Rachel Speght Introduction

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Rachel Speght 1597?-1630?

English pamphleteer and poet.

After three and a half centuries of literary neglect, the writings of Rachel Speght have begun to receive critical attention for their historical value as some of the earliest works by an English female author that defended the nature and rights of women. Writing in an age in which there were few women authors, Speght published a pamphlet entitled A Muzzle for Melastomus (1617) that argued that those who considered women evil or inferior by nature blasphemed God, since Scripture showed that woman was created as an equal partner to man. Although little is known about how Speght's argument was received in its own day, scholars today regard the pamphlet as the first non-pseudonymous writing by a woman in the Jacobean era that took part in the long-standing debate about the spiritual and worldly nature of women. Speght's only other published work, Mortalities Memorandum, with a Dreame Prefixed (1621), offered two long poems affirming that women had both the natural ability and the same rights as men to pursue education and offer spiritual lessons to mankind. While some critics have stopped short of labeling Speght an early feminist, nearly all agree that Speght's writing displays a personal courage and commitment to women's equality in matters of education and salvation that has few predecessors in English literature.

Biographical Information

Very little is known for certain about Speght's life. An anonymous poem included in A Muzzle for Melastomus mentions that Speght wrote the pamphlet before she was twenty; therefore, 1597 has usually been considered the most likely year of her birth. Speght was the daughter of a middle-class London clergyman and rector, James Speght, who published two sermons that displayed his Calvinist convictions. Almost nothing is known about Speght's mother except that her death was one of the reasons Speght began work on her Mortalities Memorandum, which was then dedicated to Mary Moundford, Speght's godmother and the wife of a well-known London physician. Both of Speght's literary efforts display familiarity with Latin, biblical exegesis, and classical, philosophical, and poetic literature, suggesting that even if Speght's education was informal, it was unusually advanced for a woman of her time. It is a matter of conjecture, too, why Speght withdrew from the public arena after the publication of Mortalities Memorandum, but the most likely explanation is that her marriage to William Proctor in August 1621 forced her into a life of domesticity that precluded writing. No record of her death survives, although she probably died sometime around 1630.

Major Works

Speght's 1617 pamphlet A Muzzle for Melastomus was written as a direct response to Joseph Swetnam's popular 1615 anti-female diatribe, The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women, which, as the title suggests, condemns women as immoral, weak, and responsible for the entrance of evil in the world. Although Swetnam's pamphlet would elicit numerous responses, including some claiming to be written by women authors, Speght's refutation was the earliest as well as the first to use its female author's real name. Taking on Swetnam's anecdotes, jibes, and insults point by point, Speght belittles the author's logic and his ability to understand Scripture. Using numerous biblical examples of her own, Speght argues that God created woman as an equal to man, that marriage is a union predicated on partnership, and that, although woman is indeed the “weaker vessel,” her weakness is purely physical. Swetnam, Speght's pamphlet makes clear, blasphemed God by denying women the role for which they were divinely created and the humanity to which they are entitled.

In 1621 Speght published Mortalities Memorandum, with a Dreame Prefixed, two long poems written in iambic pentameter divided into 176 six-line stanzas. Speght's motivation for writing the poems was twofold. First, she wished to prove that she, and not her...

(The entire section is 1,264 words.)