Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720

By Sara Mendelson; Patricia Crawford | Go to book overview
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CONTEXTS

The category 'woman' was the subject of endless discourse in early modern England. Through the lenses of medical, scientific, legal, and political frameworks, woman was categorized and known. Because discursive boundaries were not static but were always shifting, contemporary understandings of woman changed throughout the period and in different contexts. Furthermore, there were contradictions and ambiguities as well as similarities and reinforcements between one discourse and another, and even within the same discourse.

In this chapter we shall examine some of the ways in which ideas about gender differences were expressed and perpetuated in early modern England. These ideas will be surveyed under a number of headings: medical understandings of woman's body, religious teachings, the gender bias in legal structures, popular notions, stereotypes, and links between different contexts. But while the social construction of gender difference will be separated into component parts for the sake of clarity, all such distinctions are ultimately artificial. It is necessary at the outset to stress the complex nature of the interactions between different sources of ideas about gender, and between ideology and other structures such as the organization of family life.

To contemporaries, the difference between the two sexes was a fundamental principle upon which society was constructed. Writers assumed that woman was inferior to man. Unresolved was the problem of social levels, the contradictions between class and gender. Contemporaries knew that Queen Anne was not inferior to her lowest footman,1 but they still insisted that all women ought to be subordinate in some sense.

Although some theorists have attempted to discover the origins of gender hierarchy in a single factor such as the patriarchal family or the division of labour, we make no such claim. Individual elements were interrelated. Axioms about women's inferiority were transported from one discourse to another. In a way, women's disadvantaged status was 'overdetermined' in early modern society. The initial constraints of biology, the symbolism of

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1
M. Astell, Reflections upon Marriage (3rd edn., 1706), sig. A.

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