Women Always Get the Last Word:
Mary Montagu’s Rebuttal of Jonathan Swift’s Misogynistic Poetry
Unsatisfied with conventional romantic poetry that overly idolized women, renowned satirist Jonathan Swift exaggerates the vanity of women in his poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” Swift consequently insults all women by portraying the female character of his poem as a vain and superficial figure who attempts to hide her more crude activities (such as defecating). Offended by the misogynistic tone of Swift’s poem, Lady Mary Montegu responds with her own poem “The Reasons that Induced Dr. Swift to Write a Poem Called the Lady’s Dressing Room,” which attacks Swift personally; she alleges that Swift’s attempt to embarrass Celia by exposing her messy room stems from his own embarrassment about failing to perform sexually during an engagement with a prostitute. Montegu’s structure parodies Swift’s, and she strategically inverts his form in places to reveal the sexist undertone of Swift’s poem. She thereby discredits his misconstrued perception of women. Through an analysis of these two poets contrasting portrayals of women, one can draw conclusions about the implications of gender in 18th century culture: women were not complacent in their constricted role in society, but instead were acutely aware of the power they possessed.
The most fundamental difference between the two poems is the target of their criticism; while Swift criticizes the false personas of women in general, Montagu specifically criticizes Swift (and his friend Pope) on a personal level. From the first line of his poem, “Five hours, (and who can do it less in?) by haughty Celia spent in Dressing,” Swift makes it clear that his criticism of Celia is directed towards women in general (Swift 1). This jab at women stems from the stereotype that women take copious amounts of time to dress themselves, making a humorous appeal to men looking for a justification to elevate themselves above women. Conversely, rather than making generalizations about men as a gender, Montagu focuses on one man in particular: Swift himself. For example, Montegu jests that neither Swift’s “bawdy, politics nor satire could move this dull hard-hearted creature,” implying that neither Swift’s clever strategies nor his crude humor can help him achieve his rhetorical goals (Montegu 12). This quotation also chides Swift for thinking that women are too dull to understand his work. Although some may see this as Montegu failing to make legitimate, logical points to defend the claims made against women in Swift’s poem, her complete dismissal of Swift’s demeaning exaggerations about the female body makes Swift’s argument less effective. In her counter-argumentative poem, Montegu refuses to directly address the claims made in Swift’s poem about feminine hygiene until the very end of her poem, and, in so doing avoids adopting an overly defensive tone that might discredit her argument. Lastly, the fact that Montagu’s poem...