Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720

By Sara Mendelson; Patricia Crawford | Go to book overview

2
CHILDHOOD AND ADOLESCENCE

In Chapters 2 and 3, we discuss how women experienced the social construction of life-stages in early modern England, focusing on the historical circumstances in which their sense of personal identity was formed. As we have argued in Chapter 1, the 'category' woman interacted with other social and conceptual categories which likewise changed over time. Female experience is not a simple category: it is never, as Diana Fuss points out, as unified, as knowable, as universal, and as stable as we presume it to be'.1 Experiences differed not only from one woman to another, but varied for a single individual over her lifetime. The archetypal female event, childbirth, was not the same for every woman; class, and her previous history, affected her maternity. A woman's understanding of herself as a mother changed over her lifetime.

In these two chapters, we discuss how material circumstances affected women's life-stages. As Crosby argues, gender can recede in the face of other attributes, such as class. While women were seen in the dominant discourse as one category, 'woman', they could at the same time be divided from each other by economic and social status.2 The more comfortable lifestyles of some women depended on the exploitation of others. There were tensions between women of the same rank, as they competed with each other for sexual partners and social ascendancy.

Central to female life were women's own bodies as well as the discourses about them. Although much modern theory insists upon the primacy of discourse, the importance of physiology placed limits on women's potentiality for 'self-fashioning'.3 Physiological changes had a cultural meaning, but they were also physically experienced by the woman herself, and played a large part in structuring female existence. Childbirth altered women's bodies, but fatherhood had no corresponding effect on men's physiology.4

____________________
1
D. Fuss, Essentially Speaking ( 1989), 114.
2
C. Crosby, The Ends of History. Victorians and 'The Woman Question' ( 1991), 153-8.
3
S. J. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare ( Chicago, 1980), 166-9.
4
D. Zohar, The Quantum Self ( 1990), 89-106.

-75-

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