British Social and Political History: Innovatory online 'lecture'

Women in early Stuart England

Wednesday, 28th February 2001

What follows is designed to be a bit like a lecture. That is you are supposed to start at the beginning and read through it like a traditional book or an article. However, it also contains links which lead to asides, individual biographies, relevant contemporary documents or illustrative prints and paintings. Generally such asides or hyperlinks open in separate windows. Once you have looked at them, close them, and you will be back with the main 'lecture'.

When you have finished the lecture, you should do two things

  1. Write a one paragraph summarising the social and economic life of women in this period

  2.  Complete the online survey posted in Blackboard.

Remember you can take notes by selecting, copying and pasting the text into a Word processing package. Like all lectures, the views and opinions in it are my own. You might disagree with some or all of the arguments and the interpretation of the historical evidence herein. Lectures are supposed to be guides to the subject, to outline topics of current historical interest, and hopefully to entertain.

I should add that I have deliberately avoided writing lengthy prose. You have to do that yourself.

This symbol will take you back to the Contents:




The theoretical inferiority of women

Areas of feminine power and influence

Areas which were opening to women in this period

Further reading


The aim of this lecture is to reflect on the position of women and argues that their social and economic position was stronger and more 'equal' than one might at first assume.



It is easy to get indignant about the position of women in societies other than our own. At worst, the place of women in early modern societies can be made to appear little better than slaves. Lacking effective contraception once married they were faced with regular child-bearing and a lifetime of child-care. Few women were expected to be educated to a significant level, they were paid far lower rates of pay than men, and were generally thought of by some writers as weak-willed, prone to temptation by the Devil and sexually rapacious. On marriage most women surrendered their property, and indeed their legal identity, to their husband.

Early modern society can thus be portrayed as one where men wrote most of the books, controlled access to education, dominated the economy, headed the household, and lastly, but not least, staffed and operated the governing institutions of church, legal systems and the state.

Such a description, although it contains elements of truth, does the women of this period a disservice. Let's examine the position of women in more detail.

The theoretical inferiority of women

1. Women in seventeenth-century England, in theory, were supposed to be dependent and inferior to men

Biblical inferiority: eg. William Gouge quoted the bible, ie.: Ephes. v. 22:-23: Wives submit yourselves unto your own husbands as unto the Lord... For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church: and he is the Saviour of the body

Woman had been created from Adam's rib, which implied she should be a help and comfort but take a secondary role

Spiritual inferiority went hand in hand with intellectual inferiority. Many women apologized if they trespassed on the male domain of writing for general public:

Margaret Cavendish (1655): It cannot be expected I should write so wisely or wittily as men, being of the effeminate sex, whose brains Nature hath mixed with the coldest and softest elements .. to speak truth, men have great reason not to let us into their government, for there is great difference betwixt the masculine brain and the feminine, the masculine strength and the feminine.. Nature hath made man's body more able to endure labour, and man's brain more clear to understand and contrive than woman's. [She went on to compare men to oaks and women to willows]: Though they are both trees, yet the willow is but a yielding vegetable, not fit nor proper to build houses and ships, as the oak...

William Whately expected his readers to agree, therefore, that the woman would take the secondary dependent role in married life. (1617): The Whole duty of the wife is referred to two heads: the first is, to acknowledge her inferiority; the next , to carry herself as inferior. This acceptance by women would make for a happy marriage: This acceptance of male superiority should be signified in gestures and speech:

These must carry the stamp of fear upon them, and not be cutted, sharp, sullen, passionate, tetchy, but meek, quiet, submissive, which may show that she considers who herself is and to whom she speaks. The wife's tongue towards her husband must be neither keen, nor loose; her countenance neither swelling nor deriding; her behaviour not flingin, nor puffing .. [Such nasty women would be] stains of womankind, blemishes of their sex, monsters in Nature, botches of human society, rude, graceless, impudent, next to harlots, if not the same with them..

In addition to their intellectual and spiritual inferiority, then, women should be meek, mild and submissive. Wives were to be chaste and obedient.

Women outside the married state should be similarly decorous, widow should mourn their husbands. Girls should prepare for marriage.

2. Women were also seen as largely irrational, passionate, sexually rapacious and driven by their biological identity.

woman's role in childbearing passive.

Womb a cold receptacle, seed the hot dynamic bit.


Hysteria womb disease, irrationality resulted from inability to fulfill its function of sucking in seed.

State of womb governed sexual appetite: might lead to sexual frenzy:

 a great and foul symptom of the womb, both in virgins and widows, and such as have known men. They are mad for lust, and infinite men..

To make women fertile, therefore, writers advocated heating womb up

Culpeper, an Elizabethan herbalist, noted the physical effects of a 'hot womb': ie. beards, male-like qualities.

3. Women were also legally inferior to men

A married women perhaps may doubt whether shee bee either none or no more than half a person (1632)... Women have no voyse in Parliament, they make no lawes, they consent to none, they abrogate none. All of them are understood either married or to be married and their desires are subject to their husband, I know no remedy, though some women can shift well enough (1632)

Hence women's property passed to her husband at marriage, she became a femme couverte, rather than femme sole, losing most rights over property and any ability to sue in common law courts.

When married subject to moderate correction, from husband, and liable to petty treason if she did away with her lord and master..

Widespread fear of women as poisoners sometimes expressed... Weapon of the weak?

Also, women thought to be not legally responsible for actions, often accompanied by husbands in court, explains why some men dressed as women during riots and street demonstrations..?

4. Women were domestically inclined, non assertive, restricted largely to the household by prolonged childbirth, poor education and low pay


Disproportionate number of women were to be found amongst ranks of poorest social groups, on parish relief, etc.

This gloomy portrayal of women however, needs to be compared to the reality on the ground. Second part of lecture is to look at enduring structures of life in which women gained power and authority, means to get their way in a world organised and controlled largely by men..

Areas of feminine power and influence

5. There were areas of life where women might, in fact, exercise considerable control and autonomy.



Childbirth: ceremonies and midwife largely a preserve of women in this period, men excluded.

Childbirth a female-dominated event, in early modern period run largely by females, using ritual and ceremony:

1. Assemble company of women 'nidgeting'.

neighbours, relatives, midwife.

especial friends, 'gossips', meaning witness to birth

midwife took charge of birth, paid, right to touch.

men excluded from this female social space.

2. Creation of demarcated physical space 'lying in chamber'.

Enclosed, keyholes blocked up. daylight excluded. Candlelit.

caudle nourishing drink.

3. Childbirth act. midwife variety of techniques, perhaps with special stool, swaddling child.

4. Then three-stage lying in for one month after birth.

bed for 3 days-14 days in darkened room.

'upsitting' able get up/stay in room.

move freely about house.

During this period of 'lying in' abstinence from sex. Much female social activity.

5. End of lying in 'churching'

purification ritual of RC Church. Thanksgiving post Reformation.

veiled from house to church.

special pews.

psalms read, 121/116/127.

Economic roles, particularly in towns, gave many women high profile and public roles and responsibilities


Street vendors, alehouse keepers, domestic servants,

Significant partners in household economies of poor and middling sorts

Medical services, nursing the sick, searching the dead

Many women lent money, controlled pawnshops

Service industry of prostitution:


Recent research suggests that even in areas of crime their were professional female burglars, working mostly with other women

Another particularly interesting area is slander and defamation: women might use words to air grievances, seek redress for insults and injuries which were difficult to take to civil or common law courts.

Gossip: a reserve of female power: transmission of stories and tales enhanced or damaged local reputations, honour and credit


Increase in slander and defamation cases in early 17th: In early 17th London, 230 women suing each other per year

In London frequent defamation was of some form of whoredom: sexual reputation paramount for female reputation..

Used slander and defamation to defend honour, defend local reputations, air grievances against unfaithful husbands:

skills proclaimed: Susan Chaddocke of Wapping, told a neighbour in 1613, that she had found in the house of Elizabeth Barwicke an urinal and saied that whose water soever that was they were with child... Elizabeth B. then did take the same urinal and did throw the water which was in it into her parlour chimney saieing unto S.C. that she had as much skill as the dog [But SB had been recently presented for bastardy by EB's father..]

Broken windows sign of bawdry, women broke neighbours windows, also scratched faces of whores. ie. 1619, Joan Hickman, accused Joan Bird of keeping her husband, threatened to slit her nose and marke her for a whore..

Women used defamation and slander to complain of husbandly infidelity: an extra legal way of getting redress and satisfaction denied them at law (in practice).

ie. 1632 witnesses testified that: one Mary Sadd found ranting at door, where one Margaret Eddis lodged I would have the whore out of that house.. for she is a base whore and a hospitall whore .. her [Mary's husband] pawned her goades and her childrens clothes to maintaine her [Margaret], and that she had rousted her out of one place already, and yf she staied but til tomorrow she would roust her out of this. Use of verbal insult and harassment to drive rivals for husband out of neighbourhood.

Ann Yarrington v. Ann Croste (1621)

In August 1621 AY unhosed AC in street saying to her I am shited [ie. cited] to poules [St Pauls] with a shitacon and that at the sute of AC whoe is my husbands whore producing an old hankerchief she went on for this ould handkercher my husband .. hath occupied her .. seaven tymes

There were of course defined limits to the verbal power exercised by females, notably the threat to punish talkative women as scolds


Scolds: ducking them a powerful symbol of repression of female power? Underdown: repression of visible threat to patriarchal system, frustrations of poor and alienated in new towns and wood-pasture areas. Crisis in gender relations? Unruly wives repressed as never before, Taming of the Shrew?

Ingram argues recently that in fact severe limits to campaign against scolds: cost of cucking stools, infrequently used, often used as mere threat, fines instead, sometimes counter productive to duck scolds

What made a scold? Usually married women, often fallen foul of immediate neighbours. Behaviour often repeatedly foul-mouthed. Some toleration to bad language and female abuse: Often had long history of troubled relations.

Exhibited unfemale behaviour: contentious spirit, unquiet, uncivil and unwomanly, busy with her tongue. Some verbal violence accepted by men as normal.

Real scold did much indiscriminate damage to her neighbours by tale-telling, damaging reputations, repeatedly and despite warnings and threats.

ie. harassment:

Case study: Catharine Barnaby, St Alban Wood St, London, was prosecuted by neighbours in 1637, led by John Dickenson, churchwarden and girdler. Dickenson had known Barnaby for 7 years and for all that time she: hath been and still is a very troublesome and disquiet woman amongst her neighbours by calling them out of their names, and especially [his] wife whom she hath very much abused in these terms 'thou art a drunken quean and a copper-nosed quean and thou goest a drinking from house to house every day... [had pointed to wife and said] that drunken quean hath murdered my child and smothered it in a rug.. hath made my husband spend 500 and hath now sent him beyond sea, and that she keeps company with none but pedlars, rogues and thieves...

Dickenson, claimed that Barnaby : reporteth upon and down that he ... keepeth pretty wenches in his house and that he hath coaches coming and going at his back door at all hours in the night, and that he hath such fiddling and singing and hallooing in his house that she cannot sleep for it... he is a cheating knave and a cozening knave and that he getteth his living by cheating, bribing, cozening and buying of stolen goods, and that he bought a piece of stolen stuff to make his wife a gown..

Barnaby also yelled and ranted at neighbours: even accusing them of scolding her: will fall a scolding with her neighbours daily, and if that any of them do give her an answer she presently runneth and fetcheth a bottle of hay [an emblem of a scold] and setteth it up and says she cannot be quiet for these rogues and rascals, and therefore she sets it up for them to scold at.

We might suppose that, in some cases, scolds were mentally unbalanced.

There were other areas of life where women's position was better and more equal than might have been supposed: Erickson on married women's property, widows able to continue husbands businesses (even if most didn't)

Also we should not neglect the power of personality: many women gave as good as they got in marriage, despite patriarchal ideal:

Eg. Hen-pecked Adam Eyre and others

Moralists aware of self-confident women, Gouge thought necessary to write on subject of those wives:

of a fond conceit, that husband and wife are equal... many wives, who think themselves every way as good as their husbands, and no way inferior to them

Also many wives did not, apparently, use formal titles denoting respect, but nicknames that bespoke of familiarity: like Sweet, Heart, Love, Joy, Dear, Ducks, Chicks, Pigsny, their husbands christian names or shortened versions of Christian names (as would address servants) rather than formal titles such as husband, or my lord, these did not, said Gouge, signify superiority, and so savour of reverence


Suggested that Charivari, aimed at husband beaters, conscious of this tension between reality and theory of wifely relations

Lastly, of course, wealthy women possessed innate social superiority, which might be reinforced by the power of patronage and their own education. Take for example, Lady Joan Barrington.


Areas which were opening to women in this period, especially during 1640s and 1650s:

Signs that some improvements in female education

Literacy improvements: some evidence that female children of better off might also have been given more education, although in 17th women, generally less literate than even male labourers, yet Houston suggests that wives and daughters of middling sort might be better educated, and that this state of affairs improved from 1640: more women were probably literate in urban environments: North of England in 17th:







market town







Advocacy of female education rather than innate inferiority to resolve intellectual non-achievements:

Author in 1673 wrote Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Women: dedicated to all ingenious and virtuous ladies: suggesting that only failure to educate women led to poor intellectual achievements!

Civil War absences of husbands allowed greater freedom for wives of upper classes, managing estates, even defending them from attack:


Radical religious sects gave much more emphasis on spiritual equality of believers, female preachers, high female membership etc

Important and influential article of Keith Thomas: pointed out high levels of female membership of early sectarians:

favourite jibe that sectaries were often silly women

Congregations: women heavily outnumbered men

Growth of lay preaching by women: common in London in 1640s, and apologetic pamphlets like Margaret Fell, Women's Speaking Justified, 1666.

Quakers height of spiritual equality: Inner light knew no barrier of sex: (others thought more easily led astray)

Strain on marriages: I pray you tell me what authority the unbelieving husband hath over the conscience of his believing wife; it is true he hath authority over her in bodily and civil respects, but not to be a lord over her conscience (Katherine Chidley, 1641), so placing obedience to church over obedience to husbandly authority.



Further reading