Professor Myers Gives Lecture on Women in 18th-Century British Literature

By Alyssa Guevara, Staff Writer

On Mar. 1, English Associate Professor Joanne Myers hosted a lecture in Joseph Theater about analyzing 18th century women through literature. Myers specializes in 18th-century British literature and partnered with the women, gender, and sexuality studies department to create this event. 

Although Myers does not teach in the WGS department, she does “dabble” in the subject when teaching her cross-listed English course entitled “Gender and Sexuality in 18th-century British Literature.” Myers credits her passion for teaching this course to her high school experience.

“I was taught by Sisters of Mercy. . . which are a very social-justice-oriented order,” Myers said.

She explained that the school’s nuns would “[chain] themselves to the fence outside the School of the Americas” to protest aspects of CIA training. The nuns that taught her had first-hand experience with second-wave feminism. These role models instilled a conviction in Myers that she continues to hold in her teaching. Myers shared that she enjoys the challenges she faces in this field of study and how various voices can be brought together.

“As a humanist, I’m deeply committed to everyone’s experience and the varieties of the human experience,” Myers said.

Myers began the lecture by sharing different myths about women in this period, and she asked members of the audience to contribute their thoughts about 18th-century women. Audience members shared the belief that it was a difficult time to be a woman and to experience freedom, gender roles and sexuality. Myers noted that the term “gender” was not used in this way during the time period. Men were seen as the default, and women were often referred to as “the sex,” further sewing a divide between women and other gender identities. 

The first myth Myers disproved was the perception of women’s legal rights. Contrary to many assumptions, women did have quite a few legal rights. They could own property, sign documents and publish books. However, those rights were given up once a woman became married, in a process known as “coverture.” Myers noted that history is not always linear and often ebbs and flows.

Myers then examined sexuality during this time period from the perspective of gay men. She discussed Molly Houses, which were spaces often hidden in the back of taverns. “Molly” was a slang term for homosexual, flamboyant men. At these Molly houses, there were often rituals like marriage, displays of gender in a way akin to drag and social events like smoking clubs. These hidden hole-in-the-wall spaces allowed people of various sexual and gender identities to maintain a sense of community and culture.

Myers also discussed myths about women’s sensuality. She explained that people often equate femininity with modesty, chastity and an overall suppression of sexuality during the period. According to Myers, these assumptions are false, as women were viewed just as, if not more, sensual than men. As a direct result of the biblical story of Adam and Eve, 18th-century women were viewed as more lustful than men and therefore needed men to watch over them.

Finally, Myers dispelled the myth of the relationship between women and “domesticity,” a term first used in 1729. This term referred to the idea that a woman’s principal role was to care for the home, support her husband and not engage in paid work. Myers shared that women were often as busy as men, particularly as a large part of the domestic industry’s workforce. Women made handicrafts to have economic agency outside of their husbands’ careers and incomes. 

Myers chose the poem “The Unequal Fetters” by Anne Kingsmill Finch to encapsulate the topic at hand. She passed around handouts of the poem and asked members of the audience to analyze the poem.

One group shared their view about the language surrounding youth in the poem. Another group questioned the use of various pronouns and what Finch meant when she wrote “we,” “I” and “you.” Another questioned what Finch meant by the “cost” and “loss” attached to marriage. 

Myers and audience members pondered each stanza, given the context of the time period that was shared at the start of the lecture. Students found that the poem had a sense of societal expectations that acted as the chain for both men and women during that time. 

Myers closed the lecture by noting the reclamation of women’s freedom through choice. The ability for a woman to choose not to bind herself to marriage was, in Finch’s words, nature’s first intention. 

Myers shared that she volunteered to host this lecture in a way that drew on her own personal specialty.

“I thought, what’s one thing I can help people see. . . that maybe women had more diverse opportunities than most people would have expected 300 years ago,” Myers said.

She shared that events like her lecture are intended to attract audiences from various majors and academic concentrations. Myers said she believes that these events allow students to talk about topics they might not be able to within their class schedules. She explained the necessity of sharing these kinds of stories with diverse audiences.

“I think that the way people tell stories is an important way of understanding how they make sense of their experience,” Myers said. “I love the 18th century because I think you can see who we are, just taking shape in this time period. It’s so interesting to see them grappling with a lot of the same problems that we have, but from their own vantage point that doesn’t feel so alien.”

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Author: Gettysburgian Staff

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