Priscilla Wakefield: On Economy, Education and Women’s Place in Society

Surfing 18th-century databases, library catalogues, taking notes and indulging in sessions of brainstorming has been my main occupation during this summer. Searching for a PhD project has proven an activity as frustrating as interesting. Granted, I have not found that one perfect original idea yet, but I have learnt a lot about other things in the process. Among many others, I have discovered the author and thinker Priscilla Wakefield. The following is a brief account of her life and works.


A hard working, creative, perseverant, strong minded, nice old lady.

Priscilla Wakefield, née Bell (1751 Tottenham-1832) is known nowadays for her work on economics, botany and children’s literature. Wakefield is considered by most scholars a feminist, given that her work on economics is concerned with women’s economic survival.
She was the author of Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, With Suggestions for Its Improvement (1798), published by Joseph Johnson, the London bookseller who also published authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft or Anna Laetitia Barbauld. She also authored very successful publications for children on a variety of subjects: from natural history to travel. Her most popular work was The Juvenile Travellers: Containing the Remarks of a Family During a Tour Through the Principal States and Kingdoms of Europe (1801).

Priscilla Wakefield, the feminist economist

Wakefield founded several charities, especially devoted to the care of women and children. One of these developed into the first savings bank of England. These saving banks, which she called “frugality banks” were founded with the objective to encourage the habit of moderation into the poor. Wakefield considered that : “it is not sufficient to stimulate the poor to industry, unless they can be persuaded to adopt habits of frugality” [i]. She sought to substitute the Friendly Society banks, because in the society’s meetings it was customary to purchase a drink, which goes against the whole idea of economising.

Her publication, Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, With Suggestions for Its Improvement (1798),examines the ways in which women negotiate their role as productive elements of society and advocates women’s access to traditionally male professions, as well as a reform in education so women can become productive and autonomous citizens, the first step towards an equal society.

Oil Painting by wheatley francis, edwrd and priscilla wakefield and her sister katherine bell 1774

Oil Painting by Francis Wheatley. The Wakefields with Priscilla’s sister Katherine Bell, circa 1774.

Priscilla Wakefield, the author

In her preface to An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters (1796), Wakefield claims that: “Botany is a branch of Natural History that possesses many advantages; it contributes to health of body and cheerfulness of disposition” [ii]. She also denounces that science “has been confined to the circle of the learned […] a difficulty that deterred many, particularly the female sex” [idem], making allusion to the use of Latin in science. In the book, it is precisely a young woman, Felicia, who writes to her sister Constance. Using this pretext, Wakefield introduces her young readers to botany in a very accessible and understandable manner. Wakefield understood that in order to become a member of society, able to stand by themselves, -intellectually, if not politically or socially,- women needed to be educated,-because knowledge is power.  This book was extremely successful: it was translated into French and re-edited eleven times. Another of her reflections on the natural world is An Introduction to the Natural History and Classification of Insects, in a Series of Letters (1816).

The most successful of her books was The Juvenile Travellers: Containing the Remarks of A Family During a Tour Through the Principal States and Kingdoms of Europe (1801), which includes a chapter on Catalonia, with a trip to Barcelona and Montserrat. It follows the voyages of Mr Seymour and his companions through Europe, with descriptions of every interesting detail, with a wide focus, from architecture to the landscape and plenty of anecdotes. It is really fascinating.


Included in An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters (1796)

Wakefield’s niece, Elizabeth Fry, became a prison reformer. She is the face on the £5 note. She also opened a school for nurses, a team of whom travelled with Florence Nightingale to Crimea to assist wounded soldiers.


Read more


[i] The Reports of the Society for Bettering the Conditions and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor. 
[ii] An Introduction to Botany in a Series of Familiar Letters, with Illustrative Engravings. 



Claire Démar and the Saint-Simonian Feminist Movement

The first time I came across Claire Démar was in my second year of undergrad. I was researching feminism during the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries. There were three factors that motivated that research. First of all, I have always been attracted to the history of the French Revolution. Secondly, I feel the need to learn about the women nobody has ever told me about. I would like to say there are strong moral and political reasons behind that, and that is true, and I will never miss a chance to make a point on the struggle of female visibility. However, a deeper truth is that my own ignorance frustrates me and drives me to try to learn about them, to remember their names. It is a question of pride, and of self-assumed duty. The third reason is that in those months I began a passionate, formal romantic relationship with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables that would -will- last a lifetime.


That font is dope.

Who is she, then? Well, although there is little reliable data on her biography, I’ve tried to assemble what French and English GoogleBooks had to offer. The following is an account of the life and works of Claire Démar, French feminist martyr, Saint-Simonian, journalist and writer.


Claire Démar was born (probably) in 1799 in (possibly) Orléans, south of Paris. Not even her name is free from question: although she signed her best known works as Claire Démar and any contemporary reference to her was in that name, her earliest letters are signed as Émilie d’Eymard. There are those who believe Claire was the elder sister of the musician Thérèse Démar, and attribute the biographical data of the latter to the former. If we were to believe that theory -which I do not, because there is no evidence to support it-, Claire would be the daughter of German musicians who emigrated first to Paris (1770s) and, during the Terror, moved to Orléans.

What we do know is that Démar was a member -and a very critic, active and radical one- of the Saint-Simonians. The Saint-Simonians were the followers of Claude Henri Saint-Simon. They were utopian socialists who proposed a peaceful new social order based in social and economic equality. The Saint-Simonians believed in the inclusion of women in equal terms to those of men in this new social order. Their feminism was a logical consequence of the notion that there should be no difference of class or sex. Pacifism, an essential point of their ideological agenda, was inseparable from female contribution. However, their belief in the equality of the sexes was based on the idea that women embodied emotion and men reason.


Combat davant l’hôtel de ville. Jean Victor Schnetz. 1830. Painting illustrating the July Revolution of 1830, also known as the Trois Gloriouses.

The Saint-Simonian women, a very active part of the group, disengage themselves from this limiting conceptualization and participate eagerly in the movement. As Claire Moses claims: “Saint-Simonian women struggle to surpass the masculine perspective and thereby link feminist vision  to the reality of women’s experience” (Moses 1982:241). This struggle was translated into action. By 1830, around 200 women regularly attended Saint-Simonian public lectures, amounting for half of the audience. But their participation was not limited to that. Indeed, the Saint-Simonian women produced a considerable body of text (journalist, personal correspondence and life writings). This is not a trait exclusively related to this movement; women in general -and feminists in particular- in nineteenth-century France were very literary. In 1832, a group of working class followers founded the Tribunne des Femmes, which is thought to have been the first female collaboration with a feminist purpose in history. It is relevant that they were members of the proletariat,  because most of the male Saint-Simonians were renegade aristocrats. Saint-Simonian women, then, were one of the earliest examples of the feminist movement being linked to the working-class struggle (McMillan 2000:82). The Tribune welcomed articles exclusively from women, not necessarily Saint-Simonians. Each contributor signed with their first name, in a symbolic gesture to dissociate themselves from masculine control.


From the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.


Of the literary production of Claire Démar, only a few letters and two essays have survived. These essays are Appel d’une femme au peuple sur l’affranchissement de la femme (1833) and Ma Loi d’Avenir (posthume 1834). Scholars have pointed out the modernity of her theories and claims, as well as her radical atheism. In l’Appel, reminiscent of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, Démar demands the inclusion of women in la  Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (1789), or what is the same, for France to recognise women as citizens in their own rights. In Ma Loi d’Avenir, Démar demands liberty without bounds, the abolition of marriage, which she regards as (sexual) slavery, of property, of paternal law and of gender-specific division of labour. Furthermore, she proposes the “abolition of maternity”: understanding motherhood as a patriarchal tool of oppression that restricts female emancipation, she urges mothers to “bring the newborn from the bosom of the blood mother to the arms of the social mother, the professional nurse, and the child will be better raised. Then and only then will man, woman, and child all be liberated from the law of blood and from exploitation of humanity by humanity!” (Démar in Nagl-Docekal 2010). All in all, Démar’s utopian ideal is a “fully rationalized society in which the value of the individual is determined exclusively by his or her function in the whole — where the contours of this ‘whole’ themselves become ever more blurred and the individuals become ever more empty” (Démar in Nagl-Docekal 2010). That is, a society based on social equality and the individual contribution to the social body, where individuality is disregarded.


A great number of Saint-Simonians were republicans. I guess they’d have mixed feelings about their writings being kept in the Bibliotheque Royale.

Démar was found dead in August 3rd 1833, at the age of 33, with her lover Perret Desessarts. They had shot each other on the head. Next to their corpses there were two letters, addressed to Charles Lambert, in which they attested for the double-suicide. These letters are now kept in l’Arsenal. On her death, Suzanne Voilquin, a prominent Saint-Simonien, dedicated her the following words as means of goodbye:

« Lorsque la malheureuse Claire disparut du milieu de nous, elle n’avait que 32 à 34 ans, elle était brune, petite, mais bien faite, le pied et la main jolis, […] l’expression de ses yeux et de sa physionomie était fière, même un peu dure, en parlant, elle s’animait de suite, alors son langage était abondant, facile, mais rude et heurté. On sentait une organisation inflammable, peu tendre, mais excessivement passionnée… »

“When the unlucky Claire left us, she  was 32-34 years old. She was brunette, small, but well-shaped, with beautiful hands and feet. […] The expression of her eyes and her physiognomy was fierce, although a bit tough. While talking, she suddenly came alive. Her way of speaking was abundant, easy, although harsh and abrupt. One felt an inflammable combination, scarcely tender but very passionate.”

Vivent les peuples.


  • Moses, Claire G. “Saint-Simonian Men/Saint-Simonian Women: The Transformation of Feminist Thought in 1830s’ France” in The Journal of Modern History, 54.2. 1982:240-267.
  • MacMillan, James F. France and Women 189-1914: Gender, society and Politics. London: Routledge. 2010.
  • Nagl-Docekal, Herta (and Cornelia Klinger). Continental Philosophy in Feminist Perspective: Re-Reading the Canon in German. Penn State Press, 2010.