Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720

By Sara Mendelson; Patricia Crawford | Go to book overview

bystanders she 'had such a Dream, as I have seldom had; it is an Emblem of my Life'. Walking beside a broad river, she crossed with difficulty until she came to the final breach. 'How shall I get over this Breach? But yet she went on, and passed through it, and it was fair on the other side; and she awakened.'392 Mary Mollineux found that the visual images of her dream symbolically represented the meaning of her existence. Through the recounted dream, she told of her passage through dangers to a better fairer state, thereby presenting the archetypal Christian soul's journey and reassuring the by-standers of her ultimate salvation.


CONCLUSIONS

Gender, class, and age were related through all of a woman's life. Her family of origin determined many aspects of her circumstances. For the poorest girls, childhood was frequently terminated prematurely: in their earliest years they were employed in begging, and from age 7 they could be placed as apprentices. While there was no mass exodus from their families at this age, the poorest girls confronted society's expectation that the sooner they could contribute to their upkeep, the better. By contrast, wealthier girls enjoyed a prolonged period of protection within their families. Adolescence, as a time of physical and psychological maturation, was frequently curtailed for aristocratic and wealthier girls, who were married relatively young. Conversely, adolescence was prolonged for the bulk of the female population, who did not marry until their mid-twenties. As girls grew to adulthood, regardless of their social level, they learned what was entailed in becoming a woman.

Gender mattered most during women's reproductive years. Physical maturity brought shared physiological experiences to women, although their bodily experiences varied with their levels of nutrition, age at marriage, and social customs relating to sexuality and lactation. In later years, women's experiences remained gendered, but perhaps difference of sex mattered less than earlier, especially for a small proportion who were wealthy widows. Gender and class interacted at all stages of women's lives.

In discussing women's life-stages, we have emphasized continuity during this period. While there were fluctuations in the illegitimacy rate, slight shifts in women's age at first marriage, and a small increase in the average number of children born to married women, we cannot see major changes in

____________________
392
M. Mollineux, Fruits of Retirement ( 1702), sig. B 2.

-200-

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Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contents xi
  • List of Illustrations xiii
  • Abbreviations xvii
  • Note Concerning Dates and Spellings xviii
  • Glossary of Terms xviii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Contexts 15
  • 2 - Childhood and Adolescence 75
  • 3 - Adult Life 124
  • Conclusions 200
  • 4 - Female Culture 202
  • Conclusions 255
  • 5 - The Makeshift Economy of Poor Women 256
  • Conclusions 298
  • 6 - Occupational Identities and Social Roles 301
  • 7 - Politics 345
  • Conclusions 428
  • Epilogue 431
  • Select Bibliography 437
  • Index 467
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