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Rachel Speght Replies to a Misogynist in 1617

Rachel Speght 1600s

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

Possibly 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.[3]


[1] 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.

[2] The other two works were published in 1617 by women writing under pseudonyms: Esther Hath Hang’d Haman by Esther Sowerna and The Worming of a Mad Dog by Constantia Munda.

[3] Here’s another excerpt from  A Mouzell for Melastomus. (The spelling and punctuation have been updated).

… [Woman was made] to glorify God, and so be a collateral companion for man to glorify God, in using her body, and all the parts, powers, and faculties thereof, as instruments for his honour. As with her voice to sound forth his praises, like Meriam, and the rest of her company (Exod.15:20); with her tongue not to utter words of strife, but to give good counsel to her husband, the which he must not despise.

For Abraham was bidden to give ear to Sarah his wife (Gen. 21:12). Pilate was willed by his wife not to have any hand in the condemning of Christ; and a sin it was in him, that he listened not to her (Matt. 7:19). Leah and Rachel counselled Jacob to do according to the word of the Lord (Gen. 31:16). And the Shunamite put her husband in mind of harbouring the Prophet Elisha (2 Kings 4.9).

Her hands should be open, according to her ability, in contributing towards God’s service and distressed servants, like to that poor widow, which cast two mites into the Treasury, and as Marie Magdalen, Susanna, and Joanna the wife of Herod’s Steward, with many others, which of their substance ministered to Christ (Luke 8:3).

Her heart should be a receptacle for God’s Word, like Mary that treasured up the sayings of [about] Christ in her heart (Luke 1:51). Her feet should be swift in going to seek the Lord in his Sanctuary, as Marie Magdalen made haste to seek Christ at his Sepulchre (John 20:1).

Finally, no power external or internal ought woman to keep idle, but to employ it in some service of God, to the glory of her Creator and comfort of her own soul.

More Information

A Mouzell for Melastomus can be read at luminarium.org.
More about Rachel Speght on Wikipedia.
Swetnam the Woman-Hater Arraigned by Women can read be at Gutenberg.org.
More about the play on Wikipedia.
Joseph Swetnam’s pamphlet can be read at Webarchive.org.

Explore more

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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.
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Image Credit

Excerpt of Mary Magdalene Writing painted by “Master of the Female Half-Lengths” in the early 1500s. (Source: Wikimedia)

8 thoughts on “Rachel Speght Replies to a Misogynist in 1617

  1. Haha where do you find this? ..Logos?

    Proof that for at least 400 years “white Christian folks” have been beefing over who was more Christian via text based social media … It’s like the first diss rap song… this is humorous. Meanwhile… 400 years of slavery for the negro on deck… To this day!

    “Many who are last will be first” .. one day… When they take ownership of that maybe

    1. Hi Bobby, I don’t use Logos. My friend Julie emailed me a copy of Rachel Speght’s “Muzzle” and then I searched for more information.

      It’s more than 400 years! 😉

  2. Love this! Thanks for bringing her story to light. Now on to reading the original texts (thanks for linking them as well)…. 🙂

  3. Thank you for researching this article. I thoroughly enjoyed it! I’d like a little background on the artwork you included in your post. What is the name of the painting and it’s artist?

    1. Hi Linda, The painting is supposed to be of Mary Magdalene writing. It was painted in the early 1500s by someone, or a school or workshop, perhaps in Belgium or the Netherland, that has been given the name “Master of the Female Half Lengths.” There are other similar paintings of Mary Magdalene writing as well as paintings of women playing the spinnet or lute.

      Here’s the link again (the link is also near the bottom of the article): https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Master_of_Female_Half_Lengths_Mary_Magdalene.JPG

      And here’s an article about the painter: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_of_the_Female_Half-Lengths

      1. I offer this from a Sotheby’s catalogue.

        The Master of the Female Half-Lengths was named by Friedländer after a painting of upright composition in the Harrach collection in Austria (now at Schloss Rohrau) depicting three young women singing and playing musical instruments.1 Many works have been grouped under this name, and it seems likely that they were not all painted by the same hand, and indeed they may have been produced in different workshops.2 Nonetheless, whether they depict music-making ladies as here and in the eponymous work, or the far more numerous single figures such as the Magdelene, they share common characteristics: they always depict females in lavish costume bedecked with ornaments and jewels datable to the 2nd quarter of the 16th Century; and they are all painted in a refined style with a high-gloss finish that has been called “courtly

        The intensity of feeling does not affect the literacy and I suggest evokes and impression of cold fury.

        1. Thanks, Daelyn.

  4. […] Rachel Speght Responds to a Misogynist in 1617 […]

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