The Realm of Sisterhood in Mary Leapor’s Poetry
For a woman writer to be read by her peers in eighteenth century England was somewhat unusual. For this woman to procure some kind of living from her writing was even more remarkable. But for such a woman to claim both these accomplishments, with writings attacking the very state of women no less, was extraordinary. Yet Mary Leapor was this woman. Not only did she herself defy society in remaining unmarried for the whole of her short life, but she also took up the call to fight for women everywhere. Her answer to the oppression of society was to find solace in the bonds of sisterhood. The radicalism of Leapor’s encouragement has long been a source of discrepancy for her critics, and there exists a wide array of interpretations. The question lies within the definition of the female relationships she so wholeheartedly promotes.
The varying interpretations include everything ranging from Leapor as promoting lesbianism, to simply promoting good female friendships. Adrienne Rich termed this range of womanly bonds the “lesbian continuum,” and explains it as the inclusive realm between “consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman,” and “the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support” (51). The question remains: where does Leapor belong on this continuum? Critic Donna Landry places Leapor in the realm of replacing heterosexual union with something closer to homosexual tendencies, while Richard Greene offers a far more platonic view of things. In applying Rich’s tenets of a range, it is possible to read Leapor as somewhere between Landry and Green, and as encouraging any and all forms of sisterhood in order to fight patriarchal oppression.
To begin, it is necessary to establish the setting of eighteenth century womanhood. The plight of women in eighteenth century England was universal and seemingly hopeless. Women had essentially two choices: to marry and unavoidably be inferior to her husband, or to remain without a mate and be branded with the damaging term “spinster” (Greene 64). Leapor chose to advise the latter option with an increased concentration on sisterhood and a stronger sense of self. Her work defied the common conception of women as the “softer man,” a notion established by writers such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift (Greene 67).
An alternative to traditional marriage offered by some prominent women of the time was that of a “companionate marriage,” in which marriage partners became far more egalitarian than they’d ever been before. However, this ideal was subject to the possibility that the result would not be inherent equality in every marital aspect, but rather a separate and equal status. In her work Invisible relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Englightenment, critic Elizabeth Susan Wahl reveals that the...