Academia – Literature

What Empowers Women?

Abby Pittman

May 7, 2014

“Woman, a pleasing but a short-live Flow’r,/ Too soft for Business and too weak for Power,” (Mary Leapor, An Essay on Woman; Demaria 889).

Mary Leapor was an average woman in the 17th century. She was of the lowerclass, a working woman who was forced to provide for herself. Yet she was also gifted in her ability to create poetry that spoke to people and gave them a glimpse into the lives of the lowest people on the totem pole: she was as Ann Messenger puts it, “primarily a spokeswoman for her class and her gender.” Leapor had all of the odds against her:

“Leapor’s low social position is the most basic impediment to her writing poetry since she lacks leisure for education and writing. Her parents try in vain to break her habit of scribbling in order to make her pursue a “more profitable Employment”. In the eyes of her peers and her employers, her useless writing interferes with her physical duties as a servant, and in her own view, her creative work is encroached upon by the menial tasks she has to carry out,” (Meyer).

She touches upon many issues in her work. But specifically in “Man the Monarch” and “An Essay on Woman,” her writing clearly depicts the struggle she and other women face when they attempt to break stereotypes and demonstrate that women have brains and not just beauty.

Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, and Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews all have female protagonists who encounter these daily issues that women were plagued with. Belinda, in “The Rape of the Lock” is ridiculed for her vanity and being materialistic when she is angered by the Baron stealing a lock of her hair, a piece of hair that not only is a symbol of her beauty but also a metaphor for her chastity. Women have very little power, yet with their beauty and chastity, they have more room to negotiate for their happiness in a marriage that they will be forced into. Or, in the case of Moll, her beauty is what allows her to marry up and out of her social class. Yet, there is also a negative to this, as can be seen from Fanny, in Joseph Andrews. Her beauty, if the story were not a comedy, would cost her her chastity, as she is almost raped five times because of it. Why does this happen? Because women are viewed as objects and when their beauty fades, all that is left is their wit, and that is unappreciated by men as Leapor suggests. Women are forced to value something that will inevitably and unquestionably be taken from them in time.

Yet looks are the only advantage that women had over men at this time, as they struggle to break the social norm of “Men are vexed to find a Nymph so Wise” (Demaria 890). In literature of the period, the double-edged sword of fleeting beauty creates opportunities for women, but also creates unwanted dangers for them– until eventually it fades, leaving women even more powerless.

Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” depicts a woman of extraordinary beauty Belinda, who is in control of nothing but her fleeting beauty, yet the Baron attempts to steal it by symbolically cutting of a piece of her hair. But does she not have a legitimate cause for anger? The Baron stole something that is a symbol of Belinda’s power, her only power. The tragedy here is that Belinda might have been willing to have some kind of relationship with the Baron, had he not publically humiliated her. By cutting off of her lock in public, it’s as if he is taking ownership of her, like he is staking his claim. Though he does love her, and his attention is flattering, his actions were inappropriate and costs Belinda more than just an embarrassing scene. Belinda is condemned for her vanity. “For Pope,” says Michael Meyer in Poetry Criticism, “women merely use their beauty in order to acquire power over men, which they lose as they grow old and ugly. Instead, Pope wants the ideal woman “to raise the Thought, and touch the Heart” of the man. Mary Leapor clearly doubts that Pope’s ideal of edifying women is shared by men in general. Men prefer the pleasing “Power of Beauty” to the wit and sense of a woman with ordinary looks” (Meyer). Ideally, women would be able to use all of the weapons in their arsenal: their wit, their looks, their sexuality, their wealth or station—yet Leapor is right, men prefer looks. Not just because looks are pleasing to the eye, but because they allow men to view women as objects. Belinda had something she could control, something that gave her power; her looks and her virtue. To take that, takes away the only power she has. The cutting of the lock is, then, a symbolic rape, and the poem investigates the power and relevance of such a symbolic act. A lot of critics believe “Belinda confuses the symbolic with the literal, and she “overreacts” (according to most undergraduates and not a few critics) because her hair is not her hymen and thus her dismay (as if she had been actually raped) is unfounded and frivolous,” (Harol). Pope creates a satire that gently pokes fun at Belinda for her vanity and materialism, yet is present day standards, this would be considered sexual assault. Though a lock of hair no longer is a symbol of favor as is used to be, he is still taking something that was not given to him. Knowing the what a lock of hair represented in this time period, actually creates a worse picture of the Baron. Generally, a woman was unable to pick her own husband, her family arranged it for her. But because of Belinda’s beauty, her options would be larger. So though she might not have the final decision, it is possible she could show favor to the man she believes she would be most happy with. It is a power that was solely in her hands, which the Baron stole from her.

“But since, alas! frail Beauty must decay,/ Curled or uncurled, since Locks will turn to grey,/ Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,/ And she who scorns a Man, must die a Maid,” ( Alexander Pope, “The Rape of the Lock” Demaria 649)

People may condemn Belinda for over valuing her looks and virtue, as Pope may do as well, yet these lines explain why she must. Belinda must capitalize on her beauty and her virtue in hopes of attaining a good and comfortable life because eventually all of that will fade.

Similar, to Moll, the heroine of her story, Moll Flanders: Moll is unlike Belinda , and able to capitalize on her looks by using her wit. She comes from the lowest station, as Mary Leapor did, yet she manages to die happy and move up in social class, despite her terrible luck. Moll marries five times to different husbands, relying on her looks to provide her the opportunity to marry up in social class; yet eventually, once her looks have faded, she is out of options and instead is forced to steal in order to survive: “The circumstances I was in, made the offer of a good husband the most necessary thing in the world to me,” (Defoe 122). At this point in the novel, Moll is still young enough to retain her looks, so finding a husband was easier for her than it would be in the future. After husband number four died, Moll had pretty much lost her looks: “I was now left in a dismal and disconsolate case indeed, and in several things worse than ever: First it was past the flourishing time with me when I might expect to be courted for a mistress; that the agreeable part had declin’d some time, and the Ruins only appear’d of what had been,” (Defoe 252).  Mary Leapor describes Moll’s situation as well as countless others in this time period:

“And Time’s rude sickle cuts the yielding Rose./ Thus wretched woman’s shortlived Merit dies:/ In vain to Wisdom’s sacred Help she flies,/ Or sparkling Wit but lends a feeble Aid:/ ‘Tis all Delirium from a wrinkled Maid,” (Demaria 896)

Moll’s life would have been utterly different had it not been for her beauty; without the apparent interest from the wealthy sons, Moll would have been forced to be a servant all of her life. It was her beauty that allowed her a chance to move up in class and create a better life for herself. Like Belinda, she is one of the few women who have a miniscule aspect of control over their lives, and that is because of her beauty. Women’s beauty gives them opportunities—at least while it is still there.

Unfortunately though, it also creates unwanted dangers. Fanny, the heroine of the comedy Joseph Andrews, is almost raped numerous times because of her beauty, though it is partly her beauty that allows her to attract the attention of Joseph. Though this work is a comedy, so Fanny is always saved, the issue of rape is still a very real problem. Like Belinda and Moll, Fanny’s beauty creates opportunities that would have been unavailable to her had it not been for her looks. Yet like Belinda, it also made her susceptible to unwanted attention. The problem with beauty was at this time and in this culture, beauty was viewed as frail, weak, and small; women who needed to be saved. The clothes they wore only enhanced those traits, the corsets made their waists unrealistically small, but they also occasionally were so tight that women would pass out. Leapor mentions this in her poem “Man the Monarch”:

“Beholds a Wretch, whom she designed a Queen,/ And weeps that e’er she formed the weak machine./ (…) A set of useless and neglected Charms./ She suffers Hardship with afflictive Moans:// Small tasks of Labour suit her slender  Bones./ Beneath a Load her weary Shoulders yield,/ Nor can her Fingers grasp the sounding Shield;/ She sees and trembles at approaching Harms,/ And fear and Grief destroy her fading Charms,” (Demaria 895)

Beauty may create opportunities for women, but the price of beauty is high. Leapor explores how women are unable to provide for themselves because their bodies are feeble and dainty. This also creates problems for women, when they are unable to defend themselves against advances made on them because of their beauty. Fanny is threatened with rape five times because of her looks, and had Joseph not been a decent guy, he might have threatened her with it too:

“He ran towards her, and, coming up just as the ravisher had torn her handkerchief from her breast, before his lips had touched that seat of innocence and bliss, he dealt him so lusty a blow in that part of his neck which a rope would have become with the utmost propriety, that the fellow staggered backwards, and, perceiving he had to do with something rougher than the little, tender, trembling hand of Fanny, he quitted her, and, turning about, saw his rival, with fire flashing from his eyes, again ready to assail him,” (Fielding 299).

Fanny is always saved just in time in this novel because this novel is a comedy, but unfortunately, rape is a very real issue and most women are not saved.

Rape happens so often because women are viewed as objects, more so in this early time period, but in present time as well. For example, a painting is judged by its beauty, its beauty determines its cost, but also the name of the artist creates the cost as well; if he is well known as being a superb artist, the price of his paintings rise. It is the same for women; a beautiful woman piques a man’s interest, raises the cost of her, but it is her station and title—the name of her family that truly determines the price. The problem with this analogy is that the painting is an object, and the woman is a human being. Yet, women weren’t seen as that, instead they were objects, and bargaining chips for their families. When a women’s only value is her title or position in society and her looks, no wonder women are viewed as objects. With families selling their daughters to a man for his connections with her dowry, she becomes less of a person and instead property. Property that “Man the Monarch” can choose what to do with. With a society that functions around objectifying women, rape will always be more relevant. The only thing that has changed today is the way society objectifies women. Today it is the media that objectifies women, portraying women as inhumanly beautiful in violent and sexual advertisements. On the RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) website, it says “there is an average of 237,868 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year,” they got these numbers from the U.S. Department of Justice, in the National Crime Victimization Survey from 2008-2012. That number if divided means that there is a sexual assault every two minutes in America. This happens because women have been objectified, just as they have been in the past, but in a different way.

Everyone wants to beautiful, because people feel that beauty offers so many advantages, and maybe in some ways it does; but it also creates problems for women such as unwanted attention that could lead to a dangerous situation. Mary Leapor, faced with the typical problems of being a lower class woman, gives her a unique insight to be able to create poetry that allows her audience to truly understand the struggle of being a woman in this time. Each woman in these works has her own set of challenges to face. Belinda experiences being objectified by the Baron as he tries to take the one thing that allows her power, his unwanted attention is created though, by his immediate draw to her beauty. Moll does not experience rape, mainly because she uses her looks and body in order to get a head and survive. Unfortunately, once her looks fade, she is out of options. Fanny, like Belinda, does experience a rape situation, though she is almost raped five times and in a much more realistic rape than someone merely cutting off a lock of her hair. And though, their beauty creates these problems for these women, it also saves them. It allows Belinda more power in her life, Moll is able to use her beauty to move up in the class system, and Fanny was able to attract Joseph to her who not only ended up being of a higher social class but also her soul mate. Times have changed from this century; women have come a long way in the battle for equality. Unfortunately, things have only changed on the surface. Women are still being objectified constantly, just under a different guise: now with the medias, women are under the impression that they are embracing their sexuality, which is something women from Leapor’s age didn’t do. Unfortunately, women are objectifying themselves by doing that. The issues such as weakness, beauty, and men reigning as monarchs that Leapor explores will always be relevant, whether in her century or the 21st century because these a universal problems for women that cannot be escaped.


Works Cited

Defoe, Daniel, and David Blewett. The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders & C … London: Penguin, 1989. Print.

DeMaria, Robert. “Alexander Pope.” British Literature, 1640-1789: An Anthology. Third ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. 631-51. Print.

DeMaria, Robert. “Mary Leapor.” British Literature, 1640-1789: An Anthology. Third ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. 883-96. Print.

Fielding, Henry, and Judith Hawley. Joseph Andrews; And, Shamela. London: Penguin, 1999. Print.

Harol, Corrinne. “Virgin idols and verbal devices: Pope’s Belinda and the Virgin Mary.” Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 45.1 (2004): 41+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 May 2014.

Messenger, Ann. “Mary Leapor (1722-1746).” Pastoral Tradition and The Female Talent: Studies in Augustan Poetry. New York: AMS Press, 2001. 173-193. Rpt. in Poetry Criticism. Vol. 85. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May 2014.

Meyer, Michael. “Mary Leapor: The Female Body and the Body of her Texts.” 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era. Ed. Kevin L. Cope and Scott Paul Gordon. New York: AMS Press, 2004. 63-78. Rpt. in Poetry Criticism. Vol. 85. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May 2014.

“Statistics | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.” Statistics | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. RAINN, 2009. Web. 05 May 2014.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s