Women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were in a difficult position, but they were far from powerless. How did women help create their own identities and what obstacles did they have to overcome?
In analyzing the condition of women in the 1600s and 1700s, the dominant theme is that women's sense of power largely existed in the domestic realm. If women were able to exert power anywhere in the social setting of the time, it was in the domestic capacity. Women were shielded off from the world. It was socially dictated that women remain in the home. They were to tend to domestic duties, be responsible for child- rearing, and ensure that they supported the norms and expectations of society. This included assuming a zealous defense of husband and family, and recognizing that their voice was limited in this regard. The primary obstacle that women had to face was in how their own voice of independence and vitality was not socially recognized, impacting how they lived and what they could do or think.
One can find examples of women who broke this mold and sought to redefine voice during the time period. There were women writers and thinkers who were able to get their works published during this time period. Thinkers such as Constantia Munda, Rachel Speght, Ester Sowernam, and Mary Tattle-well and Ioane Hit-him-home were able to publish works that zealously defended the rights of women, voicing opposition to the patriarchal system that enveloped them. Many female writers published their work under pseudonyms, and did so against the current for writing and education were not encouraged realms for women. In the North American colonies, religious activists like Anne Hutchinson were critical in the founding of the New World. Hutchinson assumed a role of leadership as she openly criticized the values of the Puritan Church, demanding an inclusivity that it was not demonstrating at the time. While these women and many more displayed leadership and a sense of strength in being able to define the world and their place in it, they did represent the minority.
Most women of the 1600s and 1700s were forcefully taught that their lot in life was secondary to that of men. English Common Law strictly codified the practice of all property that a women possessed passed to her husband. Men controlled the economic affairs of the wife and the political affairs of the state, as women lacked any substantive political autonomy. Both sacred and secular realities were controlled by men. It is in this light where it becomes clear that women might have possessed power as a group in the domestic sphere and through isolated examples of voice being activated. However, women of the 1600s and 1700s were fundamentally challenged by a social setting that was rigid in how they were viewed.
Writing was a popular way for women to be heard in the 17th and 18th centuries. Women were encouraged to stay home and do the housework; they were not taken very seriously. So women began sharing their opinion on morals and women's rights through books and novels. Some important female writers during these times would be Eliza Haywood, Elizabeth Carter, Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe, and Fanny Burney. Sadly, other areas, like art, were dominated by males.
I would like to add that women in the 18th century were fairly influential inside their homes. During that period, something called the "cult of domesticity" played an important part in the role of the women. The women were seen as the moral compass of a good, Christian family. It was the mother's job to lead her children on the right path.
The cult dictated that True Women were the moral guardians of the family. They were particularly appropriate for that role because they were spiritually pure-and therefore closer to God. They remained pure because they stayed away from the degrading environment of the outside world, which ruined innocence: moral purity could not withstand the brutality of a world dominated by the unrestrained competition of the free enterprise system. This implied that, since men were constantly participating in the world, they were not as pure as, and therefore were spiritually inferior to, women. It was absolutely necessary for women to cling to the protection of the home. If they left that haven, they lost their innocence, their moral superiority, and ultimately their True Womanhood. Women thus gained their own sphere, which was entirely separate from men's.A True Woman's role in life was to perform the domestic chores of the household-or oversee their performance by others (usually women) hired for that purpose. She prepared nutritious meals, nurtured her children both physically and spiritually, comforted her husband and soothed away the wounds of his encounters with the outside world, and stood as an invincible sentinel at the portals of the home to keep worldly pollution from entering and despoiling the family.
Writing is one of the best tools women had as a means of having a voice. Unfortunately the arts and humanities, like every other topic of this era, was dominated by men. Only the daughters of very wealthy families were educated and only the wives of very rich husbands could afford the luxury of staying home and writing. Even these writings were considered the musings and fairytales of house wives and not taken seriously at all. Romances and unsubatantial fiction were the best that could be expected from a female writer of the time. This is why many women took male pen names; it was the only way to have their writings held in any academic esteem.
They could write and express what they felt and relief themselves of boredom or stress. They could potentially be voices of the women that could influence decisions.