Women Writers of the Seventeenth Century Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.