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Women in Early Modern England: 1550-1720.

Women in Early Modern England: 1550-1720. By Sara Mendelson arid Patricia Crawford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. xvi plus 480pp.).

Fifteen years in the making and a fully collaborative venture of the co-authors, Women in Early Modern England is a splendid new survey of the lives of early modern English women. Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford describe how their "shared search for the legacy of women's lives" began in the early 1980s at a time when medieval and nineteenth century women were beginning to be recovered, but when the early modern era remained "the Dark Ages" of women's history. While immense strides have been made since that time, this study is nonetheless a genuine landmark. The authors have not only systematically surveyed the relevant primary and secondary sources, they have confronted major interpretive issues about women's agency and status in this period. Theirs is a lively, well organized account with much new material that advances both our factual and theoretical understanding of women's experience in the years from 1500 to 1750.

Following a "stage-setting" introduction that defines terms and concepts and presents the themes to be addressed, the authors provide a lengthy first chapter that explores the multiple discourses--medical, religious, legal, political, and social--through which women were defined in early modern England. The authors focus on popular as well as elite discourse about the category "woman," and their full discussion amply justifies their point that difference between the sexes was a deeply held article of faith that cut across all social groups, with men as the primary authors of that discourse. While Mendelson and Crawford expressly avoid any claim to uncover the origins of the accompanying gender hierarchy favoring men, their account provides vivid documentation of strong and pervasive beliefs in female inferiority. It also shows that in the face of the dominant discourse, women reacted by constructing a counter-discourse of their own upholding women's value, dignity and contributions to family and community. T he next two chapters trace the female life cycle across different social groups from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. Aware that far more material on the well-to-do groups is available in both primary and secondary sources, the authors concentrate on recovering the lives of the more typical majority and on exploring the variety of female experience over time. Here their archival labors as well as their imaginative use of the sources pay off handsomely, as they are able to show both the immense variety in the lives of more ordinary women as well as compelling evidence, despite the clear disadvantages of poverty and low status, that these women experienced more scope for independent activity than their sisters in the privileged classes.

Participation along with men in the institution of household service, for example, ensured considerable mobility for women and men alike as well as women's greater say in their own matrimonial decisions. While it is true that such independence also made most women more vulnerable to rape and seduction than the more protected daughters of the upper classes, it also encouraged the development of women's own sense of individual responsibility, in financial as well as sexual matters. Typically, women as well as men were required to amass their own savings in preparation for marriage and the establishment of a separate household. They therefore had particular motivation to prevent a pregnancy that might entail impossible burdens of support and compromise their marriageablity. When a suitor attempted to persuade Alice Wheeler, for example, that she should have sexual relations with him on the grounds that they were already contracted to marry, Wheeler responded tartly, "I know ... that I am your wife and you my hu sband, yet until such time as we are married [in church] you shall not have the use of my body (p.12l)."

The authors argue convincingly, too, that outside the ranks of the elite, there was less disparity between the lives of girls and boys, especially in the earlier stages of the life cycle. Whereas upper-class boys left the maternal orbit as early as seven, with girls remaining under their mothers' tutelage, both girls and boys in most other households grew up together and engaged in many of the same activities and tasks, although poor girls alone might be forced into apprenticeships by parish officials as early as age seven or eight.

It was during the reproductive years after marriage that gender mattered most in setting women apart, yet here once again the divide between women's and men's lives was less dramatic in the poorer and middling groups. Elite women often felt gender differences more keenly at marriage since that was the time when they typically left their natal households for the first time and moved in with their in-laws. Brides from lower down the social scale, by contrast, were already used to living in other peoples' households as servants by the time they helped establish households of their own with their husbands. While it is true, moreover, that the doctrine of coverture made man and wife one person at law, thereby denying equal legal status to all married women, it is equally true that wives were regularly portrayed as outspoken. One commentator, William Gouge, spoke of the "many wives, whom ambition hath tainted and corrupted within and without: they cannot endure to heare of subjection: they imagine that they are ma de slaves thereby (p. 134)."

Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford succeed in showing that despite many similarities in ordinary women's and men's experience, there existed an identifi-able female culture or "system of shared meanings," within which women lived their lives. This culture featured not only the common tasks women performed--everything from childrearing to needlework and cookery--but also the shared practices of piety as well as a deepening of female friendships in contexts where women came to rely increasingly on neighbors rather than kin for support.

Chapters on the makeshift economy of poor women and on occupational identities and social roles for middling and upper rank women cover more familiar ground, stressing once again that the higher the social level, the more rigid the divisions between women's and men's work. For the poorest who constituted about half the population of the country, they contend that little changed throughout the period in the circumstances of life. Whether in town or country, women of laboring families, married or single, worked in low status jobs and were chronically underemployed. While more organized poor relief developed in the period, it represented a new kind of dependence in which only the good or "deserving" poor got assistance.

Middling and upper rank women had more economic options, although in the seventeenth century, women were increasingly excluded from productive work as their social status rose. Professions such as teaching did grow dramatically for women then, whereas guilds and apprenticeships increasingly excluded women while some formerly female professions, such as midwifery, were crowded out by new male health care professionals. The authors note that while many believe that misogyny was a major factor here, a fuller history of misogyny is needed to explain why it has taken the forms it has in different eras. In a respectful critique of Alice Clark's still influential study Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1919), they also remark that far more than the rise of capitalism was involved in the encroachments upon women's productive roles at this time, that the shift away from paid work that Clark portrays as general was not characteristic of the masses of poor women, for whom such work remained vitally impo rtant.

More original assessments are presented in the final chapter on politics, in which the authors call upon traditional political historians to rethink the early modern era to take account of the presence and influence of women in narratives that continue to exclude them. Historians rarely take the trouble to define the complex notion of the political for this period, they say, even though they obviously presume that politics was exclusively men's business. Crawford and Mendelson urge the consideration of evidence for women's active political involvement in every stratum of society, and they show how political power was exercised beyond the formal institutions of government in the households of the elite as well as the humble. Even within the formal institutions of government, they argue, gender was vitally important, and issues of who could participate in the political process had complex implications for both sexes, as voters and even as monarchs.

An epilogue muses on the difficulty of understanding women's lives within broader narratives that continue to emphasize fundamental transformation in this period. After all, the authors say, women's lives displayed far more continuity over these centuries in such activities as work roles, not to mention what they call "the 'chilling' persistence of so many basic components of the gender order," including the definition of women as inferior to men. Some scholars, they note, have even hypothesized a crisis in gender relations in the seventeenth century leading to a hardening of patriarchal attitudes (p.431). The authors of this study prefer instead to take the position that the "shape" of women's history was simply different from what they call the "traditional male-centred paradigms which have dominated the conventional narrative." Mendelson and Crawford do not attempt to revise those paradigms to offer another narrative that might encompass both the differences and the continuities in women's as well as men' s lives, although intriguingly, their careful analyses go some way toward the construction of such a new narrative of the early modern English past--one that, for example, could account for the contradictions they identify in Lockian formulations that continued to uphold patriarchy in families but not in states.

Here it is possible that the authors have been too hesitant in pursuing their own insights, for example the notion that women's striking authority in matrimonial decisions depended on their "critical position in the family economy" (discussion pp. 108-123). Women in many other societies, though, have had a critical role in the family economy without enjoying these and other powers they cite in the wider gender order. The authors might have done better to pursue the leverage offered to women within a distinctive marriage and family structure in northwestern Europe, especially the pattern of late marriage for women which they do mention as important (pp. 110-111). That aberrant pattern, more than women's work roles as such, may have simultaneously enhanced women's domestic authority and promoted the familiar misogyny of the early modem era. These are quibbles next to the considerable achievement that this study represents. The deft presentation of vast amounts of material, and the willingness to cite apparentl y contradictory evidence as puzzles for historians to pursue, are among the many admirable features of this comprehensive survey. The authors are quite prepared to surrender the notion of a definitive account in exchange for the virtues of generating an ongoing dialogue, and for this alone they deserve much credit.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hartman, Mary S.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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