Saturday, 29 June 2013

Sabbatical Blog 3: Female Writers: Fighting Against Religious Ideology

by Bryony Hart

I have become entrenched in some fascinating books about female rights (or the lack of), written either at the end of the seventeenth century or the beginning of the eighteenth century.  I already knew that women were writing prolifically about and publishing their experiences, mostly about courtship and marriage, in fictional form, but I had no idea that entire non-fiction books were being published, as early as 1673, about the inequalities between men and women.  In fact, men were also writing about it, which shows that it was certainly a topic that was being publically debated  It is amazing how this seems to have been written-out/forgotten through the years.  And my most recent reading has shed light on the fact that by 1700 this challenging and threatening female voice starts a gradual decline into obscurity. 

One of the books that I have been examining is The Female Advocate: or; an Satyr Against the Pride, Lust and Inconstancy, & C. of Woman by ‘A Lady in Vindication of her Sex’ (1), Sarah Fyge, all written rhyming couplets.  It was written in reaction to a satire written by a man (which I am still searching for) about the poor virtues of women, which are inherent in every female as soon as she is born. Obviously, one can not completely trust that it was written by a woman; men were regularly writing under the disguise of women because women’s works were selling so well (another fact that perhaps is not common knowledge to all) and it was often an easier method of instilling patriarchal morality into the female readership.  However, if one trusts that this is a ‘Lady’, and in fact Sarah Fyge, it is impressive and rather dangerous reading. If it is a male writer, even more interesting that he should be conveying such potentially risky ideas about the power imbalance between the genders.

As I have mentioned before, the basis for male superiority was founded on religion, namely Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.  It was part of the gender discourse of the time and is referred to as the main argument in countless texts that I have read thus far from this period.  In The Female Advocate, the writer bravely questions this foundation) and she is not alone in her questioning of the basis of male superiority).  In her Preface, she writes ‘According to my Antagonist’s Preface Fancy […] all Men are good, and fitting for Heaven because they are Men; and Women irreversibly damn’d because they are Women.  But what that Heaven should make a Male and Female, both of the same Species, and both induced with the like Rational Souls, for two such differing Ends, is the most notorious Principle, and the most unlikely of any that even was maintained by any Rational Man.’ This is a daring move to question Religion in this way but Fyge cleverly buffers her response using the Bible as her source to support her argument.  This is a technique that I have noticed being used by a number of writers; using the text that is constraining to actually start the process of liberation and equality. 

The writer’s main thrust of argument challenges the way in which the Bible has been interpreted as a way of repressing women and empowering man.  She turns the conventional reading of Eve being created from a ‘spare part’ to keep Adam company on its head; being made after him Eve has always been perceived as inherently inferior and therefore the ultimate after-thought. However, rather amusingly, and a little bit perilously, the writer states that:

Heaven survey's the Works that it had done,
Saw Male and Female, but found Man alone,
A barren Sex and insignificant;
So Heaven made Woman to supply the want,
And to make perfect what before was scant:
The surely she a Noble Creature is,
Woman Heaven thus made to consummate all Bliss (p. 2)
Here she argues that without Woman, Man is ‘a barren Sex’ and therefore useless in terms of procreation.  It takes the power of a Woman to ‘consummate all Bliss’ to enable the human race to multiply.  She takes her argument even further by suggesting that ‘Man was form’d out of dull senseless Earth/ But Woman she had a far nobler Birth’ [p. 2]. Clearly, there are problems with this argument that can not be ignored.  The writer completely subverts the gender-imbalance discourse so that it favours women over men rather than striving for equality – one could argue that her theory is no better than the patriarchal ideology that was using the Bible as a force of female repression.  The crux of modern feminist discourse is the battle for equality and fairness in all aspects of life, and this particular view does not sit particularly happily with the arguments being made in The Female Advocate because it is suggesting that women are superior to men.  But, in light of the female position at this point in history, one can see that this is an early form of feminism in that it questions the validity and authority of male dominance using the very narrative that has been used to repress and restrict women.  For feminists of this era, they ‘denied both Eve’s natural inferiority and her sole responsibility for the fall.  Eve was created ‘a wife and friend, but not as a slave’ for Man (2).

Nonetheless, there is a moment of balance reached in Fyge’s argument. She poses the question, ‘for both one Maker had/ Which made all good; then how could Eve be bad?’ [p. 2] If God has created both Adam and Eve, and all that God creates is good, how can Eve be demonised in the way that she has?  This language of demonization is later referenced when she says, ‘You do describe a woman so that one/ Would almost think she has the Fiends outdone’ [p. 14].  It is a valid question that undermines the main thrust of argument that keeps women apologetic (and therefore submissive) for their original sin.  She pushes this idea even further by saying, ‘But you’d persuade us, this ‘tis we alone/ Are guilty of all crimes and you have none,/ Unless some few, which you call fools, (who be/ Espous’d to Wives, and live in chastity)’ [p. 10].  As a female writer, Fyge would have experienced directly this demonization and persecution for being a published writer (interestingly, she does not put her name to The Female Advocate – another example of the persecution these women felt).  It was generally believed that ‘a woman prepared to make her writing public would be prepared to expose herself in other ways: that a woman writer was almost by definition sexually immoral.’(3)

What I love most about this text is the way in which the writer questions why all women should be wed – surely rocking the foundations of the religious ideology that ensured female subservience to husbands. Her argument about the interpretation of the Bible is a start in the fight against gender inequality but is ultimately flawed by our modern standards – nonetheless, it does make sense that the discourse that is being used to control women is challenged and questioned in the first instance.  However, what is more fascinating, and perhaps more provoking, is the following:

            For I love Liberty,
            Nor do I think there a necessity,
            For all to enter Beds, like Noah’s beast
            Into his Ark; I would have some releast
            From the dear cares of that lawful state:
            Hold I’ll not dictate, I’ll leave all Fate.’ [p. 11]

It is clearly a dangerous reflection; she quickly concludes this brief reference to ‘Liberty’ and a life not defined as ‘wife’ with ‘Hold I’ll not dictate’.  She is eager to not to appear too forceful on this point, which is unusual because of the sheer gusto that is apparent in her other arguments, and puts a self-imposed stop to her point.  What is most interesting here is that she acknowledges that from liberty of marriage comes freedom and time to think and observe the world (‘Only I do think it best/ For those who love to contemplate at rest,/ for to live single too, and then they may/ Uninterrupted, Natures Work survey’ [p. 11]).  For some women, it would be better for them to be contemplative, to use their brains and be educated (another one of the major arguments in the feminist discourse of the ear), rather than be shackled by marriage.  As mentioned before, marriage removed all legal power from the woman and, in contrast, a single woman remained more powerful in legal terms (clearly she was demonized by society for being an aging spinster).  Perhaps the reason for this tentative and brief comment about liberty is that this is her ultimate goal – freedom from marriage and from the control of man.  It is a dangerous goal and she appears to be testing to water. 

This text is not alone in its fight for equality and liberation – many of these arguments were made well before the 1700s, and from what I have read thus far the increasing legal control over drama, one of the major outlets for female writers, deterred women from writing.  If you were a popular and well-published female writer you were undoubtedly a whore, and this argument is one that seems to become stronger as the 18th century continues.  As Pearson succinctly reminds us, ‘The pun on ‘pen’ and ‘penis’ was one which the age took seriously: ‘a pen in the hand of a woman is … an instrument of propagation.(4)

(1)The Female Advocate: or; an Satyr Against the Pride, Lust and Inconstancy, & C. of Woman (London: H.C. for John Taylor, at the Globe in St Paul’s Church Year, 1686).
[2] Jacqueline Pearson, The Prostituted Muse: Images of Women and Women Dramatists 1642-1737 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1988), p. 2.
[3] Pearson, p. 9.
[4]Pearson, p. 10.

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