Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2012

Chapter 8 - Disruptive partners: Milton and seventeenth-century women writers


This essay argues that John Milton and Paradise Lost were embroiled in a century-long dialogue about gender that positions his epic alongside writers in the early seventeenth-century “anti-feminist” debate (Rachel Speght and Ester Sowernam), women poets from the early and late seventeenth century (Aemilia Lanyer and Mary Chudleigh), and a major female political and educational theorist (Mary Astell). Surrounded by women writers who engage narratives of the Fall, issues of gendered culpability, and even representations of Christ’s Passion and redemption, Milton’s Paradise Lost internalizes lines of inquiry posed by early seventeenth-century texts authored by women. This essay focuses mainly on how the works of Speght and Sowernam are explored through Paradise Lost and then further interrogated and reworked in the writings of Mary Astell. In their early seventeenth-century responses to Joseph Swetnam’s The Arraignment of Lewd … Women (1615), Ester Sowernam in Ester Hath Hanged Haman (1617) and then Rachel Speght in her “Dreame” vision poem within Mortalities Memorandum (1621) offer a portrait of a solitary Eve in search of knowledge who disrupts the implications of the Fall story. Aspects of their complex portraits exploring the “esse” of women and its consequences for considering women’s relationship to knowledge become sedimented into Milton’s portrait of Eve in Paradise Lost, only to be reworked in Mary Astell’s 1694 A Serious Proposal. What in Speght and Sowernam begins as a negotiation of women’s sense of “esse” or self in portraits of the first woman becomes interrogated through Milton’s Eve to become a full-blown articulation of women’s “self-knowledge” in Astell’s argument for female education.

Wittreich, Joseph A.Feminist MiltonIthaca, NYCornell University Press 1987
Durham, C.Pruitt, K.All and All”: Unity, Diversity, and the Miltonic PerspectiveSelinsgrove, PASusquehanna University Press 1999
Sumers, AlindaMilton’s Mat(t)erology: and the Seventeenth-Century Milton Quarterly 38 2004 200
Miller, 2008
Martin, Catherine GimelliMilton and GenderCambridge University Press 2004
Sowernam, EsterEster Hath Hang’d HamanLondon 1617
Speght, >RachelThe Polemics and Poems of Rachel SpeghtOxford University Press 1996
McColley, DianeMilton’s EveUrbanaUniversity of Illinois Press 1983
Woods, SusanneHannay, Margaret P.Teaching Tudor and Stuart Women WritersNew YorkModern Language Association 2000
Polydorou, DesmaGender and Spiritual Equality in Marriage: A Dialogic Reading of Rachel Speght and John MiltonMilton Quarterly 35 2001 22
Astell, MaryAstell: Political WritingsCambridge University Press 1996
Macey, J. DavidEden Revisited: Re-Visions of the Garden in Astell’s , Scott’s , and Graffigny’s Eighteenth-Century Fiction 9 1997 161
Astell, MaryA Serious Proposal to the LadiesLondonPickering and Chatto 1997
Froula, ChristinaWhen Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical EconomyCritical Inquiry 10 1983 321
Butler, MartinA Provincial Masque of , 1636Renaissance Drama 17 1986 149
McGrath, LynetteMetaphoric Subversions: Feasts and Mirrors in Amelia Lanier’s LIT 3 1991 101
McManus, ClaireWomen and Culture at the Courts of the Stuart QueensLondonPalgrave Macmillan 2003
Woods, SusannePoems of Aemilia LanyerOxford University Press 1993
Ezell, MargaretThe Poems and Prose of Mary, Lady ChudleighOxford University Press 1993