“Engraving of Charles II of England and Queen Catherine of Braganza,” by unknown artist. Wikimedia Commons.
What is a woman’s place in the world? By the dawn of the English Renaissance, male writers had been questioning and defining women’s worth for centuries. It is only in this period, however, that women writers emerge to address the subject as well. The result was often polemical prose arguing either for women’s superiority to men or their utter worthlessness before them. This occurred in the context of the “pamphlet wars” where the advent of the printing press, along with the lack of copyright laws, made protracted argumentative discourse possible and common. It has been said that over 2,000 pamphlets were published between 1600-1715 and these “wars” were said to have spurred important social movements including the Protestant Reformation and the Revolution Controversy (a set of debates about the merits of the French Revolution).
Joseph Swetnam’s Arraignment, excerpted below, set off its own pamphlet war between 1615-1620 which included four reissues of his book and at least eight related works or rejoinders; the first of these was the response by nineteen-year-old Rachel Speght in her tract, A Muzzle for Melastomus (Black Mouth) making her the first Englishwoman to critique gender ideology.
Another popular prose form, treatises on the management of households, also surfaced during this time. These publications advised married men on how to “govern” the home and their wives. The Protestant Reformation forever changed perceptions of family life; while Catholics had extolled celibacy as the ideal state, Protestants centered “holiness” in the marriage between man and woman, and the children raised within this institution. For this reason, writers like William Gouge, excerpted below, argued on the importance of love between married partners and rejected the “double standard” of fidelity—stating that both husbands and wives must be sexually faithful to one another. He sees marriage as a hierarchy with husbands as the head of household and women duty-bound to submit to this authority as part of their religious devotion.
From The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women
INTRODUCTION. If you mean to see the Bear-baiting of women, then trudge to this Bear garden apace and get in betimes. And view every room where you may best sit for your own pleasure, profit, and heart’s-ease, and bear with my rudeness if I chance to offend you. But before I do open this trunk full of torments against women, I think it were not amiss to resemble those which in old time did sacrifices to Hercules. For they used first to whip all their Dogs out of their City, and I think it were not amiss to drive all the women out of my hearing. For doubt lest this little spark kindle into such a flame and raise so many stinging Hornets humming about my ears that all the wit I have will not quench the one nor quiet the other. For I fear me that I have set down more than they will like of, and yet a great deal less than they deserve. And for better proof I refer myself to the judgment of men which have more experience than myself, for I esteem little of the malice of women. For men will be persuaded with reason, but women must be answered with silence. For I know women will bark more at me than Cerberus, the two-headed Dog, did at Hercules when he came into Hell to fetch out the fair Proserpina.
* * *
CHAPTER I. This first Chapter shows to what use Women were made; it also shows that most of them degenerate from the use they were framed unto by leading a proud, lazy, and idle life, to the great hindrance of their poor Husbands.
Moses describes a woman thus: “At the first beginning,” saith he, “a woman was made to be a helper unto man.” And so they are indeed, for she helps to spend and consume that which man painfully gets. He also saith that they were made of the rib of a man, and that their froward nature shows; for a rib is a crooked thing good for nothing else, and women are crooked by nature, for small occasion will cause them to be angry.
Again, in a manner she was no sooner made but straightway her mind was set upon mischief, for by her aspiring mind and wanton will she quickly procured man’s fall. And therefore ever since they are and have been a woe unto man and follow the line of their first leader.
For I pray you, let us consider the times past with the time present: first, that of David and Solomon, if they had occasion so many hundred years ago to exclaim so bitterly against women. For the one of them said that it was better to be a doorkeeper and better dwell in a den amongst Lions than to be in the house with a froward and wicked woman, and the other said that the climbing up of a sandy hill to an aged man was nothing so wearisome as to be troubled with a froward woman. And further he saith that the malice of a beast is not like the malice of a wicked woman, nor that there is nothing more dangerous than a woman in her fury.
The Lion being bitten with hunger, the Bear being robbed of her young ones, the Viper being trod on, all these are nothing so terrible as the fury of a woman. A Buck may be enclosed in a Park; a bridle rules a horse; a Wolf may be tied; a Tiger may be tamed; but a froward woman will never be tamed. No spur will make her go, nor no bridle will hold her back, for if a woman hold an opinion, no man can draw her from it. Tell her of her fault, she will not believe that she is in any fault; give her good counsel, but she will not take it. If you do but look after another woman, then she will be jealous; the more you love her, the more she will disdain you. And if you threaten her, then she will be angry; flatter her, and then she will be proud. And if you forbear her, it makes her bold, and if you chasten her, then she will turn to a Serpent. At a word, a woman will never forget an injury nor give thanks for a good turn. What wise man then will exchange gold for dross, pleasure for pain, a quiet life for wrangling brawls, from the which the married men are never free?
* * *
If you marry a woman of evil report, her discredit will be a spot in your brow; you can not go in the street with her without mocks, nor amongst your neighbors without frumps, and commonly the fairest women are soonest enticed to yield unto vanity. He that has a fair wife and a whetstone every one will be whetting thereon; and a Castle is hard to keep when it is assaulted by many; and fair women are commonly caught at. He that marries a fair woman everyone will wish his death to enjoy her, and if you be never so rich and yet but a Clown in condition, then will your fair wife have her credit to please her fancy. For a Diamond has not his grace but in gold; no more has a fair woman her full commendations but in the ornament of her bravery, by which means there are divers women whose beauty has brought their husbands into great poverty and discredit by their pride and whoredom. A fair woman commonly will go like a Peacock, and her husband must go like a woodcock.
From A Muzzle for Melastomus
From standing water, which soon putrifies, can no good fish be expected, for it produces no other creatures but those that are venomous or noisome, as snakes, adders, and such like. Semblably, no better stream can we look, should issue from your idle corrupt brain, then that whereto the ruffe of your fury (to use your own words) has moved you to open the sluice. In which excrement of your roving cogitations you have used such irregularities touching concordance, and observed so disordered a method, as I doubt not to tell you, that a very accidence scholar would have quite put you down in both. You appear herein not unlike that Painter, who seriously endeavored to portray Cupids Bowe, forgot the string: for you, being greedy to botch up your mingle mangle invective against Women; have not therein observed, in many places, so much as a grammar sense. But the emptiest barrel makes the lowdest sound; and so we will account of you.
Many propositions haue you framed, which (as you thinke) make much against Women, but if one would make a Logical assumption, the conclusion would be flat against your own Sex. Your dealing wants so much discretion, that I doubt whether to bestow so good a name as the Dunce upon you: but Minoricy bids me keep within my bounds; and therefore I only say unto you, that your corrupt Heart and railing tongue, has made you a fit scribe for the Devil.
In that you have termed your virulent foam, the Beare-bayting of Women, you have plainly displayed your own disposition to be cynical, in that there appears no other dog or bull to baite them, but yourself. Good had it been for you to have put on that Muzzell, which Saint Lance would have all Christians to wear; Speake not evil one of another: and then had you not seemed so like the Serpent Porphirus, as now you doo, which, though full of deadly poison, yet being toothless, hurts none so much as himself. For you having gone beyond the limits not of Humanity alone, but of Christianity, have done greater harm unto your own soul, then unto women, as may plainly appear. First, in dishonoring of God by palpable blasphemy, wresting and perverting every place of Scripture, that you have alledged; which by the testimony of Saint Peter, is to the destruction of them that so do. Secondly, it appeares by your disparaging of, and opprobrious speeches against that excellent worke of Gods hands, which in his great love he perfected for the comfort of man. Thirdly, and lastly, by this your hodge-podge of heathenish Sentences, Similies, and Examples, you have set forth yourself in your right colors, unto the view of the world: and I doubt not but the judicious will account of you according to your demerit: As for the Vulgar sort, which have no more learning then you have shewed in your Book, it is likely they will applaud you for your pains.
* * *
Of Womans Excellency, with the causes of her
creation, and of the sympathie which ought to
be in man and wife each toward other.
True it is (as is already confessed) that woman first sinned, yet find wee no mention of spiritual nakedness till man had sinned; then it is said, Their eyes were opened, the eyes of their mind and conscience; and then perceived they themselves naked, that is, not only bereft of that integrity, which they originally had, but felt the rebellion & disobedience of their members in the disordered motions of their now corrupt nature, which made them for shame to cover their nakedness: then (and not afore) it is said that they saw it as if sin were imperfect, and unable to bring a deprivation of a blessing received, or death on all mankind, till man (in whom lay the active power of generation) had transgressed. The offense therefore of Adam and Eve is by Saint Austin thus distinguished, the man sinned against God and himself, the woman against God, herself, and her husband: yet in her giving of the fruit to eat had she no malicious intent towards him, but did therein shew a desire to make her husband partaker of that happiness, which she thought by their eating they should both have enjoyed. Thus her giving Adam of that sauce, wherewith Satan had served her, whose sourness before he had eaten, she did not perceive, was that which made her sin to exceed his. Wherefore, that she might not of him, who ought to honor her, be abhorred, the first promise that was made in Paradise, God makes to woman, that by her Seed should the Serpents head be broken: whereupon Adam calls her Hevah, life, that as the woman had been an occasion of his sin, so should she bring forth the Savior from sin, which was in the fullness of time accomplished; by which was manifested, that he is a Savior of believing women, no less then of men, that so the blame of sin may not be imputed to his creature, which is good; but to the will by which Eve sinned, and yet by Christs assuming the shape of man was it declared, that his mercy was equivalent to both Sexes; so that by [Hevahs] blessed Seed (as Saint Paul affirms) it is brought to passe, that male and female are all one in Christ Jesus.
* * *
First, the efficient cause of women’s creation which was was Iehouah the Eternal; the truth of which is manifest in Moses his narration of the six days works, where he says, God created them male and female: And David exhorting all the earth to sing unto the Lord; meaning, by a Metonymy, earth, all creatures that live on the earth, of what nation or Sex soever, gives this reason, For the Lord hath made vs.That work then can not choose but be good, yea very good, which is wrought by so excellent a workeman as the Lord: for he being a glorious Creator, must needs effect a worthy creature….
Secondly, the material cause, or matter whereof woman was made, was of a refined mold, if I may so speak: for man was created of the dust of the earth, but woman was made of a part of man, after that he was a living soul: yet was she not produced from Adams foot, to be his too low inferior; nor from his head to be his superior, but from his side, near his heart, to be his equal; that where he is Lord, she may be Lady: and therefore saith God concerning man and woman jointly, Let them rule over the fish of the Sea, and over the fowls of the Heaven, and over every beast that moves upon the earth: By which words, he makes their authority equal, and all creatures to be in subjection unto them both….
Thirdly, the formal cause, fashion, and proportion of woman was excellent: For she was neither like the beasts of the earth, fowles of the ayre, fishes of the Sea, or any other inferior creature, but Man was the only object, which she did resemble. For as God gaue man a lofty countenance, that hee might look up toward Heaven, so did he likewise give unto woman. And as the temperature of mans body is excellent, so is womans. For whereas other Creatures, by reason of their gross humours, have excrements for their habit, as fowles, their feathers, beasts, their hair, fishes, their scales, man and woman only, have their skin clear and smooth. And (that more is) in the Image of God were they both created; yea and to be brief, all the parts of their bodies, both external and internal, were correspondent and meet each for other.
Fourthly and lastly, the final cause, or end, for which woman was made, was to glorify God, and so be a collateral companion for man to glorify God, in using her body, and all the parts, powers, and faculties thereof, as instruments for his honour.
* * *
To the Reader. Although (courteous Reader) I am young in years, and more defective in knowledge, that little smattering in Learning, which I have obtained, being only the fruit of such vacant houres, as I could spare from affairs befitting my Sex, yet I am not altogether ignorant of that analogy which ought to be used in a literate Responsory. But the Beare bayting of Women, unto which I have framed my apologetical answer, being altogether without method, irregular, without grammatical concordance, and a promiscuous mingle mangle, it would admit no such order to be\ observed in the answering thereof, as a regular responsory requires.
From Of Domestical Duties
2. Of a wife’s subjection in general.
The first point to be handled in the treatise of wives’ particular duties is the general matter of all [subjection] under which all other particulars are comprised, for it hath as large an extent as that honour which is required in the first commandment, being applied to wives. When first the Lord declared unto the woman her duty, he set it down under this phrase. Thy desire shall be subject to thine husband (Gen 3:16).
Objection. That was a punishment inflicted on her for her transgression?
Answer. And a law too, for trial of her obedience, which if it be not observed, her nature will be more depraved, and her fault more increased. Besides, we cannot but think that the woman was made before the fall, that the man might rule over her. Upon this ground the Prophets and Apostles have oft urged the same. Sarah is commended for this, that she was subject to her husband (1 Peter 3:6). Hereby the Holy Ghost would teach wives, that subjection ought to be as salt to season every duty which they perform to their husband. Their very opinion, affection, speech, action, and all that concerneth the husband, must savour of subjection. Contrary is the disposition of many wives, whom ambition hath tainted and corrupted within and without: they cannot endure to hear of subjection: they imagine that they are made slaves thereby. But I hope partly by that which hath been before delivered concerning those common duties which man and wife do mutually owe each to other, and partly by the particulars which under this general are comprised, but most especially by the duties which the husband in particular oweth to his wife, it will evidently appear, that this subjection is no servitude. But were it more than it is, seeing God requireth subjection of a wife to her husband, the wife is bound to yield it. And good reason it is that she who first drew man into sin, should be now subject to him, lest by the like womanish weakness she fall again.
3. Of an husband’s superiority over a wife, to be acknowledged by the wife.
The subjection which is required of a wife to her husband implieth two things:
1. That she acknowledge her husband to be her superiour.
2. That she respect him as her superiour.
That acknowledgement of the husband’s superiority is twofold:
1. General of any husband.
2. Particular of her own husband.
The general is the ground of the particular: for till a wife be informed that an husband, by virtue of his place, is his wife’s superiour, she will not be persuaded that her own husband is above her, or hath any authority over her.
First therefore concerning the general, I will lay down some evident and undeniable proofs, to show that an husband is his wife’s superiour, and hath authority over her. The proofs are these following:
1. God of whom, the powers that be ordained, are (Rom 13:1), hath power to place his image in whom he will, and to whom God giveth superiority and authority, the same ought to be acknowledged to be due unto them. But God said of the man to the woman, he shall rule over thee (Gen 3:16).
2. Nature hath placed an eminency in the male over the female: so as where they are linked together in one yoke, it is given by nature that he should govern, she obey. This did the heathen by light of nature observe.
3. The titles and names, whereby an husband is set forth, do imply a superiority and authority in him, as Lord (1 Peter 3:6), Master (Esther), Guide (Prov 2:17), Head (1 Cor 2:3), image and glory of God (1 Cor 11:7).
4. The persons whom the husband by virtue of his place, and whom the wife by virtue of her place, represent, most evidently prove as much: for an husband representeth Christ, and a wife, the Church (Eph 5:23).
5. The circumstances noted by the Holy Ghost at the woman’s creation imply no less, as that she was created after man, for man’s good, and out of man’s side (Gen 2:18, &c.).
6. The very attire which nature and custom of all times and places have taught women to put on, comfirmeth the same: as long hair, veils, and other coverings over the head: this and the former argument doth the Apostle himself use to this very purpose, (1 Cor 11:7, &c.).
The point then being so clear, wives ought in conscience to acknowledge as much: namely that an husband hath superiority and authority over a wife. The acknowledgement hereof is a main and principal duty, and a ground of all other duties. Till a wife be fully instructed therein and truly persuaded thereof, no duty can be performed by her as it ought: for subjection hath relation to superiority and authority. The very notation of the word implieth as much. How then can subjection be yielded, if husbands be not acknowledged superiours? It may be forced, as one King conquered in battle by another, may be compelled to yield homage to the conqueror, but yet because he still thinketh with himself, that he is no whit inferiour, he will hardly be brought willingly to yield a subject’s duty to him, but rather expect a time when he may free himself and take revenge of the conqueror.
4. Of a fond conceit that husband and wife are equal.
Contrary to the forenamed subjection is the opinion of many wives, who think themselves every way as good as their husbands, and no way inferiour to them.
The reason whereof seemeth to be that small inequality which is betwixt the husband and the wife: for of all degrees wherein there is any difference betwixt person and person, there is the least disparity betwixt man and wife. Though the man be as the head, yet is the woman as the heart, which is the most excellent part of the body next the head, far more excellent than any other member under the head, and almost equal to the head in many respects, and as necessary as the head. As an evidence, that a wife is to man as the heart to the head, she was at her first creation (Gen 2:21) taken out of the side of man where his heart lieth; and though the woman was at first of the man (1 Cor 11:12) created out of his side, yet is the man also by the woman. Ever since the first creation man hath been born and brought forth out of the woman’s womb: so as neither the man is without the woman, nor the woman without the man: yea, as the wife hath not power of his own body, but he wife (1 Cor 7:4). They are also heirs together of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). Besides, wives are mothers of the same children, whereof their husbands are fathers [for God said to both, multiply and increase- (Gen 1:28)] and mistresses of the same servants whereof they are masters [for Sarah is called mistress (Gen 16:4)] and in many other respects there is common equity betwixt husbands and wives; whence many wives gather that in all things there ought to be a mutual equality.
But from some particulars to infer a general is a very weak argument.
1. Doth it follow, that because in many things there is a common equity betwixt Judges of Office, Justices of Peace, and Constables of towns, that therefore there is in all things an equality betwixt them?
2. In many things there is not a common equity: for the husband may command his wife, but not she him.
3. Even in those things wherein there is a common equity, there is not an equality: for the husband hath ever even in all things a superiority: as if there be any difference even in the forenamed instances, the husband must have the stronger: as in giving the name of Rachel’s youngest child, where the wife would have one name, the husband another, that name which the husband gave, stood (Gen 35:18).
Though there seem to be never so little disparity, yet God having so expressly appointed subjection, it ought to be acknowledged: and though husband and wife may mutually serve one another through love: yet the Apostle suffereth not a woman to rule over a man. . .
5. Of a wife’s acknowledgment of her own husband’s superiority.
The truth and life of that general acknowledgment of husbands’ honour, consisteth in the particular application thereof unto their own proper husbands.
The next duty therefore is, that wives acknowledge their own husbands, even those to whom by God’s providence they are joined in marriage, to be worthy of an husband’s honour, and to be their superiour: thus much the Apostle intendeth by that particle of restraint (Eph 5:22,24) which he useth very often: so likewise doth S. Peter, exhorting wives to be in subjection to their own husbands (1 Peter 3:1,5): and hereunto restraining the commendation of the ancient good wives, that they were in subjection to their own husbands.
Objection. What if a man of mean place be married to a woman of eminent place, or a servant to be married to his mistress, or an aged woman to a youth, must such a wife acknowledge such an husband her superiour?
Answer. Yea verily: for in giving herself to be his wife, and taking him to be her husband, she advanceth him above herself, and subjecteth herself unto him. It meaneth nothing what either of them were before marriage: by virtue of that matrimonial bond the husband is made the head of his wife, though the husband were before marriage a very beggar, and of mean parentage, and the wife very wealthy and of a noble stock; or though he were her prentise, or bondslave; which also holdeth in the case betwixt an aged woman and a youth: for the Scripture hath made no exception in any of those cases.
2. Objection. But what if a man of lewd and beastly conditions, as a drunkard, a glutton, a profane swaggerer, an impious swearer, and blasphemer, be married to a wife, sober, religious matron, must she account him her superiour, and worthy of an husband’s honour?
Answer. Surely she must. For the evil quality and disposition of his heart and life, doth not deprive a man of that civil honour which God hath given unto him. Though an husband in regard of evil qualities may carry the image of the devil, yet in regard of his place and office he beareth the Image of God: so do Magistrates in the Commonwealth, Ministers in the Church, parents and masters in the same family. Note for our present purpose, the exhortation of S. Peter to Christian wives which had infidel husbands, Be in subjection to them: let your conversation be in fear (1 Peter 3:1,2.). If infidels carry not the devil’s image, and are not, so long as they are infidels, vessels of Satan, who are? Yet wives must be subject to them, and fear them.
6. Of wives denying honor to their own husbands.
Contrary thereunto is a very perverse disposition in some wives, who think they could better subject themselves to any husband, than their own. Though in general they acknowledge that an husband is his wife’s superiour, yet when the application cometh to themselves they fail, and cannot be brought to yield, that they are their husbands’ inferiours. This is a vice worse than the former. For to acknowledge no husband to be superiour over his wife, but to think man and wife in all things equal, may proceed from ignorance of mind, and error of judgment. But for a wife who knoweth and acknowledgeth the general, that an husband is above his wife, to imagine that she herself is not inferiour to her husband, ariseth from monstrous self-conceit, and intolerable arrogancy, as if she herself were above her own sex, and more than a woman.
Contrary also is the practise of such women (see Treatise 2, Part 1, Section 9), as purposely marry a man so far lower than themselves, for this very end, that they may rule over their own husbands: and of others who being aged, for that end marry youths, if not very boys. A mind and practise very unseemly, and clean thwarting God’s ordinance. But let them think of ruling what they list, the trust is, that they make themselves subjects both by God’s law and man’s: of which subjection such wives do oft feel the heaviest burden. Solomon noteth this to be one of the things for which the earth is disquieted, when a servant reigneth. Now when can a servant more domineer, than when he hath married his mistress? As for aged women who married youths, I may say [as in another case it was said] woe to thee O wife whose husband is a child. Unmeet it is that an aged man should be married to a young maid, but much more unmeet for an aged woman to be married to a youth. . . .
17. Of a wife’s obedience in general.
Hitherto of a wife’s reverence, it followeth to speak of her obedience: The first law that ever was given to woman since her fall, laid upon her this duty of obedience to her husband, in these words, Thy desire shall be to thine husband, and he shall rule over thee (Gen 3:16). How can an husband rule over a wife, if she obey not him? The principal part of that submission which in this text (Eph 5:22), and in many other places is required of a wife, consisteth in obedience: and therefore it is expressly commended unto wives in the example of Sarah who obeyed Abraham (1 Peter 3:6). Thus by obedience doth the Church manifest her subjection to Christ. The place wherein God hath set an husband; namely, to be an head (Eph 5:23); the authority which he hath given unto him, to be a Lord (1 Peter 3:6), do all require obedience of a wife. Is not obedience to be yielded to an Head, Lord, and Master? Take away all authority from an husband, if ye exempt a wife from obedience. Contrary is the stoutness of such wives as must have their own will, and do what they list, or else all shall be out of quiet. Their will must be done, they must rule and over-rule all, they must command not only children and servants, but husbands also, if at least the husband will be at peace. Look into families, observe the estate and condition of many of them, and then tell me if these things be not so. If an husband be a man of courage, and seek to stand upon his right, and maintain his authority by requiring obedience of his wife, strange it is to behold what an hurly burly she will make in the house: but if he be a milk-sop, and basely yield unto his wife, and suffer her to rule, then, it may be, there shall be some outward quiet. The ground hereof is an ambitious and proud humour in women, who must needs, rule, or else they think themselves slaves. But let them think as they list: assuredly herein they thwart God’s ordinance, pervert the order of nature, deface the image of Christ, overthrow the ground of all duty, hinder the good of the family, become an ill pattern to children and servants, lay themselves open to Satan, and incur many other mischiefs which cannot but follow upon the violating of this main duty of Obedience, which if it be not performed, how can other duties be expected?
Gouge, William. Of domesticall duties eight treatises. Early English Books Online, University of Michigan, n.d, and is licensed under CC0 1.0 Public Domain Dedication.
Speght, Rachel. A Movzell for Melastomvs. Renascence Editions, originally published in 1617, is licensed under no known copyright.
Swetnam, Joseph. “The araignment of leuud, idle, froward, and vnconstant women or the vanitie of them, choose you whether : with a commendation of wise, vertuous and honest women : pleasant for married men, profitable for young men, and hurtfull to none.” Early English Books Online, University of Michigan, n.d, and is licensed under CC0 1.0 Public Domain Dedication.