Literature, historically the place to express the Idea and the Ideal, has also maintained a dark spot in tradition as a place to berate and judge openly in treatises and subtly, as in allegory. This can be seen very clearly in the writing by men about women throughout history. Many cite the Christian Creation and Fall myth as the ultimate example of this, but there are many earlier texts, such as the Greek myth of the creation of women, featuring Pandora and her opening of the box which contained all the evils of the world. Greek plays and poems were overfull with negative descriptions of women, and depictions of the underhanded ways that they might achieve some esteem. In the words of the poet Semonides, "This the worst plague Zeus has made-women; if they seem to be some use to him who has them, it is to him especially that they prove a plague." (1)
The strong Classical and religious background for such writings offered a backbone for later texts focusing on men’s opinions of women. Short pieces that argued for and against women became very popular between 1540 and 1640 (around the time of the Controversy about Women in England) with the ease of printing, and the new demand for short pamphlets aimed at the average reader. While this sort of writing had formerly been more elite in nature, it was beginning to be geared to the everyday reader; it was more crude, less religious and, surprisingly, defenses of women, written by women writers became available. (2)
Why this is surprising becomes evident when one takes a short look at the life of women during that time. Women had no real social status in and of themselves (outside of the Queen). A man and his wife were one person, and this one person was essentially the masculine half of the partnership. It was assumed that all women were married or going to be married, the intended result being the transferal of guardianship from father to husband. Women were seen as incomplete (often because the lack of a phallus) and inferior from birth. For the most part, any action undertaken by a woman was controlled, initiated or overseen by a man. They had very few personal liberties open to them and typically they had no opportunities for education. Speaking out against bad treatment was not an option as: "For both a girl and a wife, silence is recommended as a virtue in itself as well as a feature of the general requirements of modesty and obedience…the silent wife is not likely to obtain mastery over her husband." (3)
With very few opportunities to show specific rebellion, writing under a pseudonym was one of the few ways women could express any dissatisfaction with the negative view society held regarding feminine attributes. It is interesting to note that in these writings women often used the same style, format and even “facts” that were employed by male authors in their writings about women. While the male authors often used jokes and insults in their writings against women, women authors, in their responses, tended to stay away from the specific attacks against men, depending rather on examples of good women and women’s virtues. A popular defense of women constituted looking at the Christian Creation and Fall myth in a new way in such a way as to prove Eve’s innocence and portray females as the bringers of salvation. The common interpretation of that same myth was also the most popular source of condemnation for women when it was taken to be the concrete, factual reason why women should have no independence and needed to be subject to the will of a man. (4)
Four women wrote defenses which feature Eve prominently: Jane Anger, Aemilia Lanyer, Rachel Speght and Ester Sowernam. Specifics in these texts can be compared to the contrary view in various texts written by men speaking out against women.
Jane Anger was the first woman we know of to write a treatise specifically defending women. It was a response to a pamphlet by a "late Surfeiting Lover," and in her work Protection For Women (1859), she endeavors not only to prove that women are as good as men, but she makes the effort to take it one step further in stating: "how far we women are more excellent than men." (5) To Anger, women preserve peace and harmony, they were the first to receive grace, and by virtue of being first, the more wise of the sexes. The only downfall of women has been men:
The path which leadeth thereunto is Man’s wit, and the miles’ ends are marked with these trees: Folly, Vice, Mischief, Lust, Deceit and Pride. These, to deceive you, shall be clothed in the raiments of Fancy, Virtue, Modesty, Love, True meaning and Handsomeness. (6-Half Humankind pg.185)
So she warns women to be wary of them.
Jane Anger deals with Eve without actually attempting to exonerate her of sin. Instead, she makes the case that woman, in having been created second, is more pure and a more refined creation. She points out that men were made of dust, which was purified when it became flesh, while women were created from the already pure flesh. "...God, making woman of man’s flesh that she might be purer than he, doth evidently show how far we women are more excellent than men." (7) Anger sees women as being one step closer to go than are men. She also notes that "From woman sprang men’s salvation." (8), implying that men need women on a spiritual level, not merely a domestic one.
Compare this to the text The Schoolhouse of Women (1541), thought to be written by Edward Gosynhill, which uses Biblical justification for the subjugation of women. The author writes:
I pray you, why was Adam shent
Because he only did transgress?
Eve him moved first to consent;
To eat of the apple she did him dress,
So all came of her willfulness.
And since that women that offense began,
She is more to blame than is the man. (9-Half Humankind pg.153)
Here, the author blames the fall of humanity solely on Eve. However, there are some questions raised by Gosynhill's argument: If men are stronger, why was Adam so easily swayed by Eve into sin? Why is she more at fault because she committed sin first, and why would it be a case of her willfulness, rather than being a case of man’s weakness? In most texts condemning women, these questions remain unanswered. It is a contradictory argument that tends to be presented: Eve was weaker and more open to sin, and yet, she was also quite strong and willful enough to cause Adam to sin. Another argument presented in Schoolhouse which was a popular notion at the time was that Eve was created from a 'bent' bone, which was "crooked and sturdy" and that this accounts for women’s evil and unbending nature.
Aemilia Lanyer presents the fall of man in her poem Salve Deus Rex Judeaorum (1611) in such a way to lessen the severity of Eve’s actions, and to attempt to prove that Adam committed a greater sin. She uses this as her main argument that women should not be subjected to men’s wills. She begins by showing that Eve was simply ignorant of the danger of eating the fruit, and that she was "by cunning deceived" (10). Lanyer points out that Eve was weak, and Adam, as the stronger of the two, should have refused, making his the more severe sin. Eve's only fault was a desire for knowledge and to share that knowledge with Adam. She presents women as the bringers of knowledge to the world.
He never sought to her weakness to reprove
With those sharp words which he of God did hear
Yet men will boast of knowledge, which he took
From Eve’s fair hand, as from a learned book. (11)
Lanyer brings goodness to Eve’s actions, essentially freeing women from the curse of having caused the fall of man. From this, it can also be inferred that women have a right to knowledge as much as men. While still presenting the sin, Lanyer points out the benefit to mankind in Eve’s taking of the fruit.
A text that inspired a number of responses by women is Joseph Swetnam’s Araignment of Lewde, idle, frowarde, and unconstant women (1615). His arguments were largely comprised of the popularly held notions about women without any textual references from scripture. He uses analogies to describe the negative qualities of women, comparing women to pumice stones (their hearts are full of holes), painted ships (pretty outside with nothing inside) and the sea (which is calm one minute and violent the next) (12). He also brings up the fact that women have no other power than beauty and sexual wiles.
For women are cunning dissemblers; their beauty is always matched with merciless cruelty and 'heavenly looks with hellish thoughts.' (13-Half Humankind pg.185)
Compare this to the usual interpretation of the Christian fall of man, and one can see that Swetnam has merely stated the same assertion that can be inferred from the Fall: that women have one power over men, and it’s an evil power based on beauty and deception, useful only in leading them astray.
Swetnam, like the author of Schoolhouse uses the argument that women were created from a crooked bone, and are thus crooked themselves, beginning their lives malformed, and going straight on to mischief, becoming "a woe unto man." (14)
His inflammatory text inspired a number of contrary arguments, many of which used or were heavily based on an alternate interpretation of the Creation and the Fall. Rachel Speght and Esther Sowernam each wrote a defense of women in response to Swetnam’s attacks.
Ester Sowernam’s Esther Hath Hanged Haman contains a large section devoted entirely to showing a more favorable portrayal of women in Christian mythology. Immediately in her opening statement addressing her feminine readership she asserts that women are "in Creation, noble" (15) In the text, she directly addresses Swetnam’s statement that coming from a crooked rib, women are naturally crooked. She writes:
Woman was made of a crooked rib, so she is crooked of conditions; Joseph Swetnam was made as from Adam of clay and dust, so he is of a muddy and dirty disposition. (16-Half Humankind pg.222)
She goes on to rhetorically ask of Swetnam whether woman would get her disposition from the rib or from the life which God granted her. Sowernam, for the most part, doesn’t rely on the same insulting style that Swetnam used, rather she cites examples from literary and Biblical sources of good women.
Sowernam repeats Jane Anger in her idea that because Eve was created after Adam, she is the more perfect of the two. She asserts that Eve was created as not so much a helper for man, but rather to make imperfect man whole. She also agrees that woman was created from an already refined substance, making her more pure. She then presents an entirely new point about Eve in her defense. She writes "Since man was created in the world, he is a worldling; since woman was created in paradise, she is a Paradisian." (17) The implication is that though human beings may have been banned from the Garden of Eden, you cannot take the nature of paradise out of women. Any later change in the disposition of women, Sowernam writes, can be attributed to Eve’s deception by the "Serpent of the masculine gender." (18)
She takes the feminine perfection argument further than Lanyer or Anger, in her analysis of the redemption of women. She calls them a "means to recover heaven." She writes:
All the punishments inflicted upon women are countered with most gracious blessings and benefits; she hath not so great cause of dolor in one respect as she hath infinite cause of joy in another. (19-Half Humankind pg.225)
So, rather than being inferior or cursed, women are actually highly favored and should be revered for being the comforters and salvation-bringers.
Rachel Speght wrote A Mouzell for Melastomus (1617) as a response to Swetnam’s Araignment. Like Lanyer, she begins with the assumption that Eve was weaker and more ignorant than Adam, and thus was more open to temptation than he. Unlike the pervious texts, Speght maintains that Eve’s sin was not less (or more beneficial) than Adam’s, but merely of the same severity.
Yet we shall find the offense of Adam and Eve almost to parallel: For as an ambitious desire of being made like unto God, was the motive which caused her to eat, so likewise was it his (20-A Mouzell for Melastomus)
She does not seek to downplay Eve’s sin. In fact, she goes on to point out that her punishment was specific to women, while Adam’s (death) was put on all of humankind. But Speght also reminds her reader that God promises Eve that she would be the source of human salvation. Like the other female authors before her, she also mentions that Adam was supposedly fully capable of having refused the fruit offered by Eve. Again, he was supposed to have been the stronger and more knowledgeable, yet she is blamed for the entire Fall for merely being duped by the serpent. He was actively sinning, know that taking the fruit was a sin.
These women authors established a pattern, followed by their later counterparts, of arguing that there was nothing sacred, natural, or necessary about women's secondary role within the home or society. Beginning with Jane Anger, they used the same Biblical references and popular notions often used by men to prove women’s inferiority. They read these texts and interpreted them in new ways which freed women from the burden of having caused man’s downfall. To spread their ideas, they used the only outlet available to themselves: the written word. In the time of the Controversy about Women in England, a few strong women found their voices and used creative arguments to prove their worth in the face of an ever growing array of writings by men which attacked women. However few these writings might have been, they effectively dealt a small blow to the standard ideas about women held at the time.
1.Half Humankind pg.5
2.Half Humankind pg.11
3.Women in Early Modern England pg.37
4.Women in Early Modern England pg.33
5.Half Humankind pg.181 Protection of Women
6.Half Humankind pg.185 Protection of Women
7.Half Humankind pg.181 Protection of Women
8.Half Humankind pg.181 Protection of Women
9.Half Humankind pg.153 The Schoolhouse of Women
10.The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer pg.85 Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum
11. The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer pg.86 Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum
12.Half Humankind pg.194 The Araignment of Lewd, idle, froward and unconstant women
13. Half Humankind pg.195 The Araignment of Lewd, idle, froward and unconstant women
14. Half Humankind pg.194 The Araignment of Lewd, idle, froward and unconstant women
15.Half Humankind pg.220 Esther hath hanged Haman
16. Half Humankind pg.222 Esther hath hanged Haman
17. Half Humankind pg.224 Esther hath hanged Haman
18. Half Humankind pg.224 Esther hath hanged Haman
19. Half Humankind pg.225 Esther hath hanged Haman
20.Redeeming Eve pg.254 A Mouzell for Melastomus
Beilin, Elaine V.
Princeton University Press, 1987
Women in Early Modern England 1550-1720
Clarendon Press-Oxford, 1998
University of Illinois Press, 1985
The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer
Oxford University Press, 1993