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LHMP #410 Wilson 2004 The Female Rake

Full citation: 

Wilson, Kathleen. 2004. “The Female Rake: Gender, Libertinism, and Enlightenment” in Peter Cryle & Lisa O’Connell (eds.) Libertine Enlightenment: Sex, Liberty, and License in the Eighteenth-century. Palgrave, Basingstoke. pp.99-111.

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I was excited to read Kathleen Wilson’s article, “The Female Rake”, but in the end it disappoints me. Rather than taking a broad look at the concept of women as rakes, it focuses on a biography of a specific individual, combined with a compare-and-contrast treatment of the active sexuality of women in English society with attitudes towards female sexuality in colonial and non-European settings. [Note: I’d be disappointed that it doesn’t touch on female rakes with same-sex interests except that that was too much to hope for in the first place.]

Wilson starts by emphasizing the gender differences in attitudes towards male and female rakes, with the male rake producing fascination for the concept of unlimited pursuit of sexual gratification, while the female rake is the object, sometimes of admiration, but more often embarrassment or disgust.

The focus of the article is courtesan Teresia Constantia Phillips, known as “Con” Phillips. Wilson considers male libertines to represent a “bourgeois appropriation of aristocratic sexual privilege” rather than rakishness being a behavior prevalent primarily among the aristocracy. In which case, female libertines are doubly transgressing, both in gender and class, in appropriating the right to an unrestrained sexuality. At a time when the concept of women being inherently sexually restrained was developing, the courtesan represented an “unnatural” woman who did not adhere to expectations. But in contrast, the sexually unrestrained indigenous women that English travelers were encountering around the world, provided an argument that open and independent sexuality was a feature of the class of women who were considered most “natural”.

We know as much as we do about Con Phillips because, in addition to being fashionable and extravagant, she was witty and literate, and produced her own autobiography: An Apology for the Conduct of Mrs. T. C. Phillips, not only to raise money during a time of financial constraint, but also to blackmail the Earl of Chesterfield, a former lover, into providing her an income.

The biography presents a different image from the licentious courtesan by invoking tropes from fiction and stage drama to present herself as the victim of rapacious men who drove her into the demimonde by seduction and mistreatment. Phillips’ career wound through London, Paris, Amsterdam, Boston, and Spanish Town, as she worked her way through several marriages and a number of less formal liaisons. And even-handed view of her relationships identifies exploitation on both sides, as men loved and left her while she, at times, drove them near to madness with her refusal to allow her behavior to be controlled.

Throughout it all, in Phillips biography, she gives the impression of not particularly liking men very much, describing them as a “perfidious sex” and, claiming that “all they purpose is to make women instrumental to their vanities, and subject to the gratification of their grosser appetites.”

In return, Phillips hounded her former lovers for financial support, and succeeded to some extent in turning their avoidance of scandal into income. Eventually, she emigrated to Jamaica, where she gained the reputation of a “black widow” for marrying, and then burying a series of rich husbands. [Note: one difference between male and female rakes becomes clear in this biography. The image of the male rake did not include living off his mistresses.]

Phillips’ biography depicts her as being a saint, ashamed of her lack of sexual self-control, but also angry about the double standards for sexual behavior that condemned women, but not men, for extramarital affairs. She depicted herself as more virtuous than the men she railed against, but also as being set apart from women as a class, claiming in one place, “I am no woman” and denigrating other women for going along with the misogyny of the times. She claimed the right to take up her own cause in courts of law and in the press, in ways that went against the expectations not only for a woman, but also for a commoner, who was attacking male members of the aristocracy.

All this was occurring at a time when conservative forces in society were working to associate female sexuality and female luxury with foreignness, and especially with Frenchness. All things that were thought to be undermining the martial spirit and masculine virtue that Englishman should be embodying. She was depicted as something of a sexual vampire, consuming the essential energies of the men she partnered, and thereby weakening the state.

The remainder of the article compares attitudes towards and reactions to Phillips’ life with descriptions and reactions to the very different sexual mores of women encountered in the South Pacific and other regions, who challenged English notions of appropriate female restraint in sexuality.

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