The Reasons that Required Lady Montagu to write a Poem criticizing Dr. S.


A satirical portrayal of the ridiculousness of women’s fashion by John Collet.

18th century society in England mandated a chasm as wide as the Atlantic Ocean between the roles of the sexes. The men supposed themselves England: superior, imperial, and conquering, while giving the women across the Pond the identity of the Colonies: inferior, dependent, and conquered. Little did England know that the Colonies were fed up with the ignorant governance that was hindering them from achieving their true potential, and little did England know that a revolution was brewing. Though it is still being written, the declaration of women’s independence began to draft some grievances of its own through the works of the intelligent 18th century feminist authors, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu among the best.

One of the largest contributions to the consistency of misogyny in 18th century society, namely high society, was literature. Jonathan Swift, though his satire inspired some animosity, was a renowned and respected author (and, of course, a man), which provided his writing with a considerable amount of influence. Swift’s poem The Lady’s Dressing Room surely evoked some patronizing chuckling, and heads dressed in powdered wigs certainly shook from left to right with sympathy for poor Strephon. However, not everyone found the humor of this poem to be in good taste, and unfortunately for Mr. Swift, literature was the same medium by which the feminist movement found its voice.

While most people would not have bothered to question what reasons could have compelled Swift to write such a piece, as it was consistent with accepted gender roles and the popular subject of mocking the female sex, Lady Montagu saw through to the root of Swift’s condescending misogyny.  As Marilyn Franscus asserts in her article about the misogyny due to fear of the power of female reproduction and sexuality in Swift’s and Alexander Pope’s writing, “the diminution of the patriarchal male is manifested repeatedly” in many of their works, and this is especially true in the case of The Lady’s Dressing Room (Franscus). Lady Montagu was aware of this as well, and set out to publicize Swift’s transgression in writing this poem through a poem of her own, in which she characterizes and mocks a potential insecurity of his.

Of course, Lady Montagu’s jab at Swift was not only to publicly embarrass him; it also served to comment on the hypocrisy of men in their attempts to subjugate women. Certainly men of intelligence, like Mr. Swift, know that women do not naturally look the way that they do when in company, unlike the naïve Strephon, and Lady Montagu recognizes this in her portrayal of Swift. The aforementioned hypocrisy is characterized when the doctor whines that the prostitute’s “close stool [is] so near [his] nose,” and her “dirty smock, and stinking toes,” are putting him off (Montagu in The Longman Anthology of British Literature p. 2351).

Naturally you’re thinking that he’s simply trying to get what he paid for, and that the least she could do is clean up a bit if she’s trying to run a business. But the problem is that the doctor almost certainly would not have invited a prostitute to his home to do the deed: people might talk! So, clandestine meetings such as this must be carried out in the woman’s private quarters, the keyword, of course, being private. This is the issue prevalent in Swift’s poem that Lady Montagu is satirizing. If men expect women to resemble dolls and portray an unnatural beauty, how are the women supposed to comply without the closed doors behind which they execute this makeover?

The double standards to which women are held are prominent themes in early (and modern) feminism, one of the most common being that of outward beauty mentioned above. Many of Swift’s other pieces contain blatant misogyny by different means and on different subjects, which Marilyn Franscus uses to write her article “The monstrous mother: reproductive anxiety in Swift and Pope.” Franscus picks up where Montagu left off and comments on a different type of hypocrisy with which men plague the female sex. In essence, she finds that some instances of misogyny, namely in the writing of Swift and Pope, arise from the deep seeded fear and feelings of inadequacy inspired by the prowess of the female reproductive system. She argues that men attempt to counterbalance, by the means of oppression to make themselves feel more important, the fact that their reproductive systems do not perform as astounding feats as those of women, and from this stems the thought that “the inability to control her fertility (and the lack of desire to repress her sexuality) makes woman monstrous” (Franscus). The duplicity here is obvious; it is ridiculous to find women at fault for expressing their sexuality when men are allowed to be as promiscuous as they please, and it is also ridiculous to shame the idea of reproduction when every man and woman exists solely because of it.

Essentially, the necessary thing to note in the works of the modern feminist Franscus, and the 18th century feminist Lady Montagu, is that they both exploit the distasteful shaming of the female sex in Swift’s writing in a way that also serves to comment on the warped gender roles of society in his time.

While Jonathan Swift’s pieces, his satire especially, are not necessarily discredited by these exploitations, as they are commendable for true ingenuity, his character certainly comes into question due to his insistent propulsion of misogynistic gender roles. Although, one does wonder why he does not instead sympathize with the condition of women, as what is done to them is what was repeatedly done to Swift by England.

Works Cited:

Franscus, Marilyn. “The monstrous mother: reproductive anxiety in Swift and Pope.” ELH 61.4 (1994): 829+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. “The Reasons that Induced Dr. S. to write a Poem called The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Vol. 1C. New York: Pearson, 2010. 2350-2352.

Swift, Jonathan. “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Vol. 1C. New York: Pearson, 2010. 2346-2349.

Bowles & Carver; After: John Collet. Tight Lacing, or Fashion before Ease. 1777. British Museum, London. Print. Feb. 25, 2014.