SSEMW blog by Niamh J. O’Leary (February 24, 2018)

The first anniversary of the Women’s March recently passed. The SSEMW blog’s early modern intersectionalities and activism reminded me of current waves of activist action in the US.

My study of early modern female characters’ political affiliations makes me wonder what early modern literature might teach today’s young activists about intersectionality.

I had just completed editing The Politics of Female Alliance in Early Modern England with Christina Luckyj when I realized I could teach a course on early modern women writers. For a panel discussion with colleagues who teach women writers from various times, I pondered how we might add racial and class problems.

I created a commonplace book using the Makerspace at my campus library. Throughout the semester, students would collect favorite quotations and create a book.

Inspired by Aemilia Lanyer’s ode to Queen Anne, their preface would explain why their work is worth reading. Write reflective essays explaining why students chose certain texts, why they chose this specific addressee, and what they learned about authoring by producing their own book. In those heady October days, I imagined students writing to our first female president. I was elated.


The Head of Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi.


On Election Day, I was requested to fill an administrative post on campus. So I had to cancel my early modern women writers course. Due to the unexpected election results, I find myself thinking about this topic often.

Il est uncertain à qui les élèves voudront consacrer Those books would be irrelevant if #MeToo, Muslim ban, and DACA were all threatened. What early modern texts may inspire today’s women with words of wisdom, messages of hope and endurance, and examples of perseverance?

I was happy to get copies of The Politics of Female Alliance in Early Modern England, published by the University of Nebraska Press, in October last year.

Christina and I chose Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes for our book’s cover (her second version, painted in 1620-21). We had to choose it as our favorite artwork when Jonathan Jones wrote about it in the Guardian.

In most depictions, Judith has a servant who collects the severed head. Gentileschi’s servant is depicted actively participating in the murder. What it does: Even Caravaggio would have thought twice about slaying this beast.

But it gives the scene a revolutionary edge. “What if females got together?” Gentileschi thinks. Is it feasible to overcome our male-dominated environment? [1]

The painter’s question still rings true a year later. The image of Agostino Tassi raping Gentileschi in 1612 horrified me again as I clutched the book in my hands. The next week, a Harvey Weinstein effigy was torched at Edenbridge Bonfire Society in Kent. [2]


Act V picture from Measure for Measure.

In mid-November, while driving, I came across a fascinating piece by Tara Isabella Burton for Vox headlined “What a lesser-known Shakespeare play may tell us about Harvey Weinstein.

” In October 2017, Elevator Repair Service performed Measure for Measure at New York’s Public Theater. It’s a dramatic version of the play that disproves the assumption that feminists “invented” sexual harassment in the last 30 years. [3] It’s also phony, according to Agostino Tassi’s trial transcript.

Male writers create fictional characters who are early modern women activists and allies, whereas female artists provide historical documents. Both teach us about early modern women’s advocacy and allies.

I wrote a chapter on women’s “virtual” connections in Early Modern England.

Hundreds of works from the period show this. They beseech or summon the favor of an imagined society of (often explicitly virtuous) ladies. It’s a well-known complaint poetry technique: It’s as though the two female voices in Britania’s Pastorals (1613) are weaving a web of female sadness that spreads “round the globe in sounding coombe and plaine, / The last of them recount it to the first againe” (Book 2, song 2).

[4] It’s not clear if the Jailer’s Daughter expects “some honest-hearted girls, will sing my sorrow” in Two Noble Kinsmen (2.6.15). [5] Empathy is shown when a woman in need imagines a group of other women who feel compelled to provide a hand because of their gender. It’s also possible that she’s being pressured by the larger, virtual community of women.

In Two Noble Kinsmen, we watch Arcite and Palamon beseech Theseus to spare their deaths.


mother’s cries for them

And all the forlorn maids that have a crush.

You will curse my looks if you maintain your vow.

They sang at their cousins’ funerals.

Berate me and lament your losses due to my wrath.

So much so that I am a joke among the females. (3.6.245-50)


Emilia kowtows before the Duke, admitting that failing to save the young nobles would be a shame to all women. “What woman I may stead that is suffering / Does bond me to her,” she says with the Theban widows in the first act (1.1.36-37). Women often used the views of other women to justify, comfort, or motivate themselves in early modern works.


Seeing these ideas in action on an early modern stage adds to their relevance. “Women went to early modern theatre,” says Phyllis Rackin. [6] Audience members of an early modern play could feel invigorated, motivated, and connected as they see a female heroine call an imagined community of women to her aid or act based on the believed needs and ideals of other women throughout the globe.

Isn’t that an intersection? From the lords in the galleries to the penny-a-piece groundlings, the audiences were a cross-section of London society. Women’s involvement would unify and harmonize such a space.

For example, in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy, a court dealing with male prerogative receives similar requests (1610-11). Aspatia, deceived by her lover Amintor, is distraught.

The ladies in court are awed by her ability to turn a happy bunch of women into a tearful group by telling a story about a “forsaken virgin,” an image of herself.

Her “eloquence” in singing, crying, and “bring[ing] out a narrative” (1.1.97–107) makes her sadness “infectious,” but not as a sickness. Her gentlewomen are asked to recreate the narrative of Theseus in a tapestry they are creating and drown the philanderer in order to “make the story wronged by wanton poets / survive long and be believed” (2.2.58–59).

In telling this renowned tale, Aspatia symbolically takes charge of all abandoned women’s stories and demands justice. Ariadne’s narrative may be modified, and she assures the women in the audience.


It seems that activists nowadays are looking to early modern age campaigners for inspiration and role models. Early modern women’s theater’s complicated concepts of audience and story may teach us a lot about intersectionality. While the examples I’m working with don’t involve race, they do include class and gender.

We can see how a female-character-voiced appeal from the stage transcended across gender and social class classifications to create an intersectional moment in early modern drama.

I’d want to learn more about using ethnic differences to connect with women in a virtual group. These writings typically ask who is authorized to tell a woman’s story, often by appealing to a virtual community of female authors. And the Jailer’s Daughter wants honest maids to sing at their funerals.

Emilia is afraid of what the Theban widows’ tales would say about her if she doesn’t interfere to save the young men. “Wrongdoers” “wronged” the Ariadne story, Aspatia claims.

Amanda Herbert’s study shows that early modern women could communicate via craft. [8] Their social connections were around making—recipes, beer, stitching, weaving, and more. It’s hardly surprising that early modern writings portray feminist artists bridging socioeconomic divides. In this way, they claim narrative authority. On the early modern stage, speaking one’s truth is a kind of intersectionality. It’s crucial when speaking to a diverse group.


Louisiana’s Xavier


Niamh J. O’Leary teaches first-year English at Xavier University in Cincinnati. She co-edited The Politics of Female Alliance in Early Modern England for Early Modern Culture’s Book and Performance Reviews (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). The Shakespearean International Yearbook and Upstart Crow have featured her writings on early modern theatrical performances. Write a book on Shakespeare in Cincinnati.


In Oil, a Woman Took Revenge,” Guardian, October 5, 2016. Jones, Jon.

[2] Mike Wright, The Telegraph, 1 Nov. In Kent, a giant Harvey Weinstein effigy will be burnt as Guy.

Check out this story by Tara Isabella Burton on from November 15, 2017.

(London, 1616), William Browne [4]

See The Norton Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt, 3rd edition, for all Shakespeare quotations (W. W. Norton, 2016).

Phyllis Rackin, Shakespeare and Women, Oxford Shakespeare Topics (OUP, 2005), page 23.

The Revels Plays (1610–11) by T. W. Craik, compiled by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. (Manchester University Press, 1988, repr.

Amanda Herbert (PhD diss) (New Haven, CT & London: Yale University Press, 2014).

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