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Women in Early Modern England 1550-1720.

Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford. Women in Early Modern England 1550-1720.

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. xviii + 480 pp. $35. ISBN: 0-19-820124-9.

Judith M. Bennett. Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. xiv + 260 pp. $19.95. ISBN: 0-19-507390-8.

The best women's history seeks to illuminate the varieties of female experience while questioning traditional historical assumptions down to their very foundations. This is the achievement of Patricia Crawford and Sara Mendelson in their comprehensive account of early modern Englishwomen, and Judith Bennett in her more limited study of female brewsters: both books not only open up the lives and actions of early modern women in a new way, but they also demonstrate how the history of women follows its own current that profoundly influences and redirects the larger river of political, legal, social, cultural, and economic forces. As an original and insightful work of women's history, Crawford and Mendelson's book is highly recommended for both specialists and generalists, as it utilizes recent theoretical and historical approaches to examine female agency resistance, and power in relation to early modern patriarchal structures. While differing from Crawford and Mendelson's work in some key assumptions, Bennett examines a fascinating and overlooked segment of women's work and distills from it penetrating conclusions that emphasize continuities rather than change in the course of women's history.

Focusing on the years from 1550 through 1720 and drawing from a variety of sources, Crawford and Mendelson describe the cycles of early modern women's lives from childhood through adulthood, and show the way in which class and gender expectations, rites of passages, and larger historical alterations affected how women viewed themselves and the disruptive changes around them. All women's lives, they write, functioned within a larger intellectual and cultural context -- or "framework of meaning" (17) -- that defined women according to often contradictory notions about their bodies, their sexuality, and their perceived moral and intellectual weakness. While Crawford and Mendelson draw from the work of others -- notably Ian Maclean -- in discussing these theoretical constructs, they contribute new understandings in discussing women as they were defined within the context of the law, legal theory, and emerging notions of citizenship and the political contract.

Despite the "self-referential and self-validating" paradigms which "[hindered] any other competing discourse," the authors write, "patriarchy's own internal ambiguities and contradictions could also be exploited by subordinate groups, making a space for subversive ideas and dissident behavior." Indeed, women displayed agency and resistance throughout their lives and at all social levels, the authors argue: in the courtship process girls "promoted their interests" through "repertoires of gesture, rituals of scorning, and complicated negotiations of sexuality (108-18); in marriage -- which women of all classes experienced to one degree or another as a "violent discontinuity" or wrenching displacement" (129) -- the hard realities of wifely subjection or marital abuse could be countered (albeit in a limited way) by recourse to piety, defiance, subtle ridicule, or outright flight.

Women also expressed agency by partaking in a distinct "female culture" of their own, which the authors postulate against overly dichotomous notions of elite and popular cultures. The household, for example, was a "feminine domain," "fluid and dynamic," as women "freely resorted to each other's houses, making use of neighbours' dwellings much like a series of linked female spaces" (206). Other sites dominated and claimed by women included the church, the death-bed, and even the household doorway, where women freely partook in gossip or informal communication networks which served as "the 'glue' that held female collectivities together" (218). Material culture, including a proprietary knowledge of textiles, food, herbs, and medicines, similarly contributed to a distinct female culture, as did religious piety, political actions, and other areas that bonded women across class lines.

The destinies of women were similarly determined by interrelated factors of economic status and occupational identity, which were fluid, changing, and multidimensional. In two chapters that argue against entrenched and limiting ideas about the family economy, the authors insist that women were above all individuals "whose occupations could change over their lifetime," and whose work must be seen as including unpaid housework, reproduction, and child-rearing tasks (257-59). Women's work, they continue, varied according to different social levels, from activities forged in the "makeshift economy" of the poor through the more specialized trade or craft professions of the middling classes, through patronage functions of elite women; it was the middling women, however, who were the "most interesting" group, "for, unlike the very wealthiest and the poorest, their working lives did change" (343).

The authors reserve their most ambitious and insightful chapter for the end, a discussion of women and politics that aims to "restore women to politics, and politics to women" (345). By neglecting to include women in the narrative of political histories, traditional scholars (and seventeenth-century contemporaries) failed to understand how central gender was to the shaping of government rule and policy; not only does the authors' inclusion of women broaden notions of politics as a whole, but so does it grant the political shadings and subtleties previously overlooked. Their emphasis on court and patronage networks, for example, is in line with recent revisionist accounts of English history, though women are granted a more central and determining place in these informal centers of power; moreover, the authors' discussion of women in relation to "mass politics" allows them new insights not only into religious and political protest, but also into the much-neglected subject of women's food riots. Ironically, Cra wford and Mendelson write, all of these protests -- along with convictions asserted by women in the realm of elite politics -- "had a basis in claims to rights," which was in line with the emerging rhetoric of the day; but even as women's increasing participation in politics was becoming more visible, the language of political rights -- of John Locke -- "conceptualized the citizen more clearly than before as a male" (430), while theories of contract hardly extended to the contract of marriage.

In their chapter discussing work identities, Crawford and Mendelson touch on the Englishwoman who brewed ale -- the brewster -- though one must turn to Judith Bennett's book to get the full scope behind the rise and decline of this overlooked and much-maligned figure. According to Bennett, before the early modern era, women had always been associated with brewing and selling ale, since "as low-status, low-skilled, poorly renumerated work, it attracted little male participation and it suited the domestic responsibilities of many women" (7). While women in 1600 continued to brew -- which reinforces Bennett's larger emphasis on historical continuities over change -- the increasingly profitable and regulated industry gradually "passed into male hands," thus relegating women to the sidelines and illustrating another historian's assertion that "if a venture prospers, women fade from the scene." Bennett wishes to understand the reasons for this transformation, which she attributes to a growing industry's demand for larger capital outlays -- which women could not provide -- accompanied by a larger workforce that women, with their perceived limited authority, found difficult to singlehandedly manage; in addition, the incorporation of brewers into gilds in the fifteenth century further pushed women to the margins, as did greater government regulation and control of licensing over a "disorderly" (or one could say, feminine) industry. In a particularly interesting chapter, Bennett discusses the way in which beer -- a later-developing beverage in England and a competitor to ale -- excluded women even further by also requiring large capital resources and sophisticated market skills; rather than being an inevitable or "natural development," however, Bennett writes that these changes were the product of very particular institutional, social, political, cultural, and familial forces that slowly excluded women from a trade that once had been theirs.

Bennett's study serves as a good complement to Crawford and Mendelson, not only in terms of subject matter but in illustrating differing approaches to women's history. For Bennett, the story of brewsters demonstrates "some critical aspects of patriarchal power: its multiplicity; its endurability; and its powerful strategic use of exclusion, segregation, and division" (156). By following this line of argument, Bennett enlarges on her previous work that tended to dispute notions of any fundamental transformation that occurred in women's lives over the centuries. Crawford and Mendelson, on the other hand, similarly describe what they call "the remarkable degree of stability sustained by the patriarchal gender order throughout the whole of our time period," though they also demonstrate, through their married women and single women, their queens, their scolds, their female friends and neighbors, that "there is no single female narrative that comprehends the disparate experiences of women," but rather "many differ ent female narratives" contained in their relations with the larger world, and within their own lives.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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