Early Feminist Writers and the Bible

Unless you’re a student of literature, chances are you’ve never heard of Elizabeth Cary, Aemilia Lanyer or Mary Wroth. They might be considered proto-feminists by some. Without question, they were Bible scholars on a mission to rewrite the image and the status of women in society. Get to know them. Just like the women writers that I discussed in first of this series on women writers of the Renaissance, this post just might change your view of feminism and its history.

Elizabeth Cary

Elizabeth Cary (1585-1639) was the first known woman playwright who was known as a scholar, poet, and religious polemicist. And unlike some of the woman mentioned in the first part of this series, Cary was frustrated with her subservient position as a wife and a mother.

Cary’s closet play, The Tragedy of Mariam, The Fair Queen of Jewry (1613) is unique in that she modifies a conventional literary form to express the difficulties in her own life (Beilin). To understand Cary’s life as a woman is to understand the parallels between herself and Mariam. Mariam, like Cary herself, is frustrated under the tyranny of her husband’s rule.

However, Cary’s reaction to her oppression and unjust treatment is different from that of modern feminists. She does not encourage or advocate a collective uprising of women in order to solve difficulties. Instead, she stresses patience and points to Christ, as the suffering servant king who was vindicated as Savior of the world.

Cary’s work as a playwright displays a trend among women writers late in the Renaissance period. Women writers, frustrated by a male dominated publishing world, began to create their own distinctive literature from an existing ones (Beilin). Faced with difficulties, their art became sharper, it became their own.

Aemilia Lanyer

Aemilia Lanyer (1569-1645) was another woman of the late Renaissance period to develop a unique work from existing traditions. Thought by some to be the “dark lady” named by Shakespeare in his sonnets, Lanyer was an accomplished poet that moved in London’s literary circles. Her only published work, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), is a series of poems dedicated to the women who supported her in her literary pursuits.

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews) is unusual in that it is a poetic work in praise of women. Virtue is not an ideal imposed upon women by their male admirers in song or poetry. Lanyer presents virtue as a characteristic that all women naturally possess. Lanyer turns the medieval concept of women as “daughters of Eve” on its head and boldly blames men for the evil in the world. The poem is not just controversial. It is culturally blasphemous.

Lanyer bases her poetic defense of women on Scripture, using fire to fight fire. Passage in Genesis might condemn women, but Lanyer begs her readers to examine all of Scripture before making a judgement. She points to men as those responsible for the greatest sin of history: the crucifixion of Jesus.

In another section of the epic poem, Layner points to Adam as the one most culpable for the Fall, rather than Eve. Taking the comparison to its logical end, Lanyer argues for social and religious equality.

Lady Mary Wroth

Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1651) was also a woman with radical ideas about women for her time. As the niece of Sir Philip Sidney and Mary Herbert, Wroth was surrounded by writers from an early age. Her Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is the first sonnet sequence to be written by an English woman. Like the work of fiction that it is a part of (The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania), the sequence reworks the genre, innovating it.

Wroth’s sonnets are not about a male speaker and his love. Rather, her sonnets concern a female speaker—Pamphilia and her relationship with Amphilanthus. Petrachian in theme, the sonnets depict Queen Pamphilia turning from love for the faithless Amphilanthus to love for her kingdom. Here it is that we see the radical change. The man is the one that lacks virtue rather than the woman.

Wroth was also the first English woman to write a work of prose fiction. As in her poetry, Wroth uses Urania (1621) to radically rework traditional concepts of women and their place in society, and within literature.

Using women heroes, Wroth develops the idea that women are selfless and dedicated in love. Her work seeks to change the concept of women by not only exalting Queen Pamphilia’s virtues as a good ruler but also as a Christian woman. Her virtue is active and authoritative rather than passive and subservient.

A renaissance of women

Women writers of the English Renaissance, though they did not produce the same breadth of works as their male fellows, they did, however, equal them in depth. And though their words have not been overly concerned with the revival and implementation of ancient Greek and Roman philosophies, women writers sought another revival. They sought to bring about a Renaissance of women that found its basis in a more thorough understanding of the Scriptures rather than on the biased traditions of society then—and now.

Works cited and consulted (for this series):

Abrams, M.H., ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986.

Beilin, Elaine V. Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987.

Hannay, Margaret Patterson, ed., Silent But for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works. Kent: Kent State UP, 1985.

Stevenson, Jane. Women Writers in English Literature. Essex: York Press, 1993.

Wilson, Katharina M., ed., Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation. Athens: U Georgia P, 1987.