The Puritans of the 17th century remained an extremely patriarchal people; their primary goals were to glorify God and place their earthly passions behind them, all the while placing men in positions of authority, leaving women little choices for activities and positions (Bremer, 1976). The works of Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan author and poet of the 17th century, are extremely indicative of these themes, particularly the poem "The Prologue." In this essay, the poem will be analyzed in depth in relation to its historical setting, themes, concepts and ideas/images. In "The Prologue," Anne Bradstreet attempts to exemplify feminist concepts of overcoming gender-based role obstacles and allowing her work and her intelligence to be verified.
Puritan society had been newly formed in America at the time that Anne Bradstreet was alive; it attempted to find its place in the New World, which was full of new ideas and new changes. One aspect of society that remained inequitable, however, was its treatment of women; there were firmly designated gender lines and duties allotted to the man and the woman. Many women of the time found this restrictive, and took the new opportunity to ask that their voice be heard. One of these women was Anne Bradstreet, who wrote "The Prologue" as a means to express her displeasure at the treatment of women in this new way of life. She attempts to outline the conflict that often arises between the need to maintain strict Puritanism and the desire for women to be heard. Eventually, these changes would come to Puritanism, but it would take people like Anne Bradstreet and her poetry to facilitate these changes (Bremer, 1976).
Bradstreet says this about the stubbornness of men to facilitate greater artistic expression for women, despite its potential to heal and make women such as Bradstreet have purpose - "Art can do much, but this maxim's most sure: / A weak or wounded brain admits no cure" (Bradstreet, 1996). This harkens back to Bradstreet's own desire for intellectual pursuit, a discipline that was frowned upon by women to pursue. According to Puritan views, women were not supposed to have opinions and perspectives of their own, much less express them. This made literature such as poetry blasphemous and nearly forbidden among Puritanical communities. One of Bradstreet's dear friends, Anne Hutchinson, was convicted of public airing of her views, being subject to banishment ("Biography," 2011). This may have been one of the factors that led Bradstreet to write this about men, and their role in Puritan life in relation to women.
Anne Bradstreet wrote several works detailing the hardships that Puritans endured in the course of their settling into the New World, and of the Puritan righteousness that stood through the trying times; this helped her to outline just how important her faith was to her, and helped her to reconcile her feminist beliefs with her own religious belief.. In her poem called "Upon the Burning of Our House July 10, 1666," Bradstreet details how she felt when her home burned down, taking nearly 800 of her own books, which she treasured, with it. Instead of becoming angry and incensed, and falling to the sins of rage and hate, she instead turned to God and consoled herself with the promise of heaven - "And when I could no longer look / I blest His grace that gave and took / That laid my goods now in the dust. / Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just. / It was his own; it was not mine. / Far be it that I should repine" (Bradstreet, 1666).
Instead of focusing on the worldliness of the terrible event, she wished to do right despite the terribleness of the world. Puritan ideals focused on the grace of God and being ever forgiving of transgressions, even acts of God like the burning of her home. Bradstreet sought to find grace and temperance in the arms of the Lord, and see beyond the earthly anger that had the potential to rise within her. As a result, she exemplified the Puritan ideal of staying righteous in the face of wrongdoing. At the same time, she remained a strong, powerful female figure, keeping poised in the face of terrible rage and disappointment.
Bradstreet rails against the male ideas of female inferiority in the arts, as well as other pursuits. "If what I do prove well, it won't advance - / They'll say it was stolen, or else it was by chance" - these lines are indicative by Bradstreet of a certain thoughtlessness in the male culture of the Puritans, which is true of many patriarchal societies (Bradstreet, 1996). In believing that women are simply unable to have the wherewithal and talent to create beautiful poetry, or to have something important to say, they will blame other things for these advances. They would attempt to accuse the woman of plaigarism, or write it off as a fluke, sticking to the institutional belief that women are inferior. Bradstreet, in this poem, sought to defend against that. She even calls out those who believe that the more house-bound duties are meant for women - "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue / Who says my hand a needle better fits" (Bradstreet, 1996).
Throughout all of this advocating towards feminism and women's rights, Bradstreet still firmly believed in Puritanical norms for men and women; they each had their place in society, and that should be respected - "Let Greeks be Greeks, and women what they are / Men have precedency, and still excell" (Bradstreet, ). However, she wanted the female role to be granted a higher level of respect and importance in Puritan society - "Preeminence in all and each is yours -- / Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours" (Bradstreet, 1996).
Bradstreet's overall intention was to allow men and women to become more equal, and for men to respect and acknowledge the hard work that women do, especially for them - "This mean and unrefined ore of mine / Will make your glistening gold but more to shine" (Bradstreet, 1996). While she hated just how traditional women's roles for men were, this did not take away from her own love for her family and God alike. She was a free-thinking spirit, an intellectual, and a housewife all in one, creating a unique creature who offered new perspective on the lives of women living in the New World.
Bradstreet was often forced to publicly apologize for her work; in other works, she does not even reference her own poetry when writing autobiographically. According to some, this can be seen as "examples of a creative woman's reaction to life in a male-dominated society that allowed her little room for confident self-expression" (Margerum, p. 152). She was expected to be humble, and not carry such dissident thoughts in Puritan society; however, she forced herself through the apologies, so as not to stir further trouble, and to draw attention away from her own writing, which was mostly intended to be private. Her own expressions of female intellect were done so cautiously, as she did not want to get in trouble - "she wrote from what might be called the Puritan sensibility...and her poetry gains rather than loses by being considered as the product of that sensibility" (Bremer, p. 192).
In conclusion, Anne Bradstreet's poem "The Prologue" speaks a lot about the conflict between Puritanism and feminism. It speaks of a woman attempting to voice her opinion in a society that will not let her do so. Puritans were historically a new religion, but one that relied on very old ideas; given the chance for change that the New World offered, women like Bradstreet took the opening to create their own opportunities. Bradstreet's poem is a call to logic and to common sense, as well as an indictment of the traditional gender roles that the Puritan church leaders foisted upon the rest of the colonists in America.
Anne Bradstreet Biography. (n.d.). Anne Bradstreet. Retrieved September 28, 2011, from http://www.annebradstreet.com/anne_bradstreet_bio_002.htm
Bradstreet, A. (1996). Prologue. American women writers to 1800 (p. 1). London: Oxford University Press.
Bradstreet, A. (1996). Upon the Burning of Our House July 10,1666. American women writers to 1800 (p. 1). London: Oxford University Press.
Bremer, F. J. (1976). The puritan experiment: New England society from Bradford to Edwards. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Margerum, E. (1982). Anne Bradstreet's Public Poetry and the Tradition of Humility. Early American Literature, 17(2), 152-160.