salon phenomenon is a perfect example.  Pick any intellectual circle you can think of: you will find women centrally involved as networkers as well as consumers of ideas.  Take the German idealists and Romantics: I do not know whether Catherine Schlegel had any original ideas of her own, but she played a key networking role, tied to her intimate involvement with two famous man in that circle.  You have Mme. de Stahl as the premier international literary communicator in the early 19th century, to take another example.

I am rather vague on the details of these sorts of networks, though.  I have more recent examples in mind.  Just to stop at another historical point, there were extremely bold women activists and journalists in 19th century America who risked harassment, persecution, prosecution, shootings, bombings, and even assassination for their outspoken views on religion, birth control, and other incendiary social issues.  Some of them are documented in Fred Whitehead's Freethought  on the Frontier.

Moving on to more recent decades, I have more specific examples in mind.  First, take the atheist/freethought movement, which takes a lot of courage to organize in the Bible Belt and in the USA generally, this nation being much more fanatically religious than any other modern industrialized nation.  Such efforts are purely grassroots and self-organized, as are the only institutions that exist for them.  The two major freethought organizations in the contemporary USA were founded, organized, and headed by women: Madelyn Murray O'Hair founded American Atheists; Anne Nicol Gaylor founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  Women also play prominent roles in other secular humanist and skeptics' organizations.

Another example is the very existence of independent scholars' organizations.  I am told that the women's movement was responsible for the very existence of contemporary organized independent scholarship (an oxymoron?), though I lack details.  However, we now have generic organizations of this type founded or primarily organized by women, such as the National Coalition of Independent Scholars.  There are many groups—national, regional, and local—for example, of historians—for which women can take credit.

So this is the sort of thing I mean by women's key historic role.  Wherever any movement for popular education and militant public intervention exists, there you will find women at the helm and on the frontlines.  Count on it.

As for women's original intellectual contributions, that is a whole other documentary effort, one for which reference works exist as well as other studies.  There are biographical dictionaries and other reference works of women in the sciences, in philosophy, in the arts, and no doubt in many other areas.  I cannot hope to compete with Women's Studies in such documentary efforts, nor can I easily determine whom to single out as especially relevant to my autodidact project.  For women as well as any other definable group—majority or minority—there are scholars and advocates who can take care of their "own" and need not depend on me to augment the historical record.  I cannot do all this myself, but I am open to broadening my knowledge base in my own idiosyncratic manner.

Since this initial exchange, I have added numerous articles or fragments thereof authored by women to this site, though rarely if ever on the subject of women per se, plus I’ve added numerous female-authored entries to my various bibliographies.  I did not make a deliberate effort to do this nor would I even attempt to take a census now.  This would be a rather pointless exercise.  More significantly, in my readings on the history of autodidacts, especially in Britain and France, I have come across many more references to women, and have added specific entries on female autodidacts to my main bibliography and my bibliography on reading audiences.  In addition, you will find pertinent information in any of the historical studies listed pertaining to working class autodidacts or reading audiences.

So here I am: this is an imperfect effort to be sure, but a dedication nonetheless.

8 March 2004


The Autodidacts and Their Literary Culture: Working-Class Autobiographers in Nineteenth-Century France

'Sewing in the Next World': Mary Hays as Dissenting Autodidact in the 1780s

Lambs to the Slaughter: Leisure and Laboring-Class Poetry

The Reading Experience of Worker-Autobiographers in 19th-Century Europe

"Knowledge is Power": Radical Literary Culture and the Experience of Reading

Review: Kendall Hailey, The Day I Became an Autodidact


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Uploaded 8 March 2004

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