Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720

By Sara Mendelson; Patricia Crawford | Go to book overview

3
ADULT LIFE

How did women see themselves as having attained adult status? Women conceptualized female maturity mainly in terms of being married, with a household to run, and possibly with children to rear and servants to oversee. 'As I am a woman, so I am also mistress of a large family', wrote Susanna Wesley to her husband in 1712, identifying her responsibilities as 'a trust by the great Lord of all the families both of heaven and earth'.1 Marriage marked a break with the dependence of childhood and the semi-dependence of adolescence and service. It was a life-stage, 'the hon[ou]rable estate of marriage' as Alice Thornton termed it.2

Early modern society recognized adult status in several different ways. In legal terms, men and women became adult at various ages; in practice, participation in the adult world was delayed for both sexes.3 Since the age at marriage was generally late, most historians have concluded that 'the transition from semi-dependency to full adult status' and 'equal participation' in the adult world was deferred until well beyond the age of 20.4 Yet, for a woman, 'equal participation' was actually denied if she married, since she lost her status as a legal individual through the doctrine of coverture.5 No adult woman, whether married or single, participated as a citizen in the same way as a man did, with the exception of the queen regnant. Nevertheless, a woman who was married enjoyed greater social status than a single one; as adults, women were accorded different degrees of independence and responsibility.

Women's ideas about adulthood ran directly counter to legal discourse, which insisted that marriage turned a woman into a non-person, her husband's dependant with no real will of her own. Ideally, a woman was to her husband what she had been to her father or master, except that she

____________________
1
The Journal of John Wesley, ed. N. Curnock (Epworth, 1912), iii. 32.
2
The Autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton, ed. C. Jackson, Surtees Society, 62 ( 1873), 234.
3
K. Thomas, Age and Authority in Early Modern England ( 1976), 12-30.
4
R. Wall, "'Leaving Home and the Process of Household Formation in Pre-Industrial England'", Continuity and Change, 2 ( 1987), 87; P. Collinson, The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society, 1559-1625 ( Oxford, 1982), 229.
5
Pace Thomas, Age and Authority, 12; see Ch. 1, "'Contexts: The Law and its Administration'".

-124-

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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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