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.