Aphra Behn: A Feminist Enigma

Aphra Behn: A Feminist Enigma

Portrait of Aphra Behn attributed to Sir Peter Lely, c. 1670 (British Library, copyright Yale Center for British Art)

About This Exhibit


Rachel Elizabeth Campbell


This exhibit will explore the mysterious and intriguing life of famed author and poet Aphra Behn, as well as question the understanding of Behn as a “feminist” writer. Should she be considered a feminist because she was a woman and she wrote? Do her political beliefs support this claim? While Behn gave a voice to women in a deeply patriarchal society and fought against misogynist ways of thinking, her political ideologies do not agree with the definition of feminism.

General Information:

  • Believed to be born in Canterbury, England in 1640 (British Library)
  • Died April 16, 1689 in London, England (British Library)
  • Wrote nearly every genre, with the exception of the sermon (Todd 5)
  • Worked as a spy with the code-names Astrea or agent 160 (Todd 5) 
  • "many [of her plays]...were 'city' comedies in that they dealt with urban life and presented political, gender, and economic struggle in an urban setting" (Wiseman 26)


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.

- Virginia Woolf


While little can be factually proven about Aphra Behn's life, literary scholars have dedicated their time to discovering as much about the famed "first professional woman writer" as possible (Todd 3). In attempting to understand Behn's background, much literary effort has been put towards developing a biography for her, specifically in regards to her adolescent life. These findings are best compiled in the book The Secret Life of Aphra Behn written by Janet Todd, where much of the following information is recorded from, though a few more speculative facts come from other sources.

Map of England with Canterbury, the suspected birthplace of Aphra Behn.

Aphra Behn is most commonly believed to have been born in Canterbury, England in the 1640s to a "barber father (Eaffrey or Bartholomew) and wet-nurse mother" based on the written claims of well-credited historical figures such as Colonel Thomas Colepeper and Anne Finch (British Library, Todd 13). Scholars believe that Behn traveled to the English Colony of Surinam with her family at some point during her adolescence, but this fact remains to be proven (BL). Janet Todd describes Behn as "The girl who grew up to be a spy, a playwright, political propagandist, and authority on love" (2). While her background may never be concretely known, we can certainly offer our thanks to the parents of such an influential individual for providing her with the tools that led to her eventual success.

Most evidence regarding Aphra Behn's life appears after her marriage to a merchant, Johan Behn, though they separated before his ultimate death in 1666 (British library). From this time on, however, Aphra went by Mrs. Behn in all professional settings (British library).

Aphra Behn, a conservatist with Royalist sympathies, a proud Tory, offered her services to Charles II as a spy stationed in Bruges. She frequently reused her code-name, Astrea, in her poetry, plays, stories, and everyday life (Wiseman). Both Todd and the British Library concur that Behn spent some time in debtor's prison upon her return from Bruges, though this is not officially documented.

"As a bisexually inclined woman," Behn experienced love and desire in its various forms, often implementing them, as well as sex, into her work (Todd 182). Todd further describes her as "sensual as much as sexual, interested both in men and women and appreciating beauty in both" (80). Her bisexuality makes frequent appearances in her work and offers scholars a better understanding of her passions and influences. The letters, poetry, and other correspondences between Behn and her lover Emily Price offer insight to Behn's private life, to the world she tried to keep off the stage as often as possible (Todd 190).

Aphra Behn was a feminist in the sense that she thought as a woman and thought through being a woman, but she was an awkward one. (Todd 7)

Aphra Behn: Feminist?

Aphra Behn's life and accomplishments changed the perception of women both in her time and long after her death, with many women following her footsteps in pursuit of professional playwriting. Behn used the female body and person to convey her interests in and the correlation between sexuality, politics, economics, and power. Her plays often commented on the heavily divisive politics of the time, causing social outbursts of violence or class and party disputes. Janet Todd makes the claim that "For Aphra Behn, the most important development in the theatre was the arrival of the female body" (130), because of her avid use of feminine sexuality to provoke the audience into thinking critically about their political and economic situations, as well as the distribution of power. She did not, however, argue for any change in the social hierarchy; rather "She supported the rule of hereditary males and accepted that men of lower rank and all women should have nothing directly to do with government" (Todd 225). In this aspect alone, Behn cannot be considered a true feminist since she does not fight for the political equality of women. While Behn helped to liberate feminine sexuality, both on and off the stage, as well as offer a place for women within the world of playwriting, her political beliefs prohibit her from claiming the title "feminist".

a public female intellectual, a woman of supreme intelligence, a woman of letters,

- Janet Todd - 



“Aphra Behn.” The British Library, The British Library, 28 Nov. 2017, www.bl.uk/people/aphra-behn. This website provided useful information in regards to the biography of Aphra Behn. The material was clearly stated so as to provide the necessary information without the extensive history. It helped identity Behn's political standing, the beliefs about her early life, and her writing style.

Lely, Peter. “Portrait of Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely.” The British Library, The British Library, 2017, Yale Center for British Art, USA, www.bl.uk/collection-items/portrait-of-aphra-behn-by-sir-peter-lely. This painting gave me a better understanding of how Aphra Behn looked when she was alive, as well as the conventional clothing of her time period.

Todd, Janet. The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. 2nd ed., Pandora, 2000. This book proved most useful out of all the sources. It provided in-depth details about Aphra Behn's personal, political, and social life along with historical context and the methods of discovery and research for the presented information. Much of the cited work comes from this book because it was so informative. 

Wiseman, Susan, and British Council. Aphra Behn. Vol. 2nd ed, Liverpool University Press, 2007. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,sso&db=e000xna&AN=1886001&site=eds-live&authtype=sso&custid=s8475574. This ebook provided relative information about Aphra Behn's life and her writing style and processes. It also presented various details about her political beliefs and social standing and interaction. While not cited frequently, the text helped me better understand Aphra as a person and a writer. 

Janet Todd

"She was tall, well-built, even chubby perhaps, full breasted, with bright eyes, flowing brown hair, well-shaped mouth, and a small neck," (Todd 80)

A few of Aphra Behn's pieces: 

  • The Feign'd Courtesans
  • The History of the Nun
  • The Rover
  • Oroonoko