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Women's Poetry Finally Sees The Light After 400 Years of Sex Discrimination

Some of Britain’s earliest leading women writers have only just beaten 400 years of sex discrimination by the publishing industry which has prevented the publication of much of their work. Researchers from the University of Warwick (and colleagues from Birmingham and the University of London) have ended this 400 year blight and published an anthology of 14 neglected women poets and writers.

The book, entitled Early Modern Women’s Manuscript Poetry, brings together the work of 14 women who were writing between 1589 and 1706. Social pressures effectively barred many of these women from any opportunity of getting their writings to a printing press. A handful did make it into print, at which point they were often heavily criticised, but most produced just a few handwritten manuscript copies of their work. This is quite a contrast with 21st century women writers such as J.K. Rowling, who now often top the publishing charts ahead of their male counterparts.

There is no doubt that the work of these socially censored women was good enough for consideration by every rank of society - one of the authors in the new anthology, Jane Seager, presented Queen Elizabeth the First with an exquisitely illustrated copy of her work in a glass and red velvet binding. Although royal patronage failed to win Seager wider publication, that copy of her work exists today as a treasured possession of the British Library.

Women clearly found it incredibly difficult to have their work printed and sometimes struggled to find materials to simply write it down. The poetry of early 17th century writer Anne Southwell, included in the new anthology, was originally written on the blank pages of a book of military financial records, composed by one of her husband’s ancestors.

One of the women included in the anthology who did achieve printed publication of her work during her lifetime was Lady Mary Wroth. Her long romance Urania was printed in 1621 but heavily criticised – particularly by the writer and critic Sir Edward Denny who wrote both letters and a poem attacking her work. The criticism so stung Lady Mary Wroth that she seriously considered withdrawing the book but in the end did not do so and instead responded to Denny’s critique with a poem of her own.

Denny’s criticism of women writers was mild by comparison with the notorious Earl of Rochester, who in a 1670s poem claimed that: "whore is scarce a more reproachful name than poetess". Women who published their work risked serious scandal.

The researchers are proud that giving these lost women writers the recognition they deserve has resulted in the biographies of four them being added to the Dictionary of National Biography.

For further details please contact:

Dr Elizabeth Clarke,
Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies
University of Warwick
Tel: 024 76 523327

Peter Dunn,
Press & Media Relations Manager
Communications Office
University House
University of Warwick
Tel: 024 76 523708