The pamphlet sets out a debate between two characters. Hic Mulier is the mannish woman and Haec-Vir is the womanish man (but I will just refer to them as the man and the woman).
The man begins by criticising the woman for behaving in a base, unnatural, shameful and foolish manner. I won't focus on this part of the debate, except to note how important acting nobly was to moral thought of this time.
The woman then has a right of reply:
First, you say I am Base, in being a Slave to Novelty. What slavery can there be in
freedom of election, or what baseness to crown my delights with those pleasures which are most suitable to mine affections? Bondage or Slavery is a restraint from those actions which the mind of its own accord doth most willingly desire, to perform the intents and purposes of another’s disposition, and that not by mansuetude [gentleness] or sweetness of entreaty, but by the force of authority and strength of compulsion. Now for me to follow change according to the limitation of mine own will and pleasure, there cannot be a greater freedom.
She is arguing that liberty exists when there is no "restraint from those actions which the mind of its own accord doth most willingly desire". Freedom, in other words, is being able to choose to do whatever I autonomously have a mind or a will to do. Freedom is the pursuit of desires, as long as they are my desires ("which the mind of its own accord doth most willingly desire"). It is not that far removed from the modern liberal understanding of freedom.
She goes on to deny that she is behaving unnaturally. She argues that she was born free and she suggests that men and women are constituted in a similar way ("we are compounded of like parts"), and should operate in much the same way, namely along male lines. Sex distinctions, she argues, are often based on mere custom and that,
Custom is an Idiot, and whosoever dependeth wholly upon him without the discourse of Reason will take from him his pied coat and become a slave indeed
The woman has put her case forcibly and at length, but the man is having none of it. He does not submit to proto-liberal ideas about freedom but replies:
You have wrested out some wit, to wrangle forth no reason; since everything you would make for excuse, approves your guilt still more ugly: what basest bondage, or what more servile baseness, than for the flattering and soothing of an un-bridled appetite, or delight, to take a wilfull liberty to do evil, and to give evil example? This is to be Hells Prentice, not Heaven’s Free-woman.
He is pointing out that to seek no restraint in doing what "the mind of its own accord doth most willingly desire" or to be limited only by "mine own will and pleasure" is to justify "unbridled appetite" and a "wilfull liberty to do evil". This, he says tellingly, will not lead her to be "Heaven's Free-woman", i.e. it is not a virtuous understanding of freedom.
His argument draws on an older pre-liberal understanding of freedom in which we are at liberty when we are not slaves to our animal passions or to our sins, but are directed instead by our reason. (This understanding of freedom has potential problems of its own which I'll discuss in a future post; it's enough for now to acknowledge that the older understanding was set against "unbridled appetite", i.e. it was set against the idea that "my desires are justified as long as they are authentically my desires".)
The man wins the argument in the end by appealing to the teaching of the church. There is a passage in Deuteronomy which clearly forbids transvestism and so the woman agrees to give it up, albeit on one condition - that the man himself gives up dressing in an effeminate, foppish way.
The woman then claims that she only did what she did as a strategy to force men to give up their effeminacy:
Now since according to your own Inference, even by the Laws of Nature, by the rules of Religion, and the Customs of all civil Nations, it is necessary there be a distinct and special difference between Man and Woman, both in their habit and behaviors, what could we poor weak women do less ... than to gather up those garments you have proudly cast away and therewith to clothe both our bodies and our minds?
She quotes a section of the poem Orlando Furioso, in which the knight Ruggiero has been beguiled by the sorceress Alcina and made effeminate:
His Locks bedewed with waters of sweet savour;
Stood curled round in order on his head;
He had such wanton womanish behaviour,
As though in Valor he had ne’re been bred:
So chang’d in speech, in manners and in favour,
So from himselfe beyond all reason led,
By these inchantments of this amorous Dame;
He was himselfe in nothing but in name.
Again, this is very different to the proto-liberal view expressed earlier in the pamphlet. The proto-liberal view is that it is our inborn nature to be free, which means being subject only to our own reason, which means choosing whatever we authentically desire. The poem, however, suggests that we have fit ends or purposes, that reason holds us to, and that therefore in the loss of reason, we fail to hold to these purposes, and are no longer ourselves.
The woman ends her part by promising that all will be set right if men return to their masculine role:
Cast then from you our ornaments and put on your own armor; be men in shape, men in show, men in words, men in actions, men in counsel, men in example. Then will we love and serve you; then will we hear and obey you; then will we like rich Jewels hang at your ears to take our Instructions, like true friends follow you through all dangers, and like careful leeches [physicians] pour oil into your wounds. Then shall you find delight in our words, pleasure in our faces, faith in our hearts, chastity in our thoughts, and sweetness both in our inward and outward inclinations. Comeliness shall be then our study, fear our Armor, and modesty our practice.
The man decides to return to more masculine wear:
Away then from me these light vanities, the only Ensigns of a weak and soft nature, and come you grave and solid pieces which arm a man with Fortitude and Resolution...From henceforth deformity shall pack to Hell, and if at any time he hide himself upon the earth, yet it shall be with contempt and disgrace...Henceforth we will live nobly like ourselves, ever sober, ever discreet, ever worthy: true men and true women. We will be henceforth like well-coupled Doves, full of industry, full of love. I mean not of sensual and carnal love, but heavenly and divine love, which proceeds from God...