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3 - Women's public political voice in England: 1640–1740

from Part I - Women's political writings, 1400–1690

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 August 2010

Hilda L. Smith
Affiliation:
University of Cincinnati
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Summary

It is the “usual work of women either to spin or knit, not to meddle with State Affairs,” observed a commentator in mid-seventeenth-century England. Echoing the point later in the century a writer inquired of his readers: “Do you not think Learning and Politicks become a Woman as ill as riding astride?” These two remarks, themselves typical of many others, express the prevailing view of women in politics in early modern England. This view (although sometimes contested) held that women were not supposed to have a public voice, much less a public political voice. Nonetheless, starting in the 1640s and lasting to the mid-eighteenth century when their voices faded and their public role receded, a growing number of middle- and lower middle-class women in England (as distinct from aristocratic women, who had long exercised private political influence) did “meddle with State Affairs.” Their “meddling” took various forms, none more important than that of printing their ideas on a variety of political, religious, administrative, social, and economic issues. For women the very act of using the printing press was of great significance. It was symbolic – a public defiance of traditional norms; in practical terms, it empowered women as nothing else had ever done, enabling them to make their ideas public, somewhat permanent, and available to a wider audience than would otherwise have been possible.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1998

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