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Swetnam's Argument For Gender Equality

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The combination of anonymity and free speech often leads to the expression of radical opinions. Unrestricted expression of these opinions often results in exaggerated social discourse, where positions are taken for the sake of argument rather than reason. Joseph Swetnam, a pamphleteer and fencer, used his literary freedom to publish The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women (1615), a polemic attack on women. While pamphlets were often produced solely to elicit a response, Swetnam could not have anticipated the response which he received. Rachel Speght, the young daughter of a pastor, made use of her knowledge of both religion and femininity to rebut Swetnam’s diatribe in A Muzzle for Melastomus (1617). Hinging on a feminist…show more content…
Through a careful rereading of the tale of Adam and Eve, Speght develops a convincing argument for gender equality on the basis of religion. A commonly employed argument against women—one employed by Swetnam himself, who claimed that women’s origin as a rib made them “crooked”—was that since the Bible stated that they came out of men, they were inferior (Swetnam 1615). Contrary to Swetnam, Speght inverts the common interpretation of this passage, focusing on where in the body Eve originated: “Woman was made of a part of man...yet was she not produced from Adam's 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” (Speght 1617). Speght was the daughter of a minister, thereby making her employment of religion unsurprising. However, the message which the author conveys through religion is revolutionary. Her reimagining of Adam and Eve leads the reader to question the inherently masculine bias with which they have been taught the…show more content…
She was a woman, a relatively unknown writer, and her viewpoints on the ultimate equality of the sexes were considered radical. With a too harshly worded pamphlet, she was capable of producing outrage. However, through authenticity of identity, allusions to the natural world, and her deep knowledge of religion, Speght was able to craft a well founded argument for the inclusion and respect of women in the seventeenth century. Ironically, these same challenges resurfaced in the academic study of Speght’s work; until very recently, her works were almost completely ignored by the literary community (Purkis 107). With the resurgence of feminist ideas in education, and the subsequent formation of a feminist literary canon, Speght’s works were ultimately rediscovered. The neglect of this crucial early feminist document serves as a message to all students of literature: to be aware of the biases which influenced the formation of the Western literary canon. Without the broadening of the literary canon which was experienced in the last millennia, Speght herself may have been
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