Catharine Macaulay was born in 1731 as Catharine Sawbridge, the daughter of a wealthy English landowner. In a time and place that lacked any systematic education for women, Macaulay took it upon herself to learn history by reading the books in her father’s library; her position as a member of the landed gentry enabled her to continue studying in that field, particularly in classical Greek and Roman history. Following her marriage to George Macaulay, a Scottish doctor, she decided to write an extensive history of England and demonstrate the knowledge she had learned through her own self-teachings. Supported by her husband, despite the fact that scholarship was not a “ladylike” pursuit, Macaulay tirelessly worked for years on her History of England, which was published in eight volumes over a span of two decades beginning in 1763. Her writings were politically radical, particularly as they supported American independence, and made her a center of controversy from the start.
In addition to her History, Macaulay wrote on the subject of women’s education and the need to educate both sexes using the same methods. Macaulay believed women to be the intellectual equals of men, flying in the face of the popular beliefs espoused by Rousseau in particular. Her Letters on Education were seminal parts of the fledgling debate over women’s access to a full education, and proved particularly educational to Mary Wollstonecraft. Macaulay pointed out that any perceived intellectual imbalances were not due to some inborn inferiority in women, but to the fact that their education was geared towards more leisurely pursuits that would make them suitable wives and mothers rather than stimulate their minds.
Writing that “the soul/mind has no sex nor does virtue,” Macaulay’s letters advocated for women’s emancipation through educational reform — opinions that were perceived as threatening to upend the natural order. Macaulay recognized that the cult of ladylike subservience was based on men’s fear that if women were educated and allowed to be full participants in the world their morals would be compromised and they would no longer be suitable caretakers for the next generation. Macaulay posited that “there is but one rule of right for the conduct of all rational beings; consequently that true virtue in one sex must be equally so in the other . . . .” In other words, behavior that is deemed acceptable for men must also be acceptable for women. Macaulay dismisses the notion that a full education would prove to be morally corrupting for women by arguing that ignorance is more dangerous to virtue than education could ever be: “true wisdom, which is never found at variance with rectitude, is as useful to women as to men; because it is necessary to the highest degree of happiness, which can never exist with ignorance.” She argues strenuously that the cult of female “beauty and delicacy” is what shows to “corrupt and debilitate both the powers of [women's] mind and body.”
Macaulay’s politics colored attitudes toward her writings, and she remained on the fringes of the influential Bluestockings group. Her 1778 marriage to William Graham damaged her reputation in England enough so that she found herself more welcome in France and America than in her home country. The reason for the “scandal” surrounding her marriage? Macaulay was twenty-six years older than her husband, and Graham (an apothecary) was deemed to be low-class. She continued working until the end of her life, publishing both Letters on Education and Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke on the Revolution in France the year before her death in 1791 at the age of sixty.