Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Anne Bradstreet: Puritan Feminist

Puritan Christianity is not a belief system that one would expect to foster feminism, but among the writings of the early Puritans in America, we find the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, who sailed with John Winthrop to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Bradstreet's father ensured that his daughter got a good education, and her poetry is a fascinating blend of classical learning, Puritan thought, and a testament to the strength of women.  In the early days of the Puritan experiment in the New World, women had to be strong.  Despite the fact that she was often ill, Bradstreet bore eight children, and her book The Tenth Muse was the first book to be published by a woman in the United States.

Her writings challenged the notion that women were only fit for domestic affairs.  In "The Prologue" she writes:

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
who says my hand a needle better fits,
A poet's pen all scorn I should thus wrong.
For such despite they cast on female wits
If what I do prove well, it won't advance,
They'll say it was stolen or else it was by chance.

Here Bradstreet speaks out against the idea that female poets are inferior, or derivative of, male poets.  Her epic poem "In Honor of That High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory" gives a "shout out" to one of the most powerful and influential female leaders of English history:

She hath wiped off th' aspersion of her sex
That women wisdom lack to play the rex (king)

In her praise of Queen Elizabeth, Bradstreet gives a litany of powerful women from history and literature: Athena (goddess of war, wisdom, chastity, the arts, and justice), Semiramis (9th century queen of Assyria who is said to have built Babylon), Tomyris (a Scythian queen whose armies in 529 A.D. defeated Cyrus the Great of Persia), Dido (fabled queen of Carthage), and Zenobya (queen of Syria).  Bradstreet places Elizabeth in this tradition of strong female leaders.

Despite her education and talent, Bradstreet lived in a world ruled mostly by men, and some of her poetry reflects frustration over the widely-held belief that her voice was not as powerful as a man's.  In "Contemplations" she feels a kinship with the mythic figure of Philomel, daughter of king Attica, who was transformed into a nightingale after her brother-in-law raped her and tore out her tongue:

While musing thus with contemplation fed,
And thousand fancies buzzing in my brain,
The sweet-tongued Philomel perched o'er my head
And chanted forth a most melodious strain
Which rapt me so with wonder and delight,
I judged my hearing better than sight,
And wished me wings with her a while to take my flight.

Despite the limitations and prejudices of her age, Anne Bradstreet's poetry survives, a testament to its enduring value and importance.


  1. Wow, what an interesting woman. Thanks for bringing her to my attention.