Erudite women in a less tolerant time

This month I read The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser’s hefty tome describing the role of women in 17th century England. Fascinating throughout, and amusing and horrifying by turns, it’s a readable history and doesn’t seem to be pushing a feminist agenda as books on women in history often seem to do. Much as I hated school, reading this book made me thankful for it, and thankful also for the opportunity to write openly as I do, both creating fiction and airing opinions in my blog.

The thought of being barred from an education because of my gender (or indeed for any other reason) fills me with horror. If the attitudes of 17th century England still prevailed in the late 20th I would have been warned that no-one would marry me if I showed signs of learning (not so much of a threat now, but quite dire back then), I would have been ridiculed and told that reading was bad for my health, and if my father as a well-educated man had decided to encourage me (as some did), his friends would very likely have tried to dissuade him. I can only imagine the frustration of being restricted to the ladylike lessons in needlework, dancing and singing for a (relatively wealthy) 17th century woman as knowledge-hungry and book-loving as I am. Of course some of that will be a product of my time – if I was surrounded by uneducated women, with no expectations of being taught anything which might stretch my mind, who knows if I’d still yearn for history and maths. Nevertheless there were a few brave women who struggled against their imposed role and not only obtained a Classical education themselves but endeavoured (without a great deal of success, unfortunately) to pass it on to the next generation.

Female authors did exist (Aphra Behn for instance was a notable playwright) but often faced ridicule or hostility, or it was assumed that the work was not entirely their own. They could keep their work secret or publish anonymously, but it took some guts to stand up and show their work to the world, and unfortunately courage was seen as a masculine trait and therefore unwelcome in a modest and virtuous (i.e. socially acceptable) woman. Interestingly, female painters were perfectly acceptable, but then painting doesn’t require book-learning so isn’t as threatening.

However much I might complain sometimes about pollution or the fragmentation of society, the proliferation of annoying gadgets and the globalisation and associated homogenisation of culture, I’m still glad I’m here now and not in the past. Anytime I find myself wondering, I should just think of an age in which I wouldn’t even be allowed (or able, since histories would have been in Latin) to read a history book like The Weaker Vessel, let alone write an article about it.

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4 comments

  1. I was just reading a book and the story takes place in the early 18th century told from a woman’s perspective and she talks about how difficult it is to live as a smart woman and the difficulties of simply existing as a woman around that time. Your post just puts my thoughts into words, I’m glad I’m living now rather than in those times where your sex defined who you are before anything else…

  2. yeah it’s pretty horrible thinking of all the wasted potential then and unfortunately now around the world, I always thought learning was worthwhile for it’s own sake and it’s sad that historically women were denied opportunities to prevent them questioning their place in society (a socio-biologist/pagan femminist might say that it was a male reaction to women’s inherent biological power they are assured maternity men not paternity so to over compensate men have sociologically belittled women as they intriniscally have the upper hand) in any acse it’s sad so many people have been defined and denied opportunities because of their gender

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