Friday, June 12, 2009
Way Before the “F” Word: An Early Feminist Tea Party #2
“This is all so very strange,” said Catherine. “I thought I was the only one who minded what they say about girls and women. And I never considered writing myself.” Looking around, she noticed a circle of women in one corner of the room. “Who are they?”
“That’s the poetess’s corner,” Mary told her. “Some of the 17th- and early 18th-century writers are holding court today: Lady Mary Chudleigh, Anne Finch, and Sarah Fyge Egerton. Katherine Phillips, the “Matchless Orinda,” sometimes joins them. I believe she’s off visiting friends today. She writes beautifully of the virtues of female friendship.”
“The Introduction” [note: unpublished during Finch’s life]
Did I, my lines intend for publick view,
How many censures, wou’d their faults persue,
Some wou’d because such words they do affect,
Cry they’re insipid, empty, uncorrect.
And many, have attain’d, dull and untaught
The name of Witt, only by finding fault.
True judges might condemn their want of witt,
And all might say, they’re by a Woman writt.
Alas! A woman that attempts the pen,
Such an intruder on the rights of men,
Such a presumptuous Creature, is esteem’d,
The fault, can by no vertue be redeem’d.
They tell us, we mistake our sex and way;
Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play
Are the accomplishments we shou’d desire;
To write, or read, or think, or to enquire
Wou’d cloud our beauty, and exaust out time,
And interrupt the Conquests of our prime;
Whilst the dull manage, of a servile house
Is held by some, our outmost art, and use.
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea
“To the Ladies” (1703)
Wife and servant are the same.
But only differ in the name:
For when that fatal knot is ty’d,
Which nothing, nothing can divide:
When she the word obey has said,
And man by law supreme has made,
Then all that’s kind is laid aside,
And nothing left but state and pride:
Fierce as an eastern prince he grows
And all his innate rigor shows:
Then but to look, to laugh, or speak,
Will the nuptual contract break.
Like mutes, she signs alone must make,
And never any freedom take:
But still be govern’d by a nod,
And fear her husband as a God:
Him still must serve, him still obey,
And nothing act, and nothing say,
But what her haughty lord thinks fit,
Who with the power, has all the wit.
Then shun, oh! Shun that wretched state,
And all the fawning flatt’rers hate:
Value yourselves, and Men despise:
You must be proud, if you’ll be wise.
Lady Mary Chudleigh
“The Emulation” (1703)
Say Tyrant Custom, why must we obey,
The impositions of thy haughty Sway;
From the first dawn of Life, unto the Grave,
Poor Womankind’s in every State, a Slave….
They’re Wise to keep us Slaves, for well they know,
If we were loose, we soon should make them so.
Sarah Fyge Egerton
Catherine looked surprised, “I didn’t even know there were female poets. I feel quite ignorant. “Although,” she began and then finished awkwardly, “I think I heard some things about you.”
Mary laughed. “No doubt you have. My poor husband thought he was paying homage to me when he published a book of memoirs about me after I passed on. It ended up doing more harm than good. My love life, my unfortunate suicide attempts, and my general unconventionality led many to denounce my ideas about the rights of woman.”
“It would seem,” said Catherine, “that a number of women have written on this, only to be omitted from history. What did you have to say?”
“Contending for the rights of woman, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all…”
“That seems quite reasonable.” Catherine was eager to hear more.
“It is time to effect a revolution in female manners—time to restore to them their lost dignity—and make them, as part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world.”
Indeed the word masculine is only a bugbear; there is little reason to fear that women will acquire too much courage or fortitude…
Tyrants would have cause to tremble if reason were to become the rule of duty in any of the relations of life, for the light might spread till perfect day appeared. And when it did appear, how would men smile at the sight of the bugbears at which they started during the night of ignorance, or the twilight of timid inquiry.
(Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792)
A group began to gather around them, listening attentively.
“Would men but generously snap our chains,” Mary continued, “and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers—in a word, better citizens.”
Once more applause broke out, and Catherine again joined in, adding, “Hear, hear.”
At this point, Eleanor returned and put her hand on Catherine’s shoulder. “Thank you, Mary. That’s enough for one day.”
Catherine looked up in wonder. “I had no idea,” she said.
“Eleanor, I think you need to share your library with this young woman,” Mary said.
“I’ll start her off with your Vindication,” replied Eleanor.
Before they left the room, Catherine turned to look back once more, “So many women, so many ideas. How can such brilliant writers be left out of history?”
Eleanor, closing the door behind them, said, “It’s our job and the job of all who care about justice and equality to see to it that they’re not.”
Walking arm in arm with her friend, out into the dazzling sunshine, Catherine felt strong and, for the first time in her life, proud to be female. She looked across the lawn toward the horizon, “I’ll do my best.”
Images from the top:
Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda
Title Page: Poems & Prose of Mary, Lady Chudleigh
Mary Wollstonecraft, portrait by John Opie
Frontispiece to the 1791 edition of Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life (engraved by William Blake)
Title Page to A Vindication of the Rights of Women
A Cup of Tea: Mary Cassat
Many thanks, Audrey, for inviting us all to your instructive tea party, & thanks to all the folks who stopped by to read & comment! I've been a bit "under par" - just fatigue from lots of running about - but I should be back visiting you all soon!