Mary Collier's "The Woman's Labour"

Collier was a common laborer (a washerwoman) who was taught to read by her parents but never went to school. As an adult, she continued to read for recreation.
This poem was a response to Duck's poem "The Thresher's Labor" written in 1730 which criticizes the idleness of rural women.
It is a subversion of the Georgic form.

THE GEORGIC--is a didactic poem primarily intended to give directions concerning some skill, art or science. It is different from the pastoral in that work is emphasized instead of leisure. The georgic celebrates the virtues of hard work and cultivation. They are often filled with descriptions of nature and digression on myths, lore, or philosophical reflections suggested by the subject matter. Hesiod's "Works and Days" (750 BC) was the first of this form that was later made popular by Virgil. Many 18th c poems were written imitating Virgil's georgics in form and content.

THIS POEM SUBVERTS/UNDERMINES GEORGIC BECAUSE IT IS NOT GLORIFYING WORK- in Collier's opinion, working class women's work is too harsh and extreme to be thought of as noble.

Collier's theme appears to be that the working class, both men and women, are slaves to the upper classes and that Duck should appreciate this instead of polarizing along the lines of gender. (And if anything, working class women work WAY harder than men do.)


"Enrich'd by Peers" (2) is a pun. On one level it means made rich by nobility. On another level, in context of the entire poem, it means made better (humbled) by his peer (Collier). Also, the verb peer means to look intently-Collier wants Duck to look intently at the real situation and re-evaluate his opinions of working class women.
The rhymes "me" (9) and "Drudgery" (10) emphasizes Collier's personal plight and draws attention to and highlights Duck's change of vicissitudes.
"The happy State our Sex at first enjoy'd" (16) harks back to a golden age of womankind. (Duck's poem refers to the Golden Age of man, which is a classical belief.) This at first appears to be the time of chivalry and courtly love, but on reflection one realizes that working class women never had a golden age! Of course, the working class never wrote poems before either because they remained illiterate. This would mean that Collier was being ironic in obliquely stating that before, men like Duck wouldn't have written poems and wouldn't have been given the opportunity to slander his female peers. The internal rhyme in "alas! That Golden Age is past" (29) again draws attention to the strife that the working class must endure. (Strife being the characteristic of the ages that followed the Golden Age according to Hesiod.)
Lines 26-30 contain mythical allusions, showing that Collier is learned to a degree although a lowly woman and furthermore, echoes Duck's poem.
"great DUCK" (31) is a comic and subversive phrase.
"Alcides's Labours can't with your's compare" (34) references Duck's "Scarce Hercules ever felt such Toils as these" (255). This is hyperbole on Duck's part that Collier is pointing out. If he can exaggerate about this, he can exaggerate about women. She is discrediting him.
"For if [the master's] back be turned, their Work they mind/ As well as Men, as far as he can find" (47-8) makes reference to Duck's "if he turns his Back, prepared to play" (166). Both Duck and Collier will mention women 'behind backs' again in their respective poems (Duck in lines 241-3 and referenced by Collier at line 124). The implication by Duck is the presence/characteristic of deviousness in women. Collier is defending her sex every time she subverts what Duck has said.
"What! Would you lord it quite, and take away/ The only Privilege our Sex enjoy?" (73-4) is a jab at Duck's class pretensions because of the verb "lord".
In his poem, Duck writes: "We walk but slow, and rest at every stile" (152). Collier thumbs her nose at Duck with :
"Weary, alas! But 'tis not worth our while
Once to complain, or rest at ev'ry Stile;
We must make haste, for when we Home are come,
Alas! We find our Work but just begun" (103-6).
Ducks claims that even in his dreams he labors (253) and Collier states that working class women "have hardly ever Time to dream" (134).
Lines 157-167 sound like a mock-heroic in that it is cataloguing the items to be laundered (the implements of the battle that will be fought). It also subverts class pretensions showing how upper class ostentation creates more work for the already over-worked laborers.
Lines 221-2 again refers to the loss of the golden age of women again highlighting how bad the situation of women has always been.
The mythological images of Duck as Sisyphus and working women as the daughters of Danaus unite Duck with his 'sisters'. (It is of note that women are associated with water as Collier was a washerwoman.) At the end of the poem Collier drops away the dichotomy of working class men and women and allies this subset against the upper classes.
"So the industrious Bees do hourly strive
To bring their Loads of Honey to the Hive;
Their sordid Owners always reap the Gains,
And poorly recompense their Toil and Pains." (242-246)
The reference to bees shows that Collier is aware of the georgic form she is subverting that often refers to bee keeping. "Strive" could be a reference to Hesiod again. The final rhyme places a conclusive emphasis on the injustices between the upper and working classes-the pains of the working class achieve gains for the upper class.

Collier's response to Duck's poem 'plays the same game' that Duck's does dichotomizing working class men and women but inverting their respective positions. In the end, Collier unites the lower class sexes and allies them against the upper classes, the 'real enemy'. While addressing Duck directly, Collier indirectly addresses all working class men and women. The ultimate message of "The Woman's Labour" then, more than likely accounts for the relative failure of the work to become popular and gain patrons for Collier-upper class patrons would have acutely felt the sting of her lashing and would be indisposed for more.