Feminism in Literature Women's Literature in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries - Essay


(Feminism in Literature)

With the advent of print in Europe in the mid 1400s, literature began to garner a much larger audience. The most famous early book was the Gutenberg Bible of 1456, and twenty years later, William Caxton effectively originated print in England when he set up his press at Westminster. The trend toward literacy and the wider distribution of texts throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries significantly altered not only the intellectual landscape of Europe, but the role of women writers—as print made literature more widely available to the middle class and to middle-class women, the focus of literature changed significantly. Despite often being denied the educational opportunities afforded to men, far more women were able to express themselves in writing than before this period.

Much early writing, including that of female authors, was devotional in nature. Many women wrote prayers, translations of religious works originally in Latin, and other texts primarily centered on spirituality. Notable, and often autobiographical, religious works by authors such as Margery Kempe, were especially popular. The increasing availability of print gradually allowed literature to focus on more secular themes, and many women contributed to the body of literature by writing journals, essays, and letters. Initially a private genre, letters evolved from a basic form of communication into a significant public literary style. Epistolary writing by such authors as Margaret Cavendish and Mary Wortley Montagu elevated the style, contributing to the creation of the epistolary novel genre and to the development of fiction itself. These and other letters by women are currently studied not only for their social and historical commentary, but for their literary merits as well.

Nancy Cotton has traced the contributions of women playwrights to the fourteenth century, noting that the first known woman playwright in England, Katherine of Sutton, rewrote traditional liturgical plays between 1363 and 1376. Cotton credits the Countess of Pembroke, with her Antonie printed in 1592, as the first woman in England to publish a play. Angela J. Smallwood examines eighteenth-century British theater, and notes that the second half of the century was a "heyday of genteel comedy for female as well as male writers." A playwright as well as a novelist, Aphra Behn is known as the first woman to earn her living entirely from writing. Her novels, especially Oroonoko (1688) are widely studied to this day, as are the romantic works of Madeleine de Scudéry, and both authors were highly influential in the further development of literature. Women also participated heavily in the poetry of the era. As poetry writing changed from an act practiced by the aristocracy to one available to women of all classes, working-class women such as Ann Yearsley and Hannah More joined noble-women such as Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, as published poets. Women made significant contributions to a wide variety of literature and literary periods, from the rise of the periodical in the sixteenth century to the rise of literary criticism.

Modern analyses of women's literature from 1500 to 1800 investigate the effects of social, economic, and political conditions under which women lived, in addition to studying the literary merits of their works. For instance, Marion Wynne-Davies demonstrates how women's very lack of status and financial independence served as an important impetus to publish, since they recognized their literary skills as a means to earn money. Elaine Hobby contends that women were more suited than men to write religious meditations, due to the "specifically female advantages of abandoning the world," and its "concerns of state." Margaret J. M. Ezell explains that women's literature was historically neglected by scholars, except in the area of nineteenth-century novels, but that literary historians, particularly since the 1970s, have recovered many previously unknown texts and manuscripts. Isobel Grundy analyzes the many elements involved in recovering a particular text and explores why a text might have been suppressed in the past. The recovery of such texts enables the study of early female writers, and the critical study and popular appeal of these authors continues to grow.

Representative Works

(Feminism in Literature)

Abigail Adams

Letters of Mrs. Adams, The Wife of John Adams (letters) 1840

Elizabeth Ashbridge

Some Account of the Fore-Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge (autobiography) 1774

Anne Askew

The first examinacyon of the worthy servant of God, Mistresse Anne Askewe … lately martyred in Smith-fielde, by the Romish Antichristian Broode … with the elucydation of Johan Bale (personal narrative) 1546

The lattre examinacyon of the worthye servaunt of God mastres Anne Askewe (personal narrative) 1547

St. Teresa de Avila

El libro de su vida [The Life of the Mother Teresa of Jesus] 1562

El libra de las fundaciones de Santa Teresa de Jesús [The Book of the Foundations] 1576

El castillo interior, o las moradas [The Interior Castle; or, The Mansions] 1577

Mary Astell

A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest. By a Lover of Her Sex (essay) 1694

A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II. Wherin a Method is Offer'd for the Improvement of Their Minds (essay) 1697

Aphra Behn

Oroonoko; Or, The Royal Slave. A True History (novel) 1688

The Lady's Looking-Glass, to dress herself by; or, The Whole Art of Charming (novel) 1697


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Mary Rowlandson (Essay Date 1682)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Rowlandson, Mary. "Captivity, Sufferings, and Removes (1682)." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 21-26. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.

In the following excerpt from her 1682 book, Rowlandson relates her time spent as a captive of American Indians.

On the 10th of February, 1675, the Indians, in great numbers, came upon Lancaster. Their first coming was about sun-rising; hearing the noise of some guns, we looked out; several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven. There were five persons taken in one house, the...

(The entire section is 3978 words.)

Olympe De Gouges (Essay Date 1791)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: de Gouges, Olympe. "The Rights of Women." In Women in Revolutionary Paris 1789-1795: Selected Documents, edited and translated by Daline Gay Levy, Harriet Branson Applewhite, and Mary Durham Johnson, pp. 87-96. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1979.

In the following excerpt from her 1791 pamphlet addressed to the Queen, Marie Antoinette, de Gouges offers a declaration of women's rights.

Man, are you capable of being just? It is a woman who poses the question; you will not deprive her of that right at least. Tell me, what gives you sovereign empire to oppress my sex? Your strength? Your talents? Observe the Creator in...

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Nancy Cotton (Essay Date 1998)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Cotton, Nancy. "Women Playwrights in England: Renaissance Noblewomen." In Readings in Renaissance Women's Drama: Criticism, History, and Performance 1594-1998, edited by S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies, pp. 32-46. London: Routledge, 1998.

In the following essay, Cotton provides a history of England's early women playwrights.

The first recorded woman playwright in England was Katherine of Sutton, abbess of Barking nunnery in the fourteenth century. Between 1363 and 1376 the abbess rewrote the Easter dramatic offices because the people attending the paschal services were becoming increasingly cool in their...

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Marion Wynne-Davies (Essay Date 1998)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Wynne-Davies, Marion. Introduction to Women Poets of the Renaissance, edited by Marion Wynne-Davies, pp. xix-xxix. New York: Routledge, 1999.

In the following essay, originally published in 1998, Wynne-Davies provides an overview of female Renaissance poets, discusses their social positions, and examines their literary concerns.

And in oblivion bury me
And never more me name.

These words are taken from Isabella Whitney’s The Manner of Her Will . . . to London (lines 267-8), where she asks the city to bury her without show or ostentation. They could apply as succinctly to the body of her work as to her...

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Isobel Grundy (Essay Date 2000)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Grundy, Isobel. “(Re)discovering Women’s Texts.” In Women and Literature in Britain 1700-1800, edited by Vivien Jones, pp. 179-96. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

In the following essay, Grundy discusses the process of recovering women’s texts and by what standards the works should be judged.

Discovery has a bad name in the late twentieth century. The old idea that Columbus ‘discovered’ America is now recognised to be Eurocentric. America was there already, full of human societies whose rich experience had not included the knowledge of Europe. Electricity, too, was pulsing through the air and through...

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Margaret J. M. Ezell (Essay Date 2002)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Ezell, Margaret J. M. "Women and Writing." In A Companion to Early Modern Women's Writing, edited by Anita Pacheco, pp. 77-94. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

In the following essay, Ezell discusses the circumstances and motivations of numerous women writers.

But, why not women write, I pray?
Sarah Jinner, 'To the Reader', An Almanack or

Prognostication of Women (1658)

If this essay were being composed in the 1920s or 1930s the task would have been at once harder and simpler. It would have been harder in that the topic of early modern...

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Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)

Altaba-Artal, Dolors. "Theology to Humanism: Aphra Behn's 'The Young King; or, The Mistake'." In Aphra Behn's English Feminism: Wit and Satire, pp. 26-45. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1999.

Examines The Young King; or, The Mistake 's debt to the work of Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681).

Anthony, Katharine. First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1972, 258 p.

Biography of Mercy Otis Warren, a prominent patriot, pamphleteer, historian, and woman of letters during the American revolutionary period....

(The entire section is 853 words.)