One of the Two Pillars of Early Modern English "Feminism"

FEMINISM. GENDER. PHILOSOPHY. Drake, Judith (fl. 1696-1723)

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. Written by a lady. The Third edition with additions.

London: Printed for A. Roper at the Black Boy, and R. Clavel at the Peacock, both in Fleetstreet, 1697


Octavo: 18 x 11 cm. [32], 148, [4] pp. plus plate. Collation: A-B8, B-K8, L4

THIRD EDITION (first ed. 1696).

Bound in contemporary sprinkled calf, rebacked, corners a bit rounded. A nice copy with good margins and only minor soiling in margins of title and a few leaves. . Complete with the engraved frontispiece "The Compleat Beau", often lacking, bound opposite the printed title. The frontispiece, which (when present) is almost always cropped, is in fine condition.

The preliminaries of this edition have been expanded by the addition of two letters, the first written by James Drake to the anonymous author, in which he writes about the absurdity of certain men who have charged him with being the author of the “Essay”, and Judith Drake’s reply, in which she defends her anonymity: “This advantage however I reap by being unknown, that I frequently hear unsuspected, the unbias’d opinions of those that criticize upon me, and scarce, without scorn, hear most men pronounce it a performance above the ability of a woman, yet none answer the arguments in it to the contrary.”

"'An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex" (1696) was one of the most significant English contributions to the early modern debate concerning women. Attributed to Judith Drake (c. 1670- post 1723), who wrote it in the form of a letter to a female friend following 'a private conversation, between some gentlemen and ladies', the tract vigorously and wittily vindicated female intellectual abilities and character. Drake drew upon John Locke's 'An Essay Concerning Human Understanding' (1690) to construct a rationalist framework upon which to argue that it was custom and language which engendered the belief that women were intellectually inferior to men. Drake then proceeded to reject the cult of the ancients and, in their place, championed the work of 'modern' learning and the value of informal education for women. Additionally, Drake contended that men shared the character faults of which women were usually accused. She accentuated masculine follies by sketching satiric portraits of various male types, such as the 'Pedant', a 'Country Squire', a 'News-monger', a 'Bully', a 'City Critick', and a 'Beau', and she promoted the idea that that polite socialization with ladies could help transform men into gentlemen.

"Drake's welding of rationalist epistemology to 'feminist' argument was of particular originality within the context of early modern pro-women writings. Only two 'feminist' texts had previously employed such a methodology as a foundation for their discussion, and only one of those had been English. The earliest was "The Woman as Good as the Man" (1677), a translation of François Poulain de Barre's Cartesian analysis of how gender is culturally constructed. Two decades later, another Cartesian-inspired tract joined the debate, Mary Astell's 'A Serious Proposal to the Ladies' (1694/7) Since Drake's treatise was published two years after Astell's, she has been relegated to the position of being a disciple of Astell's. Indeed, owing to confusion over the authorship of the anonymously published 'Essay', the work has been credited to Astell. […]

"Drake's wholehearted espousal of rationalist argument is one of the defining notes of her work. She relied upon rationalism to formulate and justify her ideas concerning the intellectual and moral worth of women. Drake's foremost intellectual debt was undoubtedly to Locke's 'Essay'. 'The greatest Difficulty we struggled with', she wrote, 'was the Want of a good Art of Reasoning, which we had not…til that defect was supply'd by the greatest Master of that Art, Mr. Locke.' Drawing upon Locke she stated that 'there are no innate Ideas, but the Notions we have are derived from our external Senses, either immediately or by Reflection.' If human knowledge was based upon experience, men and women therefore had the capacity to become intellectual equals. Additionally, the intellectual equality of the sexes could be demonstrated by knowledge which drew upon experience.

"Although Drake satirized the seemingly more bizarre activities of enthusiasts for the 'new sciences' in the 'Essay', in general she was a warm supporter of the cause and approved of the work of the Royal Society. Drake called upon 'the new science' to prove her case. She related how physicians had informed her that 'there is no Difference in the Organization of those parts which have any Relation to, or Influence over, the Minds.' Likewise, careful observation from nature could demonstrate this equality too. Drake noted that the behavior of animals showed that 'there is no difference betwixt Male and Female in point of Sagacity.' Drake drew a similar conclusion from studying the behavior of those most bereft of literate influences, the rural poor. 'The condition of the two Sexes is more level, than amongst Gentlemen, City-Traders or rich Yeomen', she remarked. Drake's belief in the ability of the female intellect led her to speculate further that the inferior bodily strength of women suggested that they were created for thinking, whereas men were built for action. Consequently, she proposed that women could perform intellectual tasks in business, such as accounting, whilst men should carry out jobs requiring physical labor.

Drake also believed that 'all Souls are equal, and alike'. Thus, for Drake, there were no rational grounds for contending that women were intellectually inferior to men. Such a belief was only sustained through 'the Usurpation of Men, and the Tyranny of Custom'." (Dr Hannah Smith, "English 'Feminist' Writings and Judith Drake's 'An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex (1696)", The Historical Journal, 44 (2001), pp. 27-47.)

Wing D 2125C (formerly Wing A 4058, under Astell); Halkett & Laing, "Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English Literature", Vol. 2; Additional reading: Brenda Tooley, "'Like a False Renegade': The Ends and Means of Feminist Apologetics in 'A Dialogue concerning Women and An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex'", The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, 36.2 (1995): pp. 157-177; Greenough, Bibliography of the Theophrastan Character, p. 140