What does Swift mean when he refers to women as breeders in "A Modest Proposal"?

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Kristen Lentz | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Diction is a key element in Jonathan Swift's satirical essay "A Modest Proposal."  The speaker of the essay proposes that a possible solution to over-crowding and poverty would be to 'harvest' the excess children of poorer families and use them for food.  In the context of the essay, Swift refers to the potentially pregnant women as "breeders," his diction naturally reinforcing his persuasive stance that women could be used as breeding livestock.  Swift's diction in this essay remains carefully neutral with a scientific, impartial tone; by using terms like "breeders," the speaker neutralizes or removes the human element from the argument, making the discussion seem like it is more about livestock than actual human beings. 

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sciftw | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The first thing to remember about Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is that it is a satire.  He doesn't actually mean what he writes.  Or least that's what all of my teachers told me.  I suppose he could be serious.  But that's gross. He is using the seriousness of the piece to point out logical errors and existing problems.  The term "breeders" is an important word choice because it dehumanizes women.  It turns them into nothing more than standard livestock.  The main problem that Swift is addressing is the problem of starvation, so Swift proposes a new food source.  That food source is children.  That's right, people should eat kids.  If children become the new food source, then women become the new producers of the food source, and a new industry is born.  Women would no longer be life long companions of men in a married relationship.  Women would exist to breed in order to keep the nation fed.  By referring to women this way, Swift scientifically eliminates women's humanity and turns them into a commodity to be bought, sold, and used for a singular purpose.  

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