Restoration and Neoclassical Miscellanea
Posted by: Emily Robinson
It seems Feminism today has taken on a different meaning than it did from the start. When Feminism was first established, the movement was presented as the advocacy for equal rights for women politically, socially, culturally, and economically. However, it appears that those views have been slowly disappearing. In 2015, the word Feminism often takes a negative connotation. So negative in fact, some women who call themselves feminists in private shy away from that title in public. To a growing number of people the word feminist is synonymous to the new term ‘feminazi’. Yes, Nazi. The term ‘feminazi’ was coined due to the belief by the public that instead of equality, feminist groups desire power and domination over the opposite sex. Feminists are now seen as power hungry extremists and ‘men haters’.
The term feminist is now so polarizing, that women have stopped calling themselves feminist for fear of being viewed as a militant radical. But who is to blame for this change? The public for the prejudice being displayed by assigning all feminists this way? Or, is it those vocal few who do advocate harassment and domination toward men? Or, Perhaps both?
Reverting to the era before Feminism was so an unfavorable term or view is not going to change overnight. Perhaps we can begin to rid the negativity surrounding Feminism with a first step in understanding the concept. Before we can begin to change the public’s view, let’s start from the inside out. As the title of my article implies, we need to take feminism back to the start. Back to the original understanding of the concentration on equality, not power. And the best way to do so, is to recognize not only the societal struggles of women but those of men too.
Interestingly, one of the first influential writers who revealed an understanding of the struggles of both genders was the female Restoration writer, Aphra Behn.
Aphra Behn has become better known for unconsciously paving the way for other female writers due to her contribution to the development of the English novel. But she is also highly regarded as a public feminist before the term feminism was even coined. These early advocates are referred to as proto-feminists. Behn showcased these views through her scandalous poem “The Disappointment”, a poem that alluded to the sexual desires of women.
Written for the Earl of Rochester’s Poems on Several Occasions, her poem kept with his satire of “Imperfect Enjoyment” detailing a sexual encounter that ends in male impotence. However, Behn’s poem changed the ending to fit with her understandings of female sexuality and societal pressures that men face. In her poem she showcases female sexuality as a concept of carnal pleasure that women desire as much as men –a concept that at the time of the poem, was deemed as myth.
Behn was also one of the earliest women to speak upon the similarities of both genders both positive and negative. Her other main point of the poem, was to bring light to pressures men faced. These pressures included the belief that a man’s duty was taking financial responsibility for the family, having an unsullied image in society, and satisfying women. While the “Imperfect Enjoyment” always ended with the man placing blame upon the woman for his impotence, in her poem Behn satirically described the female’s disappointment and the male’s shame.
Behn’s poem delivered a notice to the public because by speaking on issues that were usually ignored or not discussed in public. In her poem, she depicts the internal battle that the woman in the poem, Cloris, suffers because of the societal burden placed upon women of the time to covet virginity. While Cloris at first tries to resist the male character, Lysander, and his advances due to shame the shame she would bring herself and her family, she ultimately gives in to her own desires for a moment of pleasure. Using this technique, Behn didn’t just portray Cloris’s troubles, she went the extra step to sympathize with the male character. Instead of disparaging him for his short comings, she writes of the stigma placed upon men by other men and the pressures of duty, responsibility, and traditional masculinity. With Lysander unable to perform sexually, Behn expounds upon the turmoil within Lysander over his shame with himself in the lines,
But none can guess Lysander’s soul,
But those who swayed his destiny.
His silent griefs swell up to storms,
And not one god his fury spares;
He cursed his birth, his fate, his stars.(133-137)
Works like this are what helped to shape the feminist concept of equality. If women are so much like men, then women should also receive the same rights and freedoms. But the true meaning of Feminism has been lost in the chaos of want for control and individual self-righteousness. The prospect of ‘turning the tables’ and holding all the power, of making the oppressive the new oppressed, was never what Feminism was supposed to be about. Aphra Behn’s insight into the burdens that both of the sexes face have either been forgotten or overlooked. Let those pioneers who have influenced for change, influence once more. Let’s take it back to the start.