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Book of the Week — An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex…

“There remains nothing more, but to shew that there are some necessary Qualifications to be acquir’d, some good Improvements to be made by Ingenious Gentlemen in the Company of our Sex. Of this number are Complacence, Gallantry, Good Humour, Invention, and an Art…”

An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex…
Written by a Lady (Judith Drake)
London: Printed for A. Roper at the Black Boy, and R. Clavel at the Peacock, in Fleetstreet, 1697
HQ1201 D73 1697

In the first century AD, Plutarch, the Greek biographer, created a genre of historical writing that highlighted Exceptional Women from both the past and the present. These “female worthies” or “illustrious ladies,” as they were often called, were long celebrated as objects of curiosity, exemplars of behavior, agents of human history, and credits to their sex. Illustrious ladies were not confined to a single literary genre or medium, but rather appeared in group biographies, treatises, poems, or even paintings. By the late medieval and early modern eras, the discourse surrounding female worthies became the prime vehicle for the dramatic growth of women’s historical knowledge.

But not all “feminist” writing used this centuries-old literary approach to defend the female sex. In fact, some even rejected the genre altogether, choosing to take the more rationalist and political route to make their point. One of those authors was Mary Astell, who was considered to be the “First English Feminist.” In 1694, Astell published A Serious Proposal to the Ladies — a feminist treatise that advocated for women’s advancement and argued against the prevailing social norms of the time, which restricted women’s access to education and social power. Heavy with Anglican undertones, Astell critiqued the notion that marriage was the only legitimate path for women, suggesting instead that women should be free to pursue other roles, including religious devotion, education, and public service.

The novelty of Astell’s rationalist approach to women’s rights, combined with her gender, granted her some celebrity status at the turn of the eighteenth century. So much so that when the anonymously published An Essay In Defence of the Female Sex was printed in 1696, Astell was immediately credited as its author. It would take more than two hundred years for the authorship to be seriously questioned. In 1912, while working as a Professor of English Literature at Bryn Mawr College, Alfred H. Upham began comparing the work with Astell’s other texts, pointing out serious inconsistencies in ideology. While Astell’s Platonist desire was to be “as far removed as possible from the worldly interpretations of society,” An Essay promoted the ideal of a “polite” society and productive conversations between the sexes. It was not until the twentieth century when Judith Drake finally received the recognition as the true author of An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex.

Unfortunately, little is known about the life and work of Judith Drake. Only a few historical records and contextual clues from the various editions of An Essay can help us piece together a rough biography. Drake was born in the later half of the seventeenth-century. Given her sophisticated writing style and rhetoric, it was likely that she was quite educated for a woman in her time. Since formal education for women was uncommon, it is possible that she received some private education, or was altogether self-taught. Although there has been some speculation about Judith being the sister of James Drake — a celebrated Tory pamphleteer, author, and physician — other scholars have argued convincingly that they were, in fact, married. Parish records and an attribution in the Annals of the Royal College of Physicians note Mrs. Drake was a “relict,” or widow, of Dr. Drake. Together they had two children. 

James Drake was a physician who apparently turned to writing in the late 1690s as a result of financial hardship. His publication of several Tory pamphlets resulted in his arrest on suspicion of treason. His greatest work, Anthropologia Nova, was published posthumously in 1707. In the dedicatory letters of Anthropologia, Judith Drake’s name is signed — this is the only printed evidence of her writing. It is believed that she had edited her husband’s manuscripts and helped organize their publication. She probably also completed the preface, which had been left unfinished.

“The greatest Difficulty we struggled with was the Want of a good Art of Reasoning, which we had not.. til that defect was supply’d by the greatest Master of that Art, Mr. Locke…”

For her own writing, Judith Drake drew upon one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, John Locke. Locke’s book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding would help Drake construct a rationalist framework to defend the female sex. With it, she argued that “there are no innate Ideas, but the Notions we have are derived from our external Senses, either immediately, or by Reflexion.” If human knowledge was based upon experience, men and women therefore had the capacity to become intellectual equals. Instead, custom and language had engendered the belief that women were intellectually inferior to men. Drake proceeded to reject what she deemed  “the cult of the ancients” and, in their place, championed the work of ‘’modern” learning and the value of informal education for women. Unlike Mary Astell, who stressed the necessity of teaching the tenets of Anglicanism to young women, Drake combined Tory ideas with Lockean philosophy and concepts of “politeness” to formulate an early Enlightenment vision of sociable, secularized, learning, and the role female conversation could play in settling a society fractured by party politics. In fact, so secular is Drake’s approach that, apart from briefly revealing the author’s Anglican bias, An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex barely touches upon religion, or religious writings. 

Locke himself had argued that although women were despised as “illiterate for not having read a System of Logick and Rhetorick,” they could, nevertheless, express themselves better that those persons who had been formally educated. His interest in how Drake had used his work is possibly revealed by the fact that he himself owned a copy of her book. 

There are a sort of Men, that upon all occasions think themselves more concern’d, and more thought of than they are…

Drake’s Essay was indeed popular. The first edition, printed in 1696 for A. Roper and E. Wilkinson at the Black-boy, was quickly followed by a second edition for R. Clavel at the Peacock — both in Fleetstreet. The preliminaries of this edition have been expanded by the inclusion of two letters, the first written by James Drake, in which he writes about the absurdity of certain men who have charged him with being the author of the “Essay” and Judith Drake’s reply, in which she defends her anonymity: “This advantage however I reap by being unknown, that I frequently hear unsuspected, the unbias’d opinions of those that criticize upon me, and scarce, without scorn, hear most men pronounce it a performance above the ability of a woman, yet none answer the arguments to the contrary.” Also included is a dedicatory epistle to Princess Anne, an authorial preface, and a commendatory poem to the author, signed by James Drake. The work continued to be reprinted in the eighteenth century with a fourth edition printed for S. Butler in Holborn in 1721, and a fifth edition for C. Hitch in London and R. Akenhead in Newcastle in 1750, though it was originally undated. In 1792, an extract from Drake’s An Essay was reproduced in Francis Godolphin Waldron’s The Literary Museum. Since the book was published anonymously, it was wrongly credited to Mary Astell for more than two centuries.

As for the question of why Judith Drake chose to remain anonymous, scholars provide the usual motives: diffidence, fear of consequences, and shame. Drake herself gave several reasons why she decided not to attach her name to the feminist treatise. The first is a conventional one, humility, stating that the female sex “might have been much better defended by abler Pens.” The second reason is more specific. Drake was concerned that her satiric male “characters” would lead certain readers to believe she was attacking them, personally. “There are a sort of Men, that upon all occasions think themselves more concern’d, and more thought of than they are…

Or, in the words of Carly Simon, “You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you. Don’t you?

Character writing had evolved as an immensely popular literary genre in seventeenth century England, becoming a recognized vehicle for social and political commentary. Drake used this genre to reverse the satiric characters of supposedly female vices — which had been a mainstay of misogynistic attacks for centuries — and turned them toward the male population.  Point-by-point, she lampoons men through a series of satirical sketches that show the follies and weaknesses of male stereotypes, as outlined in the work’s full title, “…in which are inserted the Characters of A Pedant; A Squire; A Beau; A Vertuoso; A Poetaster; A City-Critick; &c.” Take, as an example, her description of a Beau (or a Dandy):

“When his Eyes are set to a languishing Air, his Motions all prepar’d according to Art, his Wig and his Coat abundantly Powder’d, his Gloves Essenc’d, and his Handkercher perfum’d, and all the rest of his Bravery rightly adjusted, the greatest part of the day, as well the business of it at home, is over; ’tis time to launch, and down he comes, scented like a Perfumers Shop, and looks like a Vessel with all her rigging under sail without Ballast…

… From hence he adjourns to the Play-house, where he is to be met again in the side Box, from whence he makes his Court to all the Ladies in general with his Eyes, and is particular only with the Orange-Wench. After a while he engages some neighboring Vizor, and together they run over all the Boxes, take to pieces every Face, examine every feature, pass their Censure upon every one, and so on to their Dress; here he very Judiciously gives his opinion upon every particular, and determines whose Colours are well chosen, whose Fancy is neatest, and whose Cloths fit with most Air; but in conclusion sees no Body compleat, but himself in the whole House.”

“… a vain Conceit, that they are wiser, and more able to advise, which puts ‘em upon engaging in things they have nothing to do with…”

While humorous, at the heart of Drake’s satirical sketches was a concern with the stability of English society. Political disruption, she seemed to suggest, arose from male vanity and delusion, rather than from principle. A desire to participate in the political process was a character flaw, “a vain Conceit, that they are wiser, and more able to advise, which puts ‘em upon engaging in things they have nothing to do with.” It was such delusions that affected Drake’s character of “News-monger” whose activities — as we have seen today — were already fracturing society. However, to fully comprehend the social and political climate from which Drake’s Essay evolved, one must turn to the influence of the Church of England on women’s education. At the core of Anglican pedagogical philosophy was a commitment to the education of girls as well as boys. The Church understood that, although limited in their rights and opportunities, early modern women were far from being peripheral and powerless figures in the formation of society. The influence of women over their husbands, children, and servants within the domestic sphere was not only recognized but, in some areas, encouraged. 

Albeit, for Drake, education was not necessarily about rigorous study. She rejected the role that the “ancients” played and could not imagine why a knowledge of Latin and Greek merited the title of “Learned.” Drake considered that such studies were unnecessary for furthering the mind. In fact, the past was a particularly problematic source of knowledge for Drake, since she believed that “pro-women” histories had been removed from the record not only by “Time” but also by “the Malice of Men,” describing how men were frightened of transmitting “to posterity, anything that might shew the Weakness and Illegality of their Title to a Power they still exercise so arbitrarily.

For Judith Drake, the traditional, male, educational system altogether promoted the wrong things. It provided men with a limited and arcane learning, which neither improved their knowledge of the world nor their conduct and manners within it. Drake, instead, championed a curriculum of modern literature, morality, and history — one that did not need to be pursued in a formal environment, and therefore readily available to women. Indeed, since women had so much leisure time, there was nothing to stop them from reading authors such as Francis Bacon, John Dryden, George Etherege, Roger L’Estrange, John Milton, William Shakespeare, and countless others. But perhaps more than reading, Drake heralded the importance of social learning and conversation. An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex begins with the admission that although few women had defended their sex through written modes, there were many “who in their daily Conversations approve themselves much more able and sufficient Assertors of our Cause, than myself.

An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex was one of the most significant English contributions to the early modern debate concerning women. Amid its 148 pages, Drake used scientific inquiry, rationalism, and humor to demonstrate that men and women are equal partners in both their intellect and also in their vices. Furthermore, her modern curriculum and reading list allowed women the opportunity to route their own education; and although Drake’s methodology and approach might have been unusual in the late seventeenth century, her combination of pro-woman commentary with current politics was not. Despite the inferior status of women in early modern England, contemporaries nevertheless believed that women wielded considerable influence over others. This influence was most present in conversation. In addition to the advantage of female company, by talking to ladies, gentlemen were presented with the opportunity to learn the social skills of “Complacence, Gallantry, Good Humour, Invention, and an Art…” 

Happy International Women’s Day


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