Mary Collier 1688?-1762
Collier, the first working-class woman poet to be published in England, is best known for her 1739 poem “The Woman's Labour.” The work is a response to a work by another working-class poet, Stephen Duck, who criticized what he saw as the laziness of women working in the fields. Collier's poem, describing the back-breaking labor by, and exploitation of, female workers, is one of the first feminist critiques in English literature. Collier's literary output was small, and she has remained largely unknown since her own day. However, because of the insight “The Woman's Labour” provides into eighteenth-century working conditions, women's economic status during the period, and questions of gender and authorship, her work is of interest to students of history as well as to literary critics.
The few details known of Collier's life come from her autobiographical preface to her 1762 Poems, on Several Occasions, which indicates that she was born in Midhurst in Sussex, the child of poor parents who taught her to read when she was very young. Collier was unable to attend school because she had to work to help support the family, particularly after her mother died and she was left with the care of her ailing father. After her father's death, Collier moved to Petersfield, where she worked as a washerwoman until the age of sixty-three. Her life as a laboring woman was a hard one. Reading was her main recreation, and she earned a reputation among her employers as something of a curiosity because of her intelligence. Collier managed a farmhouse in the town of Alton before retiring at age seventy. She never married and apparently lived alone until her death in 1762.
Collier's most important poem is “The Woman's Labour,” which she wrote in response to Stephen Duck's poem The Thresher's Labour. In his poem, Duck, himself a thresher, criticized laboring women for their idleness and garrulity. Collier explains in her autobiographical preface that Duck's poem infuriated her because it failed to take women's work seriously. Collier's poem describes the double shifts of wage labor, home- and field-work, and work in others' homes that make up the life of the rural working woman. Because of their toil in the fields, as domestics, and as care-givers, they have little time for rest, she explains, and even less to reflect or to dream. Collier also decries the exploitation of domestic labor and the perils of seasonal work. The Woman's Labour, the volume in which the poem appears, also contains other poems that touch on feminist themes, but “The Woman's Labour” is Collier's only sustained critique of the patriarchal social structure. Her other collection, Poems, On Several Occasions, contains an elegy on Duck, a celebration of King George III's marriage, and a reply to one who doubted her authorship of “The Woman's Labour.” In the last poem she argues for women's education, which she regards as an equalizer of the sexes.
The Woman's Labour was published by Collier at her own expense, which was not insignificant for a woman of her economic background. The volume went through three editions and included statements attesting to Collier's authenticity as a laboring-class poet. The work apparently brought Collier some local renown, and the “Advertisement” to Poems, on Several Occasions indicates that she had a strong local following until her death. Collier remained all but unknown until the mid-1980s; since that time scholars have analyzed her work and pointed out her importance as an early feminist. They have noted too that her distinctive position and voice challenge the ideas and assumptions of the dominant literary culture of the eighteenth century.