What did it mean to be a trailblazing woman in the Georgian era? How did women make names for themselves in an era when women were traditionally limited in their rights, opportunities, and ability to take the same literal and figurative stages as their male counterparts? Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era: The Eighteenth Century Struggle for Female Success in a Man's World by Mike Rendell is a guide to 17 women who made names for themselves despite the limitations placed on women in their era.
The women covered in 'Trailblazing Women' run the gamut from artists to businesswomen to writers, prison reforms and even a silversmith. Among what are likely to be familiar names such as noted writers Fanny Burney and Mary Wollstonecraft include women such as Anna Fry, a chocolatier who took over her family's prestigious chocolate factory after the death of her husband; Hester Pinney, a lace maker who engaged in stock and share speculation; and Elizabeth Fry, an ardent advocate for prison reform who traveled the country speaking out against prison conditions.
The first section of the book is dedicated solely to the legal status of women living in Britain during the 18th century. This initial section sets the groundwork for the women to follow, as it gives their achievements--and limitations--some essential context. I appreciated the wide breadth of women covered in the book, as the women covered weren’t limited to the traditional “big names” that tend to be brought up when discussing notable 18th century women who stepped out of society’s traditional expectations. Each women has a few pages dedicated to her life, her work and what made her "trail brazing." Most of the mini-biographies include contemporary quotes from the women themselves or quotes from their contemporaries. Rendell's writing is succinct, if at times a bit dry, but the overall book works well as an interesting collection of women from this time period.
Rendell’s mixed messages regarding his views on these trailblazing women work less well than the succint biographies detailing their accomplishments. On the one hand, the book is a celebration of women who managed--despite all odds--to step outside of the legal and societal expectations placed upon them. On the other hand, there are occasional asides such as this one regarding playwright Aphra Behn: “She wrote not so much about love as about sex, whether heterosexual, lesbian, or gay. In doing so it can be argued that she helped set back the cause of other female writers by a hundred years.” Arguing that women writers were held back a hundred years due to a woman writer not censoring herself is an odd message to say the least, especially when most of the book celebrates women’s decision to step outside societal norms.
Despite this setback, I think that Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era: The Eighteenth Century Struggle for Female Success in a Man's World by Mike Rendell works well as a short guide to some highly interesting 18th century women whom readers will want to learn more about through additional research and reading.
[A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher]