Gender, Sex, and Subordination in England: 1500-1800.
While I will quibble with these conclusions, there is no disputing the erudition of Gender, Sex, and Subordination. It shows remarkable range. Incorporating the best of recent criticism as well as an impressive array of primary sources, the book spans the disciplines of literature, medicine, history, and education. Continually testing gender prescriptions against experience, Fletcher's work presents a wealth of historical incident and biographical detail.
Gender, Sex, and Subordination is divided into three parts. The first, "Before the Gendered Body," sets out early representations of women's voracious sexuality, their uncontrollable speech, their tendencies to gossip and "gad about." Some of these tendencies, especially those due to women's supposed irrationality, were explicable through medical knowledge of women at that time. Summarizing and updating Laqueur's work on the one-sex gender system, Fletcher provides essential material on the humoral body, whose gender was determined by its heat. He includes medical views of early modern sexuality. The achievement of orgasm by both partners was necessary to produce the heat to concoct the male and female seeds required for conception. Adults needed regular sex for optimal health, and young women's "greensickness" resulted from holding female seed too long in the womb. Confirming Laqueur, Fletcher notes the tenuousness of masculinity in this one-sex model until established socially through separation from maternal influence. This was achieved, according to Fletcher, within a youth culture "where manhood was learnt by drinking, fighting and sex" (92).
The second section, "The Working of Patriarchy," tests the existing codes of honor against the experiences of actual men and women. Prominent among these codes was the control of a wife's sexuality and speech. Gentry established their reputation through various methods: their lineage, hospitality and hunting, and religious virtue. Women gained considerable respect by managing large households and bearing children. Unfortunately, "moderate" marital violence against women was "acceptable" (193-94). Fletcher seems to slide briefly into patriarchal definitions when he notes that a woman who showed a "wilful refusal to accommodate herself to the community's expectations of reasonable behaviour" (274) was liable to be ducked as a scold. Increasingly in this period, women lost power as practitioners of medicine, as brewers and tavern keepers, and as managers of dairy farms, although they gradually established themselves as dressmakers and milliners. Generally, women exercised considerable power on a daily basis. They were heavily involved in church activities and in the court, especially in slander litigation. They exercised considerable personal power within their marital relationships as Fletcher demonstrates in an interesting discussion of nine marriages, five of which showed a successful working partnership between spouses. Of the remaining four, two included submissive wives, and two included wives who deeply resented their subordination to husbands.
In the third section, "Towards Modern Gender," Fletcher discusses the impact of the philosophies of Bacon, Descartes, Locke, and Newton, as well as the new medical theories of nerves and sensibilities. The resulting perception of the genders as distinct in themselves rather than hierarchical versions of each other opened the way for a more positive representation of women. Fletcher traces the evolution of a boy's masculinity through the harsh discipline of grammar schools, the contacts achieved in a university, and the civilizing influence of a Grand Tour on the Continent. The masculinity achieved combined a rational discipline of the emotions and a civility towards others. In this chapter, Fletcher does reveal a clash of values between the growing urbane sophisticates and hearty country squires. The "sexual assertiveness" (339) of manhood in Shakespeare's day did not, however, entirely disappear but rather became part of a double standard. Many women, on the other hand, established themselves in terms of religious piety, making a "personal discovery not only of God but of themselves" (355). Without actually challenging patriarchy, "the godly woman transcended the negative stereotypes of the weaker vessel" (363). The education of girls was primarily designed for the marriage market. Ostensibly taught reading, writing, music, French, needlework, and religion, the girls' underlying lesson was the subjection of self to another. Despite continuing limitations, this new version of femininity, revealed for example in eulogies of godly women, marked a "new beginning" (377). With this perception of women as different rather than simply inferior to men, "the negative image of womanhood was eventually vanquished" (400).
Gender, Sex, and Subordination is a much better book than its conclusion would suggest. While there were few funeral sermons on godly women (or on godly men) in the early part of this period, a reading of Foxe's Book of Martyrs would indicate that the figure of the pious woman was not a late invention. Margaret Roper, Lady Jane Grey, Anne Askew, Mary Sidney, and many others established a strong early tradition of female piety. By the end of the sixteenth century, the publishing establishment was also marketing large numbers of devotional books to women readers. The pious woman reader had become a stereotype co-existing with and perhaps even created in response to representations of women as sexual and frivolous. Ideologies of gender are seldom as hegemonic as Fletcher indicates, and Constance Jordan's Renaissance Feminism, for example, demonstrates the counter-movements and the fissures within early patriarchy. Similarly, Fletcher's sense that the eighteenth century began to leave the Western tradition of misogyny behind seems to result from a narrowing of sources from the early section of his book, which included ballads, drama, and proverbs as well as conduct literature. Surely Felicity Nussbaum's The Brink of All We Hate, a study of misogyny in satire from 1660 to 1750, would alone suffice to complicate the optimism of Fletcher's conclusions.
While Gender, Sex, and Subordination shows a consistent awareness of the differences between ideologies and practice, it might have demonstrated a sharper sense of the fissures between competing ideologies and of the fault-lines within dominant ideologies themselves. Too many interesting contradictions rose, or almost rose, to the surface to be dismissed too quickly or to remain unacknowledged. For example, if the early period enjoyed a "spontaneous rather than a guilt-ridden attitude to sexual pleasure" (53), then why were women condemned for their sexual appetites? Fletcher's desire to smooth over rather than to identify contradictions is particularly damaging to his discussions of masculinity. The early youth culture "where manhood was learnt by drinking, fighting and sex" (92) existed at odds with the youth culture of the grammar schools, many of which dated from the same early period, where manhood was demonstrated by learning Latin and ascetic living. Might some of the school rebellions point to the boys' refusal of one kind of masculinity for another? The most obvious fissure lies between the aristocratic display of hospitality and the more thrifty values emerging among Puritans. Fletcher almost takes up this contrast at one point, when he notes the existence of a "gentry honour so permeated by religion that much of what has been described in this chapter as its core - the hunting, the good cheer, the open hospitality - is driven to the periphery" (151). This difference between aristocratic and Puritan forms of masculinity, clearly related to ideologies of class as well as religion, could easily have benefitted from entire chapters of discussion.
It would be impossible for any book on patriarchy in England from 1500 until 1800 to be complete. The topic is too vast and too complicated, and my summary of Fletcher's lengthy study undoubtedly does not do full justice to the level of sophistication it possesses. Rather than detracting from a notable accomplishment, these criticisms are meant to suggest the next step in an endeavor which Fletcher has so usefully begun. For his insights, his knowledge, and his massive bibliography, Gender, Sex, and Subordination should be required reading for anyone in the field.
MARY ELLEN LAMB Southern Illinois University
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|Author:||Lamb, Mary Ellen|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1998|
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