a Library publication

Library Catalog No. DTB1990
(reissued 21 August 2012)

An Early Challenge to the Precepts and Practice of Modern Science: The Fusion of Fact, Fiction, and Feminism in the Works of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623–1673). PhD diss. University of California, San Diego, 1990. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1990. 9023994.
(Item 5 of 12: Chapter 2)
by Deborah Bazeley
e-Copyright © 2004–2016 < >
see also Part 1: Editor’s Introduction for Library Cat. No. DTB1990


Chapter 2

The Feminist Problematic

2.1   The Seventeenth-Century’s Woman Question

Ehrenreich and English equate the rise of “the Woman Question” with the advent of industrialism, arguing that the patriarchs of old had no need to debate the nature and place of women (14). This is incorrect. During the early modern period patriarchy was no transhistorical Weltanschauung, but underwent substantive critique and permutation in response to radically changing economic, political, and social conditions. In England, France and Italy of the early modern period there was vigorous and protracted debate concerning “the Woman Question.”

Joan Kelly situates the early gender controversy in the breakdown of a feudal order and the formation of the preindustrial, patriarchal household as the basic social and economic unit of postfeudal society (23). As played out in England during the seventeenth century, the expansion of mercantile capitalism wrought in certain sectors of society a fear of changing relations between the sexes. Decades of rule under a female monarch were followed by new threats to traditional patriarchal structures introduced during the years of Civil War and Republican rule: for example,

... the Civil Marriage Act, the lively discussion of polygamy and of marriage within the forbidden degrees, and the unusual part played by women in war, litigation, pamphleteering, and politics; the appearance in English of continental feminist writings, and the attacks, sometimes by women themselves [here Thomas cites Margaret Cavendish], on their limited educational opportunities, their confinement to domestic activity, their subjection to their husbands, and the injustices of a commercial marriage market. We should remember also the campaign against entails and primogeniture, the emergence of a political theory which took as its primary unit not the family but the individual and, in the background all the time, a slow decline in the self-sufficiency of the country estate and in the household as a unit of production.
(Thomas, “Women and the Civil War Sects” 337–8)

This, coupled with a perception of widespread disorder and doubts about man’s immortality, potency and power in confronting an overwhelming (and seemingly malevolent) universe, led to a resurgence in virulent antifeminism at both ends of the seventeenth century.

Women were conveniently cast as “agents of the incapacities that beset us all” (Poovey 5). For the most part, seventeenth-century commentary on women disparaged woman’s reproductive capacity “as an immense biological burden, condemning her to the world of nature, of the body, of emotions, and subjectivity” (Fee, “Critiques” 44). Woman was portrayed as carnal, rather than cerebral; bound to earth, nature, body, and corruption rather than aspiring upwards to mind, spirit, and God. James I, employing conventional patriarchal imagery, wrote to his son: “Ye are the head, she is your body” (qtd. Hilda Smith, Reason’s Disciples 51). At the same time, woman was the temptress of man, his link to baseness and corruptibility of body and spirit, the mother of his sin. Woman portrayed as whore, infidel, and Amazon threatened always to dethrone man and the satirists raged at the female power to seduce and overpower them (Nussbaum 136, 19).

Increasingly, changing conditions in all spheres of daily life made it difficult to define and codify an elusive masculinity. Then, as always, sex roles were under seige by a reality that didn’t quite conform to ascriptions by gender. As Prior importantly points out, male and female spheres were not static during the seventeenth century. Under the seventeenth-century family mode of production, wives had to be “adaptable, ready to turn their hands to anything, selfless, patient and obedient.” Women’s work had no clearly defined boundaries, but was continually adjusting to meet changing economic and family circumstances. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a volatile economy and expanding marketplace meant that traditional mores governing woman’s proper role and place were out-of-step with women’s rapidly changing circumstances. Newly-evolving social roles were at first difficult to define as exclusively male or female.<1>

The multifaceted (and continually changing) social role of women was notably absent in the portraits of womanhood in the advice books of the period. There, and in religious sermons and texts, woman’s role was restricted to that of chaste wife — an idealization that actually preceded rather than reflected the enforced domestication of women. Hence, the conduct guides did not simply reinforce traditional social mores and passively document the reality of women’s lives; they actively sought to change that reality and mold women in a new image.<2> “Protestant ministers pounded at the theme of female inferiority and submissiveness precisely because these characteristics were so alien to the women of the audience they addressed” (George 169; see also Mendelson, Mental World 186).

Seventeenth-century attempts at rigid sex differentiation were continually in jeopardy. The binary oppositions that locate women at one end of a male/female polarity are always artificial. The threat of androgyne lurks perpetually on the outskirts of popular consciousness. Throughout the seventeenth century, belief in the possibility of somatic sex change was widespread, bolstered by medical doctrine passed down through the ages from medieval times.<3> From Shakespeare through Aphra Behn, dramas of the period focused on the comedic and political repercussions of gender confusion. Crossed gendering, with its resultant intrigues, played reliably well on the seventeenth-century stage. In real life, the shaky underpinnings of forced gendering were exposed in the new-found chic of Hic Mulier, a style openly embraced by certain upper-class women during the early decades of the seventeenth century. A number of Jacobean texts inveighed against those “Masculine-Feminines of our times” — “deformed monsters” who cut their hair, wore French doublets, and displayed “open breasts and false bodies” (Muld Sacke B1v). The conflating of “masculine” and “feminine” even at a surface level in outward displays of clothing and behavior cast momentary doubt on that “distinct and speciall difference betweene Man and Woman” (Haec-Vir C2v) upon which patriarchy relied.

2.1.1 “By the Lawes of Nature”

Since the Greeks, science has played an important role in the naturalization of gender constructs. Time and again science has studied “the lawes of nature” to reveal a female nature suspiciously consonant with woman’s assigned social role and its accompanying feminine ideal under patriarchy (Poovey 15). Science during the early modern period was no exception. Then (as now, within the sociobiology movement) presuppositions about gender differences determined biological hypotheses which were then evidenced to legitimate sexual inequalities.

Despite vast eclecticism within the seventeenth-century science movement, the inferiority of women was postulated within all branches of study, from the dark recesses of alchemy, through the occult arts of hermeticism and the abstractions of scholasticism, to the most stark visions of mechanism. Much of the scientific dogma concerning women’s failings was derivative. Where the teachings of “the ancients” on almost all questions of natural philosophy usually met with considerable skepticism on the part of New Science activists, ancient theories and observations concerning woman’s nature were seldom held up to similar scrutiny.

Commencing with “the ancients,” Western science assumed women’s biological inferiority and argued that this justified her inferior social status.<4> In classical thought, the prevailing theory of human physiology was the doctrine of the four humours. Gender dualisms were early projected onto physiological theory. Hippocrates was perhaps the first to argue according to the principles of humoral pathology that women were cold and moist, men hot and dry. Aristotle further developed on this, arguing that because women were colder than men they had insufficient vital heat to boil the blood and purify the soul; thus incapable of the highest form of reason, women were clearly inferior to men. Woman was repeatedly conceived by Aristotle in terms of a “lack”; femaleness was “a deformity” of maleness. As Lange points out, the alleged inferiority of the female was for Aristotle one of the “starting points” of science (10). Galen further codified humoral doctrine and its gender bias. In addition, he argued that woman was innately less perfect than man because her genitalia did not emerge externally and her “semen” was deficient (Merchant 157). As long as Galenic medical theory prevailed (through the seventeenth century), women were to carry the stigma of inferiority associated with a cold, moist, and therefore weak physiology. From this starting assumption came a flood of further assumptions about the nature of men and women. For example, it was commonly asserted that the male embryo was twice as hot and developed twice as quickly as the female (Merchant 157).

One area<5> where the New Science advanced on “ancient” teachings concerning women was cerebrology. Humoral theory, of course, associated intellectual and spiritual capabilities with heat and dryness, qualities innate to man, but insufficient in woman. The New Science offered further enlightenment on the subject of the female brain. Malebranche’s influential 1674 treatise on “the Science of Human Nature” (b1v) averred that “’Tis in a certain Temperature of the Largeness and Agitation of the Animal Spirits, and Conformity with the Fibres of the Brain, that the strength of parts consists.” Not suprisingly, “the Delicacy of the Fibres of the Brain ... is more usually incident to Women; and this is the Principe of their so exact acquaintance with all things that strike upon their Senses.” From this, Malebranche deduced that it is

... the Woman’s Province to determine concerning the Fashions, to judge of Language, to distinguish the genteel Mein, and the fine and Courtly Behaviour: They far out-do Men in the Science, Skill, and Dexterity about these things. All that depends upon the Tast falls under their Jurisdiction; but generally they are incapable of Penetrating into Truths, that have any Difficulty in the Discovery. All things of an abstracted Nature are Incomprehensible to them. They cannot imploy their Imagination in dis-entangling compound and perplex’d Questions. Their Consideration terminates on the surface and out-side of things: and their Imagination has neither strength nor reach enough to pierce to the bottom of them, and to make a Comparison of their parts, without Distraction.... In short, the Mode and not the Reality of things, is enough to take up the whole Capacity of their Mind; because the least Objects producing great Motions in the delicate Fibres of their Brain, by a necessary consequence excite such lively and great Sensations in their Souls, as wholly possess and take them up. (67)

The postulate of women’s cerebral delicacy would gradually replace arguments from cold and wet bodily fluids as humoral doctrine gave way in the eighteenth century to alternate explanations of human physiology. It was not long before the new appeals to biology percolated through popular culture. Already by 1708 when a reader asked The British Apollo whether women were as capable of learning as men he was told that “they are cast in too soft a mould, are made of too fine, too delicate a composure to endure the severity of study, the drudgery of contemplation, the fatigue of profound speculation” (qtd. Stone, Family 356–7).

2.1.2 Querelle des Femmes

Seventeenth-century strains of biological determinism did not go completely unchallenged. Science, after all, was not yet considered “the final authority” on every subject. Appeals to nature could be, and were, hotly debated. An alternate body of literature simultaneously broached the woman question from a perspective of dialogue, pro-and-con, rather than simple decree.

In England by the end of the seventeenth century a well-established tradition of feminist argument existed, part of the early gender controversy known as the querelle des femmes that dated from the Middle Ages.<6> Within this tradition, feminist arguments were premised on a belief in social determinism, attributing blame to nurture rather than nature for women’s “weaknesses” and subsequent oppression. In varying forms, it was argued that women were by nature equal to men in their ability to reason and govern; that they were maintained in a subordinate position through lack of education and opportunity; that the existing sexual power structure benefited men disproportionately; and that men irrationally maintained the sexual status quo out of selfishness and psychosexual fears of women.

To prove their claims, feminist pamphleteers distinguished carefully between the effects of nature and those of culture. They then critiqued various socio-cultural structures of oppression. They inveighed against perceived sexist values, traditions of learning, and appeals to custom. They rehashed the historical and scriptural record from the feminist standpoint. They compiled lists of exceptional women (chaste, honorable, heroic, courageous, learned, virtuous, pious) and referenced “Amazonian figures and tales of matriarchy, along with biographies of actual women warriors and rulers” in order “to keep alive a fading image of independent women and of women as makers of culture and civilization” (Kelly 23). And against individual detractors of women, they attempted psychological analyses of misogynist hostility.

Their suggested remedies for women’s oppression were, however, far less reaching than their criticisms of women’s condition. By and large, feminist polemicists in the querelle des femmes relied on persuasion grounded in appeals to men’s self-interest. The relief from women’s oppression sought by such means was minimal: the feminist pamphleteers wanted only an equal education for women, plus public and private acknowledgement of woman’s equal status in life and marriage as man’s “helpmeet” and partner. The new social ideal of the pamphlets was presented simply as the happy effect of proper (rather than irrational) behavior on the part of men coupled with marriage arrangements (based on equality and mutual dependence between the sexes) reminiscent of pre-lapsarian Eden (Shepherd 20).

Such limited demands for equality offered no real threat to the patriarchal power structure. The feminist pamphleteers issued no appeals for action or opportunity that would entail a different, more egalitarian apportionment of political and economic power. They had no vision of a social movement to effect desired change (Kelly 6). While challenging certain assumptions of the culture regarding femininity (for example, dress codes), feminists of the querelle des femmes accepted without question the informing category of “feminine,” and in the process, themselves collapsed distinctions between feminine and female. They too were quick to vilify the woman who “exceedes the ends of her Creation” (Muld Sacke B1v). Ultimately, the prowoman writers of the querelle had no sense of a feminist alternative that could broach new definitions of female and feminine.

This early strain of English feminism was — like all feminist texts within the querelle des femmes — conceived in negation. As the reactive half of an antifeminist/feminist dialectic, it was bounded and controlled by misogynist argument. Ironically, “in the dialectic pro and con, women’s reiterated affirmation contributes to the continuation of negativity” (Marks and de Courtivron 7). The ceaseless repetition of age-old antiwoman/prowoman arguments meant that querelle feminists were locked in a spiralling discourse that circled always back into the past. As a result, there is a “static quality” to the genre (Kelly 13) that in the end impeded any outgrowth of a truly radical feminism.

2.1.3 Précieuses Neoplatonism

A second feminist tradition flourished in the court of Henrietta Maria (in England, and in exile) and grew out of the French movement of the précieuses and its associated doctrine of platonic love. Despite Ehrenreich’s and English’s contention that traditional patriarchy accepted without question women’s moral inferiority until the Victorian era when the Romantics elevated women to “custodians of the sacred” (23), the moral superiority of women was in many seventeenth-century circles a conventional opinion, and to some, a feminist tenet. For example, this attitude provided the underpinning for the précieuses movement, where feminist theory argued on behalf of women’s education and capacities in the service of the state, viewing ruling-class women as the proper guardians and inculcators of civic virtue. The cult of platonic love, which celebrated women’s spiritual as well as physical beauty, was a supportive component of précieuses feminist doctrine (Lougée). Latt comments that in England, Henrietta Maria

... enhanced the status of women by demanding that her courtiers adopt the platonizing attitudes popular at the time in France.... The masques and pastorals of the period [1625–49] testify to her influence, for in both genres women are elaborately praised for their ability to refine the grosser sensibilities of men. Henrietta Maria made fashionable the idea of the affective power of feminine virtue. (40)

This neoplatonic tradition of feminism continued in muted forms throughout the century, culminating at the end of the era in the works of Mary Astell. Her “Female Monastery” was designed to encourage, train, and sustain women in a new productive social role as keepers and transmitters of the moral and spiritual flame. In Astell’s feminist vision, to upper-class women rightfully belonged “the Glory of Reforming this Prophane and Profligate Age” (Mary Astell; qtd. Kinnaird 73). As Kinnaird reminds us, this is the model conservative feminist argument, with traceable roots in classical Rome where it was women’s accepted function to breed proper (male) citizens for the state (71).

2.2   Cavendish and the Feminist Tradition

To this intellectual fracas, Margaret Cavendish added her voice in 1653. By this time, she was, of course, an avid New Scientist who in part accepted, and in large part disputed, the antifeminist tenets of both “ancients” and “moderns.” She had spent two-and-one-half years in the court of Henrietta Maria, and although Cavendish’s own response to neoplatonic feminism was (typically) mixed, the efforts at court to rethink heterosexual romance and woman’s social role had been a formative influence. She was also well-schooled in the querelle des femmes, and while loath to attribute influence to any established literary or intellectual tradition, Cavendish’s more radical feminist visions amplified themes already associated in pamphleteering and popular thinking with a feminist line on the woman question.<7>

But Cavendish also advanced the cause of feminism well beyond the bounds of the querelle des femmes. Perhaps most significant, she introduced the feminine experience into the heretofore male-dominated, high-prestige registers of literature, scholarship, statesmanship, and philosophy. Suddenly the woman question was no longer relegated to a special pamphlet genre, but was pervasive at all levels of discourse. Hilda Smith has rightly remarked that “It is difficult to imagine any individual thinking more often about how being a woman influenced her life or how being male determined the life of men. The theme was ... constant in her works” (Reason’s Disciples 80–1, 78). No matter the topic, genre, or rhetorical context, gender issues permeated Cavendish’s discourse. This was a quite remarkable break with tradition.

Cavendish’s freeform exploration of gender — the result of positing a consciously female subject as the originator of discourse — yielded a reinvigorated discussion of feminism that was more complex in its analysis and more reaching in its implications than anything produced within the confines of the antiwoman/prowoman dialectic. Cavendish authored the first feminist debates in British history (see her Orations 225–32, plus a number of her plays) and in so doing interjected a needed plurality of perspective and argument on the woman question. She emphasized difference as well as sameness in women’s lived experience and drew a portrait of womanhood that avoided monolithic statement. The incredible variety of detail and abstraction which she excerpted from the tangled web of women’s daily lives (her own included) added to the richness of that portrait.

2.3   “Ambition of Extraordinary Fame”

What propelled Cavendish to the most far-reaching feminism of the century is in the end inexplicable without an understanding of her frustrated ambition for power. Cavendish was obsessed with ambition. In her Blazing World, the character of the Duchess of Newcastle confesses that she herself does not fully understand “the height, depth, or breadth of her Ambition” (93). Hers was a “restless” ambition (Natures Pictures A4v) bounded only by the degree to which Cavendish was capable of transcending her historical moment in imagining a possible means of fulfillment. For the most part, her ambition reached to the pinnacle of imperial power: “my present desire is, that I would be a great Princess ... an Empress of a World” (Blazing World 94). Frustrated in this ambition, Cavendish hungered for a “masculine” fame: “to seek, or run after Glory ... to desire Praise” (Poems and Fancies A4r). This, in turn, became an astonishing bid for ubiquity and immortality: “I am so Ambitious, as I am restless to Live, as Nature doth, in all Ages, and in every Brain ... and ... Heart” (Sociable Letters 178).

The sheer audacity of such ambition in a woman was sufficient to convince a seventeenth-century audience of Cavendish’s madness. Also, her ambition bordered dangerously on atheism. In lieu of the conventional pieties, Cavendish wrote that “The desire of Fame proceedes from a doubt of an after being”; “There is nothing I Dread more than ... the Oblivion in Death” (Worlds Olio 1, Sociable Letters 177). Cavendish thus sought eternal life on earth, among men, rather than under a heavenly canopy. Through worldly glory, not God, would come her desired deific status: “Fame makes us like the Gods, to live for ever” (1662 Playes 587; see also Orations 159–60).

For Cavendish, two paths led to the sort of fame capable of conquering “Death, in a perpetual Life”: “singularity as well as merit, advances fame” (Observations a2r; 1662 Playes 130, also 463). Accordingly, Cavendish strove “to be as singular as I can” in “Accoutrements, Behaviour, and Discourse” (Blazing World 149). Because of her insular upbringing and natural proclivities, an extravagence beyond what was considered “usual” or even “extraordinary” was not too difficult to achieve. However “merit,” which rested ultimately upon public approbation, seemed always to elude Cavendish, despite her lifelong struggle in its pursuit.

2.4   Alienation from Conventional Female Culture

Cavendish’s autobiography, A True Relation, reveals the extreme insularity of her family life, depicting a body of children “so far from mingling themselves with any other company” that they maintained “themselves in a flock together” even after multiple marriages and the London lifestyle should have splintered the nuclear family structure (286, 285). The social and political alienation of the Lucas family from local culture has already been pointed out by Sara Mendelson, as well as its contributing influence to Margaret’s self-proclaimed “vain-glorious” and “unsociable” character (Women in Seventeenth-Century England 26, 29–34). Grant notes more than once that “the comfortable cocoon of the family” completely protected Cavendish “from any pressure towards conformity” (41, 44). Mendelson further argues that the isolation which shielded Cavendish during childhood from society and its norms was later reinforced in adulthood by lengthy periods of exile during and after the Civil War, including a self-imposed exile to the countryside after the Restoration, and by the freedoms allotted Cavendish through marriage “under Newcastle’s uxorious dotage” (Women in Seventeenth-Century England 101). As a result of the protective custody provided by family and circumstances, Cavendish’s acculturation as a woman was anomalous. She was decidedly different from the majority of women of her class; and she cherished that difference for its liberating potential and for the masculine fame that it promised.

Excluded from any direct exercise of public power, and limited in her display of domestic power, the woman of rank found her honor increasingly tied to conformance with the new feminine ideal. A woman of good character was portrayed as pious, chaste, obedient, humble, silent — a non-ego.<8> James Norris’ 1683 Haec & Hic described “the sad Fate of Females” resulting from their newly-restrained domestic role: “they are depriv’d of all means to advance themselves; so that no wonder they are not publickly Famous, being forc’d to lead a retir’d Life at home ... [T]hey climb by Intrusion to Honour and Dignity, not by Title or Merit, not by Rule or Divine Command, but by Strength and might” (28–9). Despite certain concessions to prescribed femininity, Cavendish would not take on the feminine non-ethos. “I had rather die,” she wrote, “in the adventure of noble achievements, then live in obscure and sluggish security; since by the one, I may live in a glorious Fame; and by the other I am buried in oblivion” (Blazing World 95–6). Flaunting conventions that tried to confine her ego, she threatened “I will break down Customs Walls” (1662 Playes 504). To an unjust culture that then openly censured her for asserting what Cavendish deemed a “natural” self-love, she retorted “I matter not the censures of this age, but am rather proud of them; for it shows that my actions are more than ordinary” (Life liii).

Patricia Spacks writes that “the self-assertions of fashion provide a conventionally acceptable way for a woman to display herself” (The Female Imagination 194). Here too, however, Cavendish bucked convention. Although Margaret claimed that her self-adornment was always “honourable, and modest,” contemporary comments by Evelyn (both Mr. and Mrs.), Pepys, and Lyttleton testify otherwise. Firth’s edition of Margaret’s Life of William includes a quote from John Evelyn’s diary for April 1667 remarking that Margaret’s dress was “very singular” (312–3). Margaret herself admits that such “singularity” was deliberate: even in her youth,

I took great delight in attiring, fine dressing, and fashions, especially such fashions as I did invent myself, not taking that pleasure in such fashions as was invented by others. Also I did dislike any should follow my fashions, for I always took delight in a singularity, even in accoutrements of habits.
(A True Relation 312)

Fashion was for Cavendish a means of aggressive public statement. She deployed fashion conventionally in order to accentuate and advertise her beauty, but she also deliberately cultivated its shock value. She experimented with unusual ways to combine utility, comfort, beauty, and spectacle in dress. Such experiments often entailed a wild indulgence of fancy and splendour. For example, Cavendish designed for herself (and her heroines) hats of “falling-Feathers, which wav’d with the air, / Fanning their Faces, like a Zephyrus Wind, / Shadowing the Sun, that strove their Eyes to blind” (Natures Pictures 95). Mary Evelyn used the word “fantastical” to describe such garb (qtd. Mendelson, Women in Seventeenth-Century England 97). And like the Hic Mulier dressers of an earlier era, Cavendish also (including for her visit to the Royal Society) violated codes of male and female dress by publicly adopting masculine attire and manners. During the Restoration period, her experiments with masculine styles and deportment, always highly individualized, were no longer even remotely “a la mode.”

The extravagance of dress for which Cavendish was renowned had yet a further rationale. Cavendish used fashion to project the imperial presence denied to her in the public sphere. And she exploited fashion in order to command deference and respect. Dress used as a marker (and upholder) of class status and privilege was perfectly normal. Royalty and nobility relied in great part on clothing and outward displays of ceremony in order to rationalize their superior status and power. Cavendish expressed the code of the aristocrat in writing that the want of ceremony flattens hierarchies and makes rulers “appear as ordinary men” (1662 Playes 338). Less acceptable in a woman, however, was the reliance on dress to consolidate individual rather than class power. If “I were a King, or had a Royal Power,” Cavendish fantasized, “I would create such Ceremonies, as I would be Deify’d, and so worship’d, ador’d, and pray’d to whilst I live” (1662 Playes 338). Her dress was in large part an attempt at enforcing such adulation from her peers and the masses. Without it, she believed, her acclamation would be incomplete: in order for “a Famous, Learned Man, or Witty Poet” to be appropriately “Admired both for their Conversation and Contemplation” by the “Foolish, especially Women,” each “must put on a Constrain’d Garb and Speak some Gibbriage” (Sociable Letters 255–6; see also Worlds Olio 76).

Able from childhood to indulge her own inclinations (for fantasy, solitary contemplation, poetry, nature study, writing, fashion design), the adult Margaret was distanced from and largely disinterested in women’s conventional domestic role. She did not share many of the predominating aspects of female experience, and she did not seek common ground with other women. She was selective about which tasks of “huswifery” she performed, preferring estate to household management, and neglecting the usual female employments for those of her own choosing (namely, musing and writing): “I cannot Work, I mean such Works as Ladies use to pass their Time withall ... all of which I am Ignorant of ... But yet ... I am not a Dunce in all Imployments, for I Understand the Keeping of Sheep, and Ordering of a Grange, indifferently well” (Sociable Letters b1r–b1v). Unable to have children, she did not share as a participant in the birthing ritual, and was something less than charitable in her descriptions of the “lying-in.” Neither did she enjoy the usual pleasures, such as dancing, gossip, or flirting, associated with sociability or court life. Above all, her fixation with fame, death, and the swift passage of time promoted a disdain for frivolity and sensuous pleasures: women, she complained, too often “sport and play, dance and sing the time away” (1662 Playes 656); thus, like beasts, women “live only to the sense, not to the reason; and so turne into forgotten dust” (Poems and Fancies 162).

Cavendish’s indifference to many typical female concerns and activities, her continual assault on accepted definitions of femininity, and her public awkwardness and lack of social skills all discouraged female friendship. In addition, she was aloof and judgmental (a Lucas family fault; see A True Relation 311–12). In general, it was Margaret’s habit, while entertaining acquaintances and strangers, to regard “not much what they said, but many times I did observe their actions, whereupon my reason as judge, and my thoughts as accusers, or excusers, or approvers and commenders, did plead, or appeal to accuse, or complain thereto” (A True Relation 310–11). This, when coupled with her tendency to retreat from reality and the carelessness resulting from her usual self-absorption, could have disastrous results. Letter LXVI of the Sociable Letters recounts an incident where Cavendish, in contemplating the nature of mankind, narrowed her inquiry to a particular example — a lady of her acquaintance — and to aid in the investigation, listed on one sheet of paper the lady’s “excellencies” and on another, her “defects.” Cavendish afterwards decided to compliment the lady by sending her the sheet of praises, but instead mailed the list of imperfections. Needless to say, the lady was not pleased (138–40).

This alienation from what Mendelson somewhat romanticizes as “the conventional domestic role in which women offered each other a continual exchange of moral and material support” (Women in Seventeenth-Century England 355) was in many ways liberating for Cavendish. Having spent the majority of her life on the fringes of conventional female culture, Margaret was unusually motivated to look beyond the bounds of the accepted and explore “imaginations of impossibilities” (Worlds Olio 37) for women. Where many other women remained locked within patriarchal definitions of their limitations — Cavendish astutely noted that “we [are] as ignorant of our selves as men [are] of us, thinking our selves shiftless, weak, and unprofitable Creatures” (1662 Playes 617) — Margaret’s own imagination soared to aspiring visions of women’s potential.

Her overall alienation from her culture also permitted Cavendish a degree of self-definition outside the bounds of gender. Her concept of self was not dictated solely by her affiliation with women as a group. A focus on self as a floating individual rather than as a fixed member of a particular gendered group permitted the demands of ego to surface early on, despite her feminine status. Cavendish was thus freer than most women of her day to indulge her own inclinations, following the preferences of self over society. Too, her outsider’s status, dating from childhood, prepared her for coping with the pressures of difference and community censure. Never impervious to criticism or disapproval, Cavendish nonetheless would not be forced to conform in order to avoid peer-group hostility.

With no particular stake in conventional femininity, Cavendish was able to level a powerful critique against it. She had little to lose from radical changes in accepted definitions of women’s role and education. This was not true for all women — many of whom felt a vested interest in maintaining the sexual status quo — and Cavendish’s works document this. Her stories and plays abound with the drama of intergenerational conflicts between women. Typically, the elderly women in positions of control (mothers, advisers, matrons, chaperones) adopt an antifeminist stance, counselling their female charges in dutiful obeisance or resignation to the sexual double standard, while the young heroines actively pursue new strategies of resistance and empowerment.<9> In one variation on this theme, Cavendish inveighed against the tradition of “women breeding up women” as a means of indoctrinating young girls in “feminine” culture. Her own experience furnished ample grounds for complaint,<10> which were flushed out in the debate between Mother Love and Father Love in Youths Glory (1662 Playes). There, Mother Love claims that the education of a daughter rightfully belongs to the mother who will bring her up according “as usually our Sex is,” trained in the skills and appropriate attitudes associated with her conventional domestic role and exemplified in the mother. Father Love argues heatedly that “women breeding up women ... and ancient customs being a second nature, makes folly hereditary in that Sex, by reason their education is effeminate, and their times spent in pins, points and laces, their study only vain fashions.” He would have daughters “bred in learned Schools, to noble Arts and Sciences, as wise men are,” including “to ride Horses, and fight Dewels” if “it be to defend their Honour, Countrey and Religion.” Their daughter, Sanspareille, clearly resents the mother who would thwart her scholarly ambitions and force her to accommodate custom, no matter what the cost (e.g., 1662 Playes 124, 125).

2.5   Cavendish’s Feminist Dilemma

Cavendish was the first Englishwoman to write extensively on the woman question outside the framework of the querelle des femmes. She was well-rehearsed in the conventional arguments of the querelle and explored the relative force of both pro- and antiwoman contentions in her works. Increasingly, Cavendish found antifeminist dogma an inadequate justification for women’s oppression, and yet she was unable to simply dismiss it. Time and again, her observations supported antifeminist theses; this only added to their persuasive power.

The magnitude of Cavendish’s fantasies — both for herself, and for women as a sex — coupled with her extreme difficulty in conceiving the means of their fruition made her fearful that women were perhaps as limited as patriarchy portrayed them. Writing to a close friend, she confided, “Yesterday I employed my time in reading History, and I find in my self an Envy, or rather an Emulation towards Men, for their Courage, Prudence, Wit, and Eloquence.” “I fear,” she continued, that “Women are not Capable of” such things as described in the histories, “and the Despair thereof makes me Envy or Emulate Men.” In particular, “I cannot but wish that Nature and Fate had made me such a one as” Julius Ceasar (Sociable Letters 51–52). At the same time, her probing self-knowledge and observation of other “superior” women, coupled with a keen understanding of women’s and men’s differing lots under patriarchy, caused her to question accepted dogma, in both pro- and antiwoman camps. In the end, she achieved no transcending consensus of opinion; she could devise no single set of arguments that were compelling and complete enough to vanquish all doubt. As Hilda Smith has already puzzled, Cavendish continually undercut her own penetrating analyses and feminist visions with “the commonplace antifeminist judgments of her day” (Reasons Disciples 79). As such, Cavendish dealt courageously in multiple, conflicting realities, all constitutive of what it meant to be a woman in seventeenth-century England. The great strength of her work, I think, rests in this willingness to lay bare and leave unresolved her fears versus fantasies about self and women.

2.5.1 Argument: Woman is by nature weaker than man

The most sustained expression of antifeminist sentiment in Cavendish’s works is found in the fifth preface to the Worlds Olio (sigs. A4r–A5v). In general, this text is her most conservative. It contains fewer challenges to the status quo than any of her other works and less exuberant fancifying. It is in large part a eulogy for the pre-Republican era, steeped in nostalgia for a lost world, and peppered with antiwoman homilies and reactionary political statement. Written (1650) and published (1655) during her most bleak period of exile, the Worlds Olio exudes melancholy and defeatism. Margaret had by this time relinquished all hopes for the Royalist cause and the restoration of monarchy in England; her revered brother-in-law, Sir Charles Cavendish, had recently died in England; she and William were impoverished, with little hopes for relief, as her recent ignominious attempt at petitioning the Commonwealth had proven all too clearly; and she was beset by criticism from the general public for her previous publications. In this atmosphere of doubt and battered dreams, it is not surprising that Cavendish would lack sufficient confidence about women’s condition to author a damning epistle on the subject. Instead, Cavendish here rehashed the most popular line of antiwoman argument in her day: women are physically and mentally weaker than men; thus they are — and rightfully so — barred from arms (power) and letters (reason), the two prestige tasks of culture and civilization as conceived historically by the ruling classes (Kelly 21).<11>

Cavendish begins her attack with a summary statement of the prowoman position associated with the querelle des femmes:

... our sex make great complaints that men from their first creation usurped a supremacy to themselves, although we were made equal by nature, which tyrannical government they have kept ever since ... and will not let us divide the world equally with them, as to govern and command, to direct and dispose as they do; which slavery has so dejected our spirits, as we are become so stupid that ... men use us but a degree above beasts. Whereas in nature we have as clear an understanding as men, if we were bred in schools to mature our brains and to manure our understandings, that we might bring forth the fruits of knowledge. (A4r)

This position is then subjected to rigorous critique. Cavendish lists the truisms of science concerning woman’s cold and moist physiology, and deploys conventional metaphors (e.g., man is like the sun, woman is like the moon) to describe woman’s weaker nature. If humoral theory and direct observation are not proof enough of woman’s innate inferiority, the reader should next consider that women have never excelled in the professions, the military, the sciences, arts and letters, or politics (A4v). Because women cannot endure the toil of heavy physical labor (Cavendish’s class blinders are apparent here), men alone are responsible for commerce, mining, the building of cities, forging of iron, construction of steeples and pyramids, deep-sea diving and recovery of lost treasure, plus the art of horsemanship (A4v). Next we are told that women have had ample opportunities throughout history to prove themselves equal to men, but have never shown themselves capable of “as clear speculation” nor “been as ingenious and inventive as men” (A5r). What woman ever matched the respective achievements of (and here her list is instructive) such great men as Solon, Tully, Euclid, Archimedes, Homer, Caesar, Alexander, Paracelsus, and selected others? Instead, whatever women have accomplished has been “like apes by imitation” (A5r). Hence, although some women may because of class and education out-perform the more “rustic and rude-bred men,” they can never match the level of achievement attained by the most superior of men (A5v). Neither education nor socialization can correct for this defect of nature: “Education and custom may add something to harden us, yet never make us so strong as the strongest of men” (A5r).

As if recoiling from the ugly “truths” she has so eloquently defended, Cavendish in the end seeks final recompense for women, asserting that weakness of body and brain is truly strength: “fairer, softer, slenderer, and more delicate” than men, women are pure, fanciful, obedient, loving, pious, charitable, clement, patient, and humble, all of “which makes them nearest to resemble angels ... the most perfect of all [nature’s] works, where men by their ambitions, extortion, fury, and cruelty resemble the devil” (A5v). However, this also is recognized as a troublesome line of argument, for Cavendish next admits that not all women are celestial creatures. Women can and do renounce their angelical traits for masculine ones, becoming “like devils too” (A5v). Then too, even the most angelical of women cannot compete with “the best of men,” who “by their heroic, magnanimous minds, by their ingenious and inventive wits, by their strong judgments, by their prudent forecast and wise managements are like to gods” (A5v). With this alarming vision of earthly hierarchies transferred into the hereafter, Cavendish abruptly closes her epistle.

Antifeminist tenets premised on woman’s inherent physical weaknesses surface repeatedly in Cavendish’s works.<12> It was the most difficult “fact” for her to refute, since to do so, flew in the face of logic and observation. Only in the world of her imagination could Cavendish posit a situation where women might develop physical strength to rival that of men. She felt deeply, but couldn’t prove within the confines of accepted patterns of discourse, that women only appear “witless” and “strengthless” because “we Neglect the One, and make no Use of the Other, for Strength is Increased by Exercise, and Wit is Lost for want of Conversation” (Orations 228). She knew also that accepted definitions of strength were male-biased and needed to be reworked from the feminist standpoint: for example, in childbirth and the breeding of children, women “indure greater Pains with greater Patience than Men usually do,” proving their comparable physical and mental stamina (Orations 182). Nor did she accept as a given the starting premise of humoral theory concerning women’s inferiority. In Cavendish’s play the Wits Cabal, a Matron rebukes the misogynist Satyrical with a competing statement of fact: “You are mistaken Sir, and mis-inform’d: for we women have as hot brains as any of the Masculine Sex of you all have” (1662 Playes 270). But these radical confrontations were never more than fragments of discourse. Despite her remarkable achievements in the feminist debate of the Orations, Cavendish in the end lacked the data and learning to sustain the feminist standpoint in an argumentative frame capable of supplanting that of the antifeminists. Despite what she knew to be true, Cavendish couldn’t prove (or even articulate) most of it within the accepted framework of patriarchal discourse.

2.5.2 Argument: Women’s emancipation would undermine
     state and family

As if aware that the tautologic nature of the woman-is-weaker argument limited its effectiveness, Cavendish bolstered the one by resorting to a women’s-emancipation-undermines-state-and-family argument towards the end of her antifeminist epistle in the Worlds Olio: “nature, out of love to the generation of man, has made women to be governed by men, giving them strength to rule, and power to use their authority” (A5v). With this, Cavendish craftily shifted the ground of debate away from problematics — woman’s innate capacity for reason, and the justice of her claim to equality — to the indisputable role of female chastity in maintaining the patriarchal state: “the education and liberty of conversation which men have is both unfit and dangerous to our sex, knowing that we may bear and bring forth branches from a wrong stock, by which every man would come to lose the property of their own children” (A5r–A5v).

References to this particular antifeminist creed surface more than once in Cavendish’s works, mostly articulated by male characters, as in the Orations: “Liberty makes all Women Wild and Wanton, both Maids, Wives, and Widdows, which Defames Themselves and their Families” (223). That such homilies are casually thrown about in her conversations (particularly in the plays), without substantiating argument or challenge, reveals the degree of social acceptance accorded this particular line of thinking.

2.5.3 Argument: Nature, not men, subjugates women

This particular argument (also repeatedly invoked by male voices in Cavendish’s texts) is given some attention in the important series of debates on the woman question that constitute Part 11 of Cavendish’s Orations. Here, one woman orator argues to her female audience that men are “our Admirers, and Lovers ... our Protectors, Defenders, and Maintainers,” not “our Enemies.” Hence, all complaints concerning women’s subordinate status should be directed at nature rather than patriarchy: “we have more Reason to Murmur against Nature than against Men.” Indeed, it is men (through their ingenuity, wit, wisdom, strength, industry, and labor) who mitigate the cruelties of nature imposed on women: “without Men we should be the most Miserable Creatures that Nature Hath, or Could make” (Orations 227–8).

The theme of man as the gallant defender of woman against her own inadequacies and a cruel world recurs in various forms throughout Cavendish’s works. She herself was particularly susceptible to fictions of the masculine protector, having to rely heavily on William’s aid in confronting a hostile reading public, and preferring this image over others when assuming the appropriate pose of wifely deference required by both her husband and public. Too, William’s staunch advocacy of the old-school Cavalier practice of noblesse oblige relied in large part on the concept of a benign paterfamilias. Margaret more than once echoed her husband’s political nostalgia for the glory days of aristocracy. Nonetheless, while some of Margaret’s plays herald the noble patriarch as woman’s benefactor, they also undercut him as the instrument of women’s emancipation.

2.5.4 Argument: The feminine condition is superior to the
     masculine; why then should women wish to change it?

The argument that there’s basically nothing wrong with women’s lot is advanced in varying forms in Cavendish’s texts by women who worry that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose from any change in the sexual status quo. These female voices argue on behalf of conventional femininity, in opposition to those who belittle or reject it: “Women have no Reason to Complain against Nature, or the God of Nature, for though the Gifts are not the Same they have given to Men, yet those Gifts they have given to Women, are much Better.” Hence, “why should we Desire to be Masculine, since our Own Sex and Condition is far the Better?” (Orations 231–2).

The argument that femininity-is-better-than-masculinity is posed on a number of levels. First, the advantage of the female sex is located in women’s superior seductive powers: “we Women are much more Favour’d by Nature than Men, in Giving us such Beauties, Features, Shapes, Gracefull Demeanour, and such Insinuating and Inticing Attractives, as Men are Forc’d to Admire us, Love us, and be Desirous of us” (Orations 232). Second, the masculine condition (with its emphasis on danger and labor) is portrayed as traumatizing and undesirable: it would destroy women’s beauty, make them old before their time, and result in physical hardship (again, this argument assumes upper-class status). Third, the feminine condition is portrayed as desirable because supremely powerful: nature “hath been so bountiful to us, as we oftener inslave men, than men inslave us” (Sociable Letters 27). “Rather than not Have and Injoy us,” men “will Deliver to our Disposals, their Power, Persons, and Lives, Inslaving Themselves to our Will and Pleasures” (Orations 232). Thus, men only “seem to govern the world, but we really govern the world, in that we govern men” (Sociable Letters 27). The fact that men will not believe or acknowledge women’s “prevalent power ... ’tis the better for us, for by that we govern as it were by an insensible power, so as men perceive not how they are Led, Guided, and Rul’d by the Feminine Sex” (Sociable Letters 28). In sum: “we are their Saints, whom they Adore and Worship, and what can we Desire more, than to be Men’s Tyrants, Destinies, and Goddesses?” (Orations 232).

Cavendish was clearly drawn to this comforting vision of women’s behind-the-scenes power; there was, after all, some basis for it in reality. As a male privy counsellor in the Blazing-world remarks: although women “are not admitted to publick Employments, yet are they so prevalent with their Husbands and Parents, that many times by their importunate perswasions, they cause as much, nay, more mischief secretly, then if they had the management of publick Affairs” (Blazing World 18). Cavendish was acutely aware of the real power attained by women, especially at court, through sexual favor and pillow talk. She had observed men’s elaborate professions of love and devotion during courtship and love-making. And her observations had penetrated even further to men’s unconscious obeisance to the lure of sexual enticement — not just with wives and mistresses, she tells us, but also “Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, Aunts, Cousins, nay, Maid-Servants ... and a Land-lady with her Lodger, or a she-Hostess with her he-Guest” (Sociable Letters 28). Nonetheless, her textual portraits of relations between the sexes consistently belie such sentiment as high-flying romance or wilful and dangerous self-delusion. In the Wits Cabal, the female character Faction deconstructs the proferred adage that women are the greatest conquerors because they conquer conquering men: “none are absolute Conquerors but those that conquer power, that is, those that get absolute dominion over all the World ... and never any Woman or Women conquer’d those men [i.e., Alexander and Caesar], as to get them to yield up their power for a womans sake, which shews they were not rul’d by women, although they lov’d women” (1662 Playes 295).

2.5.5 Chronic Criticism of Women

More prevalent in Cavendish’s discourse than the attempts at substantive antifeminist argument are the derogations of women that are delivered casually as statements of fact. Such statements as “Women spoile all good fellow-ship” and “all Womens minds are as inconstant as the wind” or “naturally women loves secrets” and “naturally women are unfit for trust, or council” permeate her texts, spoken both by male and female characters, heroines as well as avowed misogynists, and by Cavendish herself.<13> For the most part, such statements are predicated on cultural commonplaces concerning woman’s “nature.” Thus, a typical litany of women’s faults and foibles informs the reader that as a result of their weaker physiology women are: irresolute, inconstant, willful, changeable, ruled by their passions, superstitious, more witty than wise, more active than industrious, more courageous than prudent, more curious than secretive, more jealous than loving, more stupid than patient, more proud than affable, more beautiful than constant, more ill- than good-natured, vain, hypochondriacal, complaining, and superficial (Worlds Olio A5r).

Cavendish is most strident in her criticism of women’s “talk.” For a number of reasons (including her severe alienation from women’s culture; her reliance on listening as a preferred cognitive and learning style; her extreme discomfort with public speaking), Cavendish shared in the patriarchal critique of women’s orality. Women’s speech, she wrote, is little more than “chatting and prating, twitling and twatling; for I cannot say speaking, or discoursing, which are significant words, placed in a methodical order, then march[t] in a regular body upon the ground of Reason, where sometimes the colour of Fancy is flying.” Furthermore, “if the necessities of nature, and the separations of Neigh-bour-hood, and the changes and inter-course of, and in the affairs of the World, and men did not forcibly stop, sometimes a womans tongue, it would run as far as the confines of death” (1662 Playes 206, 85).

2.5.6 Internalization of Society’s Devaluations

As Joan Kelly has described, women internalized the traditional disparagements of their sex, and Cavendish was no exception. She frequently berates herself for “feminine” imperfections and admits to continual doubts about her worth (because of her sex) to culture, society, or history. Many of these fears and feelings of inadequacy as manifested in her antiwoman commentary were imbibed with the culture from birth.

The internalization of antiwoman biases affected Cavendish’s judgments of all women, and not just herself. The spirited Caprisia, one of four female protaganists in The Comedy Named the Several Wits, publicly decries the “effeminate sex” on more than one occasion. When later apologizing for the severity and bitterness of her censure, Caprisia explains that “my discourse proceeded neither from spite or malice, but from the consideration of my own faults, which being so many, did bury the good grace of other women” (1662 Playes 112). As Cavendish here reveals, learned self-hatred is too frequently displaced onto others within a victimized group in the attempt to salvage self.

2.5.7 Rote Repetition of Antifeminist Dogma

A great deal of the antifeminist statement found in Cavendish’s work can be attributed to the rote recital of antiwoman prejudices that were so ingrained in the culture. Extrapolating from her own experience — “I, in Conversation, Speak, as I may say, without Thinking, or rather Considering” — Cavendish bemoans the fact that thought and speech are too often performed “customarily then premeditately, just like actions of our walking, for we go by custome, force and strength, without a constant notice or observation; for though we designe our wayes, yet we do not ordinarily think of our pace, nor take notice of every several step” (Sociable Letters 450, Worlds Olio E3r). Thus, “although there is an old saying, The Mouth speaketh what the Heart thinketh, yet ... most commonly, the Tongue runs by rote and custom, without the consent of the Heart, or Knowledg of the Thoughts” (Natures Pictures 625). As Cavendish well knew, routine use of accustomed language frequently entails articulation of concepts (for example, sexist, racist, classist, agist, and other “isms”) that are not countenanced by the individual. Few language users escape this dilemma entirely.

While calling on men and (especially) women to employ their natural “rational” gifts when speaking — to be fully cognizant of the role of language in the making of private and social meanings — Cavendish nonetheless exhibits in her own work the devastating costs of what Cameron calls “idle discourse,” the rote repetition of others’ meanings (172–3). Cavendish’s mixed-sex dialogues and publicly-delivered speeches — in truth, most of the passages conforming to approved standards in any of the prestige registers — reflexively detail how language was used within society’s upper strata to augment misogyny.

Simon Shepherd has remarked that the pose of the woman-hater, along with accompanying rhetoric concerning the evil and moral ugliness of women, was a marker of “witty,” sophisticated discourse during the seventeenth century (54). Cavendish and her heroines who wished to appear “witty” were thus partly compelled into an antiwoman stance by rhetorical protocols. The Female Speaker who displays her wit and eloquence to an admiring public in The Female Academy spins ingenious metaphors that equate wit with women and wisdom with men, in the process depicting women as wild and various, meddling busybodies, fantastical, always in extremes, loquacious, humorsome, prodigal, anxious for praise, immersed in frivolity, and often wanton (1662 Playes 656). This conventional show of wit, anchored in antifeminist dogma, occurs in one of Cavendish’s most radical plays; indeed, the play’s plotline centers on the heroic efforts of a group of women to wrest control of sociable discourse.

Any rote recital of conventional witticisms, especially within the repartee of courtship and mixed-sex socializing, necessarily entailed the free play of antiwoman sentiment. Over and over, Cavendish unveils this restrictive property of sociable discourse. Many times, her mixed-sex conversations assume a form of anti- and pro-woman dialectic reminiscent of the querelle des femmes where antifeminist witticisms are hotly contested with competing feminist witticisms.<14> But Cavendish also reveals that such feminist parries are more often the result of rhetorical play than any fervid commitment to women’s rights. As the character Observer remarks in The Presence, a woman “will be always talking, and always opposing, to prove her Wit” (1668 Plays 46). In the end, Cavendish and her heroines were forced to break outside the bounds of conventional discourse in order to escape antifeminist structures in thought and language — and even then, escape was only partial.

2.5.8 Conforming to the Feminine Ideal

Clearly, a certain amount of Cavendish’s antifeminist statement resulted from attempts to mollify her audience by appearing to conform to the feminine ideal. Always Cavendish interjects a degree of feminine self-deprecation into an otherwise aggressive display of ego. In the end, her individual acts of assertion triumph over any textual disavowal, but there can be little doubt that the accompanying apologetics made Cavendish’s actions seem less shocking than they in fact were.

Cavendish more than once impugned her own abilities, describing herself as but a “poetess” and refering to her works as “my Scribling.”<15> Her prefaces inform us that she aims at “excellencies” which as a woman she knows she can never achieve. She admits that, because a woman, she produces wit (in appropriately small amounts) and not wisdom. She implores her readers to judge the form and content of her works according to lowered standards that compensate for her sex.<16> She assumes a suitably deferential tone when addressing academicians and others of stature in the professional world.<17> And she concedes her unfitness to discuss topics outside the female purview: “how should I Write Orations,” she asks, which “for the most part, are concerning War, Peace, and Matters of State, and Business in the Commonwealth, all which I am not Capable of, as being a Woman, who hath neither Knowledge, Ability, nor Capacity in State Affairs” (Sociable Letters 367). Such statements (and they are numerous) constitute little more than a superficial concurrence with gender norms. By the time this last one appeared in print, Cavendish had published an entire book of orations, proudly proclaimed the singularity of her act,<18> and vigorously defended her right therein to argue on behalf of “vice” as well as virtue.

Margaret clearly perceived a need to show proper deference in public to “my lord and husband.” She was careful to pay homage to William at the start of each of her works, and such remarks as “I have Dedicated my Self and all my Actions to your Lordship” run throughout her texts, acknowledging to a censuring audience her acceptance of the subordinate role of dutiful wife (Orations a1v). That such a pose was purposely contrived at is shown by the history of the frontispiece to Natures Pictures as recounted by Douglas Grant. The original study by Diepenbeke has Margaret expounding authoritatively to an attentive family circle; the actual engraving used for publication exchanges William for Margaret in the role of narrator, although the less prominent verses that accompany the visual (e.g., “To hear me tell them tales as I think fit”) make no such concession (Grant 152). Although Margaret’s affection for and gratitude to her husband were genuine, the carefully-crafted persona of submissive wife was not.<19>

Similarly, the deliberate inclusion of pieces written by William in each of her works had strategic import. His many prefaces lauding her publications served to underscore his approval of her writing and to lend the full weight of his still-considerable political clout to her quest for public applause. “I cannot chuse but declare to the World how happy I and my works are in your Approvement,” she writes on one occasion; “it makes me confident and resolute to put them to the Press, and so to the Publik view, in despite of these Critical times and Censorious age ... my Works having your Approbation, I regard not the Dislike of other men” — nor should other readers, is the obvious implication (Orations a1r–a1v).

William’s added songs, essays, poems, and dramatic scenes increased the prestige of Margaret’s texts at the same time that they provided a subtle means for self-promotion and public acclaim. For example, it is William who authors important scenes in her plays that recount the oratorical splendors of an eloquent heroine, describing her brilliance of mind and body and the auditory public’s subsequent admiration and devotion (e.g., Youths Glory, and Deaths Banquet in the 1662 Playes). Equally important, William’s added pieces worked for Margaret as a tactic of inclusion, connecting her husband with rather than excluding him from her publication effort. It helped defuse any potential for spousal complaint due to perceived neglect, wifely insubordination, or competitiveness. And it encouraged William to look favorably upon Margaret’s impending fame for the glory it would reflect back on him. Rather than feeling threatened by his wife’s ambition, William sensed that Margaret’s writings would “give you an Eternal Fame” and “make me famous too in such a Wife” (Observations a2r).

Margaret was fond of stating that her thoughts derived in large part from her husband: “if there be any Wit, or any thing worthy of Commendations, they are the Crumms I gathered from your Discourse, which hath fed my Fancy” (Worlds Olio A2r; see also E4r). And William is portrayed as responsible for imparting to Margaret’s “feminine” mind a needed masculine-style discipline. Thus, before her marriage, Margaret’s

... thoughts were like travellers seldom at home, and when they returned brought nothing but vanity and uneasy fashions, busying themselves on that as nothing concern’d them, or could any wayes advantage them, troubling themselve with trifles, putting my minde in disorder; but since my Lord hath learnt me the way of fortifying it ... my minde is become an absolute Monark, ruling alone, my thoughts as a peacable Common-wealth, and my life an expert Souldier, which my Lord setled, composed, and instructed....
(Worlds Olio H3v)

This vision of Cavendish’s mind as tamed to rule-by-hierarchy was a convenient fiction which no one who reads her works could possibly take seriously. Nor could the claim that she was but her husband’s mouthpiece be easily believed. For one thing, Margaret was dabbling in poetry and philosophy long before she ever met William.<20> For another, Margaret was particularly disdaining of what she referred to as mere “translating wits”: “Nature gives true Wit to very few: for many that are accounted Wits, are but Wit-leeches, that suck and swell with wit of other men” (Philosophicall Fancies 80, 1662 Playes 341). Cavendish prided herself on her stellar wit, for which, as she carefully pointed out, she was beholden to no man or woman but herself — “My own Inheritance, as Natures child” (1662 Playes A11v). There is ample proof that Margaret did not in fact consider her own wit either ordinary or inferior. There are many times when she says as much or has William say it for her.<21> Indeed, Cavendish fervidly believed that her claim to fame rested in proving the independence and originality of her wit.

In keeping with her pose of conventional femininity, Cavendish often subjected herself and her heroines to the same antifeminist clichés she applied to other women. For example, in the Sociable Letters we encounter the homily “all Women, and so I amongst the rest, are more apt to Talk, than to Learn with Attention” (450). From what we know of Cavendish’s immoderate bashfulness and demonstrated preference for listening over speaking, this is clearly an untruth. Similarly, in her play The Publick Wooing, the heroine Prudence publicly spurns an offer of marriage from a churchman, using antifeminist dogma to justify her refusal: women by nature talk too much and are too restless to be a fit “companion for Contemplations”; they are “obstructers and disturbers of Divinity and Divines”; women, descended from Eve are temptresses; divines should not marry and render themselves a victim to “effeminate temptations” (1662 Playes 386). As her name implies and the play is designed to demonstrate, Prudence is of course exempt from these aspersions. Her cooptation of antifeminist argument in the service of feminine self-assertion is not atypical in Cavendish’s works.

2.5.9 Real Antifeminist Values

There is no question that a certain amount of Cavendish’s antiwoman statement was neither contrived nor recited, but true to her own passions and past. She wrote it because she believed it.

This is most obvious in her derisive mock-ups of life at court. Cavendish, like so many men before her, openly satirized her milieu. A number of her works berate the ladies of the court for idleness, forced frivolity, flirtatiousness, rivalry, dissimulation, and debauchery. While notably reminiscent of bourgeois antifeminism directed at court and class, Cavendish’s critiques were in part inspired by feminist sentiments. Cavendish was angered by all women who did not complement nobility of birth and/or place with nobility of character. With the familiar arrogance of the aristocrat, she believed that the actions of upper-class women set the tone for the female sex as a whole. Thus women at the pinnacle of social hierarchies bore a particular responsibility for challenging gender stereotypes by way of example. Such women should be paragons of mind, body, and soul. Instead Cavendish saw at court women mired in trivialities and decadence, women whose lifestyles she considered degrading of both class and sex. To her mind, such careless disregard of feminine potential only reinforced antiwoman dogma. In her plays, misogynists flourish at court, feeding on and at the same time fostering women’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Women’s complicity in their own victimization provoked Cavendish to merciless critique of femininity “a la mode.”

Partly because she rejected the feminine subculture of her society, Cavendish chided those who lived it. Where she did not dare to attack directly the feminine ideal of modesty, she did portray the distortions and hypocrisies such an ideal inflicted on the lives of women. Two of her favorite antiwoman charges — “deceiving craft” and intrasex rivalry — can be attributed to this. In her texts, Cavendish directed particular ire at feminine strategies of empowerment which she depicted negatively as “deceiving Craft” or “cheating Craft and Subtilty,” claiming that “Women are well practiced therein” (Sociable Letters 12). Thus, “though men may dissemble to women, yet it is women that deceive men, and we glory in it” (1662 Playes 414). Cavendish acknowledged that women could attain limited power through covert actions, but she disputed both the perquisites and the price. Throughout her works, she disdains feminine acts of subterfuge. Again and again she shows how in the end they lend credence to antiwoman stereotypes and sexual inequalities. Cavendish knew only too well that seventeenth-century society was predisposed to lay all dishonor at woman’s door,<22> and her plays in particular wrestled with the double standard inherent in the seventeenth-century code of honor. Condemned by conditions and custom to dissembling practices, Cavendish believed that woman’s honor was as a result justifiably in question. “Women have feigned modesty, but not real modesty; for they put on modesty, as they do paint” warned Monsieur Adviser in The Bridals (1668 Plays 2; see also Worlds Olio 103). In the end, this was the exacting price that women paid for their small triumphs. To an always doubting society, women must continually prove their honor, which by definition could never be secured. Cavendish’s courageous attempt to extend “self-creating honour” to women as well as men as part of her strategy for women’s liberation meant that she was especially harsh in her criticisms of women whose (to her mind) ignoble actions impugned “the honour of our Sex.” Her blueprint for feminism spelled out quite clearly that the arts of “feminine” intrigue (“Plotting, Designing, Factions” [Sociable Letters 12]) be superceded by a more ennobling “masculine” ethos.

Cavendish also indicted the prevailing social conditions that pitted woman against woman in the competition for husbands and masculine favor. In her view, feminine self-interest within the sexual marketplace encouraged suspicion of any woman who was different, resentment of any woman who was similar. “I have often observed, that Women with Women seldom Agree, for our Sex is so Self-loving, as we cannot Indure a Competitor, much less a Superiour,” she complained (Sociable Letters 331). Playing on such feminine rivalries as these is the secret to Monsieur Mode’s considerable success with (and destruction of) women in Cavendish’s play The Presence. Mode counsels a would-be lover “be sure you raile of all Women generally, but praise every particular one” (1668 Plays 49). Such divide-and-rule tactics effectively sanctioned misogyny. When accused of being a “woman-hater,” Lord Courtship redeemed himself by responding “I only speak of generalities, not particulars” (1662 Playes 197).

The feminine rivalry Cavendish describes was very real. Her plays in particular document the extreme toll it exacted from women, spreading an invidious mistrust among those who had reason to bond together. Cavendish’s portrayal of women’s mean competitive spirit is nonetheless largely exaggerated, distorted by her own experiences at court where she felt embattled on all sides, by women and men alike. She was perhaps harshest in her judgment of women to whom she had initially looked for support and found only ridicule or betrayal (a favorite villain in her plays is the woman “baud” who masquerades as a friend to ingenues). On the up side, Cavendish counterbalanced this prejudicial picture with fantasy visions of female bonding, possible on a mass scale when women step outside cultural bounds to create new societies where “the power lives within my self” (1662 Playes 541) rather than emanating from the man without.

Justifying her antiwoman tirades, Cavendish writes, “I beseech my Readers to believe I speak not out of Envy or Spight, for I am guilty of neither, but out of a grieved love to my own Sex” (Worlds Olio 215). As we have seen, Cavendish’s quest for feminist reform did sometimes lead to antiwoman commentary (perhaps better rephrased as criticism of women and women’s role). But her antiwoman criticisms also reveal her pique at real and imagined slights, her own maneuverings in pursuit of socio-political advancement, and the usual urge to remake society in the satirist’s own image. She certainly displayed sour grapes on more than one occasion. There is, for example, her ill-humored commentary on women petitioners in her autobiography, coming right on the heels of a revealing description of her own failures at committee. Far from applauding her competitors in discourse (as she elsewhere engages them to do her), Cavendish downplays their considerable achievements: “the customs of England being changed as well as the laws ... women become pleaders, attornies, petitioners, and the like, running about with their several causes, complaining of their several grievances, exclaiming against their several enemies, bragging of their several favours they receive from the powerful, thus trafficking with idle words” (A True Relation 298–9). She ends her rebuke by clarifying for whom it was intended: “I mean not noble, virtuous, discreet, and worthy persons [such as herself] whom necessity did enforce to submit, comply, and follow their own suits, but such as had nothing to lose, but made it their trade to solicit” (299).

Neither are Cavendish’s criticisms of slatternly or insolent behavior in maids justifiable on feminist grounds; rather, they are predicated on the perceived threat these women pose to the lady of the house. Cavendish relates a number of stories wherein maids compete with their mistresses for a dallying husband’s (sometimes a father, brother, or other male guardian) attention, wealth, and surrogate power. Similarly, aspersions against other women of the “vulgar” classes usually evolve from competing class interests rather than feminist concerns or attempts at objective reportage.

Cavendish’s most persistent antiwoman prejudice was of women as scolds (in a favorite image, “women’s tongues are like stings of bees” [Worlds Olio A4r]). This too derived from a series of unhappy interactions with women rather than “out of a grieved love to my own Sex.” In the Sociable Letters, Cavendish relates a tell-tale experience where

... the Ladies being before Heated with Wine, and then at my Words, with Anger fell into such a Fury with me, as they fell upon me, not with Blows, but with Words ... and it hath so Frighted me, as I shall not hastily go to a Gossiping-meeting again, like as those that become Cowards at the Roaring Noise of Cannons, so I, at the Scolding Voices of Women.
(Sociable Letters 208)

Nor is there any feminist aplomb in Lady Mute’s spiteful retort in The Publick Wooing (delivered secondhand to a sympathetic lover) against women who ridicule her blushing silence as simple-mindedness: no, she will not stoop to defend herself from such aspersions (a resolve that just happens to offer the needed reprieve for her bashfulness); she will instead “scorn them for their many faults, and hate them for their vices” (1662 Playes 392).

2.6   Cavendish’s Feminism: Problem Definition

Cavendish’s commentary on women oscillated uneasily between such habitual antifeminism and some of the most arresting feminist statement voiced during the early modern period. For example, her epistle “To the Two Universities” in the 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions is a sophisticated indictment of women’s oppression, arguing that under the present patriarchal system, women shall in time

... grow irrational as idiots, by the dejectednesse of our spirits, through the careless neglects, and despisements of the masculine sex to the effeminate, thinking it impossible we should have either learning or understanding, wit or judgement, as if we had not rationall souls as well as men, and we out of a custom of dejectednesse think so too, which makes us quit all industry towards profitable knowledge being imployed onely in love, and pettie imployments, which takes away not onely our abilities towards arts, but higher capacities in speculations, so as we are become like worms that onely live in the dull earth of ignorance, winding ourselves sometimes out, by the help of some refreshing rain of good educations which seldom is given us; for we are kept like birds in cages to hop up and down in our houses, not suffered to fly abroad to see the several changes of fortune, and the various humours, ordained and created by nature; thus wanting the experiences of nature, we must needs want the understanding and knowledge and so consequently prudence, and invention of men: thus by an opinion, which I hope is but an erronious one in men, we are shut out of all power, and Authority by reason we are never imployed either in civil nor marshall affaires, our counsels are despised, and laught at, the best of our actions are troden down with scorn, by the over-weaning conceit men have of themselves and through a despisement of us. (B2v)

Cavendish’s impassioned eloquence on the woman question was well-matched by the unusual scope of her investigation. Hilda Smith has rightly remarked that Cavendish “appears to have understood, better than any of her sisters, the multifaceted nature of women’s oppression.” Only Cavendish among seventeenth-century feminists “wrote about women’s general position within society”; while “her contemporaries focused almost exclusively on the topic of education,” Cavendish “presented one of the earliest and most inclusive catalogues of women’s subordinate role in society” (Reason’s Disciples 75, 4, 79). Cavendish’s many portrayals of women’s “Hell of Subjection” (Orations 226) stressed women’s lack of power, status, and freedom under the seventeenth-century system of patriarchy. A favorite image of hers depicted the male-female relationship as one of master-slave: women are “not only Slaves to Sickness, Pains, and Troubles, in Breeding, Bearing, and Bringing up their Children, but they are Slaves to Men’s Humours, nay, to their Vices and Wickednesses” (Orations 183). Thus, “men ... are not only our Tyrants, but our Devils” (Orations 226). Repeatedly Cavendish turned to nature for her images of oppression, likening women’s lot to that of animals in an androcentric universe: “we Live like Bats or Owls, Labour like Beasts, and Dye like Worms” (Orations 226). And she railed bitterly against the inequities of patriarchy: “Men are Happy, and we Women are Miserable, they Possess all the Ease, Rest, Pleasure, Wealth, Power, and Fame, whereas Women are Restless with Labour, Easeless with Pain, Melancholy for want of Pleasures, Helpless for want of Power, and Dye in Oblivion for want of Fame” (Orations 225–6).

However, more unique than her catalog of complaints and abuses was the delivery of her feminist message across multiple genres. Cavendish frequently substituted fiction for polemic and reiterated her message in the form of stories or dramas that recast the devastating effects of women’s oppression in the familiarities of day-to-day living. In her many fictions Cavendish enlisted the powers of show-and-tell to extend the impact of her message, thus hoping to hit the reader with it on multiple cognitive planes.

Cavendish’s analysis of the mechanism of women’s oppression matched the range of her description of its unhappy effects. Although never strung together in a single argumentative piece, Cavendish’s extensive probings into the dynamics of patriarchy were uniquely multifarious. Women’s restricted access to education and experience were frequent subjects of analysis. So too were: the common law; the institution of marriage; the seventeenth-century code of honor; an unquestioned acceptance of tradition; the physical, psychological, and emotional abuse of women; a negative self-image; a falsely universalizing perspective; the conflating of sex and gender; devaluations (both deliberate and not-so-deliberate) of the “feminine”; misrepresentations of women’s versus men’s lives and actions; cultural preferences for competitive, controlling, and coercive behavior; women’s enforced domesticity; and lack of free association for women.

Not only the scope of her analysis was unusual, but so too were the methods. Importantly, Cavendish wrote outside the bounds of the querelle des femmes. She was the initiator of her own discourse. Cavendish’s feminism was thus articulated in response to the fullness of women’s experience as she lived and observed it, and not in answer to the banalities of misogynist argument. In large part, this accounts for both the novelty and cornucopia of feminist description, analysis, and argument in her work. Indeed, the poverty of male-directed dialogue on the woman question is nowhere more evident than in Cavendish’s Orations where the familiar male debate (see pages 222–24) is readily eclipsed by the sophistication and plurality of the discussion that follows (pages 225–32) — an introspective dialogue on women’s issues wrought by and for women.

2.7   Cavendish’s Feminism: Problem Solution

Cavendish was never content merely to call audience attention to women’s “Hell of Subjection.” She knew all too well that “we may Complain, and Bewail our Condition, yet that will not Free us” (Orations 226). Although at times she despaired that “I cannot Perceive any Redemption or Getting out” from under the stranglehold of patriarchy (Orations 226), Cavendish explored an unusual array of possible remedies for women’s oppression.

2.7.1 Remedy: Emulate Men

Because Cavendish’s goal for women was at the very least “to Equal Men both in Perfection and Power” (Orations 230), it is not unexpected that she should have looked to masculine behavior patterns as a model for feminine behavior: “my Advice is, we should Imitate Men, so will our Bodies and Minds appear more Masculine, and our Power will Increase by our Actions” (Orations 228). In advancing this claim, Cavendish was acutely aware that “man” and “masculinity” were not necessarily equivalent. In her observations, the majority of men were no more truly “masculine” than women. For the most part men “are as humorsome, and as fantastical and inconstant, as Women, full of brags and vain glorie, feigning themselves to be otherwayes than they are ... thus they put more false faces on than Women do.”<23> Cavendish was a keen observer of how men dissembled or denied their own inadequacies while at the same time “condemning us, although they are guilty of the same fault; but we have this advantage of men, which is, that we know ... imperfection in our selves, although we do not indeavour to mend it; but men are so Partial to themselves, as not to perceive ... imperfection ... and so they cannot mend it; but in this, will not or cannot is as one” (1662 Playes A7v).

Accordingly, Cavendish did not wish for women to become like men so much as she advocated that they (and men too) achieve a new standard of masculinity. Unlike her peers in the New Science movement who sought a superior masculinity by expelling “the Woman in us” (see A.3.5), Cavendish’s vision of human perfection was decidedly hermaphroditic — a type of feminized masculinity. In an astonishing passage that recommends gender reflexivity over routine acceptance of de facto masculinity, she writes:

Women now adaies affecting a Masculincy, as despising their own Sex, practise the behaviour of Men, not the spirits of Men; nor their Heroick Behaviour, but their Wilde, Loose, Rude, Rough or foolish affected Behaviour; they practise the Masculine Confidency or Boldness, and forget the Effeminate Modesty; the Masculine Vice, and forget the Effeminate Virtues; as to talke Impudently, to Swagger, to Swear, to Game, to Drink, to Revell, to make Factions, but they practise not Silence, Sobriety, Reservedness, Abstinency, Patience or the like; they practice the Masculine Cruelty, quitting their tender and gentle Natures, their sweet and pleasing Dispositions: But these Actions and Humours are so far from preferring our Sex to a higher Degree, that they do debase and make us worse than other Creatures be....
(Worlds Olio 215)

Regarding the means by which women were to pursue this perfected masculinity, Cavendish recommended that women “Change the Custom of our Sex” (Orations 229), by which she meant something more comprehensive than her feminist cohorts in the querelle des femmes. Women were to “Imitate Men” in all aspects of their lives — not just in their breeding and education, but also in their conversation, exercise, activities, and employments (Orations 228). Even Cavendish’s sketches of female bonding are modelled on a masculine pattern. She lectures her readers that women’s friendships should be built on “Faith, Love, Trust, Gratitude, Fortitude, and Honour”; ideally, women “are always Valiant for their Friends Safety, Industrious in their Friends Necessity, Careful for their Friends Security, Secret in their Friends Trust, Faithful in their Friends Service, Dispatchful in their Friends Affairs, Pleading in their Friends Sutes, Speaking in their Friends Causes, nay, ready to indure Torments for their Friends Ease, or Trouble for their Friends Peace” (Sociable Letters 200).

This advice, of course, ran counter to her culture’s abhorrence of the Hic Mulier, as pointed out by a conservative spokeswoman in the feminist debate of the Orations: “to have Femal Bodies, and yet to Act Masculine Parts, will be very Preposterous and Unnatural ... we shall make our Selves like as the Defects of Nature, as to be Hermaphroditical” (229). While Cavendish occasionally paid lip service to accepted teachings on this matter, she was forever tantalized by hermaphroditic visions, in real life as in fantasy. Nor did she accede that androgyny was necessarily “unnatural,” ergo monstrous. Cavendish’s research in the New Science led her to regard static definitions of “nature” in general with skepticism. From this it followed that fixed definitions of women’s (and human) nature were equally suspicious: “there is not any man or woman, that is, or can be exactly known, either by themselves or others; for nature is obscure, she never divulges herself, neither to any creature, nor by, or through any creature; for she hides herself under infinite varieties, changes and chances” (1662 Playes 90). Because they are “as Difficult to be Known and Understood as the Universe” itself, “Women cannot be Judged of, their Natures being past finding out” (Sociable Letters 225, 392). To Cavendish (if not to her New Science compatriots), the complexity of human beings, women in particular, was a reservoir of hope. In the end, the feminist fantasies that Cavendish projected drew much of their power from her refusal to substitute a newer for an older stasis. Rather than working a series of transformations on the kernel sentence “woman is ...,” Cavendish posited an unknown and unbounded potential at the core of woman’s nature. Her imagination refused to be fettered by explanations or conditions which placed a priori limits on women’s potential. “And how should we Know our Selves,” she asked, “when as we never made a Trial of our Selves? or how should Men know us, when as they never Put us to the Proof?” (Orations 228). Not only was it “not against nature and reason, but that women may discourse of several subjects as well as men, and that they may have as probable opinions, and as profitable inventions ... as men” (1662 Playes 136–7). Perhaps women were capable of even more. Who knew but that when freed of the restraints imposed by society and its institutions women might, like nature, prove to have an infinite capacity for evolution and perfection?

2.7.2 Remedy: Sisterhood

Cavendish was unusually prescient in recognizing that substantive change in women’s condition could come only through a women’s movement: “I have been Industrious to Assemble you together, and wish I were so Fortunate, as to perswade you to make a Frequentation, Association, and Combination amongst our Sex, that we may Unite in Prudent Counsels, to make our Selves as Free, Happy, and Famous as Men” (Orations 225). In all her fantasy texts that explore the possibility of women’s liberation,<24> relief from oppression is the result of group efforts rather than individual actions. This lesson Cavendish drew from real-life experience, which led her to conclude that all hopes for public favor and applause for her writings lay in sisterhood. Alone, she had insufficient power to win the struggle against gender bias and masculine enmity that denied her rightful place among intellectuals. Her struggle had first to become women’s struggle:

But if [men] do throw scorne, I shall intreat you, (as the Woman did in the Play of the Wife, for a Month, which caused many of the Effeminate Sex) to help her, to keep their Right, and Priviledges, making it their owne Case. Therefore pray strengthen my Side, in defending my Book ... So shall I get Honour, and Reputation by your Favours....
(Poems and Fancies A3v; see also Philosophical Letters 136)

Cavendish was fascinated by women’s potential for power, as yet an unknown in politics. She notes that “Governours or Citizens of every Kingdom ... know not their own power and strength, until they be put to it: for, every particular Part, knoweth not the strength of the Whole, until they join together as one Part” (Natures Pictures 594–5). Her imagination played frequently with this theme, exploring alternate physical and sexual realities where women were inspired to the point of stupendous achievement. In the process, Cavendish explored alternate forms of female bonding, grounded always in a life experience outside the normal compass of domesticity. A number of her texts describe networks of women gathered together in the joint pursuit of knowledge, pleasure, honor, and/or power.<25> Some female gatherings are relatively conventional, such as the “four sociable virgins” in The Unnatural Tragedy: “a company of young Ladies that meet every day to discourse and talk, to examine, censure, and judge of every body, and of every thing,” including such topics as to be/or not to be married, the changes that would ensue if women governed the world, literary criticism, issues in moral and natural philosophy, etc. (1662 Playes 328). Others — e.g., the “Amazonian Army” of “Generalless” Lady Victoria in Bell in Campo (1662 Playes) — are decidedly not. Certainly there was nothing at all usual about the friendship of the Empress and Duchess of Newcastle in the Blazing World, the two portrayed as liberated “Platonick Lovers” who dream, philosophize, and adventure together, sometimes sharing a single female body (e.g., while engaging in space/time travel, imperial exploits, and military field maneuvers), sometimes a male one (e.g., when they engage in a stimulating tea-time tête-à-tête with the Duke of Newcastle in his body).

That Cavendish’s fanciful conjectures of a burgeoning women’s movement should all include herself-qua-heroine at the head of the movement is not surprising. However, historical conditions and her own alienation from female culture made Cavendish something less than the galvanizing personage of her fantasies. An early call for sisterhood in action, addressed “To all Writing Ladies,” argued that

... this Age hath produced many effeminate Writers, as well as Preachers, and many effeminate Rulers, as well as Actors.... let us take the advantage, and make the best of our time ... whether it be in the Amazonian Government, or in the Politick Common-wealth, or in flourishing Monarchy, or in Schooles of Divinity, or in Lectures of Philosophy, or in witty Poetry, or any thing that may bring honour to our Sex ... let us strive to build us Tombs while we live, of Noble, Honourable, and good Actions.
(Poems and Fancies 162)

But women did not flock en masse to Cavendish, eager to brainstorm with her the means of their liberation. To most women, Cavendish was simply unacceptable in the role of agitator. Unable to bond with other women or completely relinquish her own role in perpetuating divisions among them imposed by class, labor, and locale, Cavendish retreated into her “singularity” at the expense of any real push for sisterhood. “I think it no crime,” she wrote, “to do my endeavour, so far as honour and honesty doth allow of, to be the highest on Fortune’s wheel, and to hold the wheel from turning, if I can” (A True Relation 315).

2.7.3 Remedy: Reconstructing the Feminine Ethos

If our sex would but well consider, and rationally ponder, they will perceive and find, that it is neither words nor place that can advance them, but worth and merit.
(Cavendish, A True Relation 299)

This particular conclusion was harmonious with Cavendish’s personal needs, which she never hestitated to project onto women as a group. In the Sociable Letters we are told that “I should Weep my self into Water, if I could have no other Fame than Rich Coaches, Lackies, and what State and Ceremony could produce, for my Ambition flies higher, as to Worth and Merit, not State and Vanity” (Sociable Letters 167; see also 1662 Playes 90, 102). In an increasingly bourgeois world where merit rather than birth would provide the rationale for social and political hierarchies, Cavendish foresaw that “the honour of our Sex” assumed critical importance (Sociable Letters 13). Yet, as Cavendish was well aware, honor loomed always just beyond woman’s reach. Arbitrary definitions effected and enforced under patriarchy ensured a sexual double standard in concepts of honor, as in all else. As Cavendish recognized, “there is no such thing as Law, nor no such thing as Honour, but what Man feigns or makes; but the truth is, that which Men call Law and Honour, is Power and Force: for, the Strongest give Law; and Power makes Honour as it pleases” (1668 Plays, The Sociable Companions 5; see also 1662 Playes 453). In the early modern period, “power” decreed feminine honor tantamount to “modesty.” And while “modesty” might be praiseworthy in certain instances, Cavendish knew it was not the path to “masculine” fame — i.e., to public recognition and reward of individual achievement. Feminine honor was hence in urgent need of reconstruction.

Sara Mendelson claims that “Margaret displayed the exaggerated respect of an arriviste for a title” (Mental World 22). In fact, Cavendish’s attitudes were somewhat more complicated than this, combining an expected reverence with resentment and hints at reform. On the one hand, Cavendish vigorously defended the system of titular nobility as the cornerstone of monarchical government: “if there were no Degrees and dignities, there would be no Royalty ... if Honour be abused and usurpt, Royaltie will fall from its Throne” (1662 Playes 648; see also Sociable Letters 137). Echoing William’s concern that the recent inflation of honors undermined the power of aristocracy and state,<26> Margaret authored a play which assailed “self-given Honour and Dignity” as “a Presumption and Usurpation” (A Comedy of the Apocriphal Ladies, 1662 Playes 648). On the other hand, A Comedy of the Apocriphal Ladies interjects a feminine perspective of “inheritary honour” and in so doing confounds what sets out to be an ardent defense of patrimony. The story of the Unfortunate Dutchess in particular reveals that under the present system of inherited honors, a woman’s “rightful” place and power is never secured. In the play, the Unfortunate Dutchess has “dispossessed her self of her natural Inheritance” through marriage to the Duke of Inconstancy: “I being his Wife, he takes the power of a Husband, and by that power, the power of my Kingdome” (1662 Playes 646, 636). The dastardly husband then bestows this power through a second marriage onto another woman who becomes in Margaret’s tale the Apocriphal Dutchess. This leads to upheaval in both the state and the female hierarchy such that she who is “Intituled with True Honour, and Princely Dignity, which Titles were created from an Absolute and Divine Power” must cede place ”to mock Honours, and feigned Dignities” (1662 Playes 647). In Cavendish’s tale (slanted somewhat differently in the story of Lady Poverty and her husband Spendall in The Matrimonial Trouble), the prevailing system of inherited honors was no guarantor of women’s rights. This point is hammered at in the numerous stories exposing the domestic machinations which often force a lady of the house to cede her inherited power and status to a maidservant who has “ingross’d the chiefest Power of Rule in the Houshold-affairs, as well as in the Affection of the Heart.”<27>

Elsewhere in her works Cavendish exalts what she calls “self-creating honour” over “inheritary honour”: “it is more worthy, and those persons ought to have more love and respect, that have merit, than those that have only Dignity, either from favour of Princes, or descended from their Ancestors; for all derived Honours, are poor and mean, in respect of self-creating honour.”<28> Margaret’s frequent championing of merit over birth resulted from class as well as gender considerations. She herself was not of noble birth: “My father was a gentleman, which title is grounded and given by merit, not by princes; and it is the act of time, not favour” (A True Relation 275). And even if she had been, under the seventeenth-century practice of primogeniture, women were in essence stripped of their birthright; they did not, as did their brothers, ascend directly to positions of honor and prestige in society.

The idea that power and status could still be attained by merit — the result of individual worth and exertion — clearly held a certain appeal for Cavendish. She delighted in recounting the many instances of fame arisen “from poor Cottages, as well as from great Palaces” (1662 Playes 227). Through “Noble and Heroick Actions” and/or a superior wit, she observed, “Emperours have Ascended from the Plough, and Kings from the Sheep-coats.... Thus Clowns, Boors, or Peasants by Name, are become Princes in Power.”<29> If the stigma of class could be overcome in such manner, why not the stigma of gender?

In theory, there was no reason why women could not advance themselves by way of “noble actions.” With the escapades of Lady Orphant/Affectionata in Loves Adventures, Cavendish rehearsed the possibilities. Disguised as a young man, Affectionata transcends the restrictions of gender to out-perform everyone around her in everything she attempts. Ultimately, the opportunities for public action permitted by the “concealing of my Sex, and changing of my habit” released the true potential of Affectionata’s femininity (1662 Playes 72). Cavendish makes it quite clear that Affectionata’s many excellencies do not contradict but derive from her gender — from the fact that Affectionata is not a man, but a woman freed to assume the responsibilities of “acting a masculine part upon the Worlds great Stage, and to the publick view” (1662 Playes 72).

In reality, however, Cavendish knew that “those actions that are allowable and seemly, as manly in men, are condemned in women, as immodest, and unbecoming, and dishonourable” (1662 Playes 29). Cavendish argued strenuously against this double standard in a herculean effort “to convince her readers to accept a redefinition of the ideal of female modesty in which it was reduced to nothing more or less than chastity” (Mendelson, Women in Seventeenth-Century England 66). She thus proposed to her readers a new feminine ethos that could accommodate the masculine forms of self-display necessary for “wise actions.” In so doing, she insisted that feminine honor (as much as masculine) lay in honest and noble acts and the avoidance of vice. Women should thus be encouraged in acts of honest self-assertion.<30> Repeatedly Cavendish reminded her readers that “There is no immodesty in natural effects, but in unnatural abuses” (1662 Playes 581). As she hammered away at her readers with new definitions of feminine honor, she bolstered her arguments with her own appeals to nature over culture. It was natural, she wrote, to strive “for preheminency, as to be superiour, and not inferiour; for all Creatures indeavour to command, and are unwilling to obey ... not only Beasts, Birds, and Fish, but the Elements those creatures inhabite in, strive for superiority.” Thus, women “indeavouring to get power” was not unnatural; this was a survival instinct basic to all in nature. What was in fact unnatural was the culture that coerced women to “voluntarily give away what [power] they have” (1662 Playes 254; see also Worlds Olio 40).

Confronting a reality wherein “all Heroick Actions, Publick Employments, as well Civil as Military, and Eloquent Pleadings, are deni’d my Sex in this Age,” Cavendish acknowledged that for the present women such as herself lacked Affectionata’s opportunities for public action (Natures Pictures A4v). In lieu of “noble actions” within the political arena, Cavendish turned to publication, hoping to salvage a masculine fame by way of “witty discourses.” As a gift of nature, wit of course was available to all, even “those that fortune hath cast out, and education hath neglected” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions A4v). This included women: “What man or woman soever, that nature is liberal to, may eternalize themselves,” achieving fame by exercising a superior wit (1662 Playes 111). Here too however Cavendish’s ambition was thwarted as she wrestled with the catch-22 of gender:

... a woman by striving to make her wit known, by much discourse, loses her reputation, for wit is copious, and busies it self in all things, and humours and accidents, wherein sometimes it is satyrical, and sometimes amorous, and sometimes wanton, which in all these women should shun, so that in women the greatest wisdom, if not wit, is to be sparing of their discourse.
(Worlds Olio 23)

Those women who displayed their wit too publicly confronted charges of immodesty. And wit without modesty might “insnare facile fools, and allure fond persons, but not perswade the judicious to esteem” a woman (1662 Playes 109). However, wit inhibited by modesty was by definition inferior (Worlds Olio 213). Thus, “men will not allow women to have wit ... for if we allow them wit, we shall lose our prehemency” (1662 Playes 2).

Once again, Cavendish labored to redefine the feminine ethos such that it would accommodate “witty discourses” as well as “wise actions.” She argued that witty public discourse was not in fact an indicator of uncontrolled feminine sexuality but a guarantor of “true” modesty — i.e., chastity. Writing actually promoted chastity in women by employing otherwise idle hands and thoughts in harmless (albeit potentially glorifying) activities (see, e.g., Poems and Fancies A3r, Observations b1v). And she continually reminded her readers that dishonor proceeded not from language but from actions. In her own public display of wit, Cavendish had not “broken the Chaines of Modesty, or behav’d my selfe in dishonourable and loose carriage, or ... run the wayes of Vice, as to Periure my self, or betray my Freinds [sic], or denyed a Truth, or ... lov’d deceit” all of which would “have prov’d ... a dishonour to the Family I am link’t to” (Poems and Fancies A4r). Society censured her unfairly “out of a despisement of my sex” and to discourage women from publishing (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions a4v). In fact, “dishonor” was not really the issue at all:

Men ... cast a smile of scorne upon my Book, because they think thereby, Women incroach too much upon their Prerogatives; for they hold Books as their Crowne, and the Sword as their Scepter, by which they rule, and governe....
(Poems and Fancies A3r–A3v; also Natures Pictures A2v and 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions A3r)

In such manner, Cavendish fulminated against the sleight of hand by which honor metamorphosed into dishonor when achieved by a woman. Her arguments on this subject were, she averred, grounded in “sense and reason.” But reason and right could not by themselves effect needed revisions in the seventeenth-century code of honor. In her society, “The truth is, Madam, that might overcomes right” (1662 Playes 636). Cavendish thus looked to a future “when envy is worn out by time” and “understanding will remember me” (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions 53; see also Observations c1v). Perhaps a later age, freed from the present-day “partiality” for men which denied all women due place and respect, would recognize her merit. “I may have a glorious resurrection in following ages,” she opined, in the end unbowed in the face of chauvinist intransigence (1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions B3r).

2.8   Advancement over Arguments of Querelle des Femmes

Many of Cavendish’s feminist claims transgressed acceptable thinking on the subject of women’s liberation. Joan Kelly has observed that the feminist theorists of the querelle des femmes, “like the early modern utopian socialists whom they resemble in this regard,” looked “to enlightenment and the traditional sources of power when they hoped for social change” (27). Cavendish too embraced accustomed solutions, only to reject them as unworkable and/or inadequate to the task.

The favored solution of querelle feminists to the problem of women’s oppression was education. While Cavendish repeatedly argued the merits of a quality education for women, she did not believe that education alone held the key to women’s liberation. She was most clamorous in arguing not only for equal education of the intellect, but also of the body and spirit. Her desire to see women trained in, for example, manège and the martial arts, extended far beyond anything envisioned by the feminist writers of the querelle.

Querelle feminists also invoked male enlightenment as the solution to women’s oppression. Typical arguments posited that misogyny was irrational and that a continued disregard of women’s rights was not in the masculine interest. Cavendish echoed querelle charges that the mistreatment of women was unnatural. She often postulated that men “are bound by nature” to sexually desire and love women (1662 Playes 510). From this it followed that “as it is Natural for Men to Love Women, so it is Natural for Love to Please what they Love, and not to Cross, Oppose, or Restrain them, but to Grant them all their Lawfull Requests and Desires, as far as lies in their Powers” (Orations 224). The current state of affairs wherein men disgrace women with “neglects and disrespects” finds no justification in nature (1662 Playes 54). Nor is it wise or honorable in a man to treat women with anything less than “respect,” civility, and “sober regard” (1662 Playes 55).

None of her commentary about the unnaturalness of sexism was, however, directed at men with the intent of convincing them that it was in their best interest to stamp out misogyny. In Cavendish’s world view, misogyny served patriarchy, and patriarchy — not its overthrow — most definitely served masculine interests. Man-woman relations had very little to do with enlightenment, and everything to do with power: “we may Murmur and Rail against Men, yet they Regard not what we say: In short, our Words to Men are as Empty Sounds, our Sighs as Puffs of Wind, and our Tears as Fruitless Showres, and our Power is so Inconsiderable, as Men Laugh at our Weakness” (Orations 226–7). Unlike the feminist writers of the querelle, Cavendish never focused on the male/misogynist psyche, either for purposes of exposé or persuasion. Her feminist diatribes were a call to action, addressed not to men but to women. Cavendish believed that women’s emancipation would result only through a power struggle with men. As the Lady Victoria remarks, women will gain and “maintain our power by our own strengths”; and men would fight them in this every step of the way (Bell in Campo, 1662 Playes 612).

Improved masculine behavior was another solution to women’s problems customarily cited by the feminist pamphleteers. As earlier remarked (see 2.5.3), Cavendish herself indulged romantic fantasies of the “perfect man,” modelling him on the chivalric cavalier of courtly tradition. Monsieur Nobilissimo in Natures Three Daughters, the Lord General in Bell in Campo, and Sir Peaceable Studious in Loves Adventures are three examples of true gallants who argue the propriety of submitting “to a woman in all things that are honourable” (1662 Playes 612; see also Worlds Olio 71). Indeed, the Lord General carries this credo so far that he acquiesces to a power-sharing arrangement with Lady Victoria’s “Amazonian Army,” urging of the men under his command “let us treat fairly with [the women], and give them their own conditions” (1662 Playes 612–13). This was, of course, the studied position of William Cavendish, a notorious lover of ease, who advocated comity between the sexes. When threatened with discord in his personal relations, William always preferred the carrot to the stick, believing that women are “won by gentle perswasions and fair promises, and not by rigid actions or angry frowns” (1662 Playes 612).

However, Cavendish never here confused romance with strategy. Her perfect men were not offered as blueprints for men’s behavior or women’s emancipation. Instead, she was at pains to point out that such model masculine behavior was not countenanced by society at large, and therefore not possible on a mass scale. Under the present state of affairs, the man who (like her husband) ceded even a small amount of control to a woman — e.g., “ruling his Family with Love and Obedience” — was readily censured as “an Uxorious Man, or a Fool, or a Madman” (Worlds Olio 82). Furthermore, no matter how perfect the perfect man might prove on an individual basis, that perfection would not alter the basic asymmetry of power relations between man and woman. Underlying even the behavior of such old-school patriarchs as Nobilissimo and Lord General is the supreme arrogance of noblesse oblige. Such men in Cavendish’s fictions “comply with [women’s] harmless humours” in much the same manner as they distribute largesse to the poor (1662 Playes 55). Their power base assured, preeminent “Men of Noble Natures” can well afford “to help the Weak,” to “give our Sex Confidence,” secure in the knowledge that “Women be ... as Powerless” as children (Worlds Olio 81, 71). To Cavendish, law, marriage, and social custom rendered women powerless. Improved masculine behavior would not revolutionize the sexual power structure. Even under the best of circumstances, woman remained at the mercy of male condecension.

Where the querelle feminists also reenervated a paradisiacal notion of marriage as the answer to sexual oppression, Cavendish eschewed marriage on any terms as a liberating force. Under current law, marriage necessarily entailed that the woman relinquish all power and independence to her husband. The fundamental law of marriage, Margaret tells us, is “for the Husband to rule, the Wife to obey” (1662 Playes 453). Hence, even marriage to a male paragon of virtue (as in some of Cavendishs’s plays) is in the end a prison, relegating women to, at best, a life of servitude, at worst, a life of slavery. Only by choosing “a Single Life” did Cavendish believe that a woman could remain “Mistriss of my self, and fortunes, and have a free liberty” (1662 Playes 28, Sociable Letters 427).

Despite her own relatively happy marriage, Cavendish brooked no confusion of romance and matrimony. Marriage was “not a friendship betwixt souls”; marriage was instead “like a Common-wealth, which is a contract of bodyes, or rather a contract of interest” (1662 Playes 107). Sometimes marriages worked; more frequently they did not. Cavendish likened the success rate to that of a “lottery”: “if you get a prize, you may live quietly and happily” (1662 Playes 4). With her usual pragmatism in domestic matters, Cavendish believed that women (and men) deluded themselves concerning the state of matrimony at their peril. Marriage required much work and accommodation, particularly on the part of the woman, who bore the brunt of “subjecting themselves to anothers humour” (1662 Playes 28). Dealing with the many stresses of life that beset all men and women became even more difficult when coupled with the pressures of reconciling often incompatible humors, habits, and personal needs. Romanticized visions of lovers living blissfully in a state of matrimony ill prepared women for such trials and tribulations:

Amorous Lovers have Poetical Imaginations of each other, and Fancy each other not onely Beyond what they are, but what is not in Nature to be, but such Matrimonial Acquaintance proves their Love was built on Fancy, and not on Reality, they Married Mortal Creatures, not Gods or Goddesses, nor such Worthy or Constant Damosels as Romances feign, so as their Love Vanishes as Poetical Airy Castles, or Inchanted Towers, and not any Love Remains....
(Sociable Letters 176)

This was particularly hard on women, for whom there was no socially sanctioned escape from the harsh realities of a bad marriage. Cavendish belabored this point in her works, unmasking the seductiveness of courtship to expose the false promises it offered women. This is the message of the following dialogue between Mademoiselles Flattery and Superbe in the Wits Cabal:

Flattery. But Husbands, Madam, command Wives.

Superbe. Not those that are Divine Creatures.

Flattery. Husbands, Madam, are Reprobates, and regard not Divinity, nor worship Earthly Deities.

Superbe. Whilst they are Suters, they worship, and women command their wooing servants.

Flattery. The truth is ... men are content to be commanded, whilest they are Courting servants, and do obey with an industrious care ... yet after they are married ... they rule as Tyrants....

Superbe. Then I must never marry; for I cannot endure to be commanded, but must be admired and adored.
(1662 Playes 248–9)

At the same time, Cavendish was not unaware that in her culture, “Marriage gave a respect to Women” denied them by other means (Natures Pictures 201). A good match was coveted, not only for the happiness it might bring, but also for the advanced status it procured for women. A good marriage offered social recognition and reward for “deserving” women. Accordingly, Cavendish freely bestowed on her heroines happy marriages to the most sought-after bachelors at the end of her stories and plays. Such marriages legitimated the aberrant behavior of women actively pursuing personal and/or group liberation — a final lesson to a disapproving society that it sometimes paid to buck the system. However, Cavendish’s mass-marriage endings conflicted with the lessons of the plays and stories which they capped so uneasily. In each case, there remains the suspicion that a reward accepted on society’s terms is no reward at all. Haunting the marital triumph of each of Cavendish’s heroines is the tragedy of the liberated woman newly-contained. In the end, her untold story only underscores the irreconcilability of feminist struggle and the conventional happy ending.

In summary, Cavendish’s goals for women did not accommodate a ready acceptance of separate spheres for men and women, with the usual unequal distribution of power. She wished women to be “Copartners” in government and imperial rule, not merely in marriage (1662 Playes 588–9). In lieu of accustomed feminist claims for women’s equality — operative in an otherwise unchanged patriarchal context — Cavendish’s fancy soared beyond the limitations of past and present solutions to wild visions of entirely new realities where the sexual power structure was so radically changed that it challenged contemporary sanity to even begin to comprehend it (see chapter 5).

2.9   Limitations of Her Feminism

2.9.1 Wrong Reasoning: Sexual Prejudice Is the Cause of
     Women’s Oppression

Underlying much of Cavendish’s liberation strategy was the reasoning that if perceived differences between male and female could be reduced to nothing more than a simple matter of reproductive biology, sexual prejudice would disappear, and along with it, women’s oppression (e.g., see Orations 228). By and large, Cavendish accepted the argument propagated by patriarchy that woman’s oppression results from her observed inferiority — for the antifeminists, a fact of nature; for their feminist opponents, the imposition of custom and education. Cavendish accepted this basic premise of mainstream debate despite innumerable hints in her own discourse to the contrary.<31> She never anywhere formally posed the counterargument that sexual prejudices offered an after-the-fact justification for women’s oppression. Any overt statements of this position were reduced to scattered snippets of discourse.

While Cavendish knew that a clear showing of female equality on an individual basis was insufficient to overcome pervasive sexual bias, she clearly wished to believe that demonstration of female equality on a mass scale would be sufficient to compel attitudinal change. This argument is most forcibly broached in her intriguing play, Bell in Campo. Here, Lady Victoria rallies masses of women to martial action, alleging that if women can through their heroic actions “prove the courage of our Sex,” they will “get liberty and freedome from the Female Slavery, and ... make our selves equal with men” (1662 Playes 609). Elsewhere she expostulates:

... if we would but accustome our selves we may do such actions, as may gain us such a reputation, as men might change their opinions, insomuch as to believe we are fit to be Copartners in their Governments, and to help rule the World, where now we are kept as Slaves forced to obey; wherefore let us make our selves free.
(1662 Playes 588–9)

Accordingly, with the proper training, discipline, and a new positive self-image, the women prove not just equal, but superior, to the men of their nation in military planning and action as well as in governance (of themselves and their areas of conquest). Thus, sexual parity is proven after abolishing imposed gender differences.

Despite such assertive supposition, Cavendish also reveals in her works a certain uneasiness with this theory of women’s emancipation. There is a muted awareness that irrefutably demonstrating the artificiality of gender differences will not spontaneously bring relief from sexual oppression. In Bell in Campo, the women demonstrate more than once their equal abilities and merit to no avail. Their display of the requisite masculinity is simply ignored, recast, or denied by the very men to whom it is addressed. Ultimately, the masses of women win due acknowledgement and place (including empowerment by law) only because: they have attained real military power; they do not hesitate in the exercise of that power; and both the Lord General and King of the realm are benign patriarchs of the old school whose code of honor<32> requires gentlemanly capitulation when reason and merit demand it.

2.9.2 Devaluing “the Woman in Us”

Although Cavendish did not accept male superiority, she did often promote the conventionally masculine over the conventionally feminine. By and large, her quest to reclaim woman’s “masculine” self upheld society’s skewed valuations of masculine and feminine. There are times in her writings when Cavendish does broach the question of society’s devaluation of the feminine. In one passage of particular interest she protested the double standard that honored “masculine” technologies while downgrading more desirable “feminine” technologies:

... those that find out new Arts, are esteemed so, that they become as Petty Gods, whether they become Advantageous to Man, or no; as the Memory of those that found out the Art of Gunpowder, Guns, Swords, and all Engins of War for Mischief; and shall they be more praised and commended than those that find out Arts and Adornments? as Painting [by this Cavendish means cosmetics], Curling, and other Dressings; for the one destroyes Mankind, this increaseth it; the one brings Love, the other begets Hate. But some will say, those Arts defend their Lives; but where they once use them to defend their Lives, they use them ten times to destroy Life....
(Worlds Olio 84)

This idea that “for the most part” feminine energies nurture while masculine energies destroy is repeated elsewhere in her publications (e.g., Orations 182, Worlds Olio A5v), and was not without cultural precedent. Cavendish clearly valued the feminine when conceived as a life-sustaining force associated with softness, tenderness, and concern for others.

But her championing of masculine character traits was continual, partly because of the higher status assigned to them by her society and partly because of personal preference. As a result, Cavendish downplayed many “feminine” traits associated with orthodox female culture. The most obvious instance of her frequent inability to value the “feminine” is revealed in her many snipes at women’s speech. Cavendish was quick to denounce the double standard that diminished women’s speech as “gossip” while endorsing men’s speech as “news” and “wit.” After all, she objected,

Do not Men run visiting from House to House, for no other purpose but to twattle, spending their time in idle and fruitless discourse? Do not Men meet every day in Taverns and Ordinaries, to sit and gossip over a Cup of Wine? When Women are condemned for gossiping once in a quarter of a year, at a Labour, or a Christening, or at the Up-fitting of a Child-bed Woman. And do not Men run and hunt about for News, and then meet to gossip on it with their Censuring-Verdicts? Besides, they are so greedy of twattle, that rather than want idle matter to prate of, they will invent News, and then falsly report it; and such are accounted Wits that can make the most probable Lyes, which they call Gulling.
(Natures Pictures 181)

Nonetheless, despite her grasp of the sexual double standard, and despite her impassioned advocacy of women writing for publication, Cavendish was unable to reevaluate women’s speech from the feminist standpoint as something other than a never-ending stream of gossip, scandal, or nonsense. Even when defending women’s speech against conventional stereotypes, Cavendish accepted without question implicit social criticisms of the feminine register as speech that approximated but never quite attained to the masculine standard:

And the reason why women are so apt to talk too much, is an overweening opinion of themselves, in thinking they speak well, and striving to take off that blemish from their sex of knowing little, by speaking much, as thinking many words have the same weight of much knowledge: but my best friend sayes he is not of my opinion, for he saies women talk, because they cannot hold their tongues.
(Worlds Olio 18)

No matter how strident her criticisms of the masculine register (see chapter 3), Cavendish never completely rid herself of a fear that the “feminine” element in a woman’s discourse — her own included — made it sub-standard.

2.9.3 Bird’s-Eye View of Women’s Oppression

Many commentators have remarked on the class-based political conservatism of the querelle feminists that so limited their understanding of and reaction to sexual oppression. According to Kelly, “Isolated by class privilege, they had little knowledge of the lives of most other women and did not look to them as a source of power” (27). Cavendish took the first tentative steps in this direction with visions of sisterhood that did at times encompass women of other classes. In this, she was quite unique. Bell in Campo, her most grandiose liberation fantasy, depicts a mass women’s movement of multiclass origins. Also, her feminist orators who agitate for a women’s movement address themselves across class lines to a broad-based group of women; e.g.: “Ladies, Gentlewomen, and other Inferiours, but not Less Worthy” and “Noble Ladies, Honourable Gentlewomen, and Worthy Femal Commoners” (Orations 226, 231). Although more advanced in her handling of this issue than the querelle des femmes pamphleteers, Cavendish’s feminist analyses and ideals were nonetheless seriously marred by her upper-class bias.

Cavendish does attempt to convey the perspective of lower-class women. For example, in The Convent of Pleasure various women characters of “mean” origins (e.g., a cobbler’s wife, tinker’s wife, butcher’s wife, and citizens’ wives) tell their horror stories concerning married life. The play-within-a-play presents marriage as “a Curse” to “Women kind: / From the Cobler’s Wife we see, / To Ladies, they unhappie be” (1668 Plays 30). This universal portrait (Cavendish includes also old and young wives, and others representative of every possible marital condition) is the only one of its kind in her works. On occasion, Cavendish also sympathetically relates the viewpoint of female servants condemned to labor for uncharitable mistresses or lecherous masters, although she sides always with the lady of the house in any accounts of interclass rivalries between mistress and maid over the “Command and Government of his Family” (Natures Pictures 193). Cavendish also sketches in unusual detail the wide range of relations between gentlewoman and servant, but again, always slanted to the elite. Female servants are depicted as a continual source of anxiety for upper-class women because of their sexual attractions for the master of the house; on the other hand, servants can and do offer their mistresses protection, companionship, and support against a hostile world in general, and against parents, guardians, and the male sex in particular. Such interclass bonding is never, however, assessed from the servant’s perspective.

Cavendish was most radical in her championing of the wise old woman, so ubiquitous in village life. She alone among early modern feminists was able to perceive the bonds of gender that connected women of noble birth to the poverty-stricken village witch. Joan Kelly declares that “for all their fierce retorts to misogyny,” feminists of the early modern period “never noticed its single most horrendous expression in early modern Europe: the hanging or burning alive of some 100,000 or more women as witches” (27). In contrast, Cavendish’s involvement in the New Science prodded her to publicly argue the cause of witches in print against such luminaries as Joseph Glanvill, Henry More, and Francis van Helmont. She contended that poor, old women were convenient scapegoats for human ignorance and error (to her mind, fostered by years of parliamentary rule). Thus, certain natural effects, “being sometimes unusual and strange to us, we not knowing their causes ... do stand amazed at their working power; and by reason we cannot assign any Natural cause for them, are apt to ascribe their effects to ... devillish Witchcraft.” She continued: “I dare say, that many a good, old honest woman hath been condemned innocently, and suffered death wrongfully, by the sentence of some foolish and cruel Judges, meerly upon this suspition of Witchcraft, when as really there hath been no such thing” (Philosophical Letters 298). Keen observation clued Cavendish that the “witch” symbolized society’s inability to deal with women who did not fit tidily into the cubbyholes allotted them by patriarchal society. “An old woman is thought a Witch,” remarks Monsieur Compagnion in her play Bell in Campo. “Pish,” responds Monsieur la Gravity: “that is because they are grown ill-favoured with Age, and all young people think whatsoever is ill-favoured belongs to the Devill” (1662 Playes 618). Elsewhere Cavendish in her own voice condemned her culture for positing “That all women that are poore, old, and ill-favoured, must be thought Witches, and be burnt for the same” (Poems and Fancies 203). In addition to such explicit polemics, Cavendish peppered her texts with sympathetic portraits of the poor, old countrywoman, presenting her as a repository of wisdom regarding nature and human existence (e.g., Natures Pictures 249–258, 527–8, 530–1).

More typical than her occasional effort to adopt the perspective of the “vulgar” was Cavendish’s unrepentant censure of laboring-class women. Like their sisters in the upper classes, women of the “inferior” classes incurred Cavendish’s contempt. At various times, laboring-class women are depicted as beastlike, repugnant, comical, violent, wild, conniving, dishonest, ignorant, superstitious, venal, and thieving.<33> As a staunch royalist, anglican, and aspiring duchess, Cavendish was acutely aware of differing class interests among women and unabashedly partial in her portraits and judgments whenever class confronted gender. A truly representative analysis of women’s oppression that addressed gender in terms of class (and race) was politically impossible for Cavendish.

2.9.4 Limited Analysis of the Sexual Division of Labor

William Petty, the so-called founding father of the science of statistics (known then as “political arithmetic”), remarked in 1690 that “all women over 7 are to labour, except among the upper tenth” (qtd. Stone, Family 662). Wages for women were only one-half to one-third of those paid to men (Stone, Family 662). Yet none of the early modern feminists addressed pressing inequities in the sexual division of labor. Cavendish’s own improvements on this front were limited. She was clearly aware of a sexual double standard within domestic life and labor. She accosted men for their non-productivity, claiming that they “are like Flyes bred out of a Dunghill, buzzing idly about, and then dye: when Women are like industrious Ants, and prudent Bees, always employed to the benefit of their Families” (Natures Pictures 182). Regarding wage labor, as Hilda Smith points out, Cavendish “wrote about manual labor and the lives of the peasantry in generally greater detail than did contemporaries of her class” (Reason’s Disciples 110). Occasionally, she even indulged in polemics on behalf of a peasantry much aggrieved by an inflated aristocracy interested more in self-aggrandizement than the traditional social responsibilities of noblesse oblige. Like her husband, Cavendish excoriated those nobles overly enamored of “Stately Building” that “doth not only Ruine your Posterity, leaving them more Houses than Land” but ruins also “the Poor, inclosing the Land with your Walls, and filling up Lands with Houses, whereas Corn and Fruits should Grow; thus you Tread upon the Bellies, Backs, and Heads of the Poor” (Orations 205). Despite her obvious sympathy for the plight of the working poor,<34> Cavendish argued on behalf of the peasantry from the vantage point of the aristocrat. Reacting to changes in the social hierarchy that she believed weakened nobility, monarchy, and state, Cavendish sought to maintain the traditional symbiotic relationship between peasant and lord. As the lifeblood of the aristocracy, the peasantry could not be alienated. Cavendish thus denounced any behavior or event that prompted agricultural laborers to identify their class interests as separate from those of nobility.

Cavendish evinces the usual aristocratic prejudice against paid labor.<35> Such class snobbery was not always practical, however. To Cavendish, the searing lesson of the Civil War and Interregnum years was that there is “no Settlement in Life” (Natures Pictures 193). She had watched helplessly as her world turned upside down, noblemen downgraded to commoners, commoners upgraded to kings. With increasing anger, she observed that women of all classes — at the mercy of unreliable husbands, male guardians and relatives — faced an even more volatile situation. The reality was such that work for wages could not always be avoided. Indeed, “many noble persons are forced to serve through necessity.” Hence labor was honorable when performed by members of the upper classes, and only demeaning when performed by the “vulgar” (e.g., see A True Relation 279, 298–9).

Accordingly, some of her texts explored labor issues as they related to aristocratic women. Cavendish was unusually sensitive to the trials of upper-class women forced by circumstances to support themselves. A life of enforced idleness left them unprepared to compete successfully in the harsh market of wage labor. This is the unremitting lesson of her writings on the subject. For example, in The Lady Contemplation we encounter Lady Poor Virtue, recently orphaned and friendless, who has lost her estate to the victorious enemy after a civil war. She owes wages to her maid Nan Scrapeall, but is unable to pay; instead, she offers “if you will take my service for half a year for payment, I will be very honest, dutiful, and diligent.” Nan is not interested: “No by my troth, for you have been bred with so much attendance, curiosity, and plenty, as you will rather prove a charge than a payment; but if you can get means by your youth, and beauty, I shall come and claim what is owing me” (1662 Playes 187). Poor Virtue then takes a service position with a humble cottager. From this point, Cavendish provides only sketchy information concerning Poor Virtue’s work routine; her main interest is in proving that neither forced labor nor reduced circumstances are able to mask Poor Virtue’s noble birth and spirit, despite a great deal of crying and melancholia. Ultimately, Poor Virtue is raised from her mean condition by an unlikely marriage. Her labors prove futile in procuring for her either independence, self-respect, or happiness.

In The Matrimonial Trouble, the Lady Poverty is married to Spendall, a debauchee and drunkard who gambles away their entire estate. The Lady Poverty, a “shiftless creature” with no “work” skills must then provide for herself and her children. Some sympathetic maidservants describe the exceedingly limited means for generating an income available to one of her class background:

... she must get some acquaintance, and turn Lady Bawd, and shew Ladies, how to dres themselves, and sell paint, pomatoms, wax-gloves, oyl’d-masks, and the like Commodities privately; or else she must pretend Skill in Chirurgery or Physick, and to make Plaisters, Salves, Oyntments, and the like, or make Cordial Waters, and other waters and powders; then perswade old Ladies to take thereof, telling them those will make them look as young as one of fifteen.
(1662 Playes 454)

Cavendish here recounts in exceptional detail how all such concoctions can be “made at a little charge” and sold “at a great price” (1662 Playes 454–5). In the end, however, Lady Poverty is never put to the test. She is rescued from the world of labor before ever having to enter it. Friends take her in and banish from their midst the degenerate husband.

Cavendish’s few comments on labor and women of the lower-classes were less detailed and less searching. Hilda Smith comments that “When she spoke of lower-class exertion she spoke almost exclusively of male labor” (Reason’s Disciples 110). As a rule, when writing about women of the laboring classes, Cavendish indulged a romantic vision of the work ethic, grounded more in her own frustration at the dependent status of upper-class women than in the realities of a life of labor. In contrast to enforced alienation from society and its productive forces, the fruitful labor of lower-class women was almost enviable:

Poor, Mean Peasants that live by their Labour, are for the most part Happier and Pleasanter than great Rich Persons, that live in Luxury and Idleness, for Idle Time is Tedious, and Luxury is Unwholsom, whereas Labour is Healthful and Recreative, and surely Country Huswives take more Pleasure in Milking their Cows, making their Butter and Cheese, and feeding their Poultry, than great Ladies do in Painting, Curling, and Adorning themselves, also they have more Quiet & Peaceable Minds and Thoughts [since they do live for more than just fashion and a too-transient youthful beauty].
(Sociable Letters 112)

Another pointed comparison applauds the hard labor of “Plain Country Huswives” (women who “Sweat for their Childrens Livelihood”) over the artificial labors of “Fine Ladies” (women who only “Sweat to make their Faces Fair”; Orations 249–50).

Certainly, literary protocols discouraged any detailed discussion of human labor. Cavendish, seeking fame and status through publication, carefully avoided “low” subjects. But the rules of discourse did not alone dictate such silences in her texts. Cavendish’s remoteness from (and at times indifference to) the lives of laboring women was very real.

2.9.5 Feminist Goals Skewed by Class

Cavendish’s feminist goals were of a decidedly aristocratic bent. The societies she fantasized around women’s liberation were all to some extent exclusionary and/or hierarchical. The utterly fantastic and quite wonderful feminist utopia envisioned in Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure (1668 Plays) excludes the mass of women. By definition a unique feminist retreat in an otherwise misogynist world, the Convent of Pleasure has a restricted membership, with openings highly coveted amongst the social elite throughout Europe. The Convent of Pleasure is also founded on a hierarchy of female labor. A large body of female servants and professionals permit the convent to function on a daily basis while the members indulge a life of pleasure. An even larger — and invisible — body of laboring women funds this life of pleasure for the few, enriching the Lady Happy’s extensive “estate” (that finances the convent) by working the land.

Cavendish’s Female Academy is even more exclusive, accommodating only those “of honourable Birth” and “antient Descent” who can afford such “a place of charges” (The Female Academy, 1662 Playes 653). Women on the outside come daily to admire and dream at a grate that permits limited interchange with the public. Cavendish is somewhat sympathetic towards the two “Citizens Wives” who are turned away from listening at the grate of the Female Academy because “there was no room for Citizens Wives, for the room was only kept for Ladies, and Gentlewomen of Quality” (1662 Playes 662). But she does not concern herself with their problems or needs.

The Blazing World pays scant attention to the women of its well-ordered utopian society; the real scenes of emancipation concern the Empress and Duchess of Newcastle alone. While “the Women ... generally had quick wits, subtile conceptions, clear understandings, and solid judgments,” the fact that they “are not admitted to publick Employments” in the Blazing World does not concern Cavendish or her two alter-egos (Blazing World 60, 18). It is enough that “having got a Soveraign power from the Emperor over all the World,” the Empress and her spiritual friend can gratify their own new-found liberation (Blazing World 16). The generality of women figure only as a trial case for the Empress in proving her success at religious conversion of the masses; in the process, she happens to liberate women’s worship from the confines of the domestic closet, legislating group public worship in “a Congregation of Women” with herself at the head.

Bell in Campo, the most all-encompassing and egalitarian of Cavendish’s feminist visions, still leaves intact the female hierarchy, by and large transferring the glory earned by the “Effeminate Army” to the “Generaless.” When Lady Victoria later legislates liberation for all women throughout society, it is on terms favorable to women of the upper classes. It is their litany of woes she attempts to redress by legal means when it is decreed that: (a) all women shall be mistress in their own houses and families; (b) women shall be seated above their husbands at the upper end of the table; (c) women shall control the money; (d) women will have full control over servants; (e) women shall buy whatever provisions they wish; (f) women shall have claim to all jewels, plate, and household furniture; (g) women shall wear whatever fashions they wish; (h) women are free “to go abroad” wherever and whenever they wish, without explanation or other controls on their movement; (i) women may control their own eating habits; (j) women may attend “Playes, Masks, Balls, Churchings, Christenings, Preachings” whenever they wish; and (k) women “shall be of their Husbands Counsel” (1662 Playes 631). Neither does Lady Victoria’s new society brook dissent from her particular vision of what’s right for women. The minority of women who opt against military service, “not following your exemplary virtues,” are dishonoured by the state and forced to cede place to “all the Chief Female Commanders,” while “all those that have followed your example shall have respective honour done to them by the State” (1662 Playes 632).

Finally, Cavendish’s most radical liberatory visions involving alternate physical realities where women transcend all limitations of biology again stress individual rather than group emancipation (e.g., Blazing World and “The Propagating Souls” in Natures Pictures 223–226).

2.9.6 Trickle-Down Feminism

True to her class, Cavendish asserted that constructive reform emanated from the top down: “it is not in the power of every Particular, nor in a number, But the Chiefest persons must mend the world; viz. they that govern the world, or else the world will be out at the heels” (Sociable Letters 10). Cavendish’s works all posit a feminist vanguard, comprised of the most farsighted members of upper-crust society, that is responsible for initiating and leading the movement for women’s liberation. Her portraits of female bonding in the interests of sisterhood only once transgress class bounds (i.e., in the 1662 play Bell in Campo). All other portrayals of feminist camaraderie in action are restricted “amongst my noble female friends” (1666 Blazing World, b2r).

In keeping with this philosophy, a heroine always emerges in each of Cavendish’s works to assume leadership in the struggle for women’s rights. Thus, in the feminist debate of the Orations, a female speaker asks for the “she” who “could or would be our Guide, to lead us out of the Labyrinth Men have put us into”; in return, “we should not only Praise and Admire her, but Adore and Worship her as our Goddess” (Orations 226). Ideally each heroine/leader of the movement is elected to her position. Despite the democratic overture, each election by the group is really little more than a public affirmation of the heroine’s superior qualities. For example, in Bell in Campo the Lady Victoria, incensed by her treatment at the hands of an all-male army, eloquently rallies a group of five-to-six thousand women to initiate an “Amazonian Army.” She then offers to be their “Tutoress” and “Generalless” if the women so “command from your election and Authority” (1662 Playes 589). This, of course, they do, with the appropriate panegyricks to her person and abilities. In a peculiar twist which veers towards a more democratic command structure, Victoria dictates the “Laws and Rules” by which they shall all abide — commanders and commanded alike — which are read aloud to the entire assembly of women and appropriately inscribed on brass tablets. After each rule of conduct is read aloud, Victoria feels compelled to offer a brief explanation “to declare the reason of this Law” (1662 Playes 590). But no further concessions of power-sharing with “the Common she Souldiers” occur (1662 Playes 633).

Because her visions of feminist struggle and utopia all issue from the top down, there is no sense in Cavendish’s works of how feminism — when so narrowly construed — benefits (or even reaches) the mass of women. Undergirding such works as Bell in Campo is an assumption of trickle-down feminism. This is exemplified in the story of Madam Jantil and her faithful maidservant Nell (Bell in Campo, 1662 Playes). Jantil, wealthy and newly liberated by the death of her husband, chooses the independence of incloysterment over the prison of remarriage. Gratifying a personal need for unbounded public acclaim, Jantil constructs a magnificent tomb in which to live — in truth an eloquent reminder to the outside world of the glory achieved by her ostentatious self-sacrifice to a life of quiet contemplation and prayer. Having finally reached the pinnacle of virtue, Jantil crowns her achievement with a final martyrdom as she prepares to die in simple, ritual splendor. At death, her own self-fulfillment complete, Jantil wills one thousand pounds to her maid in order that Nell too may know the liberating potential of a single life. The many shortcomings of this happy vision of privilege dispensing largesse and liberation to a deserving few appear not to have crossed Cavendish’s mind.

In the story of the “Effeminate Army” in Bell in Campo, Cavendish hints at the varied motivations that might compel masses of women to relinquish the safety of the known for unknown, improper, and dangerous adventures. “I make no question,” proclaims Victoria, “but our Army will increase numerously by those women that will adhere to our party, either out of private and home discontents, or for honour and fame, or for the love of change, and as it were a new course of life.” True to her prediction, after each seizure of a town, “every one desired to be inlisted in the roul, and number of the Amazonian Army” (1662 Playes 594, 595). However, Cavendish’s fantasy of women of all classes banding together in a marauding victorious army — the gender concerns of a few at the top overriding all divisions of class, nationality, purpose, and need — imposed hegemony where no grounds for it existed. Once the revolution of liberation had been fought and won for upper-class women, what then? Cavendish’s wonderful imagination was stymied at this point. She simply assumed that benefits accruing to women at the top of the social pyramid would in turn trickle down to women at the base of the pyramid. At the end of Bell in Campo “the Common she Souldiers” are content to hand over their power in return for the spoils of battle.

Chapter 3 >>


1. Prior, “Women and the Urban Economy” 95, 96, 98; see also Thirsk 13–16 and Mendelson, Mental World 5.

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2. It is important to remember that the feminine ideal manufactured in the conduct books was class-oriented; it was not intended for laboring-class women. Sara Mendelson has argued that the feminine ideal of modesty was not simply the “prerogative of the gentry” but a normative code for women of the lower classes as well: “The records of the ecclesiastical courts confirm that village society was guided by notions of feminine shame and honour which were much the same as those of the upper classes” (Mental World 10). Nonetheless, the enforced obedience and deference of laboring-class women to a patriarchal social order was more a function of class than gender. No mechanism existed for disseminating such ideals among the laboring classes, where gender was less asymmetrically perceived, and the new feminine ideal was not easily reconciled with laboring-class culture and reality (Mendelson, Mental World 188, 217 n. 12, 5). Without mass literacy (and therefore lacking any means of mass communication and ideological indoctrination), cultural homogeneity was not yet possible. Lower-class assimilation of the attitudes and values of the ruling class did not descend below the “middling” ranks of urban and rural society (Wrightson 224–5).

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3. Avicenna, for example, “asserted that a hen, after having fought with and conquered a rooster, would be so proudly convinced of her equality to the vanquished male that she would grow spurs” (Bullough 496). The implications of Avicenna’s doctrine were quite clear: “if a man let a woman move towards any degree of equality she would be liable to somatic change and apt to challenge him for control” (496).

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4. A relatively large body of scholarship now exists on this subject. See, for example: Vern Bullough, Anne Dickason, Lynda Lange, Helen Lemay, Carolyn Merchant, Hilda Smith (“Gynecology and Ideology”), and Caroline Whitbeck.

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5. The other was in reproductive science. This is discussed separately in chapter 4 (see 4.5).

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6. Representative texts of the seventeenth-century English querelle des femmes include: Jane Anger her Protection for Women (1589); The Worming of a Mad Dogge (1617); Ester Hath Hang’d Haman (1617); A Mouzell for Melastomus (1617); Haec-Vir: Or, the Womanish-Man (1620); Hic Mulier: Or, the Man-Woman (1620); Muld Sacke: Or, the Apologie of “Hic Mulier” (1620); The Women’s Sharp Revenge (1640); the popular English translation in 1673 of Poulain de la Barre’s The Women as Good as the Man; Or the Equality of Both Sexes; and Haec & Hic; Or the Feminine Gender More Worthy than the Masculine in 1683. Important studies of the English tradition of the querelle des femmes include L.B. Wright, Simon Shepherd, Barbara Baines, Hilda Smith (Reason’s Disciples), Felicity Nussbaum, and Michael Seidel.

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7. For example, Cavendish’s denunciation of man’s wanton destruction of the natural world (see 4.2, 4.3) was no more vehement than that in the earlier Womens Sharp Revenge: “Everything doth seek to be in his natural place constantly ... man — only man — is never contented. His ingurgitating maw is the sepulchre of fishes, fowls, beasts, herbs, fruits, roots, and all things else, whatsoever that his rapine can prey upon” (176–7). And, in the 1620 pamphlet Haec-Vir, Hic-Mulier (the man-woman) writes feelingly of “my” and Nature’s “delight of change,” linking both, as Cavendish would later (see 4.1.2, 4.9.3), with liberty and the pursuit of happiness: “Now for mee to follow change, according to the limitation of mine owne will and pleasure, there cannot bee a greater freedome” (B1r–B1v).

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8. In fact, common law at this time deemed a woman a “non-person,” arguing that she was “covert” (or included in the person of her husband). This applied to married and unmarried women alike, since all women “are understood either married or to be married and their desires are subject to their husband” (The Lawes Resolution of Womens Rights; qtd. Mendelson, Mental World 2).

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9. See, e.g., 1662 Playes, including The Comedy Named the Several Wits, Youths Glory, Wits Cabal, The Unnatural Tragedie, and The Female Academy; also Natures Pictures 175–83.

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10. Cavendish’s own education was typical of that provided upper-class women in the seventeenth century, with its emphasis on building moral over intellectual character. She was luckier than some, she tells us, in that she was “not kept strictly” at learning such domestic skills as needlework, “for my mother cared not so much for our dancing and fiddling, singing and prating of several languages, as that we should be bred virtuously, modestly, civilly, honourably, and on honest principles” (A True Relation 280; see also Sociable Letters 367). For the most part, however, women of quality “are not Educated as they should be ... for their Education is onely to Dance, Sing, and Fiddle, to write Complemental Letters, to read Romances, to speak some Language that is not their Native, which Education, is an Education of the Body, and not of the Mind, and shews that their Parents take more care of their Feet than their Head” (Sociable Letters 50).

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11. Importantly, this prefatory piece follows on the heels of another wherein Cavendish launched a spirited defense of herself and her writings. She had just ended that epistle with an “audience-be-damned” air, and then in typical fashion, reversed herself by opening the next epistle with a plea for special allowance because “It cannot be expected I should write so wisely or wittily as men” (Worlds Olio A4r). The classic antiwoman line of argument just outlined is enlisted to prove this particular point.

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12. In Cavendish’s defense, we should remember that three centuries later, this is still not a dead issue: feminists still debate the complexities of nature versus nurture; elements of the voting public still cite physical weakness in justifying, for example, why a woman should not be elected president of the United States; and many people still rely on male-biased concepts of physical strength in claiming one final irrefutable barrier to complete equality of the sexes.

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13. These quotations are from the 1668 Plays, The Bridals 45, 27 and the 1662 Playes 64, 65.

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14. See, for example, the dialogue between Lady Conversation and Sir Fancy Poet in The Lady Contemplation, 1662 Playes 195.

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15. E.g., 1662 Playes A5v, Sociable Letters b1v, A True Relation 306.

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16. For example: “And if I should express more Vanity then Wit, more Ignorance then Knowledg, more Folly then Discretion, it being accorded to the Nature of our Sex, I hope that my Masculine Readers would civilly excuse me, and my Female Readers could not justly condemn me” (Philosophical Letters 2).

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17. E.g., from the 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions: “I here present the sum of my works, not that I think wise School-men, and industrious, laborious students should value my book for any worth, but to receive it without a scorn, for the good incouragement of our sex” (B2v).

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18. “I could neither hear of, nor see any such Works of any Person that Composed and Set forth to the Publick View, a Book of Pure Orations, Composed out of One Orators own Fancy, Wit, and Eloquence” (Orations a3r).

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19. There is ample evidence that Margaret was an assertive presence in the Cavendish household, as were no doubt a great many other women. Clearly, contemporary gossip condemned William for delivering up “not onely his Person and Estate, but his Reason and Liberty, to the humours and will of his Wife” (Worlds Olio 82). Margaret’s stepchildren worried that her control over economic matters and aggressive pursuit of her own financial well-being were opposed rather than subservient to the Cavendish family interest (Mendelson, Mental World 57–8). Lady Elizabeth Brackley and Lady Jane Cheyne lampooned their stepmother as a money-grubbing intruder in a 1645 play (Mendelson, Women in Seventeenth-Century England 42); Henry Cavendish complained to the Earl of Danby of his stepmother’s unkindness and persuasive powers over William (A Catalogue of Letters and Other Historical Documents Exhibited in the Library at Welbeck 63–4); and Margaret herself commented on the hardships of the power struggle between a second wife and the children and servants of a first wife (Worlds Olio 81), a theme often dramatized in her plays. Margaret’s willingness to lock horns with employees and tenants over questions of estate management (they too accused her of advancing her own over family interests) is also well-documented. Goulding gives an account of the John Booth conspiracy, the result of a long-standing battle between Margaret and the Cavendish family steward over her aggressive methods of estate management (Margaret 21–22). And Grant details the family tensions and tenant complaints resulting from Margaret’s procurement of the position of overseer of the Newcastle estates for her closest friend’s husband, Sir Francis Topp, an ex-merchant and highly “efficient” manager unbounded “by any sentimental notion of the easy relations which should subsist between a lord and his tenants” (229).

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20. In the Worlds Olio we are told that “from the time of twelve yeers old, I have studied upon observations, and lived up[on] contemplation, making the World my Book, striving by joyning every several action, like several words to make a discourse to my self” (H3r). In the Life of her husband, she repeats this claim: “It pleased God to command his servant Nature to indue me with a poetical and philosophical genius, even from my birth; for I did write some books in that kind, before I was twelve years of age” (xlix).

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21. See for example Margaret’s prefatory remark in the 1655 Philosophical and Physical Opinions acknowledging nature’s special favor “for she hath given me such materials, as I hope to build me a monumental fame therewith” (B1r). See also Sanspareille’s astounding “self discourse” on her many perfections and graces which begins, “I will publickly acknowledg natures favours, who hath given me more wit, than time hath given me yeares” (1662 Playes 137). In the Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, William cites Margaret as the “Quintessence of Wits” (a2r); see also his opening encomium added to the second and third editions of Poems and Fancies (A2r–A2v), and indeed the majority of his other prefatory remarks.

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22. As daughters of Eve, women had traditionally personified deceit and been blamed for man’s fall from grace.

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23. Worlds Olio 58; see also Natures Pictures 177, Sociable Letters 41, Orations 56.

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24. These include Bell in Campo and The Female Academy from the 1662 Playes and The Convent of Pleasure from the 1668 Plays.

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25. See, for example, The Unnatural Tragedy, The Female Academy, Bell in Campo, and The Comical Hash from the 1662 Playes; The Convent of Pleasure from the 1668 Plays; and Natures Pictures — especially the opening group of female narrators, plus the stories of pages 208–14, 217–23, 394–514.

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26. E.g., see William’s Advice to Charles II, 50–1.

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27. Natures Pictures 191–3. See also the stories of the Lord Widower, Lady Sprightly and Doll Subtilty and of Briget Greasie and Sir John Dotard in The Matrimonial Trouble (1662 Playes).

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28. Loves Adventures, 1662 Playes 69. See also 1662 Playes 227 (The Lady Contemplation), 559 (The Comical Hash), and Worlds Olio 72.

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29. Worlds Olio 72, 1662 Playes 130 and 69, Orations 246.

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30. The story of Madamoiselle Amor — “the Maid that wooed a Man” — in the play Natures Three Daughters stresses this point. Amor contends that “for a woman to woo a man is against Nature, and seems too bold, nay impudent, only by a contrary custome” (1662 Playes 504). Cultural norms governing “modesty” thus force women to act dishonorably, demanding that they dissemble rather than discover feelings of love. Amor, who prefers control and honor before conventional feminine modesty, actively pursues her own self-interest and is (at Margaret’s hands) rewarded with the best her culture has to offer — a happy marriage to the wealthy Monsieur Nobilissimo.

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31. For example: her statements that masculine prejudice against feminine writing derived from — not resulted in — the need to protect male “prerogative.”

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32. Cavendish cites this code of honor as follows: “It is more honour for a Man to be led Captive by a Woman, than to contend by resistance.” And: “Hee is either a Fool, or a Coward, that strives for the preheminency with a Woman; a Coward, because he domineers over Weakness; a Fool, to dispute with Ignorance.” Both quotations are from her Worlds Olio 71.

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33. For example, see Natures Pictures 157–64, 528–30, 644, 646–7. See also the offensive portrait of Mall Mean-bred in The Lady Contemplation (1662 Playes).

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34. In a surprising passage, Cavendish has a group of peasants petition the king for a redress of grievances: “... all the Profit of our Labours, which should maintain our Lives, Wives and Children, is Forcibly Taken from us, and we do not only Pay Taxes, but Intolerable Prices for all Commodities and Necessaries, occasioned by Monopolies and Projects, which ingross all Particular Commodities, so that we are Forced to Buy our Liberties to Sell, and Sell our Liberties to Buy.” It is then pointed out that the immense wealth generated by peasant labor does not enrich the nation or monarchy, but is spent “Idlely, Vainly, Riotously, and we fear Wickedly” by “Courtiers, Promoters ... and Projectors.” Hence, “what we get with Labour, they spend with Idleness, what we get with Care, they spend with Carelessness; the truth of it is, they Wear our Lives upon their Backs, and Feed upon our Bowels ...” (Orations 118–9).

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35. See for example her comments on play-acting “for the lucre of Gain” as compared to the amateur (aristocrat) player who performs “not for mercenary Profit, but for Honour, and becoming” (1662 Playes A6r).

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