Samuel Johnson's androgyny and sexual politics

Kathleen M Kemmerer, Fordham University


This study explores Samuel Johnson's response to the querelle des femmes. Focusing primarily on Irene, the Rambler, and Rasselas, it argues that Johnson frames the question in political terms, specifically in terms of power-based relationships between men and women; second, that he advocates equality and a liberal education for women; and third, that skepticism about cultural constructs of gender and psychological androgyny are an important feature of his thought. Chapter 1 uses Johnson's writings to delineate his attitudes toward women and marriage and discusses how Johnson's knowledge of civil and ecclesiastical law may have shaped controversial statements about women in Boswell's Life, especially those which seem to be in conflict with his writings. Chapter 2 argues that Irene should be read as a exploration of sexual politics, sympathetic to the title character. He shows that, through a man's education and the regard of Demetrius, Aspasia is empowered to moral agency while the submissive Irene, relying on conduct-book wisdom, is silenced and killed. Chapter 3 discusses the androgyny of the Rambler persona as a rhetorical strategy. The Rambler declares his gender neutrality and proposes to arbitrate the querelle; however, his neutrality is repeatedly challenged to underscore the difficulty of overcoming cultural conditioning and self-interest. The chapter also addresses questions about Johnson's implied reader. Chapter 4 focuses on the Rambler's letters from fictional female correspondents in terms of what they show about Johnson's imaginative sympathy and sexual politics. By using his weighty prose style for these letters, Johnson models a dialogue between equals rather than reproducing the deficiencies resulting from women's lack of education. Chapter 5 examines Rasselas in terms of the sexual equality among the characters and the implications for androgyny and sexual politics of Johnson's style. Johnson uses gender-related misunderstandings to explore how sexual difference relates to psychological androgyny. In conclusion, Johnson's work indicates that androgyny empowers women to claim agency without apology or deference and that it frees men from the burden of making sense of the world apart from the companionship and contribution of women. Johnson's androgyny is the result of an imaginative empathy that includes many kinds of human difference.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Kemmerer, Kathleen M, "Samuel Johnson's androgyny and sexual politics" (1993). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9324619.