Women in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries
Women in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries were challenged with expressing themselves in a patriarchal system that generally refused to grant merit to women's views. Cultural and political events during these centuries increased attention to women's issues such as education reform, and by the end of the eighteenth century, women were increasingly able to speak out against injustices. Though modern feminism was nonexistent, many women expressed themselves and exposed the conditions that they faced, albeit often indirectly, using a variety of subversive and creative methods.
The social structure of sixteenth century Europe allowed women limited opportunities for involvement; they served largely as managers of their households. Women were expected to focus on practical domestic pursuits and activities that encouraged the betterment of their families, and more particularly, their husbands. In most cases education for women was not advocated—it was thought to be detrimental to the traditional female virtues of innocence and morality. Women who spoke out against the patriarchal system of gender roles, or any injustice, ran the risk of being exiled from their communities, or worse; vocal unmarried women in particular were the targets of witch-hunts. Anne Hutchinson, who challenged the authority of Puritan clergy, was excommunicated for her outspoken views and controversial actions. Anne Askew, a well-educated, out-spoken English Protestant, was tried for heresy in 1545; her denial of transubstantiation was grounds for her imprisonment. She was eventually burned at the stake for her refusal to incriminate other Protestant court ladies. Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, a woman who contradicted many of the gender roles of the age. She was well educated, having studied a variety of subjects including mathematics, foreign language, politics, and history. Elizabeth was an outspoken but widely respected leader, known for her oratory skills as well as her patronage of the arts. Despite the advent of the age of print, the literacy rate during this period remained low, though the Bible became more readily available to the lower classes. Religious study, though restricted to "personal introspection," was considered an acceptable pursuit for women, and provided them with another context within which they could communicate their individual ideas and sentiments. In addition to religious material, women of this period often expressed themselves through the ostensibly private forms of letters and autobiographies.
The seventeenth century was not an era of drastic changes in the status or conditions of women. Women continued to play a significant, though not acknowledged, role in economic and political structures through their primarily domestic activities. They often acted as counselors in the home, "tempering" their husbands' words and actions. Though not directly involved in politics, women's roles within the family and local community allowed them to influence the political system. Women were discouraged from directly expressing political views counter to their husbands' or to broadly condemn established systems; nevertheless, many women were able to make public their private views through the veil of personal, religious writings. Again, women who challenged societal norms and prejudices risked their lives—Mary Dyer was hanged for repeatedly challenging the Massachusetts law that banished Quakers from the colony. Though their influence was often denigrated, women participated in various community activities. For example, women were full members of English guilds; guild records include references to "brethern and sistern" and "freemen and freewomen." During the seventeenth century, women's writings continued to focus on largely religious concerns, but increasingly, women found a creative and intellectual outlet in private journal- and letter-writing. Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, published in 1682, is a famous narrative written ostensibly for personal use that was made public and became a popular success.
The eighteenth century brought the beginning of the British cultural revolution. With the increasing power of the middle class and an expansion in consumerism, women's roles began to evolve. The economic changes brought by the new middle class provided women with the opportunity to be more directly involved in commerce. Lower-to middle-class women often assisted their husbands in work outside the home. It was still thought unseemly for a lady to be knowledgeable of business so, though some class distinctions were blurring, the upper class was able to distinguish themselves from the rest of society. The rise in consumerism allowed the gentry to place a greater emphasis on changing fashion and "display," further distancing them from the middleclass. With the advent of changes in rules of fashion and acceptable mores within society, some women established a literary niche writing etiquette guides. Also due to the cultural revolution, mounting literacy rates among the lower classes caused an increase in publishing, including the rise of the periodical. Men and women of all classes found new means to express ideas in the wider publishing community. Though women's writing during this period continued largely to be an extension of domesticity, and focused mainly on pragmatic, practical issues, women found a wider market for publication. The act of professional writing, however, was still considered "vulgar" among the aristocracy. Significant colonial expansion during this period provided would-be writers with unique subject matter—letters written by women abroad discussed foreign issues and culture, and offered a detailed view of far-off lands. These letters were often circulated among members of an extended family, as well as in the larger community. In defiance of social strictures, women such as Mary Wollstonecraft began to speak out publicly on women's rights, including education and marriage laws. Though women had better access to education, the goal of women's education was to attain an ideal "womanhood"—a "proper education" was viewed as one that supported domestic and social activities but disregarded more academic pursuits. Women such as Wollstonecraft advocated access to education for women that was equal to that of their male counterparts. Marriage laws, which overwhelmingly favored men, also spurred public debate, though little was accomplished to reform laws during this period.
Throughout the world, women took action to advance their political and social rights. Catherine the Great of Russia devised a coup d'etat to take the throne in 1762, an aggressive act to prevent her son's disinheritance. Catherine continued to rule in an unconventional, independent manner, withdrawing from the men who made her ascension possible and remaining unmarried to ensure her power. Catherine was a shrewd politician, and used wide public support to enact laws that significantly altered the Russian political system. In France, Olympe de Gouges demanded equal rights for women in the new French Republic, and was eventually executed by guillotine in 1793. Madame Roland, who also met an untimely death in 1793, influenced revolutionary politicians and thinkers during the French Revolution through her famous salon. She, too, was an activist for women's social and political rights and was executed for treason, largely due to her outspoken feminist ideas. Phillis Wheatley, an African-American slave, examined slavery and British imperialism in her poetry, and became a notable figure among abolitionists in America and abroad. Increasingly, women rebuked traditional roles and spoke out against the social and political inequalities they faced. The century closed with the deaths of visionaries such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Catherine the Great, and the births of a new breed of female writers and scholars. The political and social changes that took place in the eighteenth century paved the way for these future writers and activists to advance the cause of women's rights.
Marie Jean Antoine
On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship (essay) 1790
Some Account of the Fore-Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge (autobiography) 1774
St. Teresa de Avila
El libro de su vida [The Life of the Mother Teresa of Jesus] 1562
El libra de las fundaciones de Santa Teresa de Jesús [The Book of the Foundations] 1576
El castillo interior, o las moradas [The Interior Castle; or, The Mansions] 1577
A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest. By a Lover of Her Sex (essay) 1694
A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II. Wherin a Method is Offer'd for the Improvement of Their Minds (essay) 1697
Oroonoko; Or, The Royal Slave. A True History (novel) 1688
The Lady's Looking-Glass, to dress herself by; or, The Whole Art of Charming (novel) 1697
The Tenth Muse (poetry) 1650
CCXI Sociable Letters (correspondence) 1664
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SOURCE: Wheathill, Anne. "A Handfull of Holesome (though Homelie) Hearbs. "In Lay by Your Needles Ladies, Take the Pen: Writing Women in England, 1500-1700, edited by Suzanne Trill, Kate Chedgzoy, and Melanie Osborne, pp. 50-56. London: Arnold, 1997.
In the following excerpt from her 1584 work, Wheathill offers a collection of prayers.
To all Ladies, Gentlewomen, and others, which love true religion and vertue, and be devoutlie disposed; Grace mercie, and peace, in Christ Jesus
For a testimonall to the world, how I have and doo (I praise God) bestowe the pretious treasure of time, even now in the state of my virginitie or maidenhood; lo heare I dedicate to all good Ladies, Gentlewomen, and others, who have a desire to invocate and call upon the name of the Lord, a small handfull of grose hearbs; which I have presumed to gather out of the garden of Gods most holie word. Not that there is anie unpurenes therein, but that (peradventure) my rudenes1 may be found to have plucked them up unreverentlie, and without zeale.
Whereupon of the learned I may be judged grose2 and unwise; in presuming, without the counsell or helpe of anie, to take such an enterprise in hand: nevertheles, as GOD dooth know, I have doone it with a good zeale, according to the weakenes of my knowledge and capacitie....
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SOURCE: Halifax, George Savile, Marquis of. "Advice to a Daughter." In, The Lady's New Years Gift, or, Advice to a Daughter pp. 24-38. London: Gillyflower and Partridge, 1688.
In the following excerpt, Savile, the Marquis of Halifax, gives suggestions to his daughter concerning marriage.
That which challengeth the next place in your thoughts is how to live with a husband. And though that is so large a word that few rules can be fixed to it which are unchangeable, the methods being as various as the several tempers of men to which they must be suited, yet I cannot omit some general observations, which, with the help of your own, may the better direct you in the part of your life upon which your happiness most dependeth.
It is one of the disadvantages belonging to your sex that young women are seldom permitted to make their own choice; their friends' care and experience are thought safer guides to them than their own fancies, and their modesty often forbid-deth them to refuse when their parents recommend, though their inward consent may not entirely go along with it. In this case there remaineth nothing for them to do but to endeavour to make that easy which falleth to their lot, and by a wise use of everything they may dislike in a husband turn that by degrees to be very supportable which, if neglected,...
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SOURCE: Defoe, Daniel. "(On) The Education of Women." In English Essays from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay, pp. 1-16. New York: Collier, 1910.
In the following essay from 1719, Defoe praises women's natural abilities and argues for their education.
I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilized and a Christian country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women. We reproach the sex every day with folly and impertinence; while I am confident, had they the advantages of education equal to us, they would be guilty of less than ourselves.
One would wonder, indeed, how it should happen that women are conversible at all; since they are only beholden to natural parts, for all their knowledge. Their youth is spent to teach them to stitch and sew or make baubles. They are taught to read, indeed, and perhaps to write their names, or so; and that is the height of a woman's education. And I would but ask any who slight the sex for their understanding, what is a man (a gentleman, I mean) good for, that is taught no more? I need not give instances, or examine the character of a gentleman, with a good estate, or a good family, and with tolerable parts; and examine what figure he makes for want of education.
The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond; and must be...
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SOURCE: Spender, Dale. “Introduction: A Vindication of the Writing Woman.” In Living by the Pen: Early British Women Writers, edited by Dale Spender, pp. 1-35. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992.
In the following excerpt, Spender surveys outstanding eighteenth-century women writers and discusses their motivations, situations, and accomplishments.
While many changes took place in the eighteenth century, two are of primary concern here; they are:
the emergence of the novel, and
the establishment of the professional woman writer.
But these two major developments of the eighteenth century are not in themselves the sole concern. That the two occurrences are not normally linked together, that the possible correlations between the success of women and the genre have not been a focal point in literary history, is also a matter which calls for attention. In drawing together these two great events—the birth of the novel and the growth of the professional woman writer—and in looking at some of the reasons behind their apparent separation and suppression, new issues are raised and new connections are made.
The following questions help to suggest the scope of this fascinating literary area:
Who were these eighteenth-century women...
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SOURCE: Kelly, Gary. “Gender, Class and Cultural Revolution.” In Revolutionary Feminism: The Mind and Career of Mary Wollstonecraft, pp. 1-22. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
In the following essay, Kelly discusses the influence of women on the British middle-class cultural revolution of the 1790s.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a Revolutionary feminist—an advocate of the rights or claims of women in a specific revolutionary situation. There were two related aspects of that situation: the French Revolution and the cultural revolution that founded the modern state in Britain.1 Many cultural revolutionaries in Britain saw the Revolution in France, at least in its early stages, as an example of what they themselves could achieve. But the British cultural revolution was itself a field of struggle in which the fortunes of various contestants, including Revolutionary feminism, were influenced by the changing course of the French Revolution. Paradoxically, the Revolution soon turned against feminists in France, yet it was also used as a reason to reject feminism, along with other forms of ‘innovation’ or ‘French principles’, in Britain.
The British debate on the French Revolution was part of the struggle for power within the British cultural revolution and it was conducted through writing, one of the cultural revolution’s...
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SOURCE: Keetley, Dawn and John Pettegrew. "Introduction: Part I: Identities through Adversity." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 3-7. Madison, Wis.: Madison House Publishers, 1997.
In the following essay, Keetley and Pettegrew discuss the challenges that women colonial dissenters faced.
The first European settlers in New England brought with them family structure that vested authority unambiguously in the hands of the father. Woman's place in this "patriarchal" institution was clearly delimited; less autonomous individuals than wives and mothers, women throughout the North American colonies were subject to an intricately organized hierarchy that placed them below father, husband, brothers, and even adult sons. Unable to inherit either the land or the offices of their fathers, women became virtually invisible in the public life of the thirteen colonies. With its strict gender stratification and divisions of labor, the patriarchal family served as a model for and basis of social and political relations and institutions. In the 1637 trial of Anne Hutchinson for dissent from the Puritan church, for instance, the issue of Hutchinson's revolt against the subordinate status of women was inextricable from her religious rebellion. As one of her accusers proclaimed: "You have rather...
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SOURCE: Donawerth, Jane. “Women’s” Poetry and the Tudor-Stuart System of Gift Exchange.” In Women, Writing, and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain, edited by Mary E. Burke, Jane Donawerth, Linda L. Dove, and Karen Nelson, pp. 3-18. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
In the following essay, Donawerth details how women of Tudor and Stuart times circulated their writings through gift exchanges.
If women were constrained by early modern English culture to be “chaste, silent, and obedient,” and if “silent” extended to writing, how did so many women come to circulate their writings in manuscript or print?1 Drawing on early modern letters and documents, as well as on anthropological theory, I suggest that many women gained authority to write by envisioning their poems as part of the Tudor-Stuart gift-exchange system, which helped to weave the social fabric of court, community, and extended family.
Letters by sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century English women show that women participated in and even managed a precapitalist gift-exchange system that was still a fundamental basis of English social life and economy. Centered on the family but extending across all classes to the family’s political affiliations, the system circulated food, cloth and clothing, jewelry, animals, medicines,...
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SOURCE: Sanders, Eve Rachele and Margaret W. Ferguson. "Literacies in Early Modern England." Critical Survey 14, no. 1 (January 2002): 1-8.
In the following essay, Sanders and Ferguson discuss the wide range of levels of literacy that existed in sixteenth-century England.
Literacy, in the sixteenth century, was construed as multiple, variable, subject to redefinition by edict from above and by practices from below. The importance of regulating changes in skills and behaviors, in particular, increased reading of the Bible, was hotly debated as the Reformation got underway. In England, the Tudor state intervened erratically, first encouraging the reading of the English Bible for all, then forbidding its reading to all but a privileged few. In 1538, every parish church was required by a royal injunction to purchase an English Bible and place it in the choir.1 The Great Bible, published in 1540 with a new preface by the Archbishop of Canterbury, stressed the ideal of an England peopled by 'all manner' of readers of Scripture in the vernacular: 'Here may all manner of persons, men, women, young, old, learned, unlearned, rich, poor, priests, laymen, lords, ladies, officers, tenants, and mean men, virgins, wives, widows, lawyers, merchants, artificers, husbandmen, and all manner of persons, of what estate or condition soever they be, may in this book learn...
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SOURCE: Smith, Hilda L. “Introduction: Women, Intellect, and Politics: Their Intersection in Seventeenth-Century England.” In Women Writers and the Early Modern British Political Tradition, edited by Hilda L. Smith, pp. 1-14. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
In the following essay, Smith notes difficulties in trying to determine seventeenth-century women’s understanding of politics and their roles in the political arena.
Relating women’s intellectual history to British political thought in the early modern era leaves one in a perpetual state of schizophrenia. With rare exceptions, scholars working in these distinct areas do not pursue the same primary texts, or trust the judgments of the same set of contemporary scholars. Women’s intellectual contribution to the era has been studied mostly through biography, or through a focus on individual authors, with a very few—Aphra Behn; Mary Astell; Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle; and Margaret Fell Fox—garnering the overwhelming attention. Otherwise, women have fallen within categories formed by broader alliances: sectarian women, Leveller women, sympathizers for royalist or revolutionary causes. Or, they have been tied to their genres, as writers of meditations, poets, tractarians, playwrights, and authors of domestic advice.1
There has been, and...
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SOURCE: de Madariaga, Isabel. "Catherine the Great: A Personal View." History Today 51, no. 11 (November 2001): 45-51.
In the following essay, de Madariaga explores the life, accomplishments, and political writings of Catherine the Great.
Since I first took Catherine seriously as a ruler, some forty years ago, I have grown to like her very much. This is not therefore going to be an exercise in debunking, it is a personal portrait of someone who has become a close friend.
For nearly two hundred years the Empress Catherine II of Russia (1762-96), or Catherine the Great, as she is known, has had a very bad press as a German usurper from a minor ducal family, without any claim to the Russian throne. Women on the throne were an anomaly and it was expected that they would rule through favourites or husbands. But Catherine had blotted her copy book in a more serious way: she had mounted the throne as the result of a military coup d'etat in June 1762, over the body of her murdered husband, Peter III, the grandson of Peter the Great. From Catherine's point of view at the time it was a question of 'who whom', as Lenin later put it. Peter was supposed to have been about to repudiate her, disinherit her son and marry his mistress. Catherine's many friends in the army joined in a plot to de-throne Peter and seized power with her full approval and...
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Women In Literature
SOURCE: Callaghan, Dympna C. “The Ideology of Romantic Love.” In The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics, edited by Dympna C. Callaghan, Lorraine Helms, and Jyotsna Singh, pp. 59-101. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1994.
In the following excerpt, Callaghan examines Romeo and Juliet to determine its influence on societyńs notions of desire.
“To this end . . . is this tragicall matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends . . .”(Evans, 1057). Thus Arthur Brooke defines the ideological project of his poem, The Tragicall History of Romeous and Juliet (1562), which was to become Shakespeare’s primary source for Romeo and Juliet. The lovers’ “unhonest desire” was always a compelling feature of the story, but in Shakespeare’s version the fate of that desire is presented as profound injustice as much as proper punishment.1 For Brooke’s rendition of the story bears a moral aversion to what Shakespeare’s tragedy accomplishes in producing for posterity the lovers’ desire as at once transgressive (“unhonest”) and as a new orthodoxy (tragically legitimated). It is precisely this ambivalence that is at the heart of the play’s appeal as one of the preeminent cultural...
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SOURCE: Marcus, Leah. "Elizabeth the Writer." History Today 50, no. 10 (October 2000): 36-38.
In the following essay, Marcus praises Queen Elizabeth's oratory strengths.
In July 1597, a dashing young Polish ambassador made his debut at the Elizabethan court. The English welcomed him with pageantry that was more splendid than usual and prepared to celebrate a 'great day.' But the young ambassador's formal Latin oration of greeting froze the cordial environment, offering the aging Queen Elizabeth a series of rebukes rather than the diplomatic platitudes that had been expected. What happened next was predictable to those who had seen the Queen in action before, but astonishing to those less acquainted with her oratorical skills. Sir Robert Cecil marvelled in a letter to the Earl of Essex, 'to this, I swear by the living God that her majesty made one of the best answers extempore in Latin that ever I heard, being much moved to be so challenged in public, especially so much against her expectation.' Her reply to the Polish ambassador expressed her astonishment at 'so great and insolent a boldness in open Presence' and tartly corrected his 'ignorant' misapprehension of 'the law of nature' and 'of nations,' and 'what is convenient between kings.' She closed with a suggestion that he 'repose himself' or 'be silent,' depending on how much indignity one wishes to...
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Alexander, Meena. "Introduction: Mapping a Female Romanticism." In Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley, pp. 1-17. Savage, Md.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1989.
Examines how women authors faced the "anxiety of authorship" and social constraints.
Berry, Philippa. Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen. London: Routledge, 1989, 193 p.
Considers literary representations of Elizabeth I.
Burroughs, Catherine B. "English Romantic Women Writers and Theatre Theory: Joanna Baillie's Prefaces to the 'Plays on the Passions'." In Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837, edited by Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner, pp. 274-96. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
Discusses Baillie's closet theatre theory in the context of the tradition of women writing about the stage.
Dixon, Annette. "Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons 1500-1650: A Thematic Overview." In Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons in Renaissance and Baroque Art, edited by Annette Dixon, pp. 119-179. London: Merrell Publishers Limited, 2002.
Features dozens of plates of art...
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