Carnegie Mellon University

Reasoning in the Public Sphere: Gender and Authorship from Milton to Behn

Author: Maria F. Magro
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2002

My dissertation, “Reasoning in the Public Sphere: Gender and Authorship from Milton to Behn,” investigates the cultural and material currents which participated in the discursive production of seventeenth-century authorship.  Of particular concern is the impact of emergent modes of knowledge production whose primary medium was the printed word and whose anchoring method was disputative reason.  Engaging Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the development of the so-called liberal public sphere in the late seventeenth-century, I claim that the production of an eighteenth-century English culture dominated by the notion of publicity and its attendant social identities and authorial forms can only be properly understood within the religious-political upheavals of mid-seventeenth-century England. 

I argue that the emergence of a liberal public sphere was characterized by discontinuity and rupture in which subaltern counter-publics (sectarians, the working poor, women) were put under erasure both through brutal physical violence and the engagement of rationality in the name of power.

Using a wide range of literary and extra-literary texts, from the spiritual autobiographies of sectarian women (Anna Trapnel, Anne Wentworth, Joan Vokins) to Milton’s prose writings (Areopagitica, 1644; Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, 1643; and Tetrachordon, 1645) and poetry, I consider the interconnections between the “pure human” subject whose putative milieu is the theoretically egalitarian public sphere and the gendering of discursive spaces and authorship.  

Placed within a context of European and English religious turmoil, the struggle over what counted as writing and authorship produced an opening for non-aristocratic women’s entry into the public sphere of religious-political debate.  However, parallel to the development of new modes of writing and authorship generated by religious contestation, the deployment of knowledge and reason exemplified in Milton’s polemical tracts produced a radically circumscribed notion of authorship which was Protestant, masculine and, above all, rational.  As a result, professional and semi-professional women writers in the post-Restoration period (Aphra Behn, Katherine Philips) were caught in a dialectical bind in which they operate as “pure human” subjects and also function as representatives of a hypostatized femininity, a condition which defined female Enlightenment authorship.