Was There a Gender Revolution in the Seventeenth-Century?

Michaela Murphy

Murphy's essay looks at the second class status of women during the Renaissance and the efforts made to overcome that. Exploring the seventeenth-century idealised image of women, it asks whether their representation in art and literature as rising above male oppression can be seen as a gender revolution.


Chapter 1 – Renaissance Women and Patriarchal Oppression


‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands,

as unto the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife;

even as Christ is the head of the church… therefore as the church is subject

to Christ, so let wives be subject to their husbands in everything.’

Ephesians 5.22 - 24


Women in the 17th century were second-class citizens, subject to their fathers from birth and later handed over like chattel to their husbands. Fastidious demands were placed upon them with regards to conduct and virtue which they were expected to uphold these at all times or be judged accordingly. Philip Stubbes based his idea of the ‘perfect woman’ on his late wife, and wrote of her in the Crystal Glass for Christian Wives. She was praised for her ‘modesty, courtesy, gentleness, affability and good government… she obeyed the commandment of the apostle who biddeth women be silent and learn of their husbands at home.’ 


These ‘appropriate guidelines’ for women dictated all aspects of their life including family, personality, dress and even appetite. Gervase Markham listed further qualities of an exemplary English housewife, who must be,

‘of chaste thought, stout courage, patient, untired, watchful, diligent, witty, pleasant, constant in friendship, full of good neighbourhood, wise in discourse, but not frequent therein, sharp and quick of speech, but not bitter or talkative, secret in her affairs, comfortable in her counsels, and generally skilful in the worthy knowledge’s which do belong to her vocation,’ 


These extensive lists were published frequently, women were born to serve men, it was their ‘vocation,’ and these doctrines were used by men in order to dictate how women should act.


With reference to contemporary texts, in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero is hugely demanding of Miranda, in Act 1 Scene 2 he insists on her obedience, ‘Obey and be attentive’3, ‘Dost thou attend me? (I.ii.78) ‘thou attend’st not!’ (I.ii.87) ‘Dost thou hear?’ (I.ii.106) When he has finished talking ‘at’ her he puts her to sleep, ‘Thou art inclined to sleep… I know thou canst not chose.’ (I.ii.185 ) She has no choice, Prospero’s word is law, and his domination of her illustrates the enforced subservience of women under patriarchal rule. Renaissance men coveted the idea of a ‘perfect’ obedient wife, Ferdinand talks of Miranda in Act 3 Scene 1 of The Tempest as having all the virtues he desired but never found in any other woman, declaring Miranda to be ‘So perfect and so peerless.’ (III.i.48) The perfect woman was chaste, obedient, humble and, most importantly, silent.


In further edicts on behavior, William Gouge and Barnabe Rich stress the importance of silence. Women were to be seen and not heard, those who were outspoken were proclaimed as whores, ‘A good woman (again) openeth her mouth with wisdom, the law of grace is in her tongue, but a harlot is full of words she is loud and babbling.’5 A woman should instead be quiet and temperate. The effect that this enforced silencing had on women in the Renaissance, and how they attempted to overcome it will be discussed in the continuing chapters.


The sexual sphere was another strictly controlled area. Upon their first meeting in Act 1 Scene 2 of The Tempest, Ferdinand wonders at Miranda’s beauty (in Latin, ‘Miranda’ means ‘to be wondered at’) and demands to know if she is an honourable maid. Women in the Renaissance were defined in three ways; by their family status, as a wife, sister or mother; by their morality, as a saint or witch and most importantly for this point, by their sexuality, as a virgin or a whore. Later Ferdinand again questions Miranda’s honour, ‘O, if a virgin… I’ll make you the Queen of Naples.’ (I.ii.446-447) A woman who had had sex outside of marriage was ruined, worthless and therefore treated with contempt.

Prospero is in strict control of the sexual relations of Miranda and Ferdinand in The Tempest. The couple are warned by Prospero on many occasions to avoid fornication and pre-marital intercourse,


‘If thou dost break her virgin-knot before

All sanctimonious ceremonies may… be ministered…

barren hate, Sour-eyed disdain and discord shall bestrew

The union of your bed,’ (IV.i.15-21)


This is another way in which Prospero wields his control over Miranda. It seems however that his insistence stems from reasonable roots. In Act 1 Scene 2 Miranda talks of Ferdinand as only the third man she has ever seen, and the first ‘That e’er I sighed for.’ (I.ii.445) It seems as if Miranda is a woman of passionate longings, which according to the regulations of the time must be restrained.

The Lamentable Ballad of the Ladies Fall (1688) is the tragic story of a young woman, who submits to the pressures of her lover and has pre-marital intercourse, ‘Too soon alas she gave consent/ To yield unto his will.’ The young woman falls pregnant and pleads with the man to marry her or, if he will not, to end her life – such would be the shame. The man leaves with a promise to return in a month to make her

his wife. When he does not return the young woman bitterly laments her mistake goes into labour and dies alongside her baby in childbirth. Her lover hears of the tragic deaths, for which he is blamed, upon his return and kills himself in remorse. The poem ends with a dire warning,


‘Take heed to dainty Damosels all,

of flattering words beware,

And of the honour of your name,

Have you a special care:

Too true alas this story is,

As many one can tell.

By others harms learn to be wise

And thou shalt do full well.’


A woman’s most important commodity was her virginity, the only salvation for such a disastrous mistake was marriage, the men involved however had much less to loose and didn’t always make ‘honest’ wives of their conquests.


This situation was unfortunately quite common; a similar state of affairs to that depicted in the Lamentable Ballad of the Ladies Fall is that of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652), a female artist who painted Susanna e i Vecchioni (Susanna and the Elders) in 1610 at the age of 17. The painting serves as a visual depiction of masculine authority over women. Gentileschi was the daughter of an artist working with Agostino Tassi. Her father placed her under Tassi’s tutelage in 1611, during which time he raped her. After his insincere promise to marry her, a seven-month trial took place; Tassi was sentenced to imprisonment for one year – which he never served. Gentileschi’s depiction of the old testament story of Judith beheading Holofernes deals with the issue of gender rebellion and shows a heroic image of the defence of female honour in which the widow Judith decapitates an enemy general thus ending the war. Art critic Roberto Longhi wrote of her: "There are about fifty-seven works by Artemisia Gentileschi and 94% (forty-nine works) feature women as protagonists or equal to men" 


Dodd and Cleaver had an entirely different perspective on the equality of the sexes. In A Godly Form of Household Government, which was first published in 1598 and then republished in further editions, they stated that ‘the best means… that a wife can use to obtain and maintain the love and good liking of her husband is to be silent, obedient, peaceable, patient [and] studious to appease his choler if he be angry.’ Women were further relegated, ultimately to the rank of servants to their husbands; their main role was simply in the appeasement and service of their family. Homilies were read on a regular basis at church services in the 17th century, these preached about issues ranging from wifely duties to the immorality of adultery. The Homily on the State of Matrimony (1562) quoted St Peter, ‘ye wives be ye in subjection to obey your own husband’ and went on to declare that a stubborn malapert wife would lead to matrimonial wrack and ruin. 


It wasn’t just men who had opinions on the virtues of a potential wife, Elizabeth Grymestone wrote a letter to her son from her deathbed advising him to take a wife from his own rank, neither ‘so beautiful as that every liking eye shall level at her; nor so brown as to bring thee to a loathed bed.’ Women were dictated to in all aspects of their lives, even by other women; they were not allowed to be too ugly, neither too beautiful; they must be wise but not outspoken; they must know their place in the hierarchy – in effect below their husbands.


In John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1623) Ferdinand the Duke of Calabria is suspicious of his recently widowed sister, he orders his servant Bosola to observe her and report back to him,


‘…observe the Duchess,

To note all the particulars of her haviour:

What suitors do solicit her for marriage…

I would not have her marry again.’ 


The Duchess may be have been freed from the rule of her late husband, but she is still answerable to her domineering brother. Jean Luis Vives is in entire agreement with Ferdinand’s sentiments, he speaks of re-marrying in The Instruction of Christian Women saying ‘Howbeit that better it is to abstain than to marry again, is… counselled by Christian pureness,’ going on to say ‘if thou have children already, what needest thou to marry?’ thus furthering the idea that women should be pure and that the sole reason for intercourse, and in effect for woman’s existence, was to bear children to continue the family line – disregarding pleasure.


The patriarchal ideal that a man could dictate to a woman whom she may or may not marry was commonplace during the Renaissance. Women were the possessions of men, handed down like chattel from their fathers to their husbands, they could not inherit in their own right or earn their own income but were left to the mercy of the men who ‘took them on.’ 


Not all women accepted the supreme dominance of patriarchy, Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676) was disinherited from her family estate after her father’s death in 1605 because she was a woman and deemed incapable of keeping up its maintenance. She fought for many years for what she saw as her rightful inheritance and finally in 1643, after the death of the only male heir, was reinstated. The triptych known as Lady Anne’s Great Picture shows her on the left at the age of 15 (the age she was when her father died), in the middle her parents and two late brothers as children and on the right herself at age 56 (the age she was when she finally came into her inheritance). After the death of her second husband in 1650 she was unobstructed by domineering male influences and took on many restoration projects, bringing the castles of Appleby, Brough and Brougham, among others, back to their former glory. She died at the age of 86, but her legacy remains to this day. 


Lady Arbella Stuart (1575-1615) a claimant on the English throne (descended from both the Tudors and Stuarts) is another example of a non-conformist Renaissance woman. Her marriage to William Seymour the 2nd Duke of Somerset in 1610 strengthened her claim to the throne and she was therefore seen as a real threat to the reigning monarch, James I. James imprisoned the couple who then attempted to escape to France. Arbella was caught in Calais and returned to the Tower of London, she wrote a subversive letter from her prison declaring her equal rights and accusing James I as acting above the law, ‘I may receive such benefit of justice as both his majesty by his oath those of his blood not excepted hath promised and the Laws of his realm afford to all others,’ this thinly veiled challenge to James I was an real act of real rebellion for a woman of the period.


Aphra Behn (1640-1689), praised as being the first woman to make a living from her writing, is another important example of a woman who refused to bend to patriarchy. Her poem, On Her Loving Two Equally is controversial in its content, discussing a woman in love with two men, ‘How strongly does my passion flow/ Divided equally 'twixt two?’ With the line, ‘For both alike I languish, sigh, and die,’ the poem depicts woman as passionate, lustful creatures capable of becoming entangled in complex love affairs, these were all typically masculine traits. The narrator’s sense of ownership, ‘…my Alexis’ and the disregard for the emotions of the men in question shows a self-absorbed single mindedness, which would have been a very undesirable character trait in a woman of the time.


These unattractive traits included disobedience and overt displays of emotion, Miranda is ‘guilty’ of these at times in The Tempest, she steps outside of the patriarchal structure in Act 3 Scene 1 when she offers to carry the wood Ferdinand is moving, to which Ferdinand responds,


‘No, precious creature,

I’d rather crack my sinews, break my back,

Than you should such dishonour undergo,’ (III.i.26-29)


It was seen as shameful and degrading for a woman to assume masculine characteristics. Miranda steps further away from her fathers tyranny when she disobeys his orders and tells Ferdinand her name in line 37 (III.i.37) and in her declaration of love and effectual proposition to him with the line ‘I am your wife, if you will marry me;’ (III.i.85) she puts herself in danger of being written off as an outspoken, disobedient, pertinent woman – with whom most Renaissance men would never wish to marry.


The Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi also disregards the standard patriarchal order when she proposes to Antonio by placing a ring on his finger in the stage directions after line 332 in Act 1 Scene 2, even though she had promised her brother that she would never marry again. She goes on to have children in secret, completely disregarding her brother’s demands. By modern standards this does not seem an act of great rebellion, but women of the 17th century were not able to provide for themselves – there was no employment open to them, no means of livelihood besides reliance on their fathers or husbands and the alienation of either of these could have ruinous consequences.


The opening quote of this chapter, from Ephesians, places women directly below men, but Galatians 3.28 states that ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ The literature I have chosen for this essay shows women in varying degrees of submission to men in all spheres of their lives both public and private, but also serves to illustrate that women were beginning to develop their own distinct voice within the realm of men.







Aughterson, Kate, ed., Renaissance Women: A Sourcebook – Constructions of Femininity in England (London: Routledge, 1995)

Bissell, R. Ward. Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art, (Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001)

Davies, Godfrey, The Early Stuarts 1603-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963)

Hebron, Malcolm, Key Concepts in Renaissance Literature (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillain, 2008)

Shakespeare, William, The Tempest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Verney, Frances Parthenope, and Verney, Margaret Maria Williams-Hay, Memoirs of the Verney family during the commonwealth, 1650-1660, Vol iii 73-74

http://archive.org/details/memoirsofverneyf03verniala (accessed 21 May 2012)

Webster, John, The Duchess of Malfi (London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1977)



Michaela Murphy


brightONLINE student literary journal

16 Nov 2012