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Cato Among the Feminists: 18th Century Female Writers on Cato the Younger

Thomas E. Strunk

Xavier University

Mary Astell (1666-1731) was ahead of her time. Not only for her feminist thought, but also for ushering Cato the Younger into the 18th century, when he became a central literary figure, appearing in numerous tragedies, philosophic works, and histories. At the dawn of the century, Astell wrote, “[Cato could not] bear the sight of the triumphant Conqueror . . . but out of a Cowardly fear of an Insult, ran to Death to secure him from it (Some Reflections on Marriage – 1700).” Although Astell was reflecting on marriage, which some may find a long way from Cato’s suicide at Utica, she nonetheless found Cato a relevant and compelling figure to contemplate. Throughout the 18th century, many others would follow her lead, particularly women.

This paper focuses on the writings of several such women, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Luise Gottsched, and Elise Reimarus, all of whom used Cato to think through the literary and political questions of their time. Their contributions and interpretations, which often focused on the political aspects of Cato’s life as frequently as on matters of style and staging, became an influential component of Cato’s reception. These women have frequently been overlooked altogether or have been overshadowed by the male literary figures with whom they were associated and rarely make an appearance in works on the reception of Cato (Gäth, Goar, Pecchiura). Without the contributions of these female authors, Cato would not have been the robust literary figure he became in the 18th century.

Like Astell, Lady Montagu (1689-1762) used Cato to strengthen her arguments for both women’s rights and republicanism. In The Nonsense of Common-Sense VI (1738), she compared the lot of women to Cato’s journey across the Libyan desert.  In her Critique of Cato (1713), Lady Montagu recommended that Joseph Addison increase the references to liberty throughout his Cato (1713), advice he must have taken since nearly every page expresses such sentiments, helping make Addison’s Cato the most popular English drama of the 18th century and an international hit. 

Luise Adelgunde Viktorie Kalmus (not yet Gottsched) (1713-1762) began her German translation of Addison’s Cato in 1734 while living in Danzig where her experiences of the city’s siege might have informed and inspired her understanding of Cato besieged at Utica (Goodman). Luise Gottsched translated in prose, as women were generally discouraged from translating into verse. A German verse translation of Addison’s Cato would remain a desideratum for the next generation. 

Elise Reimarus (1735-1805) undertook a more ambitious reworking of Addison’s Cato.  Two versions survive, a complete prose rendering and two fragments in verse, the first scene of act one and the first scene of act five (Spalding). While never completed, Reimarus’ attempt to put Addison into verse was a bold undertaking given literary expectations for women. Although little known and less read by classics scholars, the works of Reimarus and her Catonian sisters merit their own study and need no longer be “a footnote to the story of great men (Curtis-Wendlandt).”

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