Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"Feminist" Anne, Part II

A couple of weeks ago I started talking about Anne Bradstreet's "feminism" -- the assertions in her poetry of female capability and female equality. I started off with the question, "Was she a feminist?" Let's keep looking at that question.

There is no doubt that Bradstreet disagreed with some popular perceptions of women. In her time, women were seen as spiritually equal to men, but not physically or intellectually equal. So just as most women were not as physically strong as most men, seventeenth-century people argued that most women were not as intellectually strong as most men. Their grey matter just couldn't hack politics, or mathematics, or strenuous study. Women would go mad if they worked their noggins too much. That belief hung on until the nineteenth century. This perception of women's inferiority upstairs was reinforced by cultural norms (what was considered proper women's work, for instance, was invariably light on thinking powers), and lack of education.

Let's hear Anne sing it out one more time: "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue/Who says my hand a needle better fits; A poet's pen all scorn I should thus wrong/ For such despite they cast on female wits. /If what I prove do well, it won't advance; /They'll say it's stol'n, or else it was by chance."

Then there was this in her poem to Queen Elizabeth:
Now say, have women worth, or have they none?  
Or had they some, but with our Queen is't gone? 
 Nay Masculines, you have thus tax'd us long,  
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.  
Let such as say our sex is void of reason  
Know 'tis a slander now, but once was treason. 
Anne is saying, dissing women is a slander, but remember boys, when that powerful woman was on the throne, dissing her was treason. And indeed, during Elizabeth's reign educated women made some minor steps forward, but under her successors (when Anne was living), they were sliding backwards again.

Then there's this dramatic step: Anne Bradstreet was the first woman poet that we know of (in the English language) who took on the subjects of science, history and religion, and who pursued these themes systematically and wrote long odes about them in the tradition of the time -- and then had her work put in print. No English woman had done this before. Women had written books and published poetry, but Anne's "Tenth Muse" was the first (as far as we can tell) that tackled such traditionally "male" sorts of topics.

So here's Anne, shaking her fist at male superiority. Her book of poems was being circulated and sold. She's living in Puritan Massachusetts, under a government and a people that believed that the men should lead and women should be good wives and mothers. So what happened to Anne? Did she get kicked out? Did they call her a witch? Did they put her in stocks with a sign over her head that said, "carping tongue?"

Next time we will pick up the story there.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe another descriptor for Anne Bradstreet besides "Feminist" could be....
    "Mover and Shaker!" Go Anne go!