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LHMP #417 Walsh 1691 A Dialogue Concerning Women

Full citation: 

Walsh, William. 1691. A Dialogue Concerning Women, being a Defence of the Sex. London, Printed for R. Bentley in Russel-street in Covent-Garden, and I. Tonson at the Judge’s-Head in Chancery-Lane.

This post is part of a series of primary source materials illustrating how Europeans perceived, reported, and discussed female homoeroticism in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th to early 18th centuries. I’ll give a larger context for why this is a period of interest for European interactions with a non-European, non-Christian culture that could not be dismissed easily as  not being of equal power an importance to their own. Attitudes toward, and practice of homosexuality was far from the most noteworthy difference that these reports covered, but it’s the one of interest to us within the scope of this Project. I’ll be presenting the descriptions from ambassadors, travelers, and others in chronological order of their time spent in Constantinople and other key cities, followed by some additional primary sources that show how the echos of these interactions became part of European myths about lesbianism.

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William Walsh was a late 17th century English poet and critic. The work of his that piques our interest is a philosophical treatise A Dialogue Concerning Women, being a Defence of the Sex, which is dedicated to someone identified as Eugenia. The work is in the form of a debate between Misogynes (the misogynist) and Philogynes (the lover of women), with authorial asides commenting on their arguments and directly addressing the dedicatee. Unfortunately for the casual reader, it appears (based on a single image from the internet) that the voices are distinguished using italics for one, but none of the accessible texts online make this distinction. I’ve done my best to guess at distinguishing [Misogynes], [Philogynes], and [Narrator] in the excerpts below, based on content. I have bolded the text that references either lesbianism or Turkey, given that they are embedded in much more extensive quotations.

A Dialogue Concerning Women, being a Defence of the Sex was published in 1691. (London, Printed for R. Bentley in Russel-street in Covent-Garden, and I. Tonson at the Judge’s-Head in Chancery-Lane.) the text I used was sourced from the University of Michigan—Early English Books website. This text included a number of OCR glitches. I’ve cleaned up those where the intent was obvious, but there’s one Latin name where I couldn’t figure out which author was meant.

Walsh’s text is cited in Donoghue 1995.

The relevance of this text is the demonstration that a link between Sappho, lesbianism, and Turkey had become sufficiently embedded in popular culture by the late 17th century that it is presented as accepted fact in a screed (though one set up as a strawman) against learned women.

[Narrator] This Misogynes is a very rude Fellow, and I am sure your Ladyship will be of my Opinion, that his last simile was very fulsome. 'Tis a sign he hates Women; for had he convers'd with them, they wou'd have taught him better manners.

[Misogynes] But there are doubtless, you will say, Women of Understanding: Pray where are they? Is it your Prudent Woman, your good Houswife, who is plaguing all the World with her Management, and instructing every body how to feed Geese and Capons? Or is it your Politician, who is always full of Business, who carries a Secretary of State's Office in her Head, and is making her deep Observations upon every days News? Or is it your Learned Woman, who runs mad for the love of hard words, who talks a mixt Jargon, or Lingua Franca, and has spent a great deal of time to make her capable of talking Nonsense in four or five several Languages? What think you, Sir, do you not wish for your Visitant again, as the more tolerable folly of the two? Do not you think Learning and Politicks become a Woman as ill as riding astride? And had not the Duke of Brittaine reason, who thought a Woman knowing enough, when she cou'd distinguish between her Husband's Shirt and his Breeches?

[Misogynes] Do not you, in answer to these, fetch me a Sappho out of Greece; a Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi, out of Rome; an Anna Maria Schurman out of Holland; and think that in shewing me three Learned Women in three thousand years, you have gain'd your point; and from some few particular Instances, prov'd a general Conclusion: If I shou'd bring you half a dozen Magpies that cou'd talk, and as many Horses that cou'd dance, you wou'd not, I suppose, for all that, chuse out the one to converse with, or the other to walk a Corant.

[Misogynes] But wou'd you see 'em to their best advantage? Wou'd you have their Wit, Courage, and Conduct display'd? Take 'em upon the business of Lust. That can make Sappho witty, Aloisia Eloquent, a Country-wife Politick; That can humble Messalina's Pride to walk the Streets; can make tender Hippia endure the Incommodities of a Sea-Voyage, can support the Queen of Sheba in a Journey to Solomon, and make Thalestris search out Alexander the Great: In this particular, I must confess, we ought to submit to 'em, and with shame allow 'em the preference. I cannot reflect upon the Stories of Semiramis's lying with all the handsomest men in her Army, and putting 'em to Death afterwards; of her offering her Son the last Favour; of Messalina the Empresses prostituting her self in the publick Stews; and of Queen Ioan of Naples providing a Bath under her Window, where she might see all the lustiest young men naked, and take her choice out of 'em, without such an admiration as their Heroick Actions deserve. Sappho, as she was one of the wittiest Women that ever the World bred, so she thought with Reason it wou'd be expected she shou'd make some additions to a Science in which all Womankind had been so successful: What does she do then? Not content with our Sex, she begins Amours with her own, and teaches us a new sort of Sin, that was follow'd not only in Lucian's time, but is practis'd frequently in Turkey at this day. You cannot but be sensible, Sir, that there is no necessity of going so far for Instances of their Lewdness, and were it civil to quote the Lampoons, or write the Amours of our own Time, we might be furnish'd with Examples enow nearer home.

[Philogynes] We might tell you further, Sir, that this Modesty too often hinders 'em from making their Vertues known; That they are not of those eternal Scriblers who are continually plagueing the World with their Works; and that it is not the Vanity of getting a Name, which several of the greatest men of the World have own'd to be the Cause of their writing, that is the Cause of the Womens. Had not Sappho been so much in Love, 'tis possible we had never heard any mention of one of the greatest Wits that ever was born; had not Cicero and Quintilian given us accounts of Cornelia, and the Daughters of L•lius, and Hortensius, they had never done it themselves; had not Jane Gray been put to Death, her Vertues had never been so much taken notice of; Had not the Portugueze Nun been deserted by her Gallant, we had mist some of the most passionate Letters that these latter Ages have produc'd; and had not Anna Maria Schurman's Works been publish'd by a Friend, without her consent, we had lost the benefit of 'em. We may tell you too, that 't not only in respect of their own Sex that they are admir'd, but even of ours. That of those two Odes we have yet of Sappho, we owe one to Dionysius Halicarnassaeus, the other to Longin, the two best Criticks of Greece, who chose 'em out for Examples to their Rules, before any of the Mens; That the Epistle of Sappho to Phaon, which is esteem'd the most delicate of Ovid,'s is supposed to be taken out of her Writings. That Corinna was five times victorious over Pindar the best Lyrick Poet of our Sex. And were we here in England as forward in Printing Letters, as they are in France and Italy, we might furnish Volumes of 'em written by our own Ladies, that wou'd make all the Women-haters blush, or make all Men else blush for 'em.

[Narrator] Here, Madam, I must own to you I grew jealous, for I cou'd not imagine that Philogynes wou'd have said this, without having seen some of your Ladyships Letters.

[Philogynes] We may tell you too, that granting the equal Capacities of both Sexes, 'tis a greater wonder to find one Learned Woman, than a hundred Learned Men, considering the difference of their Educations. If you shou'd go into Greece, and, seeing the ignorance is amongst 'em at present, tell 'em their Country men were incapable of Learning, wou'd you not be very well satisfied, when they told you of the Plato's and Aristotle's of Antiquity? And that if they had not as Famous Men now, it was because they have not the same Advantages they had then? And pray why may not the Women be allow'd the same excuse? Will you by all your Laws and Customs endeavour to keep 'em ignorant, and then blame 'em for being so? And forbid all Men of Sense keeping 'em Company, as you do, and yet be angry with them for keeping Company with Fools? Consider what Time and Charge is spent to make Men fit for somewhat; Eight or Nine Years at School; Six or Seven Years at the University; Four or Five Years in Travel; and after all this, are they not almost all Fops, Clowns, Dunces, or Pedants? I know not what you think of the Women; but if they are Fools, they are Fools I am sure with less pains and less expence than we are.

[Philogynes] Upon second thoughts I hope, Sir, you will allow, that Women may have Wit and Learning; for their Courage and Conduct we may possibly say more anon. But for Heaven's sake, do not aggravate their faults always at that rate; for whatever Sappho's Life and Conversation were, there is nothing in her Writings, but what represents the most tender, and delicate passion in the World: And as for Aloisia Sigaea (I give you thanks for putting me in mind of Aloisia Sigaea, who was as remarkable for her Wit and Learning as any of the other) I am very well assur'd you do not believe that infamous Book which goes under her Name, to have been written by her; all who speak of it assure us the contrary; and that she was so far from writing it, that she never publish'd any thing; On the other side, all Historians represent her as remarkable for her Vertue, as her Learning. For the Queen of Sheba, there is no mention in Scripture of her Travelling for any thing but to be satisfied with the wisdom of Solomon; however, if you will believe she went to him, for the same reason that Thalestris did to Alexander the Great; it was no such great matter, in Countreys where it was thought no Sin, if the one had a mind to have a Child by the wisest man in the world, and the other by the bravest. After all, we must own if there are lewd Women, they endeavour to conceal their lewdness they do not brag of it, nor flye openly in the face of Religion; and if they once come to be publickly discover'd, they are render'd infamous to all the World, and their nearest Friends and Relations avoid their company: Whilst there are several Men who boast of their iniquities, value themselves upon their being thought lewd, and what is worse, find others to value 'em upon it too; nay by their incitements and encouragements to wickedness, often bring themselves to that pass, that the least part of the Sins they are to answer for, are what they have committed themselves But not a word more I beseech you of Sappho, nor her new Crime, let Lucian be forgotten for putting us in mind of it, and let it be Cloister'd up within the walls of a Turkish Seraglio; I speak not this in behalf of the Female Sex, but of our own; for if they shou'd once hear of this Argument, and fall upon us with Socrates, Plato, and all those Heroes of Antiquity, whom Plutarch and Lucian produce in defence of a like Sin in our Sex; shou'd they mention Anacreon, Tibullus, Martial, and all those Poets who have eterniz'd their Infamy in their writings; and after that shew you what progresses this Crime has made, not only in the Turk's Dominion, but even in Spain and Italy, I am sure, Sir, you wou'd wish you had said nothing of a point, that may be so severely made use of against our selves.

[Philogynes] Now tho' you are pleas'd to quote the Lampoons, yet you think as well as I that such things are not worth any bodies taking notice of; we both know there are a sort of people about this Town, who please themselves with Defamations; One of these, if they see a Man speak to a Woman, make their little signs, their politick winks, and possibly when they meet him, in their insipid way of Rallery, tax him with it: If he is angry at 'em, then he is pique'd, and afraid the Intrigue shou'd be found out; If he says nothing (as it deserves nothing) then he is out of Countenance and cannot say a word; and if he laughs at 'em (which is all the answer a man wou'd make to such stuff) then he is pleas'd with the thing; so that every way the poor Ladies Reputation suffers; and these Sparks shall not fail to blow it about Town, that there is an Amour; not that they think so of you, but that you may return the Complement, and say so of them, when they speak to any Lady themselves.

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