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The Power of Motherhood

Regan Penaluna introduces Damaris Masham (1659-1708).

Who was Damaris Masham? John Locke reports to a friend that she is a “remarkably gifted woman” who is “so much occupied with study and reflection on theological and philosophical matters, that you could find few men with whom you might associate with greater profit and pleasure.” Nineteenth century philosopher Victor Cousin, in The Course of the History of Modern Philosophy (1856), says that she was “a person remarkable for her mind.” Professor John Tulloch remarks in his notable work Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy (1871) that Masham deserves “a niche in the history of English philosophy.” Despite such encomiums, today her thought is known to only a handful of scholars. This is unfortunate, because her theory of motherhood provides us with a rich insight into early modern political thought.

Masham was born in 1659, the daughter of Ralph Cudworth, a Master of Christ’s College and Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University, as well as a seminal member of the Cambridge Platonists. Little is known about her upbringing except that she spent the first two decades of her life living on campus at Cambridge, surrounded by the Platonists, only to eventually articulate their ideas in correspondences with Leibniz and Locke. I n her mid-twenties she married Sir Francis Masham, a descendent of Oliver Cromwell, and moved to his estate outside of London. She was his second wife, and in addition to bearing a child with him, she also became a step-mother to his other nine children. She was well aware that her newfound domesticity was complicating her intellectual pursuits, and in a letter to Locke she comically reports the clash of the two worlds, telling him that the ‘closet’ from where she writes has Descartes’ metaphysics next to her spinning wheel.

Her correspondence with Locke began in 1682 and continued until he moved in with the Mashams during the Christmas season of 1690, in the hope of escaping the bad city air. It may be that for Damaris the years with Locke under her roof were somewhat of a renaissance, recalling the days of her youth surrounded by intellectuals. Not only did the Mashams and Locke converse about philosophy and theology, they also hosted illustrious guests, including Sir Isaac Newton. Masham’s career as a public intellectual also blossomed during this period, when she wrote her two and only treatises: A Discourse Concerning the Love of God (1696) and Occasional Thoughts with Reference to a Vertuous [sic] or Christian Life (1705).

Today, the few scholars who write on Masham pin her down as a Lockean, stating, for example, that she was Locke’s ‘intellectual disciple’. To be sure, there are many good reasons for this conclusion. She is an empiricist much in the way of Locke, and expresses similar ideas on toleration. Additionally, in her work she refers both to Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and to his Some Thoughts on Education. But there is an important way in which her philosophy is a clear departure from Locke’s, yet which has gone overlooked in the literature: namely, her theory of mothers’ authority, which she elaborates in her second treatise. That this angle of her philosophy has not been addressed may explain why she remains an obscure figure in feminist thought.

When placed side-by-side with Locke’s account of mothers – which was considered forward-looking in his day – we see that Masham’s theory is even more radical. Many early modern political philosophers argued in favor of patriarchy, in which fathers ruled the home and mothers merely carried out their wishes. Locke famously debunked this, giving fathers and mothers equal share: “Parental power,” he says in the Second Treatise on Government “was not plac’d in one, but two Persons jointly.” Masham goes a step further, and argues that parental power is not meant to be shared, because fathers are by nature and circumstance unable to fulfill such a task well: “Men’s Callings,” she says in Occasional Thoughts “allows them not the leisure to look daily after the Education of their Children; and that, otherwise, also they are naturally less capable than Women of that Complaisance and Tenderness, which the right instruction and Direction of that Age requires.” For this reason, she concludes that the governance of children “cannot be perform’d but by Mothers only.” Where Locke advances parental equality, Masham counters with domestic matriarchy.

She also argues that the influence of mothers extends outside the domestic sphere, and maintains that there is a strong link between a mother’s work and the stability of society. Masham did not need to look far for a moral system in which an individual’s role is essential to a harmonious society, as Locke also describes individual virtue to be essential to the wellbeing of society in Some Thoughts Concerning Education. However, Locke does not go into detail as to how mothers’ work is relevant to political and social prosperity.

His relative unconcern for the role of mothers is inversely proportionate to the attention Masham gives to them. She notes that many women, especially of the upper class, have abandoned the idea that direct concern for the education of their children is important. But such neglect can cost the nation its political cohesion. A person’s character is formed in the first few years of life, she claims; so the effect that mothers have on the minds of their children is critical, because it has a “strong and oftentimes unalterable influence upon their future Inclinations and Passions.” Children will become citizens whose characters will determine whether they respect the moral and civil law, which in turn will determine the fate of society. If we keep in mind that Masham was writing in a country that not long before had been ravaged by a civil war and then a revolution, her emphasis on the centrality of motherhood to political stability only seems more poignant. She tells us that a mother’s capacity for nurturing is a necessary component in the construction and maintenance of political society, and so understanding the role of the mother is indispensable when doing political philosophy.

© Dr Regan Penaluna 2010

Regan Penaluna received her PhD from Boston. Her dissertation covered Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, and Catherine Cockburn. She now lives and writes in Brooklyn.

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