Women Writers of the Seventeenth Century
Women Writers of the Seventeenth Century
The following entry provides historical and critical commentary on English-language women's writing and feminist thought during the seventeenth century.
Seventeenth-century England witnessed a surge in literary activity by women, despite the restrictive gender roles of the time. Unlike women's literature of the middle ages and renaissance, which is predominantly devotional, seventeenth-century writings by women treat a variety of secular subjects through such forms as drama, fiction, and autobiography. Modern feminist thought also finds its roots in seventeenth-century polemical writings and activities by women, many of which have only recently received significant scholarly attention.
The English Civil Wars contributed to the expansion of women's roles in many areas, including an increase of publishing activity; and many women began to perceive themselves for the first time as part of a larger social group, inherently equal to men, but subjected to discrimination that restricted their opportunities. Modern feminism stems from this philosophy, which was a significant departure from the traditional conception of women as isolated individuals whose fates were predetermined solely by their biological status as the "weaker sex." Critics view the seventeenth century as a time of increasing, although highly ambiguous, female social awareness. The exclusion of women from universities and academic societies, for example, was regarded by early feminists as an instrument of social repression, but protests most often hinged on the argument that equal education for women would enhance their abilities as wives and mothers, rather than as scholars or professionals. Restricted access to education undoubtedly thwarted the potential achievements of women writers, since the seventeenth-century education of girls focused largely on domestic skills in the service of religion, wifehood, and motherhood, rather than development of intellectual and artistic abilities. It was quite common, for example, for women to be taught to read the Bible, but not to write. In rare instances, girls received a more extensive private education from friends or relatives, but this was the exception.
In addition to barriers to education, women writers encountered the obstacle of public condemnation of their efforts. Only certain nonthreatening literary forms were considered socially appropriate for women, such as polite and pious verse, or translations, which were generally viewed as far removed from the "serious" literature dominated by men. Women who addressed original themes with an original voice risked being labelled as immoral, or even insane. Seventeenth-century women nevertheless played a significant role in the evolution of each of the literary genres. They contributed in particular to the development of the novel, partly because the relative newness of prose fiction meant that there were few rigid rules concerning form, allowing many literate women to attempt works with little or no artistic training. Domestic subjects, however, were not yet considered valid material for fiction, which posed a difficulty for women who were excluded from the types of experiences necessary to handle such popular forms as the picaresque novel or guild tale. The pastoral romance, therefore, became the chosen form of many early women writers of fiction, such as Mary Wroth. Biography was another viable and socially legitimate genre for women, with the most common biographies by women being records of their husband's lives or chronicles of family histories. Critics have observed that many of these biographical and autobiographical writings are characterized by a lack of realism associated with the restricted treatment of domestic subjects—in some cases, events that dominated the lives of authors, such as childbirth and motherhood, are given only brief, superficial references. Seventeenth-century women also made notable contributions to drama. Aphra Behn, for example, shocked some audiences with her candid treatment of arranged marriages and adulterous relationships in several successful plays. Generally viewed with more tolerance than fiction writers or dramatists, women poets expanded popular poetic forms and techniques to accommodate a feminine perspective. Mary Wroth, for example, transformed the traditional Petrarchan conceit of woman as love object into an expression of a woman's love for a man in her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, while Aemilia Lanyer created a feminine recasting of Christ's Passion in Salve deus rex judaeorum.
Poetical Recreations 1688
The Amorous Prince 1671
The Forc'd Marriage 1671
The Dutch Lover 1673
Poems upon several occasions 1684
The Histories and Novels of Aphra Behn 1696
Several Poems by a Gentlewoman in New England 1678
Cary, Lady Elizabeth
The Tragedie of Mariam, the Faire Queene of Jewry 1613
Salve deus rex ludaeorum. Containing, the passion of Christ 1611
Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Philosophicall Fancies 1653
The Worlds Olio 1655
Description of a New World 1666
Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy 1666
The Life of William Cavendishe 1667
Grounds of Natural Philosophy 1668
Plays, Never Before Printed 1668
Pembroke, Mary Sidney, Countess of
A Poetical Rapsody (contributor) 1602
Six Excellent Treatises of Life and Death (translator) 1607
A Prophecie Touching the Death of King Charles 1649
Rowe, Elizabeth Singer
Poems on Several Occasions 1696
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B. G. MacCarthy (essay date 1944)
SOURCE: "Cogent Influences," in Women Writers: Their Contribution to the English Novel, 1621-1744, 1944. Reprint by Cork University Press, 1945, pp. 11-46.
[In the following excerpt, MacCarthy examines the treatment of several genres by women writers of the seventeenth century and considers how the experience of adversity and prejudice influenced women's writing during this time.]
Women's contribution to literature is no arbitrary or artificial distinction. However much the reformer may welcome, or the conservative lament, the growth of a harmonious sharing of ideals between men and women, that growth has been a hard-fought struggle. It has been an escape from a prison, which, when it did not entirely shut out the greater world, at least enclosed a little world of education meant for women, a literature adapted to the supposed limitations of their intellect, and a course of action prescribed by the other sex….
When women at last began to seek after literary expression, it was inevitable that they should attempt to tell a story. There has always been, and there always will remain, deep-rooted in the human heart a desire to hear something told of the world without us and within. From these roots in varying forms and often strangely transmuted grew all education and the arts. For men it was a transition from telling to writing,...
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Women And Education
Myrna Reynolds (essay date 1920)
SOURCE: "Learned Ladies in England Before 1650: Period from 1603 to 1650," in The Learned Lady in England: 1650-1760, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920, pp. 23-37.
[Below, Reynolds focuses on the nature of women's education in England during the first half of the seventeenth century, describing the intellectual background and training of several women writers of the period.]
With the death of Elizabeth we come practically to the end of the favor accorded learned women. The changed tone of public opinion may be fairly indicated by a few scattered utterances from contemporary poems and essays.
Sir Thomas Overbury, in his Characters (1614), describes "A Good Woman" as one "whose husband's welfare is the business of her actions." Her chief virtue is that "Shee is Hee." In A Wife he says that "Books are a part of Man's Prerogative." He praises a "passive understanding" in women and deprecates learning since
What it finds malleable it maketh frail
And doth not add more ballast, but more sail.
Powell, in Tom of All Trades (1631), is emphatic in his plea for the domestic as against the learned lady: "Let them learne plaine workes of all kinds, so they take heed of too open seaming. Instead of Song and Musicke, let them learn Cookerie and...
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Mary Beth Rose (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: "Gender, Genre, and History: Seventeenth-Century English Women and the Art of Autobiography," in Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives, edited by Mary Beth Rose, Syracuse University Press, 1986, pp. 245–78.
[In the following essay, Rose examines the early development of the autobiography, focusing on the memoirs of four women: Margaret Cavendish, Lady Ann Fanshawe, Alice Thornton, and Lady Anne Halkett.]
In the late seventeenth century English women began to write secular autobiography. Largely excluded from the political arena and the professions, Early Modern women had not added to the accounts men wrote of their public lives and the development of their careers. When a woman wished to assert herself as a member of the community whose experience was worth recording, she was confined to the family history—her role as daughter, wife, and mother—or to the accounts of religious experience—the visions, trances, ecstasies, and conversions which often exempted her from traditional sexual arrangements, as well as from the social and moral taboos against female self-expression. But when, in the late seventeenth century, English autobiography began to depart from its diverse and complex origins in religious narrative and in accounts of the public actions of famous men, women who were neither...
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Sara Heller Mendelson (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Stuart Women's Diaries and Occasional Memoirs," in Women in English Society, 1500-1800, edited by Mary Prior, Methuen, 1985, pp. 181-210.
[In the following essay, Mendelson discusses the historical and sociological significance of women's diaries during the seventeenth century.]
Sources that offer a direct record of women's everyday experience for the Stuart period are neither abundant nor easy to find. To be sure, there is plenty of contemporary material about women. Sermons and conduct books, plays and pamphlets all claimed to delineate women's true nature and prescribe their ideal role. But, although these works tell us a good deal about contemporary attitudes towards the female sex, they rarely address themselves to women's own sensibilities or the minutiae of their daily lives. In order to learn about women from the female point of view, we must turn to the diaries and occasional memoirs that were written by women themselves.
The present study is based on the works of the twenty-three Stuart women who left diaries, occasional memoirs or other serial personal memoranda which it has been possible to locate. Although the number is small, it contains a surprisingly heterogeneous group of diarists and diaries. In age the women range from Lady Elizabeth Delaval, who first began to record her...
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Hilda L. Smith (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Feminism and Its Seventeenth-Century Adherents," in Reason's Disciples: Seventeenth-Century English Feminists, University of Illinois Press, 1982, pp. 3-17.
[In the following essay, Smith examines the development of feminist thought during the seventeenth century, asserting that the movement was influenced by the rise of revolutionary political ideology and the weakening of women's social power and a sense of purpose during the late 1600s.]
During the second half of the seventeenth century a group of English women began to write critically about their exclusion from educational institutions and positions of importance within English society and the restrictions placed upon women within the home. They also urged all financially able women to become serious scholars, to use their minds to their full potential, and to give up decorative, lesiurely, and inconsequential existences…. [Seventeenth-century feminists included] Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle; Bathsua Makin; Hannah Woolley; Jane Sharp; Elizabeth Cellier; Mary Astell; Elizabeth Elstob; Lady Mary Chudleigh; Anne Winchilsea; Elizabeth Singer Rowe; Sarah Fyge Egerton; and Margaret Fell Fox.
Though all were educated, these feminists came from a rather wide spectrum of English society. One was a duchess, one was a servant who later advanced to the post of...
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Hageman, Elizabeth H. "Recent Studies in Women Writers of the English Seventeenth Century (1604-1674)." English Literary Renaissance 18, No. 1 (Winter 1988): 138-67.
Provides citations and descriptions of selected editions of works by seventeenth-century women writers, as well as critical studies and relevant historical studies.
Beilin, Elaine V. Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987, 346 p.
Examines the Renaissance tradition of women's writing and the cautious conservatism that characterized the attitudes of many women toward literary endeavors.
Haselkorn, Anne M., and Betty S. Travitsky, eds. The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, 363 p.
Presents selected critical essays on the following topics: "The Outspoken Woman," "Woman on the Renaissance Stage," "The Woman Ruler," "The Private Woman," and "Women and the Sidneian Tradition." Correlates "writings by men that have traditionally been contained within the literary canon with writings by women that have traditionally been marginalized."
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