Dorothea DuBois: Writing Women’s Power


Karen Cajka

University of Connecticut


The Right Honorable Lady Dorothea DuBois was a well-known public figure in eighteenth-century England and Ireland. She came from a family of high social status, plagued by its notorious patriarch, the Earl of Anglesey, who repudiated his marriage (in favor of a son borne by his housekeeper) and left Dorothea, her mother and sisters destitute. DuBois’s English grammar, prefixed to a letter-writer, and indeed all of her works were undertaken to generate financial support for herself, her musician husband, and her six children.

DuBois’s educational philosophy slowly emerges throughout her works, finally delineated in the Grammar and Letter-Writer (1771-2). Its inception is evident in her first published work, Poems on Several Occasions  (1764), where she comments on the difficulties of women’s place in society. Throughout her autobiographical works (The Case of Ann, Countess of Anglesey [1766]; Theodora, a Novel [1770]; The Magnet, a Musical Entertainment [1771]), she develops this understanding, connecting her own familial problems with those of other women, investigating the sources of those problems, but not finding a satisfactory solution.

In the Grammar and Letter-Writer (1771-2), DuBois demonstrates that only through writing can women take control of their own lifestories and public personas. Although in the Preface to this work she claims to desire only to form young women’s morals and manners in the course of developing a proper, grammatical style of writing, a closer look at the grammar itself and in context with her other works demonstrates that DuBois’s real educational intention is to give women the power, through ‘grammatical’ and thus publicly legitimate writing, to become independent of, and when necessary defend themselves against, men as individuals and as patriarchy. DuBois also advocates and indeed practices a rhetorical style which, like her educational philosophy, seems on the surface to reinforce stereotypical expectations of women’s proper roles. She understands that women must use language carefully, so as not to risk alienating those who might help them—men of the nobility, government, clergy or the reading public. Current social constructions of the ‘proper’ woman and man are not obstacles which women must loudly denounce and tear down, but rather are tools which savvy women writers can subtly employ in service of their own interests. Expressing these interests in the publicly-accepted grammatical standard, DuBois instructs, is necessary for women to command any audience, private or public, and thus to influence, subvert or even deny the will and power of men.