Margaret Cavendish on Gender, Nature, and Freedom


  • Deborah Boyle


Some scholars have argued that Margaret Cavendish was ambivalent about women's roles and capabilities, for she seems sometimes to hold that women are naturally inferior to men, but sometimes that this inferiority is due to inferior education. I argue that attention to Cavendish's natural philosophy can illuminate her views on gender. In section II I consider the implications of Cavendish's natural philosophy for her views on male and female nature, arguing that Cavendish thought that such natures were not fixed. However, I argue that although Cavendish thought women needed to be better educated, and could change if they had such an education, she also thought their education should reinforce the feminine virtues. Section III examines Cavendish's notorious “Preface to the Reader” (from The Worlds Olio), where Cavendish claims that women are naturally inferior in strength and intelligence to men. Section IV addresses another notorious Cavendish text, “Female Orations,” arguing that its message is similar to that of the “Preface to the Reader.” Nonetheless, although Cavendish held conventional views about male and female nature and appropriate gender roles, she also recognized how social institutions could limit women's freedom; section V explores the complexities of Cavendish's critique of one such institution, patriarchal marriage.