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Imagine a war.  One waged not on a bloody battlefield, but instead upon leaves of paper; a war that lasts not for years, but for centuries.  The literary debate, “La Querelle des Femmes,” translated to “The Debate about Women,” is a war of words that addressed questions regarding the role and status of women.  Constantly under scrutiny, the character of women suffered many attacks.  Where did they belong in society?  Did they deserve to receive an education?  This particular battle, the querelle, involved many writers divided into two camps:  misogynists and defenders of women.  In response to an attack on women written by Joseph Swetnam, a woman by the name of Rachel Speght stepped to the forefront of this argument.  She wrote her way into polemic history in 1617 with her pamphlet entitled A Mouzell for Melastomus.  In this work, Rachel Speght combined her superior education and religious upbringing to rush to the defense of women, relighting the fire of the querelle and consequentially influencing other writers for centuries to come.

The querelle reaches back to the very beginning of time, finding roots in the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis.[1] The point of conflict in this debate centered on women’s behavior—taking their nature into consideration, what was their purpose in society?  In order to take this question in to consideration, one must understand the opinions of the time.  At the onset of, and throughout, the debate, society harbored a strongly misogynistic attitude toward women.  In short, because of the actions taken by Eve, “women were regarded as the source of sin and mortality, and, consequently, all women should be punished throughout their lives.”[2] During this time in history, society dictated that women be quiet, mild-mannered, orderly, and nurturing.  Essentially, a proper woman made up for those characteristics men lacked.[3] This idea, however, clashed with the views of women from the eyes of misogynists.  Misogynistic behavior acted as the norm; strict divides existed between the behavior of males and females, and women were objects to many men.  This idea of gender differences is termed “structural misogyny” by Alcuin Blamires, and is a spin-off of a phrase used by author Alasatir Minnis.[4]

Without a doubt, this type of environment fueled and encouraged input to the debate by individuals with attitudes like Joseph Swetnam’s.  In 1615, Joseph Swetnam published his first pamphlet addressing the querelle des femmes.  Entitled The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward [sic], and Unconstant Women, this piece accuses women of being “dangerously deceptive, expensive, desperate about maintaining their beauty, shallow, and deceived of their role on Earth as submissive wives, helpmates and mothers.”[5] He sees women as simply following in the footsteps of Eve—taking advantage of men, leading them astray.  It was with these ideas in mind that Swetnam penned The Arraignment and provided the pamphlet that would set in motion a new level to the debate.

Two years after the publication of The Arraignment, Rachel Speght, at the time a young woman of about 19 years of age, stepped up and submitted her response to Swetnam’s attack, coincidentally with the same publisher Swetnam used.  Though the true ambitions behind the motivation involved in publishing are unknown, it is believed that Speght had garnered some sort of reputation within the community for being intelligent, as the publisher seems likely to have sought her out.[6] The analysis of Speght’s educational background plays a huge role in the evolution of her thought.  Unlike many of her peers, Rachel Speght seems to have received a classical education that would have been rare for a woman of any class.[7] This academic upbringing would have led to a heightened awareness and understanding of social issues.

One of the points of conflict within the querelle des femmes involved the concept of women receiving an education.[8] Using her intellectual background to help defend and promote equality for women within this heated debate, it would be likely that an educated woman, like Rachel Speght, would 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—her lack of fear of drawing attention to herself in the name of what she believed rallied others to join the cause.  This confidence in her educational standing is one of the factors that support the notion that Speght’s involvement in the debate left a lasting impact on future defenders in the debate.

Two major points can be gleaned from the above information on Speght’s educational background.  First, said background is likely what drew the attention of the publisher to Rachel Speght.  Second, and most importantly, had Speght not agreed to allow the publisher to print her pamphlet, the querelle would not necessarily have carried on in the direction it followed.  After two years, Swetnam’s work was dying off and had lost the attention it once brought about.  Speght’s work, upon publishing, revived the glowing embers of the Swetnam effect into a roaring fire—the Querelle des Femmes had been brought back to life.  She also brought with her a new style of addressing the querelle.  Rather than merely using rhetorical means to address readers and propose different ideas and taunts, Speght’s work directly counters the examples of evil, idle women, and uses just as many exaggerations of superiority as Swetnam did to prove her point that Swetnam was out of line and unfair in his accusations.[9] An example can be seen in a particular instance in which Swetnam attempted to use the Bible as his support, Speght counters with:  “To the second objection I answer, That the Apostle doth not hereby exempt man from sinne, but onely giveth to understand, that the woman was the primarie transgressor; and not the man, but that man was not at all deceived, was farr from his meaning.”[10] In this quote, her method of numbering the objectives and systematically tearing them apart one by one is clearly demonstrated.  This new approach also demonstrates the impact left by Rachel Speght and her work.  No longer did writers in this debate merely submit strictly rhetorical pieces—she inspired other writers to follow suit and address specifics; to not fear breaking with pattern for a stronger effect.

In her review of Lewalski’s work in The Renaissance Quarterly, Margaret J. Arnold also calls to attention Speght’s religious upbringing with a Calvin minister as her father.[11] 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.  In another insightful source, Women, History, & Theory, author Joan 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.[12] This indicates 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.  To support this idea, almost immediately after A Mouzell for Melastomous began to circulate, two other significant writers, though operating under pseudonyms, Ester Sowernam and Constantia Munda, came into the picture, inspired by Speght’s piece.  The former evolved in defense of Swetnam, the latter supporting the claims of Rachel Speght.

Overall, one of the most obvious impacts Speght had involves Joseph Swetnam.  Originally, the first copy of his Arraignment was published under the pen name “Thomas Tel-troth.”[13] This protected Swetnam from any direct negative heat from his work. Author F.W. Van Heertum mentions the multiple printings of Joseph Swetnam’s The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women.[14] Clearly, this demonstrates great popularity of this particular diatribe.  It was so successful, in fact, that Swetnam promised to publish another work, however this work never surfaced.[15] It is fair to assess that he did not imagine a mere two years down the road a young girl would cause much embarrassment and trouble for him.  Speght often cut right to the point she sought to make:  “Thus if men would remember the duties they are to perform in being heads, some would not stand a tip-toe as they do, thinking themselves Lords & Rulers…”[16] She used mean names to shame and embarrass him, names such as “Bear-baiter of women”, or stating that calling him a dunce would even be too worthy of him.[17] Her religious and education background proved to be more in depth than Swetnam’s.  Looking at an excerpt from Joseph Swetnam’s Arraignment, it seems that he relied more upon biased ideas likely resulting from his own experiences, rather than an image of a typical woman:  “For commonly women are the most part of the forenoon painting themselves, and frizzing their hairs, and prying in their glass like Apes, to pranck up themselves in their gawdies, like Poppets, or like the Spider which weaves a fine web to hang the fly.” [18] By simply comparing the two writing styles, she makes him seem uneducated and childish.  Speght’s work not only inspired other polemics, but she also left an impact in theatre.  As a direct result of her 1617 response, in 1620, a comedy surfaced, known as Swetnam the Woman-hater Arraigned by Women, in which Swetnam’s character was made fun of, muzzled, and tormented.[19] That deep-rooted sentiment of Swetnam being a foolish, unintelligent bully correlates to all the ideas generated by Speght’s response.

Moving ahead in time, perhaps the most telling aspect that demonstrates Rachel Speght’s impact on the querelle can be seen in a more modern example.  Many have heard of the Glass Ceiling Debate.  This is an argument that encompasses the business realm that began in the 1970s and has continued on.  The sources evaluated in the writing of this paper shared a trend in that they were all published by female authors between the ‘80s and ‘90s.  As women everywhere began to challenge the idea of oppression and inequality in the workplace, they turned to the history books to provide guidance.  Speght’s resounding impact on, and after, the

querelle cannot be denied—centuries later, people from the North American continent sought out her work to aid them in the formation and development of their ideas.  Had she not been skillful enough, had she not made as solid of a point that women are not, in fact, evil beings, and that they do deserve equality, modern individuals would not have bothered examining her literary contributions to the querelle.

For such a young individual, it is evident that she played a tremendous role in the literary debate about women, the Querelle des Femmes.  This paper demonstrates that not only did Rachel Speght’s work influence other writers during and after the time of the Querelle des Femmes, it also transcended the boundaries of time and carried on into later years, allowing herself to revive the querelle not once, but twice.  She managed to break down the rhetoric within Swetnam’s work, painting him to be an ignorant individual, while articulately defending women and drawing more supporters to the pro-women side of the battle.  A true soldier of verse, Rachel Speght battled long and hard, following up her first piece with many more as the years continued on for the debate about women.  Though the centuries were long, a name stands out among the many:  Rachel Speght:  Great polemic, dedicated defender of women.  Without a doubt, the querelle would not have been the same without the contributions of Rachel Speght and her impact can still be seen to this day.

[1] “The Nature of  (Wo)men:  Gender and Controversy in 17th Century England,”  http://www.u.arizona.edu/~jcu/Lecture22_TheGenderWars.pdf (accessed October 31, 2010).  The book of Genesis acted as the spring board for the misogynistic grouping of the debate.  The defense of women found an ally in the translated works of Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, “De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus” (On the nobility and preeminence of women), written in 1529.  The clash of these ideas spurred on the querelle in England.

[2] Katherine M. Rogers, “The Troublesome Helpmate:  A History of Misogyny in Literature,” http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/book-sum/rogers1.html#ch2 (accessed September 20, 2010).

[3] Alcuin Blamires,  The Case for Women in Medieval Culture (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1997)  92.

[4] Blamires,  The Case for Women, 234.

5 Marai Ratajzack, “Articles & Essays”, http://www.empirical-industries.com/muse/e/arraignment.html (accessed October 29, 2010).

6 Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, ed., The Polemics and Poems of Rachel Speght (Oxford, NY:  Oxford University Press, 1996), xv.

[7] Lewalski, The Polemics and Poems, xi-xiv.

[8] Blamires, The Case for Women, 236.  For more information on supporters of women’s education rights, see the section on Christine de Pizan.  Pizan is likely to have been the inspirational force behind Rachel Speght’s ideology on women’s education and the idea of equality for women.

[9] Lewalski, The Polemics and Poems, xx.

[10] Betty S. Travitsky and Patrick Cullen, eds.  The Early Modern Englishwoman:  A Facsimile Lilbrary of Essential Works Part 1:  Printed Writings, 1500-1640:  Rachel Speght, “A Mouzell for Melastomus” (1617) (England:  Scholar Press, 1996) 3.

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

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

[13] Lewalski, The Polemics and Poems, xiv.

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

[15] 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.

[16] Travitsky and Patrick Cullen.  The Early Modern Englishwoman, Rachel Speght, “A Mouzell for Melastomus,” 17.

17 Ratajzack, “Articles & Essays”.

18 Elizabethan Attitudes:  An Anthology, “Of Women, Marriage, and the Family” http://www.people.vcu.edu/~bgriffin/399/Elizabethan%20Attitudes.html (accessed October 23, 2010).

19 Lewalski, The Polemics and Poems, xvii.


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

Blamires, Alcuin.  The Case for Women in Medieval Culture. Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1997.

Elizabethan Attitudes:  An Anthology, “Of Women, Marriage, and the Family” http://www.people.vcu.edu/~bgriffin/399/Elizabethan%20Attitudes.html (accessed October 23, 2010).

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

Kelly, Joan.  Women, History, & Theory. Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer, ed. The Polemics and Poems of Rachel Speght.  Oxford, NY:  Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ratajzack, Marai.  Articles & Essays.  http://www.empirical-industries.com/muse/e/arraignment.html (accessed October 29, 2010).

Rogers, Katherine M.  The Troublesome Helpmate:  A History of Misogyny in Literature, http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/book-sum/rogers1.html#ch2 (accessed September 20, 2010).

Simoni, Anna E. C.   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.

“The Nature of  (Wo)men:  Gender and Controversy in 17th Century England,”  http://www.u.arizona.edu/~jcu/Lecture22_TheGenderWars.pdf (accessed October 31, 2010).

Travitsky, Betty S. and Patrick Cullen, eds.  The Early Modern Englishwoman:  A Facsimile Lilbrary of Essential Works Part 1:  Printed Writings, 1500-1640:  Rachel Speght, A Mouzell for Melastomus, (1617).  England:  Scholar Press, 1996.


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