Joseph Swetnam’s Foul Mouth
In the late 1500s and early 1600s there was pushback against a rising tide of misogynism in Europe. Rachel Speght, a young educated Christian woman, responded and used her talent to encourage respect for women.
Her most famous work, A Mouzell for Melastomus (“A Muzzle for ‘Black Mouth’”), was published in London in 1617 when she was just 19. In it, she critiqued the writing of a man named Joseph Swetnam. He had produced a pamphlet in 1615 entitled, The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women. His was just one of several works designed to ridicule and reduce certain women.
In fact, three women, independent of one another, wrote in response to Swetnam’s crude but popular pamphlet. As well as their responses, a comedy play with the title Swetnam the Woman-Hater Arraigned by Women was written and performed in around 1618–1619, and published in 1620. The anonymous playwright presents women in a positive and virtuous light.
One of the characters in the play is listed as “Swetnam, alias, Misogynos, The Woman-hater.” This is thought to be the origin of the term “misogynist.”
Rachel Speght’s Sharp Tongue
Rachel came from a comfortable family where education and faith were important. She was the daughter of a Calvinist minister who had a doctor of divinity from Christ’s College Cambridge. And at the age of 24, she became the wife of a Calvinist minister.
Believed to be the first person to call herself a polemicist, Rachel’s writing is bold, witty, satirical, and cutting. Her intention in Mouzell was to nip “the scandals and defamations of the malevolent” in the bud. She did this by using the Bible to counter Swetnam’s faulty claims and by arguing for the goodness of marriage.
In her writing, Rachel speaks directly to Swetnam and states, “your corrupt heart and railing tongue hath made you a fit scribe for the Devil.” She describes his writing as a “hodge-podge of heathenish sentences, similes, and examples,” and she tells him he has “botched up” his “mingle mangle invective against women.”
An Acrostic Poem in Mouzell
A Mouzell for Melastomus includes the following poem which is an acrostic on the name Joseph (Ioseph) Swetnam. Rachel doesn’t pull her punches. Enjoy! It’s great!
If reason had but curbed thy witless will,
Or fear of God restrained thy raving quill,
Such venom foul thou would’st have blushed to spew,
Except that Grace has bidden thee adieu:
Prowess disdains to wrestle with the weak,
Heathenish affected, care not what they speak.
Seducer of the vulgar sort of men,
Was Satan crept into thy filthy pen,
Enflaming thee with such infernal smoke,
That, if thou had’st thy will, should women choke?
Nefarious fiends thy sense herein deluded,
And from thee all humanity excluded.
Monster of men, worthy no other name,
for that thou did’st assay our Sex to shame.
I like Rachel’s style, her boldness, and her wit. And her words continue to have resonance with some conversations that are still going on today. I’m thankful for the Rachels past and present who use their words to push back against those who want to restrict, reduce, and belittle their sisters.
 The full title of Swetnam’s pamphlet is The Arraignment of Lewd, idle, froward, and unconstant women or the vanity of them, choose you whether, With a Commendation of wise, virtuous, and honest Women, Pleasant for married Men, profitable for young Men, and hurtful to none. It can be read here.
 The other two works were published in 1617 by (presumably) women writing under pseudonyms: Esther Hath Hang’d Haman by Esther Sowerna and The Worming of a Mad Dog by Constantia Munda.
A Mouzell for Melastomus can be read online here.
More about Rachel Speght here.
Swetnam the Woman-Hater Arraigned by Women can be read here.
More about the play here.
Joseph Swetnam’s pamphlet can be read here.
Excerpt of Mary Magdalene Writing (Wikimedia)
Amelia Lanyer: 17th-Century Christian Feminist and Author
Amelia Lanyer was another woman author who published a work in the early 1600s. She advocated for equality for women in a lengthy poem published in 1611.
Misogynistic Quotations from Church Fathers and Reformers
What I’ve Learned from 10 Years of Blogging on Mutuality
You can support my work for as little as $3 USD a month.
Become a Patron!