Exploring Jonathan Swift’s Motive and Attitude toward Women in “A Lady’s Dressing Room”
The motive behind Jonathan Swift’s poem, “A Lady’s Dressing Room” has long been debated. Most interpretations, past and present, rely on the belief that Swift, himself, was a misogynist, and for good reason. Swift’s poem about a man named Strephon discovering that women are not the romanticized figures they were so often made out to be, but nothing more than “gaudy tulips raised from dung” (line 144) certainly lends itself to the misogynistic. The narrator’s scrupulously negative portrayal of a woman’s dressing room contrasted with the pitifully sympathetic portrayal of its infiltrator makes it even harder to argue that Swift’s poem is not altogether misogynistic, but I’m going to try to do so anyways.
Swift might have been a misogynist, but everyone agrees that he was first and foremost a misanthrope. To suggest, then, that he disliked females disproportionately to males would be to claim that he thought females less than human, for misanthropy requires an impartial disdain for the entire human race. By examining some of Swift’s writings and the historical context surrounding them, I believe that we can come to the conclusion that Swift equally despised all humans, regardless of sex. And to be clear, Swift did not despise humans inherently – he despised their choices. He did not despise males and females – he despised men and women and all their gendered baggage. When we apply this perspective to Swift’s poem, “A Lady’s Dressing Room,” we will find that Swift was actually more so a radical feminist than a misogynist.
Before examining the peculiarly feminist side of Swift, I need to address his seemingly blatant misogynistic side. When reading Swift’s, “A Letter to a Very Young Lady Upon her Marriage”, for example, it’s difficult not to think him a misogynist. When he suggests to the young lady who bears the title of his letter that men should treat women “like insolent rascals disguised in female habits, who ought to be stripped and kicked down stairs” (142-4) and that he, himself, “cannot conceive you [the “insolent rascals”] to be human creatures, but a sort of species hardly a degree above a monkey” (141-2), he seems indubitably misogynistic. However, also in this letter we find Swift advocating for equal education rights among males and females, for he believes that if females were provided the same level of education as men, they would be able to abandon the “many errours, fopperies, and follies” which the female sex so often succumbed to (133). We also find him impartially applying his misanthropic lens to both men and women when he says that he is “ignorant of any one quality, that is amiable in man, which is not equally so in a woman,” and that he does not know of “one vice or folly, which is not equally detestable in both” (140-1).
What, then, are we to make of these seemingly contradictory views of women? For one, Swift’s word choice of male/female, and men/women reveals a conscious distinction between sex and gender. The “insolent rascals disguised in female habits” whom Swift despises are characterized in the letter by their idle chatter, obsession with clothing, and overall shallowness. It is these characteristics which Swift attributes namely to women, and not females. And when Swift expresses his belief that women are not human, but an inferior species “hardly a degree above a monkey,” he is not referring to females, but the type of women who so often fit the beforementioned characterizations. Even with the distinction between gender and sex, Swift’s remarks still seem disproportionately critical toward women; however, his views on equal education and universal misanthropy helps counterbalance this. Men, Swift believes, are partly responsible for the shallowness common among women in his time, for by withholding from women equal access to education and by preventing them from engaging in meaningful conversation after dinner (145-6), it is no wonder that they occupy themselves with such things as idle chatter. In other words, Swift believes that men in his time conditioned women to live shallow, unfulfilling lives. And although Swift criticizes women for their “reservedness” (147) in the face of such conditioning and for their content with such a shallow lifestyle, he equally criticizes men for advocating and perpetuating such gender norms.
The most notable example of this perpetuation of gender norms is the pastoral tradition of the lady and her dressing room which dominated the popular literary realm of Swift’s time. It is this literary tradition which Swift assails and attempts to subdue in the “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” Harry Solomon, who examines the historical context surrounding Swift’s poem, points to works such as Edmund Waller’s, “Of Her Chamber,” Allen Ramsay’s, The Morning Interview, and, especially, Tom D’urfey’s, “Paid for Peeping” as examples of this literary tradition and proof of its prominence around the time Swift writes “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” In fact, Solomon convincingly argues that Swift wrote his poem in direct response to D’urfey’s, which given that the two writers were well known for not liking each other is not far-fetched. For example, he observes that Swift’s line, “But Vengeance, goddess never sleeping, / Soon punished Strephon for his peeping” (119-120) is likely an allusion to D’urfey’s title, “Paid for Peeping” (Solomon, 437). Furthermore, he notes that “Strephon’s ‘progress’ in Swift’s poem is precisely the opposite of that of the hero in ‘Paid for Peeping’” (438). Instead of exposing the ridiculousness of the pastoral dressing room tradition as Swift does via Strephon, D’urfey’s hero remains blinded by his romanticized, and even deified perception of females – the same perception which lends itself to the gender norms that Swift wishes to demolish. The head-scratching prominence of scatology in “The Lady’s Dressing Room” is also explained when read in light of D’urfey’s poem. Solomon points out in “Paid for Peeping” the notion “that maids are perhaps free of this necessity of nature” (439). It is convenient to attribute Swift’s scatological obsession as evidence of his misogyny due to its sheer ridiculousness, but as this quote from D’urfey’s poem shows, the unrealistic elevation of women as something more than human was very much real in Swift’s time. It’s no wonder, then, Swift being the unrelenting realist that he was, that he attacked this tradition so viscously.
Swift’s overbearing critique of women in “The Lady’s Dressing Room” has long been viewed by critics as nothing more than an emotional response by Swift who, having had nothing but negative experiences with women in the past, used his poem as an opportunity to defend his wounded pride (Real and Vienken, 39). However, when considering that he wished to deconstruct conventional gender norms in favor of rational-based relationships between males and females, as seen in his “Letter,” his motive behind the “The Lady’s Dressing Room” becomes clear: Swift seeks to eradicate the literary and cultural tradition which deified women because he believed such elevation forced females into unfulfilling and shallow gender norms. Swift was, in his own strangely misanthropic way, a truly radical feminist then and now. He sought to make all humans, male or female, subject to the same standards of scrutiny while simultaneously invalidating gender norms.
Real, Hermann J., and Heinz J. Vienken. “Disciplining on the Sly: Swift’s “A Lady’s Dressing Room.’” AAA: Arbeiten Aus Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, vol. 13, no. 1, 1988, pp. 39–50. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43023448.
Solomon, Harry M. “‘Difficult Beauty’: Tom D’Urfey and the Context of Swift’s ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 19, no. 3, 1979, pp. 431–444. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/450301.
Swift, Jonathan. “The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 5/A Letter to a Very Young Lady on Her Marriage.” The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 5/A Letter to a Very Young Lady on Her Marriage – Wikisource, the Free Online Library, en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Works_of_the_Rev._Jonathan_Swift/Volume_5/A_Letter_to_a_Very_Young_Lady_on_Her_Marriage.
Swift, Jonathan. “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Fourth Edition. Volume C. Pages 2346-2349.
Bindon, Francis. Portrait of Jonathan Swift. 1735. Crawford Art Gallery, Munster. https://www.crawfordartgallery.ie/pages/paintings/FrancisBindon.html. Web. October 30 2018.