Rare Book Highlights: An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex

Title page of second edition of Drakes Essay in Defence of the Female Sex.

In 1696, An Essay in Defense of the Female Sex was published in London, “written by a Lady.” For a long time, this work was attributed to Mary Astell, an English pro-woman writer, known for her work A Serious Proposal to the Ladies published two years earlier. In recent years, however, the authorship has been attributed to Judith Drake, and English intellectual from the same circle as Astell. She was married to the physician and political pamphleteer James Drake, who wrote a poem dedicated to the author, which appeared in the second edition of the book. Another piece of evidence of Drake’s authorship is in the description of the book that appears in a catalog of books sold after 1741 by the publisher Edmund Curll, in which it was noted that it was written by “‘Mrs. Drake, probably a sister of Dr. James Drake, who attended to the publication of the pamphlet'” (quoted in Hill 877).

The book is written in the form of a letter to a female friend, as an outgrowth of “a private Conversation, between some Gentlemen and Ladies, and written at the request, and for the Diversion of one Lady more particularly,” as she writes in the Preface. The essay begins, in its characteristic complex style:

The Conversation we had ‘tother day, makes me, Dear Madam, but more sensible of the unreasonableness of your desire; which obliges me to inform you further upon a Subject, wherein I have more need of your instruction.

Sentence is repeated in text below.

Opening sentence of the “Essay.”

This “essay” takes up 148 pages, in which she uses a rationalist arguments to defend women against accusations that suggest women are inferior to men. Point-by-point, she makes the case that women are not naturally less intelligent or talented than men, but that “due care has not been taken, to cultivate those Gifts to a competent measure in us” (Drake 9). She also lampoons men through a series of satirical sketches that show the follies and weaknesses of male stereotypes, as outlined in the work’s full title, “…in which are inserted the Characters of A Pedant; A Squire; A Beau; A Vertuoso; A Poetaster; A City-Critick; &c.”

Black and white engraving of a man dressed in 17th century fashion with a large wig, a long coat hitting at the knee, stockings, and healed shoes, standing in front of a mirror, while a second man arranges his hair from behind.

Illustration of a “beau” used as the book’s frontispiece.

Take, as an example, her description of a Beau (or dandy):

When his Eyes are set to a languishing Air, his Motions all prepar’d according to Art, his Wig and his Coat abundantly Powder’d, his Gloves Essenc’d, and his Handkercher perfum’d, and all the rest of his Bravery rightly adjusted, the greatest part of the day, as well the business of it at home, is over; ’tis time to launch, and down he comes, scented like a Perfumers Shop, and looks like a Vessel with all her rigging under sail without Ballast.

 

…From hence he adjourns to the Play-house, where he is to be met again in the side Box, from whence he makes his Court to all the Ladies in general with his Eyes, and is particular only with the Orange-Wench. After a while he engages some neighboring Vizor, and together they run over all the Boxes, take to pieces every Face, examine every feature, pass their Censure upon every one, and so on to their Dress; here he very Judiciously gives his opinion upon every particular, and determines whose Colours are well chosen, whose Fancy is neatest, and whose Cloths fit with most Air; but in conclusion sees no Body compleat, but himself in the whole House. (ibid 69-71)

Drake concludes by arguing that women are in the position to teach men certain virtues of character. She writes, “There remains nothing more, but to shew that there are some necessary Qualifications to be acquir’d, some good Improvements to be made by Ingenious Gentlemen in the Company of our Sex. Of this number are Complacence, Gallantry, Good Humour, Invention, and an Art, which (tho’ frequently abus’d) is of admirable use to those that are Masters of it, the Art of Insinuation, and many others” (ibid 135).

Drake also pokes gentle fun at herself, apologizing for the long-windedness of her essay, writing, “One Experience I have gain’d by this Essay, that I find, when our Hands are in, ’tis as hard to stop ’em, as our Tongues, and as difficult not to writ, as not to talk too much” (ibid 147-148).

There is just one more things that I wanted to note before I conclude my own essay, which is also in danger of growing long-winded. That is the provenance of this particular copy of Drake’s Essay from our collection. Did you notice the author signature on the title page above? Let’s look at it again.

Description in text below.

Ownership signature on title page.

“Matthew Steel” is written in full on either side of the words “In which are inserted the,” and below is a location and date, “Quantico 1753.” One of the back fly-leaves has more:

Description in text below

Year and location of owner noted on back fly leaf.

Ann. Domini 1755

the Year of our Lord 1755

Quantico

Quantico

Dumfries

Quantico and Dumfries are towns in Virginia that were settled in the 17th century by Scottish colonists. This copy of a book published in London was at some point brought to the American colonies and owned by a Matthew Steel in the colony of Virginia. Though by no means our oldest book, there is something thrilling in looking at this book and knowing it traveled so early on across the Atlantic.

Works Cited

Drake, Judith. An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex: in which are inserted the characters of a pedant, a squire, a beau, a vertuoso, a poetaster, a city-critick, &c. in a letter to a lady. Second edition. London: Printed for A. Roper and E. Wilkinson at the Black Boy, and R. Clavel at the Peacock, 1696.

Hill, Bridget. “Drake, Judith.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

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