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Aphra Behn and Feminism

Jacqueline continues to study and explore the Literature and Socio-Political History of England circa1600-1900, and contemporary criticism.

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) Portrait attributed to Peter Lely.

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) Portrait attributed to Peter Lely.

As the first English woman to earn a living from writing, Aphra Behn was sometimes promoted by twentieth-century feminists as one of the earliest proponents of their cause. Virginia Woolf, for example, invited

  • “[a]ll women together…to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn…for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds” (Woolf 10),

whilst Moira Ferguson argued that, as

  • “the first female dramatist to forge a niche in the theater [sic] and one of the first to violate traditional expectations about women’s secondary status and sexual inactivity or reticence’…Behn ‘earned a permanent place in the feminist pantheon” (Dickman 3)

It was also proposed that

  • “attacks against [Behn] as a woman writer left her with a feminist consciousness…[but], her works were not overtly feminist” (Sunshine 2)

Despite these comments, Behn cannot be defined as a feminist writer because the term is anachronistic to her age.

Behn’s writing anticipated feminism, legitimising the concept for future generations.

For a woman to write at all in the seventeenth century was unusual.

For a middle-class widow to write for commercial reasons was scandalous, especially as the content of Behn’s work strayed from accepted conventions. Women were supposed, under the prevailing patriarchy, to limit their interests to religious and domestic matters. To be commercially successful, however, Behn wrote her plays in the contemporary style of Restoration comedy and tragi-comedy, which was “bawdy, boisterous, and filled with sexual innuendo” (Sunshine 2).

As recently as 1964 she was patronisingly pitied as being “forced by circumstance and temperament to win her livelihood in a profession where scandalous writing was…obligatory” (D.N.B. 130) and it was deemed “impossible…to defend her manners as correct or her attitude to the world as delicate…[despite her] vivacity…[and] lyric genius” (D.N.B. 130). How much more ‘indelicate’ her attitude must have seemed in the seventeenth century!

Behn’s efforts brought upon her accusations of plagiarism and fraud; but plagiarism was common among Restoration playwrights, who frequently re-worked pre-restoration plays for the re-opened theatres[1]. Fraud was implied by suggestions that a man was helping Behn to write the plays, on the supposition that a woman was incapable of such literary output or of such lurid imagination.

Nevertheless, Behn was widely accepted by her fellow playwrights and her plays were popular in the theatres. Her frequent references to her gender, in prologues, epilogues and prefaces, can be interpreted as a “sales pitch…offering…an almost forbidden commodity - a sexual-political comedy, by a woman” (Wiseman 59). Alternatively, they can be taken literally as a woman’s plea for equality with her male counterparts.

Behn certainly believed that her work was equal to that of male playwrights. In her preface to The Lucky Chance[2] she claims

  • “that had the Plays I have writ come forth under any Man’s name, and never known to have been mine; I appeal to all unbyast Judges of Sense, if they had not said that Person had made as many good Comedies, as of any Man that has writ in our age;…” (Behn 6).

This statement is qualified by a precursor that it is “against [Behn’s] nature, because it has Vanity in it” (Behn 6), thus acceding to patriarchal expectations of humility and modesty in women irrespective of ability. That Behn referred in the same preface to “my Masculine Part, the Poet in me” (Behn 7) also recognises certain gender constructs in her society.

Such references were often either sarcastic or satirical, for Behn staunchly defended herself against attacks based on her gender. In her Epistle to the Reader, which appeared in conjunction with her third play, The Dutch Lover, in 1673, she defiantly

  • “refus[ed] to be intimidated into a sense of inferiority because of her sex’s ignorance, and…dismiss[ed] the much-vaunted ‘learning’ that she ha[d] been denied as so much ‘academic frippery’” (Goreau 133/Spender 29).
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There was a growing political agenda among women in the late seventeenth century to improve the education of girls[3], but Behn’s contribution to the debate was probably unwelcome as her work invariably undermined patriarchal authority.

Behn was a prolific playwright: “[i]n a London that boasted only two theatres she had seventeen plays produced in seventeen years” (Spender 26). Her themes centred around arranged marriages, politics and sex. The former is a theme “she returns to so often that the reader is forced to consider whether there wasn’t a personal experience informing this continued exploration of a social issue” (Duffy in Behn xi).

The misfortune of the two unhappy marriages in The Lucky Chance is resolved into the formation of two happily unmarried couples as Belmour and Gayman re-claim their lovers, Julia and Leticia. The equation drawn between money and women is evident as Sir Cautious Fulbank and Sir Feeble Fainwou’d debate Gayman’s offer to set off Fulbank’s gambling debts for a night with his wife, Julia:

  • “Sir Cautious …three hundred pounds for a Night! Why,what a lavish Whore-master’s this! We take money to marry or Wives, but very sedom part with ‘em, and by the Bargain get Money - For a Night, say you? - Gad, if I shou’d take the Rogue at his word ‘twou;d be a pure Jest.
  • Sir Feeble You are not mad, Brother.
  • Sir Cautious No, but I am wise - and that’s as good; let me consider.
  • Sir Feeble What, whether you shall be a Cuckold or not?
  • Sir Cautious Or lose three hundred pounds - consider that. A Cuckold! - why, ‘tis a word - an empty sound -‘tis Breath - ‘tis Air - ‘tis Nothing: - but three hundred pounds - Lord, what will not three hundred pounds do?…” (Behn 76)

Thus, Sir Cautious effectively loses his wife to her impoverished lover as a gambling debt, describing his loss to her as “a small parcel of Ware that lay dead on my hands” (Behn 78).

This scene creates a mock replication of the common practice of contracting women to men as part of a financial or business arrangement. By highlighting the gamble such bargains posed for the women concerned, Behn subtly confronts her male audience with their own foolish arrogance.

Similar issues of the value of women as a commodity are discussed in The Rover [4], as Florinda objects,

  • “Let him consider my Youth, Beauty and Fortune; which ought not to be thrown away on his Age and Jointure” (Behn 109).

To which Pedro replies,

  • “‘Tis true, he’s not so young and fine a Gentleman as that Belvile - but what Jewels will that Cavalier present you with? those of his eyes and Heart?” (Behn 109)

Behn’s emphasis on strong female characters presents a view, unique in Restoration Drama and Comedy, of marriage transactions from a female perspective. Behn uses her skills of rhetoric and satire, usually considered at the time to be a male preserve, to challenge society’s preconceptions and conventions in a way which clearly anticipates feminist perspectives.

As a poet, too, Behn condemned the conventions which prevented her sex from competing on an even playing-field with men:

“…, I cursed my birth, my education,

And more the scanted customs of the nation:

Permitting not the female sex to tread,

The mighty paths of learned heroes dead.

The god-like Virgil, and great Homer’s verse,

Like divine mysteries are concealed from us.

We are forbid all grateful themes,

No ravishing thoughts approach our ear,

The fulsome gingle of the times,

Is all we are allowed to understand or hear.” (Hicks 16)[5]

Despite her protestations that classical learning was ‘academic frippery’ (Goreau 133/Spender 29), Behn indicates here some sense of deprivation in her exclusion from it.

The poem goes on to profess that “knowledge…equals us to Man!” (Hicks 16).

The use of the word ‘equals’ is significant because it does allude to feminist attitudes. Many female authors of the time, such as Mary Astell, Margaret Fell and Bathsua Makin, believed that women were “ ‘Education’s more than Nature’s fools’ ” (Mendelson 252), but neither they nor Behn usually claimed equality for men and women.

The ideology of male supremacy was so deeply ingrained into society that even the most forceful of women accepted they were ultimately subordinate to men, being “of feebler seeds designed”[6] (Hicks 15).

Behn nevertheless used her poetry to criticise male inadequacies in a distinctly feminist way. The Disappointment [7] is a prime example, unsympathetically portraying men at their most vulnerable as “the shepherdess’s…soft bewitching influence/…damn[s] him to the Hell of impotence” (Hicks 29).

Similarly, To the Fair Clarinda [8] draws into question men’s role in sex by addressing issues of female love with a beguiling ambiguity. Read as a portrayal of the Romantic Friendship encouraged between young women at the time, it has a charming innocence, but beneath the veneer there is ample evidence that “Behn was aware of the sexual possibilities between women” (Dickman 4). Its hermaphroditic references, such as “who, that gathers fairest flowers believes / A snake lies hid beneath the fragrant leaves” (Hicks 77/Dickman 1), suggest the equality of the sexes that was so elusive in real life.

That “the manly part…tempts…with the image of the maid” (Hicks 77/Dickman 1) to create a vision of the lover and the friend combined in one body is a realisation of perfection that imbues the poem with both lesbian and feminist overtones. The concept of two-bodies-in-one was, however, not unusual in Early Modern England. The monarch was believed to have a political body and a personal body, and Behn had herself divided her own body, linguistically, by referring to her “masculine part the poet” (Behn 7) as separate from her 'feminine part'.

The Golden Age [9] continues Behn’s condemnation of social conventions, “evok[ing] a pastoral innocence and freedom in order to expose the widest range of injustices and false virtues in contemporary society” (Hicks xii). In its pages, Behn reinvents the prelapsarian world, ascribing man’s downfall not to the temptation of Eve but to his own “rude rapes upon the virgin Earth,/…When power taught mankind to invade:/ When pride and avarice became a trade;” (Hicks 2-3).

She is clearly showing signs of a feminist perspective here, challenging not only patriarchal theory but also the traditional teachings of the church.

Her diatribe on the construct of “Honour!…who first did damn,/ A woman to the sin of shame;…[and is] nature’s worst disease, ” (Hicks 4-5), concludes the poem in an angry protest at man’s abuse of power. It suggests that “the humble honest swain” (Hicks 5) is nearer to God than the “gay ambitious fool,/ That longs for sceptres, crown and rule,” (Hicks 5).

Behn’s political agenda, therefore, could be aligned to socialism as much as feminism. Although identifying herself as a Tory and a Royalist, she evidently empathised with the concept of ‘otherness’ as experienced by the poor as well as by women.

Behn also saw this ‘otherness’ in the slaves she claimed to have encountered in Surinam in the 1660s, and who formed a vital part of Britain’s triangular trade links with Africa and the Caribbean. Her most famous novel Oroonoko[10] explores the contradictions of race and class as an African prince becomes a slave to white merchants. His mental and physical destruction as a degraded chattel form parallels for Behn with the experience of women enslaved in marriage.

Although it would be incorrect to identify Aphra Behn as ‘primarily a feminist writer’, it is clear that many of her views and aspirations were synonymous with those of twentieth-century feminists:

She wanted to be judged on her own terms, as a poet and a playwright, rather than as a woman. She wanted women to have the same education, and hence the same life-choices, as men, and she wanted women to be respected by men as fellow human-beings instead of mere chattels to be traded among their men-folk.

In short, Aphra Behn was a proto-feminist, expressing much of what we now call feminism by means of political and social satire; able to hold her own in a male dominated world but ultimately subsumed by the overwhelming influence of patriarchy.


[1] “there was hardly a playwright of Aphra Behn’s generation who had not at one time in his career based his work on someone else’s play” (Goreau 210)

[2] first produced 1686 (Wiseman 28)

[3] For example, Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, 1694, “argued that…the incapacity of women…stemmed from ‘ignorance and a narrow education’” (Eales 33), and Bathsua Makin’s Essay to revive the ancient education of gentlewomen, 1673, which gave “ a sustained analysis of the benefits of improved education for women, along with a practical programme of schooling” (Eales 44)

[4] first produced in 1677

[5] from Behn’s poem To Mr Creech (under the Name of Daphnis) on his Excellent Translation

of Lucretius.

[6] from Behn’s poem To Mr Creech (under the Name of Daphnis) on his Excellent Translation

of Lucretius.

[7] First published 1680 in an anthology: Poems upon Several Occasions.

[8] First published 1688/1689

[9] First published 1684

[10] First published 1688. Behn “wrote thirteen novels, (thirty years before Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson

Crusoe, generally termed the first novel)” (Goreau 26)

References and Sources for this text


Behn, Aphra, Five Plays. Introduced by Maureen Duffy, Methuen Drama 1990

Dictionary Of National Biography, Oxford U.P., 1964

Eales, Jacqueline, Women in early modern England 1500-1700, U.C.L. Press, 1998

Goreau, Angeline, Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn, Oxford U.P. 1980

Hicks, Malcolm (ed), Aphra Behn: Selected Poems, Carcanet Press Ltd. 1993

Mendelson, Sara & Patricia Crawford, Women in Early Modern England 1550-1720, Oxford U.P.


Spender, Dale, Women of Ideas And What Men Have Done To Them: From Aphra Behn to

Adrienne Rich, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. 1982

Wiseman, S.J., Aphra Behn, Northcote House,1996

Woolf, Virginia A Room of One’s Own, in Eagleton, Mary (ed), Feminist Literary Theory: A

Reader. 2nd Edition. Blackwell Publishers. 1999

Internet Sources:

Dickman, T. Lynn, A Critical Edition of “To the Fair Clarinda”. Online., accessed 20/02/2003

Sunshine for Women, Aphra Behn (1640-1689) Online. accessed 20/02/2003

© 2014 Jacqueline Stamp


Jacqueline Stamp (author) from UK on January 01, 2019:

Thank you GlenR, and I apologise for taking so long to find your comment (a glitch in my settings I'm afraid). I hope you enjoyed re-reading Oronooko and have gone on to explore more of Behn's work. I feel she deserves much more attention and recognition than she gets.

Glen Rix from UK on June 28, 2018:

A very well researched article about Ms. Behn, Jacqueline. Oronooko was one of my course books - prompted by your hub, I have just dusted it down and plan to re-read it over the next few days.

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