"All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, . . . for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds." (Woolf 91)
Born in 1640, Aphra Behn broke gender stereotypes when she undertook a thrilling (if unrewarded) life as a spy for the Crown, but it was her scandalous career as an author which truly achieved many firsts for women. She was the first woman to support hereself financially by solely relying on the profession of writing, and many readers argue that Oroonoko--her passionate tale about the institution of slavery--was the first English novel. She was certainly one of the first female authors to write candidly about sexuality: in fact, she both broke new ground and challenged conceptions of patriarchal power when she wrote about women's empowerment through sexuality. In her poems "The Willing Mistress" (from her play The Dutch Lover, 1673) and "The Disappointment" (1680), Behn creates situations of bold sexual mischief in which female characters are aware of, comfortable with, and even thrive off their sexuality.
Not only was it virtually unheard of for a woman of Behn's time to express herself openly as a sexual being, but it was also explicitly forbidden by cultural precepts for a woman to so aggressively take charge of her own physical desires and satisfaction, as Behn's characters do. Previously, men were in control of most sexual situations--both in real life and in literature. Behn, however, creates a playing field where the traditional roles not only do not apply but are subverted. Urged to seize the day, Behn's willing mistress does so, following her lover into the bushes and co...
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...dent women created from Behn's mind refute her era's consensus that ... Behn conveys that women can control their own destiny; they can hold the power. Although these sentiments were certainly ahead of their time, they did help pave the way for future generations of women to express themselves honestly, sexually or otherwise. For that, all women are indeed eternally indebted to Aphra Behn.
Behn, Aphra. "The Disappointment." The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. 2nd ed. Eds. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. New York: Norton, 1996. 112-115.
---. "The Willing Mistress." Norton. 111.
Bradstreet, Anne. "A Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment." Norton. 89.
Woolf, Virginia. "Aphra Behn." Excerpted from A Room of One's Own. Reprinted in Virginia Woolf: Women and Writing. Ed. Michele Barrett. New York: Harvest, 1979. 89-91.
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