LADIES DEFENCE, THE Lady Mary Chud-leigh (1701) Lady Mary Chudleigh wrote The Ladies Defence in response to a wedding sermon titled "The Bride-Woman's Counselor" delivered by John Sprint in 1700. The sermon so incensed Chudleigh that she wrote her lengthy poem with a strong feminist bent, indignant over Sprint's popular suggestion that women should focus on little else other than obedience to their husbands. She wrote to a friend that she could hardly bear the snickering reception of the sermon by the males in the congregation. Before launching into the poem, Chudleigh wrote an address to her female readers explaining she wrote the Defence because of her "Love of Truth" and the high regard in which she held her readers' honor. She also expressed her indignation, directly addressing her readers, at seeing "you so unworthily us'd," which prompted her to apply her pen in her readers' service. She feared her defense might be too weak, exposing readers to further attacks from the type of person "who has not yet learnt to distinguish between Railing and Instruction, and who is so vain as to fancy, that the Dignity of his Function will render everything he thinks fit to say becoming." However, after hearing certain men actually defend the offensive sermon, expressing "an ill-natur'd sort of Joy to see you ridicul'd, and that those few among 'em who were Pretenders to more Generosity and good Humour, were yet too proud, too much devoted to their Interest, and too indulgent to their Pleasures, to give themselves the Trouble of say ing any thing in your vindication, I had not the Patience to be Silent any longer."
Chudleigh voiced several complaints regarding the negative attitude of males and their demanding natures, which they defended with points of religion. She also made clear the church's shameful role in propagating such behavior, couching ills against women in the language of morality, encouraging the silencing of women in the face of abuse. She most strongly voiced her dissatisfaction with the lack of education for women, who were then punished for that very lack.
In order to emphasize her point of view, Chudleigh invents three male voices, Sir John Brute, Sir William Loveall, and a Parson, fashioned to represent real men whom she had observed during that gathering. of Sir John Brute, she explains, in part, in her preface to the reader, "those Expressions which I thought would be indecent in the Mouth of a Reverend Divine, are spoken by Sir John Brute, who has all the extraordinary Qualifications of an accomplished Husband; and to render his Character compleat, I have given him the Religion of a Wit, and the good Humour of a Critick." She adds that she fears "the Clergy will accuse me of Atheism" because Sir John makes various irreverent remarks about the church and clergy. However, she asks those who would condemn her "to consider, that I do not speak my own thoughts, but what one might rationally suppose a man of his Character will say on such occasions." Sir William, still single and desiring a wife, defends women but employs an undercutting
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manner, as Alexander Pope would later write, "damning with faint praise." The Parson most certainly represents Sprint himself. Excerpts serve to demonstrate Chudleigh's outrage and act as examples of traditional poetic format, written with rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter.
In an excerpt of lines 512-564 titled "A Dialogue between Sir John Brute, Sir William Loveall, Melissa, and a Parson: Melissa's Answer," Chudleigh's approach becomes clear. The voice of Melissa, the representative female who finds herself under attack by the three males in the poem, begins,
'Tis hard we should be by the men despised,
Yet kept from knowing what would make us prized:
Debarred from knowledge, banished from the schools,
Melissa claims that men create the very female traits they seem so to hate. The fact that the large majority of women could not obtain any formal schooling by law ensured that most would little grasp what proved the most common knowledge to their male counterparts. She notes the irony of the fact that ignorance is actually "bred" into women, the result of a very specific program that withheld the solution to the famous "woman problem." She continues by stressing that men make women the objects of derision, laughing at their "native innocence" and taunting them for being "incapable of wit," when that condition is the only possible result of men's specific actions to oppress women. She compares women to "slaves" whom men keep in ignorance in order that their own "luxury and pride" be served. Melissa remains brutally honest in remarking that the only release women have from male-inflicted pain is death. She fashions death as heaven's reaction to women's complaints because "Th'ill-natured world will no compassion show." That same world "gratifies its envy and its spite; / The most in others' miseries take delight," with others indicating the women who request that some pity be spared for them. The reaction from men to their pleas is a patronizing audience during which the men may "look grave and sigh" and even show signs of friendship. However, when away from their wives, males demonstrate their hypocritical characters as they fan the flame, and our oppressors aid; Join with the stronger, the victorious side, And all our sufferings, all our griefs deride.
She sketches a completely undesirable picture of marital relationships.
Melissa continues by referencing a minority of males who desire the happiness of all, but even those few think if we our thoughts can but express, And know but how to work, to dance and dress,
It is enough, as much as we should mind, As if we were for nothing else designed.
She then uses the figurative language (figure of speech) of simile to compare women to puppets, mere toys designed "to divert mankind."
At line 548, Melissa executes a turn, diverging to consider what women might do to lessen their own burden. She wishes that my sex would all such toys despise; And only study to be good, and wise: Inspect themselves, and every blemish find, Search all the close recesses of the mind, And leave no vice, no ruling passion there, Nothing to raise a blush, or cause a fear.
only then "they will respect procure, / Silence the men, and lasting fame secure" and prove the best possible companions to one another. Feminist critics would note that the solution proves an unrealistic one, as Melissa suggests that only through perfection will women satisfy men and end male taunts. Because no woman could, or, more importantly, should have to strive to be perfect, little hope seems to exist for any type of a tolerable life.
Naturally Chudleigh adopted a strident tone to express her complaint, knowing full well that not every woman suffered the indignities Melissa describes.
However, enough of her words ring true that many readers of her day recognized themselves among that hapless group to whom Melissa refers.
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