Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720

By Sara Mendelson; Patricia Crawford | Go to book overview

7
POLITICS

Gender was deeply significant to matters of government and rule in early modern society, although its importance has been seriously underestimated by most historians. In this chapter, our main purpose is to argue that the study of early modern political history should be rethought, to take account of the presence and influence of women. We cannot here include a comprehensive discussion of women and politics from the mid-sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, for it needs a study in itself. Yet we question the tradition of political history which has been written as a narrative excluding women. We aim to restore women to politics, and politics to women.

Historians rarely define their notion of 'the political' for the early modern period. While feminists have sought to expand its scope, arguing 'that the personal is political', early modern historians have taken a more limited view. Politics, they insist, was men's business, encompassing the monarch and the institutions of government: Parliament, the patronage system, and the conflicts in the counties between rival families. Thus Peter Laslett, in The World We Have Lost, writes of England in 1640 as an association between the heads of families: 'Almost no woman ever belonged to England as an individual, except it be a queen regnant--scarcely a woman in the ordinary sense--or a noble widow and heiress or two, a scattering of widows.'1 Laslett at least asked the question about women's participation in ' England'; others never raise the matter. Even popular politics has a typology which places women at the bottom: E. P. Thompson has argued that it is difficult to see food riots in which women were involved as being '"political" in any advanced sense'.2

Political power was fluid in early modern society. Beyond the institutions of government--the monarchy, parliaments, courts of law--as sources of power and places where it was exercised, was the court.3 And beyond the

____________________
1
P. Laslett, The World We Have Lost ( 2nd edn., 1971), 20.
2
E. P. Thompson, "'The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century'", Customs in Common (Harmondsworffi, 1993), 188.
3
D. Starkey (ed.), The English Court. From the Wars of the Roses to the Civil War ( 1987).

-345-

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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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