Authority Represented In Three Seventeenth And Eighteenth Century

  • Category: Religion
  • Words: 2022
  • Grade: 85
Women writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries faced many difficulties in writing and publishing their work, in a world where women were seen to be the intellectual and moral inferiors of men. However, several women writers of this time period both implicitly and explicitly criticized the institutions that bound them: class, marriage, social conventions and religion. In their writings, Mary Astell, Mary Carleton and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu find ways in which to challenge the authority of the patriarchal society, and much of their criticisms are shared, although the manner in which they construct their arguments differ. To varying degrees, these writers acknowledge the social conventions they are working within and maintain the necessity of them, while at the same time arguing for a better social position.
        Mary Astell's "Some Reflections Upon Marriage" seems intended mainly for a male audience, as she often refers to women as "they", siding herself with men in an intellectual companionship. In the excerpt of her essay found in The Longman Anthology, Astell cleverly aligns herself with men as a literate person, familiar with certain authorities herself: the Bible, Roman history, etc. At times, Astell logically attacks men's authority over their wives, and at other times, claims it is divinely indisputable. She appears to be "softening the blow" of her argument by occasionally stroking the male reader's ego and assuring him of his moral rightness: "Generous man has too much bravery, he is too just and too good to assault a defenseless enemy, and if he did inveigh against the women it was only to do them service" (Astell 2282). Passages like this are in direct opposition to other assertions Astell makes. For instance, she questions the authority of the husband over the wife and of men as governors, asking "{d}id the bare name of husband confer sense on a man, and the mere being in authority infallibly qualify him for government..." (2284).
        By observing how Astell makes, and then partially recants an assertion, we can see her complicated relationship to authority. Rather than taking her back and forth logic for intellectual weakness, readers in the twenty-first century can understand Astell's position; if she criticized male authority too openly, she could have (at the very least) lost her audience altogether. In order to effect any change in the treatment of women, Astell had to appeal to those in power: men. And alienating those men by attacking their superiority, or by appearing more intelligent than they, would prove useless. Astell seems to be appealing logically for the barest minimum men might be expected to give.
        Religious authority is not so much criticized in Astell's essay, as it is used to back up her argument. She appeals to reason within a religious framework, and names male pride as a great detriment to the fair treatment of women:

But pride, which makes everything serve its purposes, wrested this passion from its only use, so that instead of being an antidote against sin, it is become a grand promoter of it, nothing making us more worthy of that contempt we show, than when (poor, weak, dependent creatures as we are!) we look down with scorn and disdain on others (2281).

Implicitly, Astell is asserting women's moral equality, if not superiority, over men. Men sin with pride, and women become virtuous by patiently submitting to their husband's treatment, as "[h]ereafter may make amends for what she must be prepared to suffer here" (2283).
        Astell uses a thinly disguised sarcasm to criticize the patriarchal and colonialist world she lives in, and compares marriage to empire building. In several places in the text, she lists male achievements, lauding men's "vast minds", "superior sex" and "wisdom and courage" (2283). However, in listing the great achievements of the nobler sex, Astell makes those acts of creation seems like children's games by juxtaposing them with similar acts of destruction:

Have not they founded empires and overturned them? Do not they make laws and continually repeal them and amend them? Their vast minds lay kingdoms waste; no bounds or measures can be prescribed to their desires. War and peace depend on them...[w]hat is it they cannot do? They make worlds and ruin them...(2283).
        Having established a logical basis for questioning male authority in general, Astell moves that criticism into the realm of marriage. She describes the institution of marriage as a benefit for men, but not so for women. If marriage is the only possible social outcome for women, and it is inevitable as God's law, and if men (as she argues it) must act superior to women, then women must submit to their husband's authority. In Astell's world, it was simply not possible, or at lest very difficult, to live any other way. The only hope Astell gives to women regarding marriage is education. The value of the learning that men receive is lauded; a young man becomes "aquainted with the state of the world, the ways and humors...the faults of the age he has fallen into" (2285). If women were similarly familiar with the faults of their age, they would be more wary of men, and of making a bad marriage. An education would enable women to make better choices for themselves within the inevitabilities of male dominance.
        Astell's essay directly addresses the issue of male authority, but few women writers of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were so bold in their criticisms. Instead, we see the questioning of authority within less formal writings, like Mary Carleton's autobiographical "The Case of Madam Mary Carleton" and Montagu's "The Turkish Embassy Letters". Carleton pleads her case on a personal level, and with a flair for storytelling that makes room for questions about the accuracy of her story. Compared with Astell's polemic, Carleton's text is far less logical and subtle in its argument. However, her perspective as an individual who was persecuted as a woman fills in a gap left by Astell; the idea of class as a factor in the oppression of women is illustrated by Carleton's journey up and down the social ladder.
        Carleton was punished for her transgressions in marriage (bigamy), but primarily for masquerading as more upper class than she actually was. The authority of those in the aristocracy to accept or reject people based on class is evident in this text; Carleton is metaphorically stripped of her rank as she is literally stripped of her fine clothing:

I was by a warrant dragged forth of my new the instigation of old Mr. Carleton, who was the prosecutor, and by him and his agents divested and stripped of all my clothes, and plundered of all my jewels and my money...and in a strange array carried before a justice (Carleton 2037).

Carleton herself doesn't view overstepping class boundaries as such a vicious crime. If the message from the upper class is that they are worth emulating, why, she asks, is it a crime to do so? Those in power uphold ambition as a virtue and state that the best things are to be imitated, and then punish the lower classes for doing just these things. Carleton asserts that she doesn't deserve punishment, because she acted virtuous and committed no moral transgressions while in her role as Mrs. Carleton. She is therefore calling upon Morality as a higher authority than class.
Like Astell, Carleton uses education as leverage in arguing for her rights. She demonstrates that she speaks several languages, and she displays literacy in comparing her text to other writings, as when she refers to the Renaissance writer Boccaccio (2031). Unfortunate though her predicament is, Carleton uses her wits to unravel the plot against her, and she can "hardly forbear smiling, to see how serious these elders and brokers were in this love-killing story" (2035). Her life experience and learning led her to be able to flee her loveless marriage in the first place. Just as Astell recommends education in order to make better life choices, Carleton states that her learning was intended to lead her to "the ways to a better fortune" (2033).
        Similar to Carleton's text, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's "The Turkish Embassy Letters" criticize authority by revealing the everyday state of things, although the Turkish women Montagu describes have more freedom than the English women we have heard about so far. Rather than describing the oppression of women, or the dominance of men, Montagu simply describes the activities of the Turkish women at the baths. Perhaps the most subtle of the criticisms we have seen so far, Montagu's letters reveal the conventions of dress and discourse to be a barrier to English women's freedom. By simple comparison of English and Turkish social conventions, the Turkish women are revealed as having more liberty than their English counterparts.
        Dress as a social status is mentioned, and like Carleton's upper class finery, Montagu's riding dress is portrayed as a danger to her liberty. Her confining undergarments literally bind her, and she is unable to join the Turkish women in their enjoyment of the baths. The power relationship between men and women is not directly mentioned here, and it is Montagu's own fashion consciousness that limits her. This self-imposed restriction can be compared to Astell's statement, " reality it is not the world that abuses us, 'tis we abuse ourselves" (Astell 2282). The authority in question is indirectly that of male power, but more directly, women's own social conventions.
Like both Astell and Carleton, Montagu knows that the male authority over women holds real dangers for them. For Astell, a bad marriage is of utmost concern, and for Carleton, the danger is in being deemed criminal for her acts of self-preservation. For Montagu, danger for women lies in sexual control and violence. The Turkish women, by wearing the veil, gain more freedom from male sexual authority than is afforded to English women. Because their identity is hidden behind their dress, women can hide their class, can meet with lovers, and are protected from male harassment and violence. Montagu asserts that "[t]his perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery" (Montagu 2562). Turkish women also control their own finances, and can divorce with more freedom than English women can, a point that Carleton also raises: "I have heard and did believe the proverb that England was a Heaven for women...for as to as much as I see of it, is but to be enjoyed but at second hand, and all by the husband's title" (Carleton 2038).
        Montagu, in describing what she observes of Turkish women in their daily rituals, lies farthest away from Astell as to explicit political criticism of male authority. Her observations of English women's lack of liberty, compared with Ansell's, seem almost comical. As well, Carleton's tale of persecution reads like a Romance, and the accuracy and even the authorship of her story remains obscured. However, all three writers to some degree, describe the restrictions that limit their freedom as coming from their inferior social status as women. For Astell, the result is a lack of education imposed by believed male superiority, and religious authority. For Carleton, male authority limits her prospects of marriage, class mobility, and even her safety from prosecution. Montagu sees the Muslim veil as a liberty from some of the sexual restrictions that are imposed on English women, in part by their own reliance on fashion. In all three texts, however, authority (whether it is that of husbands, the Church, the Aristocracy or fashion) is enjoyed by men. Each of these three writers, to their own capabilities, challenges this authority and offers alternatives to women by example.

Works Cited

Damrosch, David, ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 1.
        New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999.

Astell, Mary. "Some Refections Upon Marriage." Damrosch, 2280-2289.

Carleton, Mary. "The Case of Madam Mary Carleton." Damrosch, 2030-2039.

Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. "The Turkish Embassy Letters." Damrosch, 2558-2562.

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