English ‘feminist’ writings of the late seventeenth century frequently united pro-woman arguments with party-political polemics. But although such texts have been discussed in terms of rationalist and contractarian philosophy, or as forerunners of modern feminist concerns, the contemporary issues which underscore them have been ignored. However, an understanding of these debates is vital to comprehending fully the motives of pro-woman writers, many of whom were more concerned with the survival of the Church of England than ameliorating the lot of seventeenth-century women. The underlying importance of party politics is exemplified in one of the greatest works of early modern ‘feminism’, Judith Drake's An essay in defence of the female sex (1696). Although Drake shared political similarities with other tory ‘feminists’, including the more celebrated Mary Astell, Drake's work differed radically from theirs over how an Anglican tory society could be maintained. Instead of stressing the necessity of teaching the tenets of Anglicanism to young women, as had her predecessors, Drake combined tory ideas with Lockean philosophy and concepts of ‘politeness’ to formulate an early Enlightenment vision of sociable, secularized, learning and the role female conversation could play in settling a society fractured by party politics.
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