Define Her as Scandalous to Obscure Her Substance

What the treatment of two of history’s original “nasty women,” Mary Hays and Mary Darby Robinson, can tell us about how society has long consigned outspoken women to infamy or obliteration.

(The first part of this series, “Condemn Her Actions to Silence Her Words,” was published on February 12.)

By Victoria Martínez

Following the execution of Olympe de Gouges and figurative posthumous flaying of Mary Wollstonecraft[1], the women who had stood along with them continued to fight for equal rights. But as the eighteenth century drew to a close, the campaign against the women’s movement was bolstered by the successful demonization of de Gouges and Wollstonecraft as unnatural women who had dared to assume men’s prerogatives and inspire other women to do the same.

The danger perceived by these threatened men had already manifested itself in “The Unsex’d Females”: women described by the British Reverend Richard Polwhele – who counseled men to protect women from sexual knowledge – in his 1799 anti-feminist poem as:

“A female band despising NATURE’s law,
as ‘proud defiance’ flashes from their arms,
and vengeance smothers all their softer charms.”

Along with Mary Wollstonecraft, who was described in the poem with disdain as “the intrepid champion of her sex,” two other women were mentioned by name: Mary Hays and Mary Darby Robinson. With Wollstonecraft and de Gouges dispatched, the focus shifted to silencing them.

Mary Hays (1759–1843) is one of the historical women featured on the Heritage Floor of Judy Chicago’s permanent art installation The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum. Her name is near the place setting (seen here) of Mary Wollstonecraft (image © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography).

Already a keen intellect and budding feminist by the time she read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, London-born Mary Hays wasted no time putting Mary Wollstonecraft’s philosophy into action. In her 30s and unmarried, Hays risked becoming a social pariah to move out of her parents’ home and live as an independent woman. She not only had lovers, she actively pursued relationships with men. And her writing, which had previously been relatively uncontentious and modestly successful, became radically feminist and highly controversial, especially after Wollstonecraft’s death.

In her first published feminist work, Letters and Essays, Moral, and Miscellaneous, published in 1793 and dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft, Hays argued:

“It is time for degraded woman to assert her right to reason… The frivolity and voluptuousness, in which they have hitherto been educated, have had a large share in the general corruption of manners; this frivolity the sensible vindicator of our rights justly attributes to the entire dependence in which we are trained. Young women without fortunes, if they do not chance to marry… have scarce other resources than in servitude, or prostitution.”[2]

Following Wollstonecraft’s death, Hays published her full-blown feminist treatise, Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women, which she had been writing when Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792. She had set the work aside out of deference to Wollstonecraft, but ultimately decided to publish it in 1798 to revisit similar ideals using a less philosophical approach “to make new and unexpected truths palatable to common minds.” Hays directed her appeal to the “common minds” of men because, she wrote, “The greatest difficulty is to bring [them] to consider the subject with attention.”[3]

In writing to her audience, Hays’ rhetoric was direct and relatively concise for the era, particularly when it came to making her key points.

“Of all the systems… which human nature in its moments of intoxication has produced; that which men have contrived with a view to forming the minds, and regulating the conduct of women, is perhaps the most completely absurd.”[4]

As strong as her condemnation of men in keeping women subservient, she was equally direct in holding women accountable for their lack of resistance. “All opinions degrading to women are founded in ignorance, supported by force of habit, by an authority once established, and by the tacit acquiescence of the injured part,”[5] she asserted.

Hays shared with her contemporary feminists a compassion for prostitutes. Her writing not only highlighted how the flawed system of women’s education contributed to their plight, but also pointed out the hypocrisy of a society that condemned women for becoming prostitutes but offered limited alternatives for survival without a male “protector.”

The title page of Mary Hays’ 1799 novel, The Victim of Prejudice (Wikimedia Commons).

This was the centerpiece of what has been called Hays’ most feminist work: the novel The Victim of Prejudice, published in 1799. The story of a central female character, Mary, who starts out virtuous, but after being raped by a social superior, falls into social disgrace, poverty and prostitution, was not in itself revolutionary. Critics compared it to Samuel Richardson’s celebrated 1748 novel, Clarissa, which also told the story of a similar rape and its aftermath. The key difference in the two novels was that unlike Clarissa, who conveniently died (presumably of grief and shame) and thus saved herself and society from further embarrassment, Hays’ heroine had the temerity to live on and struggle to survive in a society that shunned her but not her rapist.

In concert with the anti-feminist backlash that occurred following the publication of William Godwin’s revelations about Mary Wollstonecraft, The Victim of Prejudice drew the full force of critical ire. The bile spewed was quite obviously directed not just at the novel, but rather at Hays, Wollstonecraft, feminist principles in general, and anyone even considering subscribing to such philosophies. A review in The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine in 1799 sums up this heated indignation:

“A young lady… is restrained by some few limits which the world has thought proper to fix to certain unruly passions. The heroine of the tale… is educated according to the plan of Rousseau: no check, no controul; freedom of enquiry, and extravagance of hope, however dangerous and fallacious, are the prevailing features of this performance; the same indiscriminating and mischievous censure of everything society has hitherto deemed sacred, and necessary to its existence, is here most lavishly displayed. -In the dishonor, as we old fashioned moralists should call it, of ‘Mary,’…”[6]

For a time, Hays fiercely defended Wollstonecraft’s memory and continued to write on behalf of the cause of women’s education and equality. Like her fictional namesake in The Victim of Prejudice, she refused to just roll over and die. But the tide of public sentiment had been systematically and forcefully turned against “The Unsex’d Females.” Attacked from all sides, Hays continued to write for and about women, though never with the same ferocity as she had previously. She died in London in 1843, having spent at least 20 years in financial difficulty and ill-repute. Today, she is virtually forgotten outside of scholarly circles.

In attempting to defend Mary Wollstonecraft and the cause of feminism, Mary Hays was silenced by a patriarchy unwilling to be upbraided by women. Wollstonecraft had been posthumously condemned not so much for daring to think like a man, but for assuming men’s prerogatives. And, in standing up for women’s rights, Olympe de Gouges committed the offense of “making herself a man.” Since the literary force of these women could not be censored or expunged, and literary criticism could only attempt to discredit individual works as opposed to an entire movement, the campaign to silence feminist debate instead targeted their “irregular” personal lives.

Title page of the 1798 polemical poem, The Unsex’d Females, which attacked women who sought equality.

This was a particularly effective strategy for turning women against their ostensible champions and redirecting them away from the feminist cause. In the late 18th century equivalent of slut-shaming, the unconventional life of each woman was used against her and held up as an example of the dangers of women abandoning the “feminine” sphere and taking up “masculine” qualities. These critics rarely bothered to address the hypocrisy that permitted men to behave with social approbation in the same or worse manner for which women were roundly condemned. Technically, they didn’t have to. They had tradition on their side, and the goal was not to defend the rights of men, but to discredit the women who argued – and acted – for equal rights, and prevent other women from taking up the fight.

In 1799, the 18th century’s final outstanding work of feminist theory was written by a woman whose life and legacy are a prime example of no matter how much courage, talent, intelligence, persistence, and prescience a woman exhibits, she will nonetheless be defined by her body and how she uses it, especially if it is in society’s best interest to shift the focus. This remarkable woman recognized what was happening to her and other women and expressed it in no uncertain terms: “The barbarity of custom’s law in this enlightened country, has long been exercised to the prejudice of woman: and even the laws of honour have been perverted to oppress her.”[7] She expanded:

“Supposing that a WOMAN has experienced every insult, every injury, that her vain-boasting, high-bearing associate, man, can inflict: imagine her, driven from society; deserted by her kindred; scoffed at by the world; exposed to poverty; assailed by malice; and consigned to scorn: with no companion but sorrow, no prospect but disgrace; she has no remedy. She appeals to the feeling and reflecting part of mankind; they pity, but they do not seek to redress her: she flies to her own sex, they not only condemn, but they avoid her. She talks of punishing the villain who has destroyed her: he smiles at the menace, and tells her, she is, a WOMAN.” – Mary Darby Robinson, 1799[8]

”Mary Darby, Mrs. Thomas Robinson ’Perdita’” (1758-1800), circa 1781, by Thomas Gainsborough, ©Waddesdon Manor, used according to guidelines.

This scenario had been the reality for Mary Darby Robinson for most her life. A prolific writer who used her platform to address women’s issues, she truly spoke to and for all women in her feminist treatise, A Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination, which could be described as a last-ditch attempt to salvage the remnants of the movement and the reputation of women like Hays, Wollstonecraft, and de Gouges. Feminist literary scholar Elizabeth Fay wrote of Robinson: “[Her] literary responses were indirect, often deflecting attention away from her own story and sense of victimization toward the general cultural fate of women.”[9]

Robinson’s sense of victimization was entirely justified. Born in Bristol, England, in 1757, her father was the first of many men in her life who proved to her that “Man who professes himself her champion, her protector, is the most subtle and unrelenting enemy she has to encounter…”[10]. Married and with a child while still a teenager, she spent 15 months living in debtor’s prison where her husband was serving time. After his release, she began writing poetry and supported the family by acting while her husband gambled and had affairs.

By 1780, married in name only and struggling financially, the offer to become the official mistress of The Prince of Wales (the future King George IV) was too good to pass up. She gave up her acting career when the Prince presented her with a £20,000 bond to be paid when he turned 21. The relationship lasted less than a year and the financial promise was reneged, leaving Robinson with even less than she had started with and a notorious reputation as little better than a prostitute.

An anonymous satirical print entitled ”Perdita upon her Last Legs” that appeared in Rambler’s Magazine in 1784, cruelly ridiculing Mary Darby Robinson (British Museum).

She turned to writing as both personal expression and a means of support, particularly after her legs were partially paralyzed in 1783. She was a prolific poet, earning the sobriquet “the English Sappho” after the ancient Greek female poet. Her literary output also includes no fewer than eight novels, three plays, two feminist treatises, and her unfinished memoirs. Despite her talent and personal accomplishments, when Polwhele ridiculed Robinson alongside Wollstonecraft and Hays in The Unsex’d Females, it was merely one of many such barbs thrown at her throughout her life – not to mention one of the mildest.

Robinson had come to the feminist movement already a subject of disdain and ridicule, and her treatise demonstrated that she had built a considerable defense against such attacks.

“We have known WOMEN desert their peaceful homes, the indolence of obscure retirement, and the indulgence of feminine amusements, to brave the very heat of battle, stand to their gun, amidst the [smoke] and din of a naval engagement; conceal the anguish of their wounds; and, from the very heroism of love, repeatedly hazard their existence.”

“When man exposes his person in the front of battle, he is actuated either by interest or ambition: woman, with neither to impel her, has braved the cannons thunder; stood firmly glorious amidst the din of desolation; ‘begrimed and sooted in the [smoke] of war;’ and yet she is, by the undiscriminating or prejudiced part of mankind, denominated the weaker creature.”[11]

A Letter to the Women of England was Robinson’s swan song. She died at the age of 43 on December 26, 1800. In chiefly remembering her as “Perdita,”[12] the mistress of the Prince of Wales, history has done her – and feminism – a great disservice. Modern popular biographies have done little to improve or offset this by continuing to loudly insist on selling her life story as “SCANDALOUS!” over and above all else.

While continuing to market historical women by labeling and grouping them as “scandalous,” “shady,” etc., may attract readers, it also perpetuates the stereotypes that have kept historical women from being recognized on their merits, and further widens the gender gap. The resulting body of work perpetuates historical injustices by reinforcing the idea that it is society’s negative perception of outspoken women, rather than their individual contributions and accomplishments, that defines them and makes them interesting.

It is a fate shared in only slight variance by Hays, Robinson, de Gouges and Wollstonecraft, who have all been remembered more as what threatened, misogynistic men would today describe as “nasty women” than for their outstanding literary and social contributions, if they have been remembered at all.

Postscript: In writing about these women, I have been careful to put the modern appellation “nasty women” in quotes for the simple reason that I don’t like it. “Nasty” was applied to one woman (and, by extension, to outspoken women in general) in the same spirit as “scandalous” has always been: as a pejorative meant to distract from, and demean women for, exhibiting strength and substance that threatened men’s supremacy. In using both terms, I am making a correlation intended to underline the damage caused by applying these terms to the remarkable women of history, both in the past and today.


Main image: “The Fall” (1892) by Kenyon Cox, with Lilith as the serpent (Wikimedia Commons), stylized by the author.

[1] As told in the previous essay, “Condemn Her Actions to Silence Her Words.”

[2] Hays, Mary. Letters and Essays, Moral, and Miscellaneous. London: T. Knott,1793, 84.

[3] An excellent analysis of how Hays’ approach differed to Wollstonecraft’s can be found in “Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women: Theoretical common sense instead of philosophy,” in Miriam Wallraven’s book, A Writing Halfway between Theory and Fiction: Mediating Feminism from the Seventeenth to Twentieth Century (Germany: Königshausen & Neuman, 2007).

[4] Hays, Mary. Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women. 1798, 47. New York: Garland Pub., 1974.

[5] ibid

[6] The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine. Vol. III, May 1799, 57.

[7]  Robinson, Mary Darby. A Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination. London: T.N. Longman, 1799, 4.

[8] ibid 7

[9] Elizabeth Fay, “Mary Robinson: On Trial in the Public Court,” Studies in Romanticism 45, no. 3 (2006).

[10] Robinson 26

[11] ibid 43-44

[12] The nickname came after she played the role of Perdita in a production of “Florizel and Perdita” in 1779. She had caught the eye of the Prince of Wales while performing in the role.


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