Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720

By Sara Mendelson; Patricia Crawford | Go to book overview
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Our wedding Day 38 year Since, never yet kept with any Ceremony, but now is remarkable, for on it, Sir William hath yielded we shall Dine at One a Clock . . . 'tis the first time I ever did prevail . . . sure 'tis an Omen of my approaching death or perhaps, happening in the Reign of Queen Ann 'tis a Sign the power of Women will encrease.1

What changes can we observe in women's experiences of life and the world from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century? How should we draw the true contours of a chronological curve in which women are at the centre of our focus? The search for significant trends within the narrative sequence of women's history has become a particularly vexed issue in current historiographical debates. Indeed, some historians have suggested that there are intrinsic difficulties with the very notion of a fundamental transformation in women's condition over the centuries, given the 'chilling' persistence of so many basic components of the gender order, such as the defining characteristics of women's work. For scholars such as Judith Bennett, women's history is best depicted in terms of the 'problematic of continuity' rather than the problem of change.2 Other scholars have suggested variations in the stability of the gender order, notably David Underdown, who has hypothesized a crisis in gender relations in the early seventeenth century, leading to the hardening of patriarchal attitudes.3

Most historical accounts have characterized the Stuart age as a century of revolution, an epoch of dramatic political, economic, and intellectual

Herts. RO, D/EP/F29, Dame Sarah Cowper, Diary, i. 203, 11 Apr. 1702.
J. Bennett, "'Medieval Women, Modern Women: Across the Great Divide'", Culture and History, 1350- 1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities and Writing, ed. D. Aers ( 1992), 158, 165. See also B. Hill, "'Women's History: A Study in Change, Continuity or Standing Still'", Women's History Review, 2 ( 1993), 5-22; J. Bennett, "'Women's History: A Reply to Bridget Hill'", Women's History Review, 2 ( 1993), 173-84.
D. Underdown, "'The Taming of the Scold: The Enforcement of Patriarchal Authority in Early Modern England'", in A. Fletcher and J. Stevenson (eds.), Order and Disorder in Early Modern England ( Cambridge, 1985), 116-36. For different views, see M. Ingram, "'Scolding Women Cucked or Washed: A Crisis in Gender Relations in Early Modern England?'", in J. Kermode and G. Walker (eds.), Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England (Guildford, 1994); A. Fletcher, Gender Sex, and Subordination in England ( New Haven, 1995).


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