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Historiography, Tudor Book Reviews

12 Days of Tudor Reviews: Women in Early Modern England

Women in Early Modern England

Women in Early Modern England

The history of women in early modern England is no small subject.  However, Sara H. Mendelson and Patricia Crawford tackled the formidable topic in their 1998 book Women in Early Modern England: 1550-1720.  The authors’ collaborative effort began in the early 1980s, a time when feminist histories gained popularity.  Noting that most studies then focused on medieval and nineteenth-century English women, Mendelson and Crawford decided to rescue the early modern English period from “the neglected Dark Ages of women’s history.”[1]  Their monumental efforts resulted in the first complete reference book on the early modern English female world; royal, aristocratic, middling, and poor women all figured into the narrative.  Stressing the need “to deconstruct the category which suggested[ed] that to be a woman had a single, unified meaning,” the authors painstakingly analyzed extensive primary sources from an early modern English female perspective.[2]  In the process, Mendelson and Crawford revealed the error of an assumed monolithic female narrative, but they also noted a surprising amount of historical continuity along the way.

Because of the scope of Women in Early Modern England, the authors subdivided each chapter into various subsections for easier reference.  For example, within the chapter “Childhood and Adolescence,” Mendelson and Crawford included sections on “Early years,” “Service,” and “Courtship.”  Occasionally, as in the case of the chapter on “Contexts,” the authors broke the subsections down further; the subsection “Medical understandings of a woman’s body” included “sex and gender,” “menstruation,” “parturition,” “lactation,” and “changes and continuities.”  The organization allowed Mendelson and Crawford to emphasize diversity, and thus gave additional weight to their thesis.

Before launching into their many subheadings, however, Mendelson and Crawford explained forthright the problematic nature of their sources.  Although the authors consulted women’s primary accounts when they could, a large number of their records came from the male-dominated secular and ecclesiastical courts.  Such courts often obscured the available female voices through either disinterested omission or intentional editing. Likewise, misogyny often clouded other available documents, and poor, illiterate women left almost no records whatsoever.  Nevertheless, the authors handled setbacks with patience and ingenuity. By “reading across the grain” of sources, Mendelson and Crawford questioned, “where women [were] absent as well as present in documents.”[3] They also gave precedence to available women’s diaries and correspondence.  Overall, while the authors’ admittance produced an early taint of uncertainty about the book, it did not detract from the “open and sociable conversation” that the authors desired.[4]  In fact, the authors’ early admittance made it possible to regard their cautious conclusions with less suspicion.

With the sources’ shortcomings in mind, Mendelson and Crawford turned their attention to the various identities, cultures, occupations, economies, and political worlds that women took part in.  In chapter one, the authors contextualized early modern English women in relation to medicine, religion, the law, citizenship, and stereotypes.   Mendelson and Crawford determined that all classes “constructed woman as secondary or ‘other’ in relation to man, confirming the necessity for female dependence and subjection.”[5]  However, while the authors noted that “all women occupied a position in early modern society as ‘woman’…they did not all occupy it in the same way.”[6]  With that assertion in mind, the remaining chapters explored the diverse experiences of early modern England’s women.

Chapters two and three examined the historical conditions that affected women’s life-cycle experiences.  Mendelson and Crawford asserted that a woman’s social level, location, and financial situation distinguished her life circumstances from other women.  For example, while all women marked courtship as a “critical life phase,” elite women began the process earlier because of their financial status.[7]  Finances also explained why plebian daughters held more say in their marriage partners than elite and middleclass women did.  Since poor families could not long support their daughters financially, plebian girls gained earlier independence when they entered the workforce.  Additionally, a woman’s independence and comfort as an older widow depended on her social status and “moral prestige.”[8]  While Mendelson and Crawford noted that an older “woman was respected more than at any other time of her life, approaching nearest in value to that of a man,” the increased authority of poorer women made them more susceptible to charges of witchcraft.”[9]

In chapter four, the authors moved beyond the female life cycle and challenged traditional historical assumptions when they argued that “a system of shared meaning” constituted a separate, identifiable female culture.[10]  Examining space, speech, material culture, and female friendship, the authors asserted that exclusion from “the dominant culture of men” caused women to “develop their own ideas, resist the assumptions of patriarchy, and in some cases, challenge their subordinate social position.”[11]  Common tasks like childcare and family upkeep formed obvious facets of female culture, but the authors probed further.  By examining mistress/servant relationships, passionate friendships, and political action that crossed social classes, Mendelson and Crawford found evidence. Overall, chapter four displayed the authors at their best, making challenging arguments for women’s agency.

Chapters five and six, although valuable for increased insights into the lives of poor women and occupational roles, rehashed a large amount of work-related information from chapters two and three.  However, the repetition supported the authors’ position that endless work constituted all women’s lives- whether at the elite or poor level.  The demands of the home affected every woman, but women held other occupational identities, too.  Once again, social class affected who women worked with and what jobs they performed.  For example, poor women shared low paying duties, like fieldwork, with men.  In contrast, middling women decreasingly worked alongside men and experienced more job mobility.  They worked in upper-class homes, ran shops, practiced midwifery, and served as teachers.  Occupational mobility and interaction with men were almost nonexistent at the elite level, but younger elite women gained work experience by serving in the households of greater elites.[12]

At the highest level of elite service, a young woman attended the queen regnant.  Mendelson’s and Crawford’s final chapter, “Politics,” examined the lives of four early modern English queen regnants with the “aim to restore women to politics, and politics to women.”[13] More importantly, however, the authors also investigated the political lives of “other” women.  Contrary to many historians’ beliefs, Mendelson and Crawford determined that men did not solely dominate the political world.  Women affected politics at every social level.  At the elite level, women ascended to the throne, acted as courtiers, patronized various secular and religious leaders, and, in some cases, voted.[14]  At the lower levels, a food crisis or war could spur middling and poor women to riot for their families’ lives.  Women also affected politics in subtler ways.  Being their children’s primary educators, women of all classes influenced the religious and political beliefs of their young.[15]

“Politics” offered many fresh new insights into early modern Englishwomen’s agency, but it also highlighted a problem with the book as a whole.  The title Women in Early Modern England: 1550-1720 suggested a balanced study of the years between 1550 and 1720.  However, a majority of Mendelson’s and Crawford’s sources came from the years 1630 to 1680, with most falling in the latter.  Although the authors occasionally brought up the sixteenth century to highlight changes over time, they underutilized the period.  It sometimes seemed that Mendelson and Crawford only included the sixteenth century so they could discuss Mary I and Elizabeth I in the “Politics” chapter.  Nevertheless, the sources the authors did utilize offered a convincing analysis of the time period they described.

“Politics” also played a role in the book’s overarching continuity.  Although Mendelson and Crawford successfully argued that “woman” was not a monolithic term, the theme of female suppression remained “chilling[ly] persistent” throughout the book.[16]  Women initially made strides in property holding, occupational roles, and citizen’s rights in the Stuart age, but the authors effectively demonstrated that “elemental patterns of gender relations were preserved or re-established.”[17]  Examining occupational roles, for example, the authors discovered that midwives eventually lost their prominence when male physicians unceremoniously replaced them in the late seventeenth-century.[18] Likewise, the “Politics” chapter revealed how the Civil War allowed men to “conceptualiz[e] the citizen more clearly than before as male.”[19]  So although Mendelson and Crawford claimed that they offered no “definitive answer to [their] original questions about women’s lives,” they indicated that Judith Bennett’s emphasis on “’problematic continuity’ rather than the problem of change” best defined women’s history.[20]

With great success, Mendelson and Crawford provided an enlightening reference book on the lives of early modern Englishwomen.  A lack of primary female accounts frustrated research, but the authors’ creative inquiries effectively demonstrated that a more complete picture of early modern England could be formulated.  Mendelson’s and Crawford’s cautious procedure and unwillingness to label their results as “definitive” also allowed for the “open and sociable conversation” the authors desired.[21]   Overall, while Women and Early Modern England: 1550-1720 demonstrated that a monolithic account of early modern Englishwomen did not exist, Mendelson and Crawford established a larger continuity that could help define women’s history in the future.

[1] Sarah H. Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, Women in Early Modern England: 1550-1720, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 1.

[2] Mendelson and Crawford, 74.

[3] Mendelson and Crawford, 9-11.

[4] Mendelson and Crawford, 436.

[5] Mendelson and Crawford, 71.

[6] Mendelson and Crawford, 74.

[7] Mendelson and Crawford, 108.

[8] Mendelson and Crawford, 193.

[9] Mendelson and Crawford, 193.

[10] Mendelson and Crawford, 202.

[11] Mendelson and Crawford, 254-255.

[12] Mendelson and Crawford, 343-344.

[13] Mendelson and Crawford, 345.

[14] Mendelson and Crawford, 347.

[15] Mendelson and Crawford, 429.

[16] Mendelson and Crawford, 431.

[17] Mendelson and Crawford, 432.

[18] Mendelson and Crawford, 316.

[19] Mendelson and Crawford, 430.

[20] Mendelson and Crawford, 431-435.

[21] Mendelson and Crawford, 435.


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