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16 - “To be some body”: married women and The Hardships of the English Laws

from Part IV - Early modern legal and political prescriptions for women

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 August 2010

Hilda L. Smith
Affiliation:
University of Cincinnati
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Summary

In 1735 an anonymous woman published a small volume entitled The Hardships of the English Laws in Relation to Wives … in an Humble address to the Legislature. Although it has received little attention from scholars, its publication drew sufficient notice at the time to be excerpted as a leading essay in May and June in the Gentleman's Magazine. In a mere seventy pages the work addresses the current feminist issues of education, property, maternity, and dependency using arguments based on moral philosophy, political and constitutional theory, scripture and theology. It manages to convey both outraged protest and rational acceptance of the social order, emphasizing the contradictory tension between the human moral responsibility of women and their subordination as wives. The author's interpretational framework might be called “Christian feminist.” Women's subordination is the just outcome of Eve's first disobedience; but women have souls, they have the right to control their talents, their fortunes, their children, and most importantly their property in their own bodies and minds. The laws of marriage and of God may impose subordination, but the subordinate wife retains her full humanity and moral responsibility.

The author articulates no specific program of reform. That will only come from men's willingness to modify the “despotic” powers that the law gives them.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1998

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