Surveying all the genres of literature—drama, poetry, fiction, non-fiction prose, and literary criticism—Mellor shows how women writers promoted a new concept of the ideal woman as rationally educated, sexually self-disciplined, and above all, virtuous. This New Woman, these writers said, was better suited to govern the nation than were its current fiscally irresponsible, lecherous, and corruptible male rulers.
Beginning with Hannah More, Mellor argues that women writers too often dismissed as conservative or retrogressive instead promoted a revolution in cultural mores or manners. She discusses writers as diverse as Elizabeth Inchbald, Hannah Cowley, and Joanna Baillie; as Charlotte Smith, Anna Barbauld, and Lucy Aikin; as Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Reeve, and Anna Seward; and concludes with extended analyses of Charlotte Smith's Desmond and Jane Austen's Persuasion. She thus documents women writers' full participation in that very discursive public sphere which Habermas so famously restricted to men of property. Moreover, the new career of philanthropy defined by Hannah More provided a practical means by which women of all classes could actively construct a new British civil society, and thus become the mothers not only of individual households but of the nation as a whole.