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Stanley Stewart, 43-57. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
"TO THE LADIES" Lady Mary Chudleigh
(1703) Critics judge that Lady Mary Chudleigh endured an unhappy marriage from the evidence in her well-anthologized poem "To the Ladies." Because she begins in her first line comparing wives to servants, noting they differ only "in the name," her attitude toward the woman's place in the domestic sphere becomes clear. Chudleigh's attitude reflects the constraints that remained upon women who had gained little to no legal rights during the 17th century. The Laws' Resolution of Women's Rights (1632) explained that females "have nothing to do in constituting laws, of consenting to them, in interpreting of laws, or in hearing them interpreted . . . and yet they stand strictly tied to men's establishments, little or nothing excused by ignorance."
Chudleigh adopts figurative language (figure of speech) to describe marriage as "that fatal knot" that, once tied, "nothing, nothing can divide." Her statement proved true to her times, when men could procure divorces, but women could not. She focuses on a topic that always aroused her ire, the patriarchal ideology that women should be obedient to their husbands. Alluding to the "love, honor, and obey" line so familiar to readers from the traditional religious wedding ceremony, she use italics to emphasize woman's subservience in the line "When she the word obey has said." Not only does religion support man's dominance, civil law also protects the male, a point she makes when she adds, "And man by law supreme has made." Once the woman agrees to obey under the laws of the church and of man, "all that's kind is laid aside, / And nothing left but state and pride," where the term state means pomp or ceremony. As a subtext Chudleigh seems to suggest that both men and women prove little more than actors in the ritual, assuming roles to which only the wife is later held. Her husband grows "Fierce as an Eastern prince," is overcome by an innate "rigor," and can break his marriage vow with a mere look. But the woman remains "mute," supporting the traditional view of women as most desirable when silent. She has no freedom, may "be governed by a nod," and must remain as fearful of her husband as of God, a statement that supports man's position as a deity. Not only must she "serve" and "obey," she may only speak and behave in a manner that he approves. The speaker of the poem obviously chafes under all these restrictions, warning other women to beware. Chudleigh clearly suggests that to remain single would be more desirable than to marry. She emphatically tells her readers, "Then shun, oh! Shun that wretched state," thereby avoiding the hate of "fawning flatt'rers." Her final command reveals a progressive attitude, as she tells women, "value your selves, and men despise / You must be proud, if you'll be wise." Women should not feel that pride is sinful, as it will afford them some spiritual independence.
Chudleigh often wrote to friends regarding her disgust for a society that, by design, suppresses its women with ignorance, not allowing them to attend school. All of the aspects of females that exasperate males are specifically bred into the women by those very men. That state of affairs suggests the men are the ones with self-loathing, rather than the women. They design and execute what they later label a disaster, without assuming any responsibility. Unfortunately Chudleigh's poem did not forecast any change, and little would alter over the next 100 years. Women continued to face different standards from those men had to meet, made clear by a parliamentary resolution enacted almost 70 years after the publishing of Chudleigh's poem. The 1770 resolution proclaimed that "all women of whatever age, rank, professions, or degree, whether virgin maid or widow" who attempted any seduction into matrimony of men "by means of scent, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, or bolstered hips" would face the same penalty faced by those accused of witchcraft. Such misogynistic attitudes would reach far into the 19th and even 20th centuries.
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