Women’s Movements from the 16th C. to the 18th C.
Many people are of the opinion that the movement of feminism and women’s rights is a fairly modern and novel notion that began to take shape in the 1960s. Contrary to this somewhat popular opinion, the feminist movement started its engines long ago, dating back to the 16th C. and even before that in the Middle Ages. However, the movement received its name, momentum and popularity in the 20th C.
The women’s movement has gone through many various vital transformations through the ages, of which not all people are aware. I would like to shed some light on the movement and rights of women in a series, exploring the development of women’s movements from the 16th C. till the present time, mainly in Europe. In the first part of this six part series, I explore the role of women and their rights in the 16th, 17th and 18th C.
If one were to try to recall any remotely feminist event or figure in the 16th C. they, without a doubt, would be reminded that in that era, one of the most powerful kingdoms was ruled by a woman, Queen Elizabeth I. She first ascended the throne in 1558 and ruled the nation in its so-called Golden Age. This, of course, was not received well by a lot of men of pen and power. For instance, John Knox expressed that female leaders, as opposed to their male counterparts, were foolish (Wilkinson).
A female-led nation in its Golden status was still entirely patriarchal. In other words, the father, as the head of the household, had full control over his wife and children, resulting in women being dependent on male figures all throughout their lives, first the father and then the husband (Martin).
How women and girls were seen as inferior is evident when one looks at their upbringings in the 16th C. Women were raised in a manner so they would make good wives in the future for the next male figure dominating their nature (Martin). It is worthy to mention that during the Renaissance, girls were allowed to get married as soon as they turned 12 which would raise eyebrows in today’s day and age.
Growing up, girls were taught skills that could help them around the house or satisfy their future husbands (Martin). It was also expected of women, especially those living in the countryside, to have a good knowledge of medicine, milking cows and even growing vegetables (Lambert). Whereas, boys were brought up with skills much different, ones that would suit their roles as the successors of their father’s property (Martin).
Girls did not go to grammar school, despite the few privileged ones that did (Lambert). Well-off girls were taught reading, writing and acquisition of several foreign languages (Lambert). They could even fill their time with activities such as hunting or playing cards (Lambert). This is while girls from poor households were expected to work and provide for the house alongside their parents after turning seven (Lambert). The occupations women took clearly is testament to the education they were allowed to receive.
They were not allowed to become doctors or lawyers (Lambert). Some were tailors or embroiderers, although the common job for a 16th C. woman was being a domestic servant (Lambert).
On top of all these limitations for women, they also had almost no say in choosing their future partners. Marriage, in general, was seen as a political move and a manner of social climbing. The father was the one who married off his daughters, preferably to well-off property owners in order to win more lands and higher status himself (Martin).
It is plausible that the limitations and hardships did not stop the women of 16th C. from being active, specifically in the field of literature. Renaissance was an age in which lots of ancient works were translated. Lady Jane Fitzalan Lumely was the one who translated Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis despite getting married at 12. This translation from Greek at a time when Latin ones were much more relevant and common was an unusual but impressive one (Women’s Literature in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Overviews). The translation of Seneca’s Hercules Oetaeus by Queen Elizabeth I is definitely a noteworthy one as well (Women’s Literature in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Overviews ).
One of the most influential women in the literary scene was Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, Sir Philip Sidney’s sister and the editor of his Arcadia. She had received a unique education and translated Robert Garnier’s (a French Senecan dramatist) Marc-Antoine. Mary Sidney published the translation and was the first woman to publish a play in England. A lot of Senecan plays and pieces were translated following Mary Sidney’s. She then published a couple of dramatic dialogues namely Thenot and Piers in Praise of Astraea for the royal court which later became “the first original dramatic verse written by a woman in print” (Women’s Literature in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Overviews). The first woman to write and publish an original play, however, was Elizabeth Tanfield Cary who followed Mary Sidney’s example after her death (Women’s Literature in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Overviews).
Moving on to the next century, Women’s status and limitations did not change drastically as they were still considered the “second-class citizen” (Murphy). Women still had to live according to the conducts and virtues set for them which resulted in dedicating their lives to the family even more than before (Murphy). Some qualities they needed to uphold were: patience, watchfulness, wit, being pleasant, wise, not talkative, etc. The lists of what being a ‘modest woman’ entails were even published from time to time (Murphy).
In the 17th C. women were still considered properties of the father granted to the husband at any time he wanted. They still could not have an income, property or inheritance of their own (Murphy). Even if women had economic or political significance in their limited occupations, it still was not acknowledged as society continued to discourage them from getting involved in politics directly and expressing their own ideas (Women in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries: Introduction).
Naturally, a number of women went against these norms and stone-aged notions dominating women.
Aphra Behn, best known for her Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave, was one of the brave women who bent the rules of patriarchy. She became the first woman to earn a living from her writings. Although, her writings could be considered controversial at the time they were published. For instance, “On Her Loving Two Equally”, a poem that portrays a passionate and lustful woman caught in love affairs of two men, which would be an unattractive trait for a 17th C. woman (Murphy).
Another influential woman of the age was Mary Astell. She fought for women’s education and argued for the establishment of an all-female university and women’s rights within marriage, all using philosophical arguments (Broad). She fought for the idea that men and women were equal in their power of reason if only they were given the same opportunities given to men (Broad).
Contrary to the 17th C., a lot of transformations happened for women in the 18th C. One of them was the fact that now, in the 18th C., women had more choice in who they got married to. The idea that fathers had to marry off their daughters for personal gain was starting to fade away. Instead, couples were starting to get married because of “personal affection” (Social and Family Life in the Late 17th & Early 18th Centuries). Now it was more of a norm if women got married at 22, not as soon as they turned 12, although men still looked for the qualities of a maid, caregiver and mother in a wife (Social and Family Life in the Late 17th & Early 18th Centuries).
Moreover, the British cultural revolution started to take shape in the 18th C. and the emergence of the hierarchy of classes and the evermore relevance of consumerism was evident of that. With the emergence of a middle-class, a woman had more opportunities to be more active in commerce compared to before, although having a vocation was still not what a “lady” did (Women in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries: Introduction).
All these changes caused women to write more, especially when there was an increase in publishing due to the lower class becoming more literate. Still, women’s writings tended to focus on practical issues as it would be considered vulgar provided that they wrote professionally. Even their education was still limited despite the better access to it, as the teachings resulted in them being “ideal” women (Women in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries: Introduction).
Surely, as the ones before them, not everyone obeyed these rules. Elizabeth Robinson Montagu, home educated, was much active in literary circles. She was even popular as the Queen of Bluestockings, which was a literary circle of women who exchanged intellectual and literary ideas. She would host many authors, men and women, and encourage conversations between them. People like Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole (Women Writers – 17th and 18th Centuries).
One of the most important literary figures of the age and one of the most known feminists in the history of women’s rights is Mary Wollstonecraft. Born in the Enlightenment and self-educated, Wollstonecraft advocated for women having capabilities for “independent thought and academic excellence”. Putting emphasis on the importance of women’s education, she opened a girl’s school with her sister and her friend. To show her support of the French Revolution, she composed A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which was followed by her monumental work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In the latter work, she argued that all humans have reason and rationality and for women to be able to contribute to society, they must have equal education and opportunities as men, an idea that Mary Astell had expressed in the previous century (Mary Wollstonecraft).
All the hard work and suffering of women in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries laid the groundwork for one of the most important movements in feminism, women’s movement for suffrage in the 19th Century.
Stay tuned for part two.
Broad, Jacqueline. “Mary Astell: Philosophy and Feminism in the 17th Century.” Monash Lens, 30 Apr. 2019, lens.monash.edu/@politics-society/2019/03/07/1373529/feminism-and-philosophy-in-the-17th-century.
Lambert, Tim. “Women in the 16th Century.” Local Histories, 15 Sept. 2022, localhistories.org/women-in-the-16th-century/#:~:text=In%2016th%20century%20England%20women,of%20tradespeople%20and%20skilled%20workers).
Martin, Kathryn. “Fathers and Daughters in Renaissance England.” Cedarcrest, www2.cedarcrest.edu/academic/eng/lfletcher/tempest/papers/KMartin.htm.
“Mary Wollstonecraft.” Brooklyn Museum, www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/place_settings/mary_wollstonecraft.
Murphy, Michaela. “Was There a Gender Revolution in the Seventeenth-Century?” Was There a Gender Revolution in the Seventeenth-Century? – Arts and Culture, 16 Nov. 2012, arts.brighton.ac.uk/projects/brightonline/issue-number-three/was-there-a-gender-revolution-in-the-seventeenth-century.
“Social and Family Life in the Late 17th & Early 18th Centuries.” British Literature Wiki, sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/social-and-family-life-in-the-late17th-early-18th-centuries/.
Wilkinson, Kate. “Young, Female and Powerful: Was Elizabeth I a Feminist?” Royal Museums Greenwich, 17 Nov. 2017, www.rmg.co.uk/stories/blog/young-female-powerful-was-elizabeth-i-feminist.
“Women in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries: Introduction.” Encyclopedia.com, A Gale Critical Companion, 29 Nov. 2022, www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/women-16th-17th-and-18th-centuries-introduction.
“Women Writers – 17th and 18th Centuries.” Women Writers , library.unt.edu/rarebooks/exhibits/women/17th.htm.
“‘Women’s Literature in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Overviews .” .” Encyclopedia.com, Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion, 16 Nov. 2022, www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/womens-literature-16th-17th-and-18th-centuries-overviews.