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Lit Review

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Beginning in the 1500’s and carrying on for centuries afterward, the querelle des femmes, or “the debate over women,” began as a literary argument over the role of women concerning their status, and later their right to equality (especially regarding education).[1] In 1615, a man by the name of Joseph Swetnam wrote an attack on women; in his essay, “A Hostile Annotation of Rachel Speght’s A Mouzell for Melastomus(1617)” (1987), Cis Van Heertum identifies women’s pride and their unfaithful and cruel nature as the focal points of the attack.[2] Through her 1617 response to this misogynist abuse, A Mouzell for Melastromus, a very young Rachel Speght became, as mentioned in a work by Barbara Lewalski (The Polemics and Poems of Rachel Speght (1996)), the “first Englishwoman to identify herself, by name, as a polemicist and critic of contemporary gender ideology.”[3] The question that arises from this vein of history exemplifies the ripple effect:  What purpose did Speght’s response serve in the querelle des femmes?  In order to answer this, works that involve those who potentially influenced Rachel Speght, her own writings, as well as those works that perhaps found inspiration in Speght’s pieces, must all be analyzed.  Further still, reviews of these pieces of literature also offer insight to the question.  Thus, this paper will mainly analyze the texts that aid in bringing to light the role that Rachel Speght played in the querelle by breaking them into categories based on theme and gender roles, and in some cases, time period.

First, the literature gathered can be broken down into two separate and warring camps:  that which pertains to Rachel Speght and those works involving Joseph Swetnam.  There is ample information regarding Rachel Speght.  Lewalski begins by looking into Rachel Speght’s past and speculating potential causes of Speght’s attitudes.  The analysis of Speght’s educational background plays a huge role in the evolution of her thought.  Unlike many women of that time period, Rachel Speght seems to have received a classical education that would have been rare for a woman of any class.[4] This academic upbringing would have led to a heightened awareness and understanding of social issues.  Considering the fact that the presence of women in the educational systems of the time met heated debate, it would be likely that an educated woman, like Rachel Speght, would be more likely to step in and confidently submit her actual name with her literary defense.  Thus, Lewalski’s analyses of her background are more than fitting and support the idea that Speght’s writing would have the power to reach out and captivate readers, potentially inspiring others to join her side of the debate.

In her review of Lewalski’s work in the Renaissance Quarterly, also calls to attention Speght’s religious upbringing with a Calvin minister as her father.[5] The knowledge of this element in her youth establishes a foundation for its expansion; if religion played a major role in her youth, then Speght likely carried those ideas with her into adulthood.  In turn, her Calvinistic beliefs may in turn have resulted in her differing views on the patriarchal role in society.  Another insightful source is a work by Joan Kelly, Women, History, & Theory. Kelly highlights an interesting point–women on the feminist side of the debate tended to repeat the established ideas of the arguments, rather than contributing new material to the mix.[6] This could possibly mean either of two things in regard to the research question:  First, does this mean that, in response to the question, Speght had no impact on the debate?  That her work was just another piece of literature added to the pile?  Or perhaps does it indicate that her work set off a reaction of responses that filed in behind hers, restating her ideas.  It may be that, as she evidently possessed a higher level of education than the majority of females at that time, Rachel Speght held the ability to put forth an idea in defense of her gender, and that her impact involves spurring responses that echoed her beliefs.

In the case of Swetnam, there is less material used here, however the pieces gathered play a crucial role.  In order to understand Rachel Speght’s reaction and the effects of it, one must comprehend against what she wrote.  Again, Heertum’s article brings a critical aspect of history to light:  within the first paragraph, Heertum mentions the multiple printings of Joseph Swetnam’s The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women.[7] This demonstrates the fact that his work obviously gained great popularity.  As a result, one can determine the attitude of the time—as such material met high demand, there is no doubt that the masses shared similar misogynistic opinions and attitudes.  This theme, one which obviously held much of the people’s support, would easily have lasted over the centuries, especially as the debate heated up.  In a critical review of Heertum’s work, Anna Simoni, brings up the fact that Swetnam seemed to lack a formal education.[8] This could contribute to harsher opinions against women held by Swetnam, resulting perhaps from a sense of educational inferiority.  It might also signal that his intent was misinterpreted by the masses and transformed into a vessel to carry the ideas of the time.

After noting how the theme of the work influences its categorical placement (misogyny vs feminism), and how gender roles played a role (status of women in society, education of women, reaction of mainstream women in the debate), there remains one particularly interesting aspect to point out after analyzing nearly every work.  The majority of these works carry publishing dates ranging from 1984 to the late 1990s.  The querelle des femmes lasted roughly 400 years.[9] After that, it seems to have slipped from literary, historic, and social planes.  However, separating these works by time period, essentially a large grouping in the mid 80’s to late 90’s, one can take note of a trend.  In 1984, the term “glass ceiling” began to surface.  The “Glass Ceiling Debate” refers to idea that, in the business realm, women reach a certain point after which they are held back from climbing the ladder in the workplace, merely due to their gender.  This idea parallels the idea from the querelle in that the role of women was yet again brought into play.  Where the querelle des femmes mainly involved the social status of women and equality in education, the role of women in the workplace was believed to be under attack.  This likely indicates that people opposed to the apparent limiting of women’s opportunities to climb higher looked back to the querelle for inspiration, which may imply that Rachel Speght’s influence carried on beyond the originally expected scope.

Overall, many sources provide insight to demonstrate that Rachel Speght did leave an imprint on the direction of the querelle des femmes.  By analyzing secondary sources on the basis of gender distinctions as well as themes within them, it is easier to assess the areas upon which the works touch and where they will provide the most solid evidence to support the research claim.

[1] Charles Schriebner’s Sons, Querelle des Femmes, http://www.novelguide.com/a/discover/rens_04/rens_04_00395.html (accessed September 12. 2010).

[2] F. W. Van Heertum, “A Hostile Annotation of Rachel Speght’s A Mouzell for Melastomus(1617),” English Studies, (1987):  490.

[3] Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, ed., The Polemics and Poems of Rachel Speght, (Oxford, NY:  Oxford University Press, 1996), xi.

[4] Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, ed., The Polemics and Poems of Rachel Speght, (Oxford, NY:  Oxford University Press, 1996), xi-xiv.

[5] Margaret J. Arnold, review of The Polemics and Poems of Rachel Speght, by Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Renaissance Quarterly 51:3 (Autumn 1998):  1065-1066.

[6] Joan Kelly, Women, History, & Theory (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 75.

[7] F. W. Van Heertum, “A Hostile Annotation of Rachel Speght’s A Mouzell for Melastomus(1617),” English Studies, (1987):  490.

[8] Anna E. C. Simoni, review of A Critical Edition of Joseph Swetnam’s The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women, by F. W. Van Heertum, English Studies 71:3 (June 1990):  283.

[9] Joan Kelly, Women, History, & Theory (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 78.


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