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Gender, Sex and Subordination in England: 1500-1800.

Gender, Sex & Subordination in England 1500-1800 is a general survey of the construction and meaning of gender in early modern England. This ambitious work claims to map "a new historical country," the realm of gender and patriarchy, for the first time and to provide "an initial argument" (p. x) for thinking about the subject in the crucial centuries when "modem patriarchy, a new system of gender relations, began to be created." (p. 296) Despite Fletcher's claim, many early modern historians have written about the "big picture" in the history of women, gender, and patriarchy before him - Alice Clark, Joan Kelly, Lawrence Stone, Judith Bennett, and Martha Howell, to name only a few - and he is unduly dismissive of their work. Furthermore, since his interpretative model is based on well-known primary and secondary material (p. x), the chapters in his book (6-13) describing women and men's actual experience have little to say to scholars already familiar with the subject, although they will serve as an introduction for those new to it.

Gender, Sex & Subordination maps the construction of gender on two different levels. On the more general, Fletcher asserts that gender relations are created by an ideological framework centered on scientific and medical views of the female and male body that is translated into prescriptive codes for behavior and then embodied in experience at the individual and collective levels. (p. 98) As a way of thinking about gender, this schema is remarkably static and abstract. Most fundamentally, it assumes that there is a construction of gender at any particular historical moment rather than a continual contest between women and men - even more, between different groups of women and different groups of men - about what femininity and masculinity mean, how women and men ought to behave, and how they actually do behave. Furthermore, like Thomas Laqueur on whom he heavily depends, Fletcher assumes that the survival and use of a small group of key scientific texts during the long centuries we conventionally label medieval meant that little worth noting about the meaning of gender or the operation of patriarchal institutions occurred for nearly two millennia. This ahistorical reification of gender and patriarchy is surely related to another characteristic of his model - its inattention to the causal or interactive relationships between the ideological and prescriptive frameworks of gender in any period and the economic, political, or social structures of the society in which they operate.

Even on its own terms, the schema has flaws, since there are serious gaps among its three elements. Fletcher does not demonstrate how medical and scientific views were translated into broadly held ideas about how women and men ought to behave. Indeed, he presents no evidence that popular authors of prescriptive literature during the period 1500-1800 knew the medical and scientific literature at all. As one might expect, his discussion often falls back on the writings of well known protestant clergymen and conventional religious tropes. He has equal difficulty explaining how this prescriptive material, which focused on the patriarchal family, affected the experience of individual women and men and of particular social groups. In fact his chapters on husbands and wives (pp. 8-9) suggest that material factors and personality were far more important than prescriptive ideas about conduct in constructing individual relationships. Untangling the connection between prescription and experience and between the lives of individual people and larger social groups is one of the knottiest problems facing social historians, not just those working on gender. A causal connection cannot be unproblematically assumed.

Unlike his general conceptual framework, Fletcher's second map of gender is concerned with change. He believes that a crisis in male-female relations and loss of confidence in the ideological foundations of the gender hierarchy developed in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Persisting in his inattention to material factors, he locates the crisis in the inadequacy of traditional medical and scientific doctrines - specifically, pace Laqueur, the one body model of sexuality and humoral theory - that had explained and justified patriarchal institutions and practices since ancient times. (pp. 401-2) Men resolved the crisis by drawing on the methods and assumptions of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century to construct a "new secular ideology of gender" and "modem secular patriarchy." (pp. 283, 295) The crucial change was the shift from "a theory of hierarchy to one of opposites." (p. 291) The end product, the ideology that Barbara Welter called the cult of true womanhood over twenty years ago, also supported the subordination of women. (p. 395) Nonetheless, Fletcher considers it an improvement on the earlier gender regime because "for the first time"(p. 360) it replaced an "overwhelmingly negative construction" of women with a "constructive view of femininity."(pp. 377,412) Here, his whiggish judgment differs markedly from that of other historians who have studied the impact of the scientific revolution on women (e.g. Londa Scheibinger) and the transformation of gender relations and ideology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (e.g. Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff).

Fletcher bases his contention that a crisis in gender relations occurred during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods on the evidence, found in sources such as plays, pamphlets, sermons, and proverbs, that men feared women and seriously doubted their ability to subordinate them. However, these fears were not new in the later sixteenth century and appear throughout the medieval and early Tudor periods. That there is more evidence of them from c.1570 almost certainly reflected the growth of the printing industry and its audience rather than a marked deterioration in male-female relationships. In fact, the same period also saw a proliferation of controversial literature defending women (e.g. Barbara McManus and Katherine Henderson; Linda Woodbridge) and of Protestant literature portraying godly wives, marriages, and households as the foundation of the righteous commonweal (e.g. Levin Schuking; Edmund Morgan; William Haller; Joan Larsen Klein). The evidence suggests, in short, that a vigorous debate about women's nature and roles characterized the period rather than a major crisis in the construction of gender and male-female relationships. In any case, Fletcher explains neither why such a crisis occurred at this particular historical juncture nor why beliefs that had justified and explained patriarchal institutions satisfactorily for over a millennium suddenly became incapable of doing so. His loose connection of the crisis to the scientific revolution does not bear chronological scrutiny: the new attitudes toward nature and women that he traces to Bacon and Descartes were not influential until at least the middle decades of the seventeenth century, while humoral theory was still vital in the eighteenth.

Fletcher draws a sharp contast between the new gender ideology and the one it replaced. Unlike the older ideology, it was secular, provided the "first systematic entry to the positive image of woman, signalling the end of open and general misogyny," (p. 295) and created the first "prescriptive literature directed towards gender construction as such."(p. 335) Medievalists and early modernists who have worked on the vast cultural influence of the Virgin and female saints, the literature of courtly love, and prescriptive works such as Castiglione's and Vives' will be astounded by the latter two generalizations. Bishop John Fisher's month-mind (sermon) on Lady Margaret Beaufort (1509), which presents her as an exemplary female, is one of the few that survive and may have been the first to have been printed, but the frequency with which Yorkist and early Tudor aristocratic women bequeathed money for their month-minds makes it unlikely that it was unique. Nor was the content of Lady Margaret's month-mind different in kind from the funeral sermons that Fletcher claims to be a new didactic genre in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which established a "crucial link between protestantism and the evolution of modern English gender." (p. 360) Furthermore, while it is true that secular eighteenth-century novelists were among the first creators of the new passionless, morally superior female type of the late eighteenth century and nineteenth centuries, Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall have demonstrated conclusively that evangelicalism played a formative role in shaping the complex constructions of femininity and masculinity that emerged between 1780 and 1850. They have also analyzed the complex and overdetermined connections between this ideology and the economic and social changes that affected the families and individuals who produced and embodied it.

Thus, like the maps of the New World in the period with which he is concerned, Anthony Fletcher's map of gender between 1500 and 1800 has serious flaws. These flaws demonstrate the difficulty of creating a synthesis about the history of a subject, gender, that touches every area of human experience and thought and that is the site of continual change, contest, and reconstruction. His map also raises a fundamental question about how one balances continuity, crisis, and change in writing that history. Like all early maps, Gender, Sex & Subordination will doubtedly stimulate Fletcher's colleagues to carry out further exploration and research in the paths he has charted. In that he will have achieved one of the goals he set himself when he first undertook this project. (p. x)

Barbara J. Harris University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Author:Harris, Barbara J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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