See caption
Title page of first issue
Defining Gender

Despite its short print run of just four issues, the first published at the end of February 1693, the The Ladies Mercury occupies a unique position in literary history as the first English periodical specifically targeted at women. It was edited by a “dimly realised” Ladies Society, and adopted the form of an advice column, the editors answering queries sent in by readers[1] “with the zeal and softness becoming to the sex”.[2]

The Mercury promised to respond to “all the most nice and curious questions concerning love, marriage, behaviour, dress and humour of the female sex, whether virgins, wives, or widows”.[3] The first issue contains a letter sent in by a “young woman” who, having had an affair before her marriage, asks whether it was proper of her to feign her virginity on her wedding night. The Ladies Society reassures her by arguing that the affair was over before she had any moral obligation to her present husband. Another, from “a man of Honour”, asks whether as he is unable to divorce his adulterous wife, it would be sinful for him to take a mistress”.[1]

It is generally considered that the publisher and bookseller John Dunton (1659–1733), publisher of The Athenian Mercury, also published The Ladies Mercury, but the evidence is inconclusive. Certainly the latter positioned itself as a “companion” to The Athenian Mercury, and adopted the same question and answer style of its monthly ladies’ issues, but Dunton himself remained silent on the issue.[1] The literary historian Bertha-Monica Stearns has speculated that Dunton decided that the ladies’ issue of The Athenian Mercury scheduled for 25 February 1693 might as well stand on its own feet as The Ladies Mercury, but reluctant to acknowledge “so pitiful an enterprise”, chose to abandon the project after four issues.[4] Perhaps the best that can be stated with any degree of certainty is that Dunton was “amenable” to the project.[1]

The final issue of the The Ladies Mercury was published on 17 March 1693.[1]