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Wit, Virtue, and Emotion

Wit, Virtue, and Emotion

British Women's Enlightenment Rhetoric

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Elizabeth Tasker Davis


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
240 pages, 6 x 9, 8 illustrations

Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms


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  • Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

About the Book

Women’s persuasion and performance in the Age of Enlightenment

Over a century before first-wave feminism, British women’s Enlightenment rhetoric prefigured nineteenth-century feminist arguments for gender equality, women’s civil rights, professional opportunities, and standardized education. Author Elizabeth Tasker Davis rereads accepted histories of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British rhetoric, claiming a greater variety and power of women’s rhetoric. This recovery of British women’s performative and written roles as speakers, spectators, authors, and readers in diverse venues counters the traditional masculine model of European Enlightenment rhetoric. Davis broadens women’s Enlightenment rhetorics to include highly public venues such as theaters, clubs, salons, and debating societies, as well as the mediated sites of the periodical essay, the treatise on rhetorical theory, and women’s written proposals, plans, defenses and arguments for education. Through these sites, women’s rhetorical postures diverged from patriarchal prescriptions rather to deliver protofeminist persuasive performances of wit, virtue, and emotion.

Davis examines context, the effects of memory and gendering, and the cultural sites and media of women’s rhetoric to reveal a fuller ecology of British Enlightenment rhetoric. Each chapter covers a cultural site of women’s rhetorical practice—the court, the stage, the salon, and the printed page. Applying feminist rhetorical theory, Davis documents how women grasped their rhetorical ability in this historical moment and staged a large-scale transformation of British women from subalterns to a vocal counterpublic in British society.


Elizabeth Tasker Davis is a professor of English and coordinator of graduate studies at Stephen F. Austin State University, where she teaches courses on British literature, satire, and writing. Her scholarship has appeared in Women’s Writing, Rhetoric Review, Peitho, South Atlantic Review, Re/Framing Identifications, and the Sage Handbook of Rhetorical Studies.



“As debaters, actors, and experts on education, women of the British Enlightenment engaged in complex rhetorical practices, as Tasker Davis demonstrates. Her lively text reveals the impact of these women’s rhetoric on intellectual history and on modern feminism.”—Katherine H. Adams, author of Women, Art, and the New Deal, and coauthor ofAlice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign
“Elizabeth Tasker Davis directs much-needed attention to British women’s Enlightenment rhetoric—an understudied period in women’s rhetorical development. By taking readers beyond traditional academic boundaries to examine a wide range of women, genres, and sites from eighteenth-century British society, Tasker Davis clearly illuminates essential origins of feminist rhetoric.”—Lisa J. Shaver, author of Reforming Women: The Rhetorical Tactics of the American Female Moral Reform Society, 1834–1854

“With a deft hand, Elizabeth Tasker Davis rewrites traditional understandings of the European Enlightenment by tracing protofeminist acts of persuasion across a range of rhetorical ecologies during Britain’s long eighteenth century. Royal women and ladies of court, actresses, elite socialites, middle-class club women, professional authors, educators, and teenage girls—all emerge in Wit, Virtue, and Emotion as intriguing practitioners and theorists of the arts of persuasion. With this monograph, Tasker Davis has issued a powerful call to historians of women’s rhetorics to look more deeply and more expansively into the roots of our twenty-first-century feminisms.”—Jane Greer, editor of Girls and Literacy in America: Historical Perspectives to the Present
“Tasker Davis’s engaging work fills an important and significantly underexplored gap in rhetorical history: women’s rhetorical activity in the eighteenth century. This book challenges and reframes current rhetorical histories by examining the presence of the active, speaking female body in places such as salons, debate societies, and clubs, as well as women’s proliferation of written documents. While people do not usually think of the eighteenth century as a significant period of rhetorical activity for women, this book reminds us that not only were women rhetorically active at this time but this activity helped to shape and define both enlightenment rhetoric and the rhetorical practices of the nineteenth century.”—Lisa S. Mastrangelo, author of Writing a Progressive Past: Women Teaching and Writing in the Progressive Era     
“While the Enlightenment is often depicted as an era dominated by the voices of male intellectuals, Tasker Davis has persuasively argued that social, intellectual, and economic change during this period created space for women’s rhetorical intervention in public life. Tasker Davis’s careful analysis of women’s roles in the theater, salons, debating societies, and newly accessible print media illuminates the varied and complex ways in which the rhetorical presence of women significantly shaped the Enlightenment’s intellectual landscape. This book makes a strong contribution to the study of women’s rhetoric and, more broadly, Enlightenment rhetorical history.”—Lois Peters Agnew, author of Outward, Visible Propriety: Stoic Philosophy and Eighteenth-Century British Rhetoric
“Defining and adopting a lens of ‘progressive protofeminist women’s rhetoric,’ Elizabeth Tasker Davis deftly redirects attention to sites of British women’s rhetorical activity (the stage, clubs, debating societies, tea rooms, and the page). Doing for the long eighteenth century what Nan Johnson’s Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866–1910 did for the subsequent American period, Wit, Virtue, and Emotion relies on accessible archival materials to expand conceptions of what counts as Enlightenment rhetoric. Tasker Davis offers the postures of wit, virtue, and emotion as feminist counterparts to Artistotle’s conceptions of logosethos, and pathos—and in the process provides contemporary readers with another lens for refiguring issues of gender (in)equality, social class, and rhetorical activity.”—Lynée Lewis Gaillet, coeditor of Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work