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Posts Tagged ‘Aemilia Lanyer’

Aemilia Lanyer

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Aemilia Lanyer was one of the first women writers to be printed in English. She is known as one of the earliest feminist writers. In ‘Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women’ she provides an alternative interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve and The Garden of Eden. The well known interpretation of this story comprises of the idea that Eve deceived Adam and caused the fall of mankind. This interpretation has led to Eve always been seen as an evil temptress who betrayed God. This has subsequently been used to keep women in an inferior place to men. Lanyer reinvents this story in her poem. Lanyer writes: ‘her fault though great, yet he was to blame; what weakness offered, strength might have refused’ (l. 34-35). Although Eve picked the fruit and ate it first, Adam, who is the stronger sex should have been wise enough to refuse to eat what Eve offered him. Although Lanyer is agreeing that Eve is, as a woman, inferior to Adam, a man, she is attempting to relieve Eve of some of the blame.

As by the well known interpretation, Eve was made by God out of a rib from Adam. Eve is just a product of Adam and therefore what she is responsible for, so is Adam: ‘if any evil did in her remain, being made of him, he was the ground of all’ (l. 64-65). Again, Lanyer attempts to suggest that because Eve was created from a rib from Adam, it is also his fault. This reinforces the idea that women are inferior to men. If Eve is just made from a rib from Adam; Adam is much more of a significant being. This is further evidence that although Lanyer has been labelled one of the earliest feminist writers, she does not conform to what ‘feminism’ is known as today. Lanyer does not challenge the gender stereotype that women are inferior to men; she enforces this idea to support her argument that women should no longer be blamed for what occurred in the Garden of Eden.

This poem deals with some radical ideas and Lanyer was one of the first women writers to be published in English. Subsequently, Lanyer needed to be able to persuade her readers that she was able to write in an equally intelligent and respectable manner as men. Lanyer begins to do this at the beginning of the collection in which ‘Eve’s apology in Defense of Women’ belongs. In To the Doubtful Reader from Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum she states that: ‘I was appointed to do this work’ (l. 6). This suggests that Lanyer had received this information of a new interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve from God himself; she had received divine inspiration. This is proposed by Lanyer but never confirmed. The way in which she offers an alternative interpretation but carefully enforces the idea that men were superior beings; may have led to a better chance of her readers believing her story. It does not sway too far from the familiar interpretation and still conforms to the familiar idea that men are superior beings in the patriarchal society that was in place.

Lanyer: Gender Theorist?

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

In response to the blog ‘Is ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ feminist?’ I would argue that although I would agree that it is not feminist due the reasons given, it certainly shows Lanyer to be amongst the first gender theorists. In the book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity Judith Butler suggests that gender is a performance based on the concept of those rules constructed by society, and that it is the relentless attempt to achieve the almost unachievable expectations that causes the problems within society that the structure is meant to solve. Irigaray furthers the argument by adding that women should not attempt to be equal to men, but create an identity for themselves independent from them. Therefore ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ does not suggest that women are better than men or ask for equality, but suggests that the definitions that restrict women should be abolished to allow both men and women to be the best they can be. Through the use of language to create a tone of humour Lanyer is able to readdress the system under which women are oppressed by men.

In the opening of ‘To the virtuous reader’ Lanyer consciously reminds her readers of the roles that their gender stereotype has created for them:

Often I have heard, that it is the property of some women, not only to emulate the virtues and perfections of the rest, but also by all their powers of ill speaking, to eclipse the brightness of their deserved fame.

With the opening phrase ‘often I have heard’, Lanyer is recalling the times she, as a women, has been made aware of her inability to carve a successful career for herself. Lanyer is mocking the male idea that women should not be able to write as well as men. The irony of the phrase ‘powers of ill speaking’ in such a well written and witty passage makes clear Lanyer’s intentions of highlighting the absurdity that women are not as intelligent and able as men. In the repetition of the word ‘virtuous’ she is speaking to her female readers who, like herself, would have been conditioned to believe that due their femaleness they do not have  the potential to become successful in their own right.

Although Lanyer writes the ‘small volume, or little book, for the general use of all virtuous ladies and gentlewomen of this kingdom’, in the way she uses language she is reminding ‘the world’ (ie. Men) to remember that without women ‘they would quite be extinguished from the world’. The idea of men recognising the benefits of women are seen in ‘Eve’s Apology in Defence of Women’. The poem uses the story of Pilate’s wife warning him against the crucifixion of Jesus. Lanyer is highlighting how unfair it is for women to have to be dragged down by men when they make mistakes, and yet the ultimate fall is blamed on a woman: Eve.

It can be seen, therefore, that although Lanyer is mocking men’s thoughts they are better than women, she is not suggesting that women are better or even equal to men, merely that the ideas concerning how women are perceived be addressed.

Is ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ feminist?

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Lanyer dedicates her poem exclusively to women; she addresses her prose dedication only to ‘virtuous ladies’ and ‘gentlewomen’ (p. 1315). She defends women from men’s persecution by pointing to powerful women in the Bible and by presenting a defence which moves the blame for being excluded from the Garden of Eden away from Eve and on to Adam. Lanyer was clearly moved by the need to set things straight for women, but does this mean she is a feminist?

The OED defines feminism as “a movement or theory supporting women’s rights on the grounds of equality of the sexes”. So, a feminist writer would write about how men and women are equal. In Lanyer’s dedication ‘To the Virtuous Reader’ she uses the Bible, a book that carries great power, to point out women who have triumphed over evil men. She tells us of Esther who subverts a plot against the Jews, Susanna who fights for her honour, Judith who subdues then decapitates the evil Assyrian leader. She also acknowledges women who deface the name of their gender and asks them not to ‘fall into so great an error, as to speak unadvisedly against the rest of their sex’ (p. 1316), but instead to ‘refer such points of folly, to be practiced by evil-disposed men, who […] do like vipers deface the wombs wherein they were bred,’ (p. 1316). In referring to men as vipers (note that this is a type of snake), she is beginning to muddy men’s reputation while she elevates women’s. In her defence, she is referring exclusively to the evil-disposed men who slander women, but the text carries a strongly negative stance on men. If we choose to follow the OED definition of feminism, then Lanyer is not a feminist. She is not making both sexes equal. She is reversing men and women’s honourable and sinful reputations respectively.

A traditional way in which people see feminists ‘equalizing’ both genders is through power. The recent female sovereign (Elizabeth) might have naturally inspired an urge to raise women’s power universally up to the extent held by men. In the act of writing and publishing work, Lanyer can be seen as feminist; she is gaining the same power, through words, that male writers gain. However, ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ and, in particular, ‘Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women’ reinforce male superiority, rather than abate it. She makes several references to Eve’s faults: to her ‘undiscerning ignorance’ (l. 25), her weakness (l. 71, l. 61 and l.87), and having ‘too much love’ for her husband (l. 57). These descriptions reinforce a wife’s place in marital hierarchy as second to their husband, and suggest that men must be relied upon to think where women are unable. The poem does express annoyance at men ‘[boasting] of knowledge, which he took / From Eve’s fair hand, as from a learned book’ (ll. 63-4), but the main focus is on Eve being foolish enough to be tricked by the serpent and Adam being the one who should have known better, because ‘he was lord and king of all the earth’ (l. 39). In this case ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum’ is not a feminist piece. Instead it is a plea for people to see women as they are; this may be as inferior to men, but it is as a gender who has redeemed itself for past mistakes and should no longer be blamed.

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