Hester Pulter wasn't famous for anything in particular, but the 17th-century aristocrat's poems have historical value for other reasons. Pulter wrote about science, religion, politics, the English Civil War (fought from 1642 to 1651), and even the execution of Charles I, which wouldn't be all that unusual, except for the fact that she was a woman. And a woman of high social standing at that.
Although her poems can now be read online for free via The Pulter Project, the noblewoman probably never meant for them to be published back in the 1600s, according to Samantha Snively, a Ph.D candidate in Early Modern Literature at the University of California, Davis.
"In order to avoid slander, the few women who did publish usually wrote about topics more aligned with proper womanly values: household guides, devotional books and diaries, or memoirs of their husbands," Snively wrote for The Conversation. "An aristocratic woman like Hester would have been expected to behave modestly, keep quiet, and focus on her household rather than write about political conflicts and scientific experimentation."
According to Smithsonian magazine, Pulter's poems went largely unread for centuries until 1996, when a graduate student at the University of Leeds pulled them from the shelves of the university's Brotherton Library while undertaking a project to digitize 17th-century poetry manuscripts. The online portal includes both digital versions of Pulter's original manuscripts as well as transcriptions of her writings.
Pulter, who was likely born in or around Dublin in June 1605, wrote most of her poems in the 1640s and 1650s at the height of the English Civil War. As such, her poems reflect her "deeply felt responses to the carnage and chaos of the mid-seventeenth century, as to the afflictions and losses in her own life," The Pulter Project notes.
Despite being the daughter of a chief justice on the king's bench in Ireland, Pulter was critical of different political factions, including the Parliamentarians and the ruling class, while also revering monarchs like Charles I.
Snively noted that Pulter's body of work contains "early feminist ideas and addresses, in complex ways, how society constricts women's behavior, devalues their work, and diminishes their intellectual value."
Pulter—the daughter of James Ley, who became the first Earl of Marlborough—gave birth to 15 children and rarely left her home. In one poem, she laments, "Why must I thus forever be confined / Against the noble freedom of my mind?"