Elizabeth Ryland Priestley:

Two of the items in Thomas Cooper's Political Essays -- the first part of On the Propriety and Expediency of Unlimited Enquiry, and the reply to Cooper's Observations on the Fast Day -- are written by Elizabeth Ryland Priestley (1769--1816), the daughter-in-law of Cooper's friend and eminent chemist and philosopher Dr. Joseph Priestley.

Cooper gave credit to his coauthor by labeling the items as having been written by "E.P.," and by noting her more specifically ("Mrs. Priestley") in the preface to On the Propriety. But her work has since gone unremarked. Leonard Levy cited On the Propriety as "a two-part essay," but credited it entirely to Cooper. An essay in The Press & the American Revolution cited several passages that it credited to Cooper, yet all but one of the citations were to Priestley's part; Priestley's name was not mentioned. One of the few works on Cooper and free speech, a master's dissertation published by the University of Wisconsin, discusses Cooper's work extensively but doesn't mention Priestley's contribution. Cooper's biographer Dumas Malone mentions her only very briefly.

The source through which Cooper's work has been recently known, Freedom of the Press from Hamilton to the Warren Court, reprinted only Cooper's portion and didn't mention Priestley's contribution. I could find no law review articles that mention her. A few articles in other disciplines mention her in passing, chiefly in discussing her illustrious father-in-law. A few books mention her in connection with the Joseph Priestley House. Her writing is briefly noted in Jane DuPree-Begos's Joseph Priestley's Feminist Legacy, a pamphlet published by the Joseph Priestley House, and in Esteem, Regard and Respect for Rationality: Joseph Priestley's Female Connections, an article in the Bulletin for the History of Chemistry cowritten by Professor Kathleen L. Neeley and Joseph Priestley House's M. Andrea Bashore. Nor could I find any original sources from that era mentioning Elizabeth Ryland Priestley, except for a fleeting reference that sheds no light on her intellectual interests.

English and American women of the late 1700s participated in public intellectual life only rarely. There were a few who did write history or political commentary: Mercy Otis Warren was a prominent American playwright, historian of the American revolution, and (though under a pseudonym) critic of the proposed Constitution. In England, Catharine Macaulay was a noted historian and reformist political writer. Macaulay's Letters on Education, with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects (1790) and Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) were leading early political works in favor of women's rights. And of course there were important women writers of fiction, most notably Fanny Burney. But despite these examples, when it came to discussion of political theory, or of free speech in particular, female commentators were very rare. Priestley deserves attention; at least she deserves not to be forgotten. Perhaps some historian can uncover more on this intriguing woman, if something survives to be uncovered. All I can do is note her contribution to the essays that follow.

I can also note that at least three of Priestley's descendants have not languished in obscurity. Elizabeth Priestley's granddaughter, Bessie Rayner Parkes, became a prominent English feminist author of the mid-1800s. Parkes in turn was the mother of noted authors Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes and Hilaire Belloc.