Women Bite Back: Female-Authored Satire in Eighteenth-Century British Periodicals
During my internship on the WeChangEd project I was able to explore a variety of British early-eighteenth-century periodicals written and edited by female writers, many of which are available digitally in online databases such as Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. Though research on the inception of the periodical in the first half of the eighteenth century has routinely focussed on how such writers as Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729) helped shape this newly emerging genre, recent scholars have rightfully started to point out how women writers and readers, too, played a vital role in the creation, dissemination and consumption of eighteenth-century periodical writing. Indeed, several prominent women writers, including Eliza Haywood (1693-1756), Charlotte Lennox (1730-1803) and Frances Brooke (1724-1789), were not only novelists, dramatists, and poets but also contributors to and even founders of a range of different periodicals.
What stood out to me in particular during my research of these texts were the explicitly satirical elements of many of these periodicals. Ranging from biting party political satire to more gentle satire of social types, many female writers adopted a satirical tone in their writings. This is surprising, since, both then and today, women were often thought not to write satire during this so-called “Golden Age of Satire.” Eighteenth-century contemporaries thought women were inherently incapable of displaying viciousness and exerting moral authority, while literary scholars of recent decades attribute the lack of women in the history of satire to the restrictive literary and educational climate for women during the eighteenth century. The fact that so many female periodical editors wrote satirically in their serial publications, then, seems to contradict this supposed absence of eighteenth-century female satirists. During my internship, I wanted to find out why precisely this format of the periodical appears to have been an especially apt vehicle for satirical critique for female writers, as well as explore how these writers negotiated their identity as both a female and a satirical writer.
Polite Gentlemen and Old Maids: Female-Authored Satire and Periodical Eidolons
One reason why women might have turned to periodicals for expressing their satirical criticisms is the notion of the authorial “eidolon” — the main fictional persona adopted and performed by the periodical writer that holds the entire periodical together. These distinctive and fully fleshed out eidolons are part and parcel of virtually all periodicals published in the first half of the eighteenth century — think only of Addison’s Mr. Spectator in the Spectator (1711-12) or Steele’s Isaac Bickerstaff in the Tatler (1709). The centrality of the eidolon in early periodical culture also helps to explain why it might be a useful starting place to find female-authored satire. As Manushag Powell notes, these periodical characters allowed the author “to carve out spaces for themselves that their ‘core’ identities would not have supported.” In other words, the opportunity to create an authorial persona that was detached from one’s own socially and historically determined identity seems to have made the periodical a particularly appealing literary form for female satirists.
On the one hand, they could invent periodical eidolons to bypass their gendered disadvantage by conforming to more traditional views of the satirist, i.e. by adopting a masculine, genteel and composed voice. Both Delarivier Manley (1663?-1724) and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), for instance, wrote party political satire under the guise of a typical masculine satirist in the Examiner (1711-14) and the Nonsense of Common Sense (1737-38), respectively. On the other hand — and perhaps more interestingly — this also offered women a relatively safe environment to create a space for female satirists by inventing female eidolons with a distinct satiric vision without necessarily having to bear the consequences of this generic transgression in real life.
Frances Brooke, for instance, founded the Old Maid (1756), which ran for 37 issues, under the pseudonym of “Mary Singleton, Spinster.” This miscellaneous periodical includes short fictional pieces and theatrical criticism, but also short essays on contemporary politics and religion with distinct satiric undertones. For example, in the second issue, Brooke writes that “though a little partiality to ones own sex may perhaps be natural, yet let them not fancy I will carry it so far as to spare their follies and vices: I shall be happy to set their virtues in the fairest light; but shall, like a faithful physician, apply corrosives where lenitives are of no service.” In a similar vein as her contemporary satirists, she aims to expose the vices and follies of the satiric victim (significantly both men and women), and does so aggressively — she applies corrosives — but also objectively, like a physician, which was a commonly used metaphor for satirists during the eighteenth century. Importantly, Brooke recognizes the unconventionality of her chosen female satirical eidolon: “amidst the present glut of essay papers, it may seem an odd attempt in a woman, to think of adding to the number.” Regardless of the criticism she anticipates, she audaciously declares that “in defiance of all criticism,” she “will write!” In doing so, she reclaims a hyper-typical satiric object of derision — old maids were evoked satirically in, for instance, Christopher Smart’s Midwife, who used the eidolon of Mrs. Mary Midnight — and tries to reframe the old maid as a respectable figure of moral authority and integrity. This close intertwinement of satiric and female authorship is representative for a wider trend among female periodical editors. For instance, both Charlotte Lennox’s Lady’s Museum (1760-61) and Eliza Haywood’s Parrot (1746), too, tie their partly satirical periodicals intimately to female authorship, opting for stereotypical targets of disdain (such as young coquettes) as their periodical eidolons.
Montagu and the Spectator: Questioning Gender and Genre
This phenomenon of women writers reconceptualizing satiric victims as satiric critics brings to the fore larger questions about the ideological conceptions of womanhood typically lodged into mainstream satirical and periodical writing. As Kathryn Shevelow explains in her influential study of periodicals of the first half of the eighteenth century, such publications were instrumental in representing and constructing “an increasingly narrow and restrictive model of femininity.” Similarly, satiric attacks on women were ubiquitous in the eighteenth century, Felicity Nussbaum argues, because satirists aimed to uphold and perpetuate conservative, traditional notions of womanhood. Female satirical periodicalists were thus able to criticize a variety of topics in their writings — politics, religion, morality — but, in choosing to do so from the perspective of female personae who were often the target of satiric attack, they also criticized the restrictive views on femininity frequently promoted in those the very genres and traditions within which they wrote.
Perhaps no example illustrates this as well as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s fascinating contribution to the Spectator (no. 573, 1714), a surprisingly understudied text in her oeuvre. Montagu’s essay — written from the perspective of a lusty widow — is a response to an earlier issue of the periodical by Addison (no. 561), in which he writes about an invented Widow’s Club, a “Female Cabal” of “nine experienced Dames.” In his stereotypical satiric portrayal of the different women of this club, he criticizes them for being sexually voracious and unremorseful (because they move from husband to husband). He also mocks them for being parasitic “She-Machiavels” who dominate their husbands, allowing their men no “great Freedoms and Familiarities,” and only showing them affection for economic reasons, until their husbands have “made over to [them] all [their] Goods and Chattels.”
Montagu’s piece is a direct response to Addison’s harsh critique of the failings of women: she chooses to write from the perspective of “Mrs. President,” the president of the fictional Widow’s Club. She reverses the direction of the satiric attack and targets the “insolent, insignificant, negligent, extravagant, splenatick and covetous” husbands instead: “you seem to ground your Satyr on our receiving Consolation so soon after the Death of our Dears . . . but you never reflect what Husbands we have buried, and how short a Sorrow the Loss of them was capable of occasioning.” In the remainder of the essay, she condemns some of the past husbands of “Mrs. President” — drunks, hypochondriacs, rakes — in a series of satirical sketches. This is not to say, though, that Montagu is completely uncritical of the different members of the Widow’s Club, but she attributes their morally questionable behaviour to the mistreatment by their husbands, as well as to the flawed institution of marriage more generally. For instance, Mrs. President seems to contribute the failure of her first marriage to the fact that it was an arranged marriage for economic reasons: she was “marry’d [to him] at Fourteen by my Uncle and Guardian (as I afterwards discovered) by way of Sale for the Third part of my Fortune. This Fellow looked upon me as a meer Child.”
She is thus able to offer a subtle but sharp critique of the exploitative nature of marriage in the early eighteenth century. More importantly for my research, however, is her recasting of Addison’s satiric victim as an astute satiric critic. By allowing “Mrs President” the ability to respond in the same literary format as Addison — and in an equally as satirical way — she denounces the anti-women sentiment that frequently ran through his satirical periodical essays. Significant in this regard is Montagu’s choice to include a Latin verse — “castigata remordent” — from Juvenal’s Second Satire as her epigraph, literally meaning “those chastised, bite back.” In showing her knowledge of her classical Roman satiric forebearers, she not only explicitly writes herself within the satiric tradition and shows herself to be an educated woman, despite not having access to classical education. Her inclusion of this Latin epigraph also seemingly reads as a comment on her position as a female satirist in the current literary climate. That is, she is literally “biting back” as she is writing in a literary form that women were, for socio-literary reasons, expected to avoid and that tended to explicitly attack the foibles of women.
Conclusion: Feminist Satire and Magazines Today
This is all to say that female periodical editors of the first of half of the eighteenth century wrote satirically under female eidolons that were often the very butt of the joke in satiric and periodical writing, implicitly questioning the more conservative views on womanhood that these genres promote. Interestingly, periodicals and magazines continue to be important vehicles for feminist satire today. My research into these eighteenth-century female periodical editors reminded me of satirical online platforms such as Reductress, which in fact raise similar questions about gender, form/genre and periodical writing.
Reductress is an American feminist satirical magazine run by Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo which, in their words, “was born out of a lack of spaces for women to write comedy.” They parody the cliché style, content and tropes of female-oriented media content, and women’s magazines in particular. For example, they mock listicles (“Next-Level Braids to Earn the Workplace Respect You Deserve” or “Fun Summer Cocktails When They Ask You ‘Well What Were You Drinking?’”) or formulaic clickbait headlines (“Yes! This Woman Was Named CEO to Distract From Her Company’s Sexual Harassment Lawsuit” or “Wow! This Flight Attendant Gets Paid to Fly Around the World and Ask Men to Stop Groping Her!”). By imitating certain conventions of magazines geared towards women and by formatting their critique of, for example, workplace harassment and rape culture in such a way, they aim to satirize the portrayal of women in the media and the sometimes condescending tone of women’s magazines.
Indeed, similar to their eighteenth-century predecessors, these contemporary female satirists are writing in a time when there is a still an uneasy relationship between women and satire. In fact, the cliché that women are not funny and are not capable of writing satirically might have facilitated our looking over the wealth of eighteenth-century female satirists in the first place. Moreover, much like Montagu and Brooke, Reductress writers employ and subvert certain formal characteristics typical to the genre within which they write — in this case heavily conventionalized headlines, listicles and advice columns rather than the periodical eidolon — in order to question the conservative images of womanhood these forms of writings often produce and seemingly validate.
 Jennie Batchelor and Manushag Powell, Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1690-1820s: The Long Eighteenth Century. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), 15.
 See Alexander Pope for an example of eighteenth-century responses to female satirists. Alexander Pope, The Dunciad (1728) and The Dunciad Variorum (1729), edited by Valerie Rumbold (London: Routledge, 2013), 232. Dustin Griffin, Satire: A Critical Reintroduction (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), 190, and Brean Hammond, Pope Amongst the Satirists, 1660-1750 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005), 5.
 Manushag Powell, Performing Authorship in Eighteenth-Century English Periodicals (Lewisburg: Bucknell Press, 2012), 14.
 Rachel Carnell, “Protesting the Exclusivity of the Public Sphere: Delarivier Manley’s Examiner,” in Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1690-1820s: The Long Eighteenth Century, ed. Jennie Batchelor and Manushag Powell (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), 155-156. Isobel Grundy, “’A Moral Paper! And How Do You Expect To Get Money By It?’: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Journalism,” in Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture In Britain, 1690-1820s: The Long Eighteenth Century, ed. Jennie Batchelor and Manushag Powell (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), 171.
 Frances Brooke, The Old Maid (London, 1756), 12.
 Noelle Gallagher, “Satire as Medicine in the Restoration and Early Eighteenth Century: The History of a Metaphor,” Literature and Medicine 31, no. 1 (2013), 17-39.
 Brooke, 1.
 Brooke, 2.
 Iona Italia, The Rise of Literary Journalism in the Eighteenth Century: Anxious Employment (London: Routledge, 2005), 266.
 Kathryn Shevelow. Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical (New York: Routledge, 1989), 1.
 Felicity Nussbaum, The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women, 1660-1750 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984), 24.
 The intersection of gender and genre has been a productive avenue of research since the inception of the feminist recovery project in the 1990s: “gender/genre analysis is often fascinated with transgression of boundaries and is nearly always sharply attuned to the potential for resistance to gender ideologies offered by generic manipulations.” See Kathryn King, “Genre Crossings,” in The Cambridge Companion to Women’s Writing in Britain, 1660-1789, edited by Catherine Ingrassia (Cambridge: CUP, 2015), 89.
 Joseph Addison, “The Spectator no. 561,” in The Spectator by Addison and Steele, edited by Henry Morley (London: Routledge and Sons, 1891), 460.
 Addison, 463.
 Mary Wortley Montagu, “The Spectator no. 573,” in The Spectator by Addison and Steele, edited by Henry Morley (London: Routledge and Sons, 1891), 496.
 Montagu, 493.
 The fact Montagu explicitly brings up how her guardian and uncle married her off for money echoes Gayle Rubin’s view of marriage as an economical transaction between men which has allowed for the perpetuation of women’s oppression and subordination. See Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex,” in Towards and Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna Reitner (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), 157-210.
 Montagu, 493.
 Montagu, 493.
 Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo, interview with Seth Stevenson, Slate Podcast: Who Runs That?, podcast audio, 8 April 2019, https://slate.com/business/2019/04/reductress-co-founders-talk-feminism-satire-and-how-men-respond-to-their-jokes.html.