This week we will review a group of poems by numerous authors centered on the theme of women's friendships.
The subject of women's friendship is particuarly rich and complex for at least three main reasons. First, as
you shall see, the patriarchal culture all but dismissed the idea of female friendship, believing instead
that because of their intellectual and social inferiority women were incapable of sustaining friendships.
Second, in a culture of compulsory heterosexuality intimacy between women, or same-sex love, was unscripted and
culturally invisible. Finally, the experience of women's lives recorded in women's poetry and elsewhere proves
that women did sustain vital, intimate and long-lasting relationships with other women, and that these often
provided the most emotionally fulfilling roles in their lives.
History of Friendship and Gender
The misogynist claim that women were incapable of friendship stems from classical antiquity (and so would be
reprised in Renaissance models of friendship). Harriette Andreadis, in Sappho in Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics 1550-1714
(University of Chicago Press, 2001), analyzes the emergence of female models of friendship in the mid-seventeenth
century in Katherine Phillips' poems. Phillips' writes in a context informed by Montaigne's essay "On Friendship" (translated
in 1603 by John Florio), Richard Brathwaite's popular conduct books The English Gentleman (1630, 1633 and in 1641
with his The English Gentlewoman) and the private memoirs of a prominent member of Charles I course, Sir Kenhelm Digby, who
“[T]he main defect is oftentimes on the woman’s part, through the weakness of that sex, which is seldom, and almost but by miracle,
capable of so divine a thing as an assured constant friendship, mingled with the fervent heat of love and affection” (Digby 6) quoted page 68.
The book, Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment by Elizabeth Susan Wahl (Stanford UP, 1999), also
analyzes the work of Katharine Phillips, as well as many other female writers, to locate and analyze the emerging discourse of female
intimacy of the long eighteenth century. She defines the term as "“a nexus of relations not limited to sexual practice but also
including social and economic ties that can operate within or cross the boundaries of heterosexual institutions such as
marriage and prostitution in order to demarcate and analyze kinds of female experiences that have remained largely unexplored within critical discourse” (9).
She posits and explores in two halves of her book two models of female intimacy – the sexualized and the idealized.
The idealized is closely linked to the emerging model of domesticity in companionate marriage. “I argue that attitudes toward female
intimacy were profoundly affected by the developing ideology of domesticity, which idealized the nuclear family to the detriment
of older kindship structures and emphasized a woman’s maternal rather than conjugal role within the family structure” (11).
Because so many women were put into arranged marriages, they relied more heavily for companionship in their female relations. Moreover they
remained keenly aware that in the developing notions of companionate marriage, women were expected to become good companions for their
husbands, though husbands had no reciprocal expectations made of them (11).
Poetry as Life Writing BWPLEC
Note how the editors of the anthology BWPLEC elected to organize the contents of this massive collection by themes rather
than the more traditional chronological by author method. What are some of the benefits of this? For instances
of Poetry as Life Writing and Women's Friendships, what particular effects does it have?
"Poetry has always been considered to be more personally revelatory than fiction or drama and to be the genre in which the artist
comes to know her- or himself and, sometime to reveal the soul" (Backscheider and Ingrassia 293). What line do feminist critics walk when
they make assertions about the potential for poetry to tell us about women's lives? What are the pros and cons?
Discuss the autobiographical gesture in these poems according to James Olney's hypothesis that it is "'the formal device of recapitulation and
recall' and the extended engagement with the uses of memory, 'the web of reverie,' and internal states of consciousness.'" (B and I 297).
"Women's diverse responses to the same events, opinions, and life stages reinforce the fact that what we say about each poet should be
grounded in material circumstances and in particular and local instances of personal, family, and social history" (B and I 298). What common
events, opinions and life stages are represented in the poetry for today? How do the women poets respond, and how might you situate them
individually in their personal, family and social history?
Women as members of the literary family, 1737-1756
Staves' chapter five makes the case that by mid century, more women were publishing their work with greater acceptance, but that the terms of acceptance limited women's range
of expression. Following Jane Spencer, she explains "the mid-century 'praise of the "feminine" literary qualities was given in such a way to limit the women writers'
acceptable scope, and often to imply that for all its virtues her work was weak'" (229). As for poetry, "a roughly similar shift to acceptability seems to have occurred,
conveniently memorialized by the editorial tone and selections found in George Colman and Bonnell Thorton's Poems by Eminent Ladies (1755). Note also that
Duncombe's Feminiad, which we looked at previously, was also published at this time (1754) and separated the virtuous female writers from "Vice's Friends" (229).
The poems for today fall across the spectrum from mid seventeenth to late eighteenth century. Can you note any change in the woman poet's expression?
Staves makes the argument that "women writers won acceptance by playing the roles of daughters, sisters, or wives to literary men.
And they did so at the moment when the culture was celebrating the properly hierarchicial family as the sources of the highest human
pleasure and the basis for right social order. At mid century, earlier hostility toward women writers modulated into ostensibly friendly
correction and assistance" (230). This strikes me as a particularly important argument in the history of women's writing. Do
we have evidence in our readings for this week to support this? Might there also be an alternative to the patriarchal family represented here?
Staves mentions Mary Jones (230) in passing as the inheritor of light, witty poetics from Finch and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, but the only poet she treats in depth in this
chapter from our reading is the working-class poet Mary Leapor (258-263). Leapor's Essay on Friendship is the longest selection from our reading this week; take some
time to appreciate its value. How does Staves' description of her volume of poetry help us contextualize the poem on friendship?
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