The End of the Evil Woman: A History of Mysognony
Women - evil? Who could think it? But it was true. Negative stereotyping of women began well before the birth of Christ. Temptresses. Manipulators. The Greek poet Hesiod flouted women with the myth of Pandora’s box. Pandora opened the lid allowing treachery and pestilence on mankind. The story of Eve was no less damaging. Eve, that unconscionable sinner, caused the fall of man by eating the apple. But was her ‘sin’ twisted into a plot that just continued the oppression of women? After all, wasn't that sneaky serpent the true culprit?
Sixteenth and seventeenth century England was a controversial period for women. Morality, intellectual capability, and social status were heavily debated in Renaissance literature and drama. Women had long been viewed solely as domestic beings without any intellectual or political value. The law clearly placed women in a position inferior to man. It was even debated whether women had souls! It seems unthinkable today, but it is an historical fact.
Still having trouble believing it? Edward Gosynhill wrote The Schoolhouse in the 1500's, a list of poetic offenses committed by women as follows:
Been evil to please and worse to trust, Crabbed and cumbrous when themself lust. Have tongue at large, voice loud and shrill... With one bare word or little more, They flush and flame, as hot as fire, And swell as a toad for fervent ire
Ouch! Sounds like several women all rolled into one. Surely that’s not the work of ONE woman. Could it be that Gosynhill was jaded?
William Shakespeare: A Misogynist?
Unfortunately, Shakespeare fell prey to misogyny as well. In his sonnet The Dark Lady, the character Stella exemplifies the evil woman. In Hamlet, Hamlet falsely accuses Ophelia of infidelity, ostracizes her use of cosmetics, and eventually drives her mad. Again, in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s male character falsely accuses the female, Paulina (who by her actions, shows she is anything but a shrew ).
However, to his credit, Shakespeare’s works actually began to advocate the plight of women to choose their own husbands. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing examined a witty woman breaking the ties associated with Renaissance stereotyping. Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well uses wit and cunning to win a husband. Portia in The Merchant of Venice had acclaimed wealth signifying the dawn of feminism.
Perhaps Shakespeare playing both sides of the field? These plays ebbed back and forth, rather than demonstrated a chronological change in ideology favoring the plight of women.
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The Pamphlet Wars
The first feminist response to misogyny is credited to Christine de Pisan in France in 1399. Imagine how bold she must’ve been. And many believe she served as the provocation for much of Britain’s feminist responses. But it was not until the late 1600's - early 1700's that an unprecedented literary offense against women began, and hence, their defensive responses. This debate was referred to as the "pamphlet wars." And this lesson in misogyny indicates, the war against women and their defense of themselves was global.
The first English responses began in 1578 with the writings of Margaret Tyler. She was thought to be a Roman Catholic servant in an aristocratic household. She argued that women were just as capable of translating texts as were men. During the later part of Queen Elizabeth’s rule, came the most well known English defense of women when Jane Anger wrote Protection for Women. Anger vehemently accused men of having wayward tongues, egos which control them and require flattery, and further accused them of being full of false promises. Why the audacity of a woman to make such a claim! (Now, you men don't go and get thin skin on us!)
Notably also, Rachel Speght wrote a "pamphlet war" response to a work entitled The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women. The Arraignment viciously discredited women for "leading a proud, lazy, and idle life," nothing more than a Queen Bee, and accused them of being "crooked by nature." Speght’s response to Swetnam –
"This I allege as a paradigmatical pattern for all women, noble and ignoble, to follow, that they be not inflamed with choler against this our enraged adversary, but patiently consider of him according to the portraiture which he hath drawn of himself, his Writings being the very emblem of a monster".
Elizabeth Tanfield Carey revolutionized the future of education for women. She taught herself numerous languages, philosophy, history, and mathematics. She read "incessantly" and by the age of 17, she had written The Tragedy of Mariam (which of course, advocated equal rights.) Mary Tattlewell (Taylor) raised the issue of equality as wel in The Women’s Sharp Revenge. She argued that female exclusion from colleges was intended to perpetuate male dominance over females.
The Two-Edged Sword of Humanism
Humanists were both friend and foe to women of the Renaissance. Humanists argued for the importance of women getting an education during the 17th century, an era where 90% of London's females were unable to sign their names and were not allowed to obtain a college education. However, it was also humanists that tailored the curriculum for women to include social graces, chastity and obedience, singing, playing an instrument, and what we would refer to today as ‘home economics.’
The Future is Bright
Thankfully, over time, Renaissance writers began to question the rank and merit given to women and the outcome was the intellectual and social emancipation of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. But before that -- it was largely ignored that Eve’s role was actually one of vulnerability and Renaissance minds did not inquire about the serpent’s gender.
No doubt, women have come a long way since an era of global misogyny and oppression. The feminist movements we are most familiar with, however - those of the 19th and 20th centuries, have been civil and mild in manner compared to the phamplet wars and uprisings of preceding centuries. Law has eliminated much of the oppression. Susan B. Anthony voted in 1871, and although she was arrested, tried, and convicted, the outcome was a lasting test of women's rights to citizenship. Sex was added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Pay Act was passed in the 1960's. Women have "put their foot down," and made a lasting impression in a global society.
Make no mistake, there have been contemporary punches thrown. The song "Evil Woman" by the band Electric Light Orchestra in 1975 says,
"You destroyed all the virtues that the Lord gave you. It's so good that you're feelin' pain."
But by and large, women are now authors, lawyers, teachers, preachers, and still manage to be domesticated (mothers) too. Some women are electing to bear children, not only out of wedlock, but out of a test tube and earn their own livings all the while. What would Gosynhill think if he heard the term "stay at home father?" What would Shakespeare’s version of a test tube upbringing depict? It’s fun food for thought. But only because some very courageous women of centuries past paved the way for the women of today.
Alas, the end of the evil woman ... except for a few archaic minds!
Sources and Recommended Reading:
Benson, Pamela J. The Invention of the Renaissance Woman. University Park: Penn. State Univ. Press, 1992.
Blodgett, Harriet. Centuries of Female Days. New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1988.
Cerasano, S.P. and Marion Wynne-Davies. Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents. Editors. London: Routledge, 1996.
Davis, Natalie Z. and Arlette Farge. Editors. A History of Women: Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes. London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993.
Ferguson, Moira. First Feminists: British Women Writers 1578-1799. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1985.
Henderson, Katherine and Barbara F. McManus. Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640. Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1985.
Otten, Charlotte F. Editor. English Women’s Voices: 1540-1700. Miami: Florida Int’l. Univ. Press, 1991.
Springer, Marlene. Ed. What Manner of Woman: Essays on English and American Life and Literature. New York: New York Univ. Press, 1977.
Woodbridge, Linda. Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620. Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984.