Girls Support Girls: 17th Century Literature Edition

If I could establish a nationwide book club of female authorship and readership, I would. But sadly, I can’t, and I don’t think even Meryl Streep could pull that off. Nonetheless, I think we need to do to the next best thing and talk about Aphra Behn, Aemilia Lanyer and their wonderfully punk-rock Reformation-era associates. These women are considered to be some of the first women to earn their living as writers, or ‘by the pen’ as Virginia Woolf referred to them. To me, it’s a tragedy that these wonderful women have escaped the canon of literature and the necessary millennial movement of girls supporting each other; Katherine Phillips literally created a girl group called the Society of Friendship in 1651 in which female poets could write and share the poetry they’d written about their friends. To me that’s the definition of girls supporting each other. I like to imagine that’s what the slogan t-shirts in H&M are really referring to.  

Let’s begin with Aemilia Lanyer. Lanyer was the first Englishwoman to publish a substantial volume of poetry which reflected both on her experiences as a woman in the 17th century and as an Italian immigrant in the Tudor court. Amongst many powerful and inspiring pieces, my favourite of Lanyer’s is ‘Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women’; which I think bears striking resemblance to Emily Ratajowski and Kim Kardashian’s unapologetic ‘Naked-Selfie’ that broke the internet because of how it seemed to act as a magnet for misogyny and slut-shaming. In Lanyer’s insurgent poem, she highlights how ridiculous it is to blame all women for the fall of man, and suggests that if we’re really going to blame humans for the state of our existence, men are just as much to blame. 1611, the year this poem was written, was still a period of extreme religious tensions in Europe due to conflicts between the Roman Catholic Church and the rise of Protestantism. One thing these two violently opposing forces agreed on however, was the culpability of Eve in the fall of man, and, let’s face it, women-hating.  This poem is a huge Fuck You to that, much like the infamous Naked Selfie of Kim and Emily, as they highlighted how ridiculous their slut-shaming was. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Queer Eye, but whenever I read ‘Yet men will boast of knowledge, which he took/ From Eve’s fair hand’ all I can do is scream ‘yes Queen!’ at Lanyer’s ability to create a metaphor for what we now call mansplaining, all through a biblical analogy that applies to both the present day and the early 1600s. Lanyer finishes the poem by essentially saying, if men are so great and smart, why did Adam listen to inferior and silly little Eve and eat the forbidden fruit? This woman really just dismantled the stupidity that lies within most misogynistic arguments in a poem of 96 lines before Wollstonecraft was even born. So why had I never heard of her throughout years of studying literary and feminist theory? 

"The reason why I am so enamoured by the Society of Friendship is that even to this day, the value of female friendship is exceedingly undervalued. Patriarchy has made competition a synonym for friendship, and characterised jealousy as the only bond between women..."

Then, in 1651, the most wholesome aspect of literary history happened. Katherine Phillips, a Welsh poet, established the Society of Friendship. When I heard about this beautiful girl-group of platonic love and appreciation for other women, I got so excited I considered tattooing the group’s name somewhere visible so I could tell everybody I met about it. The society was essentially a democratic, proto-feminist group in which like-minded individuals got together to discuss ‘poetry, religion, and the human-heart.’ In 2018, such wholesome and supportive groups that are inclusive to everyone to discuss such important topics are few and far-between, hence my plight to inform everybody I can about such a beautiful part of history; the only comparison I can make is that of the wonderful women on The Receipts Podcast (which you should also listen to if you haven’t already.) Phillips wrote one of my favourite poems ‘Friendship’s Mystery, To My Dearest Lucasia’, and honestly, it sounds like some of the texts me and my friends send each other when we’re feeling emotional and appreciative. ‘Our hearts are mutual victims laid/ While they, such power in friendship lies’, which is essentially 17th century vernacular for when that boy you fancy has left you on read and you get those ‘all you need is your girls’ texts. The reason why I am so enamoured by the Society of Friendship is that even to this day, the value of female friendship is exceedingly undervalued. Patriarchy has made competition a synonym for friendship, and characterised jealousy as the only bond between women. Phillips created a space where this wasn’t the case, and I think we can only appreciate and continue her revolutionary and beautiful spirit with this nationwide book club I referred to earlier (if only). 

There’s one more special woman I think you need to know about. Aphra Behn. The first self-sufficient female playwright and poet, the woman who Virginia Woolf said that we all ought to ‘let flowers fall on the grave’ of. Apart from her magnetic and absorbing poetry, one of the reasons I adore Behn so much is that she recognised that the canon was missing out on a lot of beautiful female voices due to the inability of working class women to pursue their authorship due to the financial implications, and she championed these voices much like Phillips did earlier in the 1600s. 3 and a half centuries later and this is still the case, but learning about this part of literary history made me so much more hopeful for the power of women to champion each other’s voices in the future, and to carry on the legacy of these women. Behn also represents an emerging consciousness of fluid female sexuality, and was one of the first women to question gender roles in relationships within her poetry. In ‘The Disappointment’, Behn intelligently tells the tale of a sexually frustrated women named Cloris (yes, Cloris), who is raped by her suitor Lysander. Importantly, Behn doesn’t erase Cloris’ sexuality in her submission to Lysander’s advances, she only highlights the abysmal actions of Lysander and how he will now be ‘damned to the hell of impotence.’ There’s no victim-shaming to be found here, which seems revolutionary even from a 21st century perspective. I agree with Virginia Woolf that with ‘Mrs Behn we turn a very important corner on the road’ as she’s as relevant now in the literary canon as ever. 

Lanyer, Behn and Phillips are just some of the female authors that deserve more recognition and my whistle-stop tour of their work and importance is only a drop in the water of their folios and greatness. I’d encourage you to not only read their works, but completely immerse yourself in the world of Margaret Cavendish, Anne Finch and Lady Mary Wroth too; you’ll thank yourself when you can suddenly respond to misogynistic remarks on Twitter in the vernacular of a noble 17th Century female poet. The complete removal of these women from both literary history and history as a whole is nothing but tragic, and this needs to change. Like Katherine Phillips said, ‘To the dull and angry world let’s prove/There’s a religion in our love.’ In this dull and angry world of Trump, Tories and Tomi Lahren I know we can show the religion in our love of girls supporting each other just like they did in the 17th Century. 

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