16th century, Humanities

Early Modern Europe: the forgotten world of the woman

By Raffaella Tomassi.

History can be accused of focusing too much on the male experience and too little on the female experience, due to biases on behalf of the authors as well as shortcomings in source material due to discrimination at the time and a lack of female literacy. In this way, the history of women can be seen as a powerful tool for analysing the ‘forgotten’ half of society, leading to new perspectives on work, space, language, and sexuality.

We know that women were banned from certain male spaces in the early modern ages, but a closer study of female history allows us to see that women created their own space through the process of creating their own culture. Women had the right to control household space, and an example of a purely female space would be an area of the household during childbirth, from which men and children were both excluded. However, by studying women’s history in more depth, we can see that during the daytime, women’s spaces were open to each other, and they would regularly visit their friends to eat, drink and borrow goods. Women often sat in the doorways of their houses, an action that conveys much about their lives: the doorway can be seen as a liminal space, as women were in their houses, yet not confined to four walls, and could fulfil their role as housewife whilst participating in village affairs at the same time.

The study of women’s history also allows us to challenge traditional stereotypes about the attitudes and behaviour of women in the early modern period. For example, historians who study female speech patterns found that whilst women were candid and free with speech in purely female company, the presence of males made women revert back to traditional ideas of female modesty, becoming more inhibited. Consider the statement of a woman called Mary Clark, interrogated about her mistress in quarter sessions, who said that her mistress had used ‘such speeches . . . which she will not confess or utter to men but to women’. This not only shows the immense pressure for women to conform to the male stereotype of a modest woman, but allows us to see that this was not in fact a reality. The danger in looking at traditional sources is that aspects of female life such as this could be overlooked, as the majority of sources were either written by males, who were not privy to private female conversation, or written records of women speaking in the company of men, and so showing restraint. However, sources pertaining to what women said in private were often written by men who were curious to guess what women were talking about and felt threatened by there close relationship, leading to a possible exaggeration of the topics women discussed, which may be more representative of male views at the time.

With regards to female work, a distinct gender difference can be seen. Across all classes, women were responsible for housekeeping and childcare, their traditional role, albeit one often over looked. Women encountered limited opportunities at every level of society, and in fact the reproductive role of women was seen as increasingly important higher up the social scale due to the need for heirs. However women did hold some important and in some cases influential jobs, which are not normally associated with women in the early modern ages. As well as working as teachers and midwives, there were cases of female surgeons and prison wardens, and women also held high positions at court and on health boards. The hospital of St. Katharine by the Tower, an institution for the care of the elderly, was under the governance of a master, and then three sisters of poor gentlewomanly descent; a role which one assumes would not have been given to women in a time of male dominance. The role of the wife in aiding her husband is also much ignored, but institutions would employ men in the knowledge that they had wives to help them, for instance the wife of the Lieutenant of the Tower of London was called upon to supervise visits to an important female prisoner. This input is invisible in contemporary discussion, as it was taken for granted, and has been overlooked by traditional history, as have the few women who held unusual jobs which were traditionally male, due to the focus on the male role in the workplace, but female history looks deeper into these aspects showing that some women did hold unusual jobs, or played an invisible role in the running of the economy and country.

The sexual double standard of the early modern age is an accepted fact, with women’s honesty defined by their sexuality, and men’s by the women connected to them. Women were blamed for sexual misconduct both on their part and the man’s part, and the language of insult mirrored this, with no equivalent of the term ‘whore’ to describe adulterous males. However, if looked at in more detail through the history of females, this language can be seen to be commonly used by other women on a whole range of occasions in the relations of the household, street and community without a necessarily sexual background, for instance over disorderly households and the behaviour of children. The frequency at which these cases were taken to court for defamation shows the power of reputation, but in looking further into the history of women we must not overlook that of men. Alexandra Shepard has shown that honour and chastity was important too to an early modern man’s reputation and the damaging potential of sexual slander for men, challenging ideas about the double standard and how only females were affected by accusations. Furthermore, there is strong evidence to suggest that women exploited men’s anxiety over reputation, by various methods such as demanding financial support from father of illegitimate children in return for silence, or naming innocent men as the father of their children for increased financial reward, such as in the case of Joan Haddock who left London when she became pregnant and then returned to London after suffering a miscarriage, whereupon she acquired an infant from a pauper and went to the father to demand support. Other women claimed to be pregnant when they were not, or set up a meeting with a man only to have someone burst in on them and demand money for their silence. This deeper look into gender history shows us that the sexual double standard was not necessarily an accepted or accurate concept in the early modern age, that reputation mattered to men as well as women, and was often exploited for personal gain.

In this way then the history of women has greatly added to our understanding of early modem society. Not only has it shifted the focus from a traditionally male dominated outlook in certain areas, such as the sexual double standard and the sphere of work, uncovering women’s true contributions to society through their jobs and highlighting how they were often manipulating traditional views of sexual standards for advantage, but it has allowed us to look in greater depth at aspects of society which were purely female: the idea of female space and the discourse of women away from social expectations. In this way we add another dimension to the study of early modern Europe: the forgotten world of the woman.

Crawford and Mendelson ‘Women in early modern England’
Gowing ‘Domestic Dangers’
Armussen ‘An ordered society: Gender and class in early modern England’
Peters ‘Patterns of piety’
Capp ‘The double standard revisited’, Past and Present
Shepard ‘Manhood, credit and patriarchy in early modern England’, Past and Present