History Questions and Answers

Start Your Free Trial

How patriarchal was life in the 16th and 17th century?

Expert Answers info

Greg Jackson, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

bookM.A. from University of Massachusetts-Boston

calendarEducator since 2018

write1,815 answers

starTop subjects are History, Literature, and Law and Politics

The answer to this question will vary depending on geographical location. Let's look at Europe during this period. Even though many humanist advances were taking place, women were largely left out of them. The patriarchal system had near total control of politics, business, and religion. Therefore, the views and needs of women were usually ignored. A woman may have had some power and influence in household matters. However, she was still expected to be subservient to her husband (or father) and to put his needs first. There were even some women during this period, such as Moderata Fonte and Arcangela Tarabotti, who went as far as to describe the role of a husband as one of a tyrant over the women in his household.

None of this is to say that women had no role to play in the patriarchal system in which they lived. Sometimes they served as important advisers and counselors at home. If they were well-connected, they might be able to practice a degree of soft power in which they could influence the men in their lives behind the scenes. Furthermore, although the world of business was very much a product of patriarchy, in many circumstances, women could be active, if ridiculed, members of guilds and trade associations.

However, a woman who publicly challenged the patriarchal status quo took great risks. For instance, Mary Dyer was hanged for advocating on behalf of Quakers in the Massachusetts Colony and Anne Askew was burned for publicly advocating her religious views.

On the rare occasions that a woman did ascend to a position of actual power, she still had to pay heed to the patriarchy around her. Queen Elizabeth I was one of Great Britain's most powerful monarchs of the period. However, even she had to go to great lengths to defend her position as a female ruler.

We can also examine patriarchy in other places. For instance, China during this period functioned along the tenets of Confucianism. The patriarchy was strongly ingrained in society and stated that a woman was always subordinate to male family members. Foot binding among upper-class women kept them physically powerless and confined to the home. During this time, widows were expected to stay loyal to the memory of their late husbands and never remarry, no matter how young she was when her husband died. In nearly every sense, Confucian tradition upheld the needs and wants of men over those of women. Even with its emphasis on respecting elders, a son's power was always greater than that of his mother.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial