Skip to content Skip to navigation

Full citation: 

Frye, Susan & Karen Robertson (eds). Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Contents summary: 

This paper considers the difficulty of tracing female alliances, due to gender differences in the types of records created and preserved. Women’s bonds are less commonly traceable in formal documents than men’s. Women’s letters provide one source for connections, even though many are written to men. The letter under consideration was written by lady Ralegh after her husband’s conviction for treason. It has a list of female names as endorsers on the back, and identifying the signatories maps out an informal alliance network largely organized around kinship, especially women with experience with legal conflict rooted in inheritance and widowhood.

Lady Raleigh tries to salvage some economic protection for herself out of the treason verdict (which would have made Ralegh’s property forfeit to the crown). She argued that the property had been transferred to their son before the conviction, and so was exempt.

A one-time lady in waiting to Elizabeth, her secret marriage to Ralegh resulted in a break. So other support for her various legal difficulties was essential. The Tudor court aristocracy was complexly intermarried providing women with options to leverage when alliances were needed. Marriage and childbearing may have been the foundation of women’s power in that context, but the power came from how they employed those connections. Appeals may have been directed toward male gatekeepers, but support often came more from women’s peers who saw parallels to their own interests, especially in matters of inheritance and property rights. With Ralegh imprisoned and abandoned by former allies, the power in the marriage shifted to Lady Ralegh.

On Lady Ralegh’s letter of appeal to Robert Cecil, 19 women appear endorsing her position. The women did not sign the letter personally – their names were added by someone else, perhaps acting as an intermediary. The remainder of the paper works to identify how the endorsers were connected – socially or by family – to Lady Ralegh, as well as noting the difficulties in doing so due to the small pool of given names popular at the time and women’s surname changes on marriage.

Contents summary: 

The importance of relations (of all types) between women to society and to women’s lives has tended to be overlooked in favor of the more visible relations between men or between women and men. Due to the nature of society, men could assume that their relationships were stable and long-lasting, but women’s relationships could easily be disrupted by the lesser control women had over their own lives. Or women’s relationships might be temporary alliances across social barriers, established for a specific purpose.

The introduction to this collection provides a summary of the contents, pointing out the connections between papers and the importance of basic groundwork in making the documentary evidence of women’s lives and work available to scholars. The collection is organized in four themes: Alliances in the City (looking not only at London but other major urban centers in England), Alliances in the Household (examining the many different roles for women within the household and how they interacted), Materializing Communities (covering intentionally-created communities revolving around common social, economic, or religious concerns), and Emergent Alliances (the role of race, class, and desire in women’s alliances).

Contents summary: 

While other papers in this volume look at relations between upper class waiting women and their aristocratic mistresses (whether in life or fiction), this study concerns itself with in-group relations among ordinary housemaids and women in service. One common life path for young women from rural households (whether of the gentry or lower) was to be placed in service with a large urban household with the expectation that this would not only provide income in the immediate future but would lead to wider opportunities for marriage. In drama, such figures are often depicted as working class so they may be portrayed to comic effect as accomplices to the central character’s plans. But what evidence do we have for how actual women in such positions interacted for their own interests?

While women in such positions often had limited literacy skills, we can retrieve some understanding from pamphlets written in the voice of—and likely penned by—women in service representing themselves as speaking for the class. This article looks at two such publications: Isabella Whitney’s  “A Modest meane for Maids” (1573) and the anonymous “A Letter sent by the Maydens of London” (1567). This genre no only gave voice to an often silent class, but indicated that they considered that the use of a collective voice, representing a unified point of view, strengthened the arguments they made. Whitney, in particular, as an identifiable individual who also left a body of poetry, sheds a particularly fascinating light on the range of possible experiences for urban maidservants.

In Elizabethan England, domestic service was not simply the most available occupation for unmarried women, it was—in theory—the legally mandated occupation. One statute mandated that any unmarried woman in London between the ages of 14 to 40 who could not prove other employment could be seized by the authorities and forced into domestic service “for such wages as they shall think meet” and to be imprisoned if she refused. But women in household service were paid less than a man (1/2 to 2/3 the rate) and were often subject to sexual abuse from male members of the household which could result in job loss (and consequent prison for vagrancy) if that resulted in pregnancy. Housemaids were simultaneously required to be of strict deportment, considered to be sexually available, and had functionally no recourse to refuse sexual advances. Abortion was widely practiced (or believed to be practiced) as a preferred alternative.

Whitney’s poem “A Modest meane for Maids” tells the other side of this story, detailing how employment in service required impossible levels of patience and diplomacy, and revealing the frustration and resentment such work engendered. She alludes to a good position (with an admired mistress) lost due to false accusations of another.  Elsewhere she gives advice to her younger sisters (also in service) regarding which types of positions are worth holding on to and which might be better left. The demands of service were worth it if the household met minimal standards of decency, because any alternative might be worse.

In the guise of giving practical advice for success in service, Whitney critiques the unreasonable demands of employers and warns obliquely against those who might “infect” them with corruption (strongly implying erotic entanglements). The circumlocutions used for these hazards suggest she means male employers and their sons within the household—the men who have the power to suppress even the suggestion that they might be a hazard to maidservants’ morality.

Within this all, Whitney depicts concentric circles of alliance and connection: her sisters (both as family and as fellow maidservants), domestic workers in general, the family she serves (which relies on her loyalty and honesty for their own security). Whitney’s advice may be overtly directed to the first two, but in pointing out the hazards of service and demands on workers, she is also speaking to the last.

The anonymous “A Letter sent by Maydens of London” is more outspoken (hence, no doubt, the reason for its anonymity). This pamphlet has a specific target: Edward Hake, whose earlier (but now lost) pamphlet “The Mery Meeting of Maydens in London” accused the class of female domestic workers of sloth and dishonesty. The counter-pamphlet is structured with multiple voices and nominal addressees, calling for common cause with their mistresses against Hake’s misogyny. (Ironically, but inevitably, some scholars have claimed that the specialized legal language used in the pamphlet means that it could only have been written by…wait for it…a man.)

In contrast to other proto-feminist works of its era, the Letter avoids questions of whether the genders have an essential moral nature and focuses on the everyday dynamics of the household. The narrators refute the charges of laziness, theft, and going about in public in pursuit of men, not be addressing Hake directly, but by appealing to common cause with their (female) employers for the efficient running of the household. Should the housewives take Hake’s advice and deprive maids of their half-Sunday off, they would soon find no one willing to work under such conditions. Subverting the “body” metaphor of the household, where the master is the “head” with authority over the “body”, they embrace the image of being the limbs that are required for a body to stand and to accomplish work. Without them, the mistress is “disabled” and unable to accomplish what she desires. The arguments have a taste of collective bargaining: workers have the right to withhold their labor if the working conditions are intolerable.

Another tactic is introduced, urging the women—both mistress and maids—to make common cause against their male critic. The maids say they take pride in their work; they are too sharp-eyed and competent to allow theft under their noses. And they appeal to the mistress’s pride in her own competence: surely she knows her own resources and inventories well enough to be able to testify that no theft is takin place? If they give a candle-end to a beggar woman, surely they do it with their mistress’s knowledge and permission for she believes in charity? Further, they say, Hakes makes little distinction between giving charity to beggars at the door and paying housemaids their earned wages—so how can he understand the valid dynamics of the household economy? Hakes would forbid mistresses from rewarding hard work or offering charity as they see fit, and it isn’t his business to judge their actions!

Then the female alliance shifts again, as the maids defend “Mother B” a labor broker who appears as a villainous figure in Hake’s pamphlet. Mother B has done nothing but arrange for labor contracts and, if those contracts are not honored, will help the maids to leave and find better employers. Surely this is their right if the contract is broken or has been completed? Without the assistance of Mother B, maids who are summarily dismissed from service might turn to dishonesty to live, rather than being helped to another position.

And as for railing against maids going to plays and public spectacles, he would forbid both mistress and maid from doing so, and the alliance shifts back to common cause between those groups. Plays—like sermons—depict stories of virtue and vice, teaching moral lessons, they argue. And further, this attack on enjoying public entertainments places the fault more on the mistresses (who allow it) than the maids who indulge in it. Once again, the narrators leverage their employers’ sense of their own authority and judgment to undermine Hake’s demands.

Both publications discussed here set up a two-level structure of female alliance: first, among the maidservants in opposition to their employers, but second, identifying themselves as part of a larger household and including their female employers in an alliance of women’s concerns against external dangers (e.g., housebreaking) or misogynistic attacks on all women.

Contents summary: 

Wack

 

This article looks at depictions of women and work in two scenes of the medieval Chester Mystery Play cycle. The plays were revised over their lifespan and these scenes were added fairly late—possibly the latter part of the 16th centuy--drawing on medieval legend rather than Biblical sources. The first of the scenes occurs in the Noah play and focuses on Noah’s wife, often played as a comic character as she first refuses to enter the Ark and then wants to divorce Noah to stay with her friends who are singing a drinking song as the waters rise. (Wack draws parallels between the scene’s “disorderly” intrusion into the structure of the play cycle with Mrs. Noah’s “disorderly disruption of divine order.”

The second scene occurs in the “harrowing of hell” play in which Christ rescues the souls trapped in hell, but in this added scene a character Mulier (Latin for “woman”), who is a brewer and tapster, is returned to hell for violations of the brewing and sales laws.

Both scenes depict tensions between social order and women’s communities, with the theme of social drinking running through them. The question is, why would such scenes be added to an existing and highly traditional text? What purpose did they serve within the 16th century context of their addition? To answer this, the article looks at women’s relationship to the production of the plays, and the model of female society (at odds with masculine authority) depicted in drinking songs.

As the various plays in the Chester cycle were performed by specific professions or guilds, changes in the plays reflected and negotiated shifts in the importance or status of various professions. At an extreme, a play might be reassigned to a different profession if the previous performers could no longer support the cost.

In contrast to the usual view of medieval drama as being a male provenance, the participation of women in producing the Chester cycle is well documented. The “wives of the town” were responsible for the Assumption play, but women were also guild members, contributing both financially (in money or kind) and in labor. There are records of women refurbishing the pageant wagons, copying the scripts, and negotiating the best seating. The participation of women in brewing crafts is well documented. But the image of women socializing with drink and song is also prominent in popular culture, with “gossips songs” being an identifiable genre. (One of which features in the Noah play.) The featured song proclaims the drinking women as forming a community in defiance of their husbands’ authority. Membership in the community might be lost if a woman failed to pay her share.

Such gatherings for ritualized social drinking were an established part of male society, reflecting strict social hierarchies in their performance. Women’s drinking communities did not have a similar official status but were a mirror, depicting a more flexible structure.

Around the time that the relevant scenes were added to the plays, Chester enacted a series of laws relating to women and the place of their work in the social structure, particular married women. Marriage affected women’s place in society, but also men’s as only married men could fully participate in civic life. One concern being addressed was the use of the same headgear by married and unmarried women, such that they couldn’t be easily distinguished by sight. A new law required that a clear distinction be made. A second law with a purported economic purpose placed restrictions on two rituals around childbirth. Childbirth itself was restricted to the presence of the mother’s immediate female relatives and the midwife, rather than being attended and celebrated by a larger community of women, with food and drink. And the “churching” ceremony when the mother returned to church after the birth was similarly restricted. While framed as reducing waste, this “privatized” the experience of birth which had previously been a communal affair that recognized and rewarded the economic importance of reproductive labor.

Another set of laws instituted during this same era standardized the price and quality of beer, and placed restrictions on its sale—including forbidding women between the age of 14 and 40 from working as tapsters (keepers of taverns), on the argument that women’s presence in taverns led to “wantonny and braules”. This was a massive change in an industry that had traditionally been very open to women (in some eras, dominated by women). Thus the moral hazard depicted by the tapster character in the Harrowing of Hell play was mirrored by a new legal hazard, especially given that the character in the play is represented by a woman. The play implicitly justified the exclusion of women from the profession as addressing sin, not as an economic power-grab by male authorities.

The rebellion of Noah’s wife speaks to the disruption of female community. After helping to build the Ark, she refuses to board it unless she can bring her “gossips”–her close female friends. She rejects Noah’s authority and even her marriage bond, telling him to leave her with her friends and get another wife. In the end she is forced on board. Left out of the Ark, the women are seen singing and drinking together as the waters rise. From one angle, the represent a female community defined by its rejection of male authority; from another angle, this specifically female group stands in for all of sinful humanity drowned in the Flood, framing sin as inherently feminine.

But even underlying the misogynistic readings of the fictional scenes, they can be seen as representing the effects of misogynistic social changes on the real women of Chester and their struggle to maintain solidarity.

Contents summary: 

Mikalachki’s introduction to this article focuses on the difficulty of the topic: inter-personal alliances among female vagrants in the early 17th century. The difficulties rest on a number of factors; the relatively small proportion of vagrants (i.e., people with no fixed abode and no or minimal employment) who were female, the interference in the historic record from fictionalized images of vagrant counter-cultures, largely created by authors in the legal establishment whose interactions with vagrants occurred within the context of legal proceedings, and the lack of female voices within that historic record. Within this context, Mikalachki takes one narrative—recorded in the context of legal testimony—that suggests either the reality or the fantasy of alliance networks among female vagrants, and lays out the larger background and concerns involved in interpreting it.

The stereotype of female vagrants was of a woman who rejected patriarchal control in favor of an independent, self-reliant, and sexually licentious life. In reality, vagrancy (and begging) were most often generated by localized economic depression and crop failures. With no regular work available, or the failure of family support systems, there were few viable options. Migration to areas with more job availability was one option, but if the job evaporated or did not exist in the first place, the migrant automatically became a “vagrant”. And once in that status, recovery was nearly impossible.

[Note: I have only a passing familiarity with the legal context of vagrancy, but one aspect was that charity for the destitute was the responsibility of the local parish. But the parish typically looked for reasons to be absolved of responsibility. One common argument was that the parish was only responsible for those who were residents. Thus a vagrant—someone who was not living in their parish of origin—fell outside the available options for support. In some cases, they might be forcibly deported to their parish of origin, which presumably still contained the reasons that they had left in the first place.]

When individual stories can be traced, women rarely became vagrants by their own choice. More typically, poverty would result in some sort of petty crime such as theft. This might result in unemployability, but it could result in being offered a sort of plea bargain where the charges were dropped if the woman agreed to leave the parish. The resistance to vagrancy can be seen in the number of women who initially accepted this exile but then reappear in local records for further offenses. Once separated from both family and parish ties, women had almost no licet way to re-enter the workforce. “Living out of service” was itself a legal offense. Arrest records of groups of vagrant women might suggest ad hoc communities, but when examples can be traced for specific individuals or localities, there are no identifiable stable groups within them.

The reputed sexual license of vagrant women is likely the flip side of a harsh reality: that prostitution was one of the few economic opportunities for her, despite the hazards of potential pregnancy. The woman in the narrative that Mikalachki studies had at least two out-of-wedlock pregnancies, the first laid at the feet of her employer at the time and the precipitating cause of her loss of employment, the second proving fatal nine years later.

The remainder of the article discusses the portion of the woman’s testimony that echoes language and themes strongly connected with fictionalized “vagrant pamphlets”. Mikalachki speculates on the authenticity of this narrative, with one possibility being that the woman was “performing” a theatrical and fictionalized version of vagrancy for the benefit of her audience (the legal authorities) who in turn were lenient to her for the sake of that performance.

Contents summary: 

The topic of this article involves the reputation that the town of Brentford had as a place of adulterous assignation for residents of London, and how the sexual sheanigans of a group of men in the early 17th c play “Westward Ho” were subverted by the women who were the target of their desire via a femal alliance to keep the upper hand. I just barely skimmed this, as it doesn’t have any identifiable relevance to the Project. Included only for completness’ sake.

Contents summary: 

Like the previous paper, this one--the first in the section on “Alliances in the Household”--is not of direct relevance to the Project. It focuses on the context of an infanticide trial in early 18th century Virginia in which the accused was a prominent landowning white widow. Within a female-centered household that included people of various races and positions, including both free servants and enslaved people, the inter-personal connections and the ways in which the participants managed the communication of knowledge about the dead child demonstrate a dynamic more complex than “a female community” or class and racial divides. The analysis is fascinating but I’ll leave it at that.

Contents summary: 

So, Ben Johnson is a massive misogynist, we know that, right? This analysis of gendered roles and alliances in his play The Magnetic Lady, reveals a complex feminine world, despite the hatred and disgust shown for any female character who is not a well-born, passive, virtuous cypher. Women acting together, in a variety of strongly female-coded roles such as midwife, nurse, and widowed householder, try to subvert the patriarchal establishment by taking ownership of their own sexuality and acting to further female goals in marriage. This, of course, by the logic of the play, makes them the villains.

The potential relevance of this article to the Project comes in how female-headed, female-centered households of the early 17th century were depicted within misogynistic satirical literature. They must have been a significant enough feature of society to provoke male anxiety. We see themes like widows having an active (if covert) sex life without binding themselves in marriage, female alliances to deal with the consequences of unwed motherhood, and the ways in which male relatives held legal power over women’s finances and strategized to retain that power.

Contents summary: 

Tvordi’s article digs into the importance of female alliances for characters in early modern drama, and how those alliances represent a whole range of relationships including family, friendship, service, marriage resistance, and even desire. [Note: the topic of f/f desire in early modern drama is even more deeply examined by Walen 2005 https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4373] But given the imperatives of the “marriage plot,” these alliances are often broken or left behind in the play’s resolution. More rarely, pairs of female characters make a space for f/f alliances entirely apart from heterosexual marriage, as with Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It and Maria and Olivia in Twelfth Night. Within these bonds they support and rely on each other, even as one member of the pair is pursuing a heterosexual goal. Tvordi’s argument is that these persistent, supportive f/f relationships also involve an intense emotional bond that shades into the erotic.

As I get to this point in the article, my immediate reaction is surprise and curiosity that it is the Maria-Olivia bond that is being considered, not the Viola-Olivia bond, which is the more obvious site of homoeroticism in Twelfth Night. But Tvordi addresses that in a brief review of the state-of-the field of early modern female homoeroticism (in 1999). Female transvestite figures, rather than helping to shed light on images of, and attitudes toward, female homoeroticism, tend to create the potential for male characters “to cross erotic boundaries through their interactions with the transvestite figure”. That is, despite the illusion of f/f desire created by female characters interacting with cross-dressed women, Shakespeare’s cross-dressed women are all solidly pursuing heterosexual goals (under the superficial appearance of m/m eroticism).

The verbal expression of desire between women in Shakespeare comes from more traditionally “feminine” characters, and can rival the romantic speeches of m/f couples. These characters do not overtly challenge gender roles (and within the plot, rarely successfully challenge heterosexual imperatives) which has led to their homoerotic aspects being overlooked. Both Celia and Maria challenge standard gender roles and the boundaries of sexuality, not only in regard to Rosalind and Olivia respectively, but with other characters.

But female “erotic alliances” aren’t necessarily symmetric and entirely supportive. Both Celia and Maria act to interfere with their partner’s heterosexual ventures in part to maintain the importance of their own role: Maria with respect to her role in Olivia’s household, and Celia as friend and ally. There are significant differences between the two pairs: Maria-Olivia involves differences of class and status while Celia-Rosalind are close kin and nominally equal in class. Celia makes regular verbal expressions of her love for Rosalind, while Maria demonstrates her devotion primarily through acts rather than words. [Note: On the other hand, as I noted in the Shakespeare podcast. https://alpennia.com/blog/lesbian-historic-motif-podcast-episode-208-sha... Shakespeare is unusually coy with respect to explicit reference to f/f sexual possibilities, in comparison with his contemporaries.] But Tvordi suggests that the verbal expressions in As You Like It can be used to fill in the silences in Twelfth Night regarding how the relationship between Maria and Olivia may have developed before the play, or in offstage moments. [Note: I’m a bit uneasy about applying this idea to a work of literature, as opposed to applying it to biography. The characters do not technically have a life other than what’s in the script.]

The plays also contrast in that As You Like It overtly promotes heterosexual goals (imperiling the f/f alliance) while Twelfth Night is overtly hostile to heterosexual pairing (leaving space for a sympathetic treatment of the Maria-Olivia bond). As You Like It contrasts Rosalind’s overt gender transgression as Ganymede with Celia’s verbal expressions of love for Rosalind, and her actions to create and maintain a homoerotic alliance. Whereas Rosalind does not return similar expressions and her actions are in pursuit of a heterosexual bond (or at least reflect a heterosexual obsession). From the very beginning of the play, Celia drives the actions, motivated by her love for Rosalind, and consistently acts in support of that alliance.

The Celia-Rosalind bond is framed as a “girlhood friendship” (similarly to Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and to the somewhat more passoinage Emilia-Flavina in The Two Noble Kinsmen), the language of these friendships is passionate and erotically charged. The imagery of these friendships is that of similarity, of love that is inspired by equality and likeness. And in As You Like It other characters comment on the intense nature of Celia and Rosalind’s love “dearer than…sisters.” But the friendship is asymmetric: although they are of equal birth, Celia has more power due to her father’s usurpation of the throne, and Rosalind has clearly cooled somewhat toward her as a result.

Thus the alliance is in the process of re-negotiation, where Celia offers Rosalind continued love and personal support in exchange for Rosalind turning away from the pursuit of heterosexual alliance and accepting their new power differential. When Orlando enters the scene, Celia repeatedly tries to discourage Rosalind’s attentions to him. Although Rosalind is typically attributed to have more agency, due to her decision to disguise herself as a man, when the actual actions in the initial scenes of the play are examined, it is Celia who acts with more agency. But when Rosalind crosses the gender boundary, conventional relations give her (back) the greater power between them. In the presence of others, Celia plays the subservient woman, returning to her more assertive personality only when she is alone with Rosalind.

At Rosalind’s emphatic choice of Orlando, Celia essential disappears from the play, returning with no explanation as a romantic door prize for Orlando’s brother, an abrupt turn of events that even Orlando questions.

In Twelfth Night, acting as Olivia’s waiting woman, Maria supports her rejection of male authority and courtship, including when it comes in the form of the cross-dressed Viola. There is no direct evidence of an erotic aspect to this bond, except perhaps in seeing a parallel with the eroticized master-servant relationship of Duke Orsino and the disguised Viola, the asymmetric attraction of Olivia for Cesario/Viola (playing a servant), and perhaps more overtly, of Viola’s brother Sebastien and his servant Antonio. Within this complex of eroticized cross-class relationships, the erotic potential of the Maria-Olivia alliance can be seen as implied, even if not expressed.

Maria’s defense against the male suitors can be seen as a two-sided defense of female sovereignty: of Olivia’s independent single state, and of her own position administering Olivia’s household. All the male figures in the household hold less power (and indeed are presented as comic figures). But Olivia’s bending to the attractions of Cesario/Viola proves the weak spot in their defenses, and Maria is sent away so that Olivia is free to open negotiations.

Even the ultimate marriages of both women renegotiate, rather than disrupting, their bond. In marrying Sir Toby, Maria relinquishes the servant-mistress bond that gave her authority within Olivia’s household, but gains social rank and the claim of kinship to Olivia. And Viola, too, is welcomed into an alliance of female equals (her disguise being left behind) rather than being resisted as a male intruder.

Tvordi posits that there is a direct relationship between the degree to which the play is invested in heterosexuality, the degree to which homoerotic relations are expressed overtly, and whether those homoerotic relations are maintained or disrupted by the play’s conclusion. If the core of the play is less about the imperative of marriage, then there is less need to depict the female homoerotic alliance as being clearly present and challenged.

Contents summary: 

Drama often draws on contemporary dynamics to depict historic stories, and in this article Brown uses the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and her female courtiers to examine the depiction of Cleopatra’s court in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. And, given the focus of this collection, it particularly looks at the types of alliances within the court between a queen and her waiting women. Brown’s position is that these relations strengthened Elizabeth’s position and goals, while Cleopatra is depicted as weak in this department.

Elizabeth’s female courtiers had both practical and ceremonial duties, which notably included controlling access to the queen. Although they were technically forbidden from participating in politics, their position as gatekeepers made political involvement difficult to avoid. The senior female courtiers were a relatively stable group, including both married and unmarried individuals. (The “maids of honor” were more changeable, younger, and famously forbidden from marrying.) Many of these women were drawn from the extended network of Boleyn relatives including members of the Howard, Carey, and Knollys families.

The existence of the power of these positions is documented in how others commented on it: seeking support and favor from those close to the queen, who in turn worked to promote the interests of friends and relations. But Elizabeth also used this female “fence” as a way to distance herself from petitioners. There was less need to say no to someone’s face if she could simply decline to respond to the intermediary.

The female courtiers also provided an emotionally supportive circle for the queen who, in turn, often had strong emotional ties to them, not surprising as some of the ladies were part of her household from the time of her ascension to their deaths. Given both personal and familial ties, the queen’s women functioned to extend her “presence” more widely than one woman on her own could manage.

The representation of Cleopatra’s court, in Shakespeare’s play, gives the two waiting women Charmian and Iras similar functional roles to Elizabeth’s women—greatly expanded from the characters they are based on in Plutarch’s history--but they are depicted as isolated and connected only to the queen, without the extensive family connections that shaped the real-world court. The article goes into some detail of how Cleopatra’s women act and function. (Which I’m going to skip summarizing.)

In both cases, there is a tightly-knit relationship between the queen and her women, which is somewhat mutual despite the differences of status and control. It is an entirely different type of relationship than the queen has with her male courtiers. The author points to the contrast in connectedness for Cleopatra’s women, but I wonder if this is a fair comparison—given that they’re fictional characters for whom complex back-stories would only muddle the plot.

The relevance of this article to the Project lies in the contemplation of the woman-centered culture of Elizabeth’s private life (to the extent that she had one). Within such a context, a never-married woman such as Blanche Parry could achieve an influence and functional social status that ordinarily would come only through marriage. And emotional connections between the women of the court would not raise the same concerns regarding loyalty and influence that marriage sometimes did.

Contents summary: 

In the 16th and 17th centuries, needlework was a strongly associated with the category of “woman” as well as being a significant marker of class in how it was created, used, and imitated. The motifs – both on large and small scale – provided a symbolic vocabulary to express multiple layers of meaning and offered a means of expressing identity, community, and subversion, as well as the more obvious symbolism of the designs. Elite embroiderers might have access to professional designers, but printed design books were becoming more general and patterns were shared within communities.

Because the symbolic language embedded in needlework was intended for public display, it was a medium through which women’s alliances could be claimed and advertised. This article looks at several prominent upper-class embroiderers of the 16th century and how such meetings to peer in their work, as well as more humble anonymous work of the 17th century.

New Year’s gifts from the young Elizabeth Tudor to her father the king and to queen Katherine Parr included embroidery-covered bound books of her own multilingual translations of religious and philosophical works meaningful to the recipients. The gifts thus demonstrated her scholarly accomplishments, her physical accomplishments, and her support of the recipients’ religious positions.

But her gifts to Parr had an additional purpose to express a filial bond to her stepmother and to emphasize their common interests, as women and especially as learned women. The texts she chose for the gift emphasized female authors and Elizabeth’s connection – both familial and symbolic – two female antecedents that connected her to Parr. As Elizabeth lived in Parr’s household after Henry’s death, this alliance was especially significant to her security, both were good and ill.

The second example involves the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and the Countess of Shrewsbury during the period when the Shrewsburys were Mary’s keepers during her imprisonment in exile in England. The two had opposing political goals but close contact produced – among other things – joint needlework projects in which their differences were on display.

Mary’s needlework revolved around emblems representing her identity as a queen (and former queen of France), her claim to Scotland, as well as her status as heir to England, and the circumstances of her exile. Some of these messages were so pointed that an embroidered cushion given as a gift to a supporter was later entered into evidence at that supporter’s trial for treason.

Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury – more familiar to needlework aficionados as Bess of Hardwick, similarly expressed her own identity and ambitions. Three marriages of increasing rank expanded the ountess’s domestic connections and ambitions. These were symbolized in the embroideries she created to embellish furnishings depicting strong mythic female figures such as Diana, Penelope, and Lucretia. Elizabeth did not perform all the work herself, but directed the design and participated in the creation.

Samplers constituted a different level of needlework than the gifts and furnishings discussed above. In theory, a sampler served both as a pattern reference and as an advertisement of the maker’s domestic skills. As student work, they represented the connection between teacher and student – both women by default. The materials and execution of the sampler indicated status and personal skill. Repeating motifs and designs indicate the sharing of patterns among families. But there was also personal expression in the choice of scenes to illustrate, typically focusing on female biblical figures representing some virtue.

This paper feels somewhat cobbled together of disparate parts without a clearly sense of a central thesis. I think it can be be summed up as “Needlework was done by women. Needlework allowed for personal expression in the choice of motifs. That choice inherently communicated messages about the identity and image women wanted to show to the world.”

Contents summary: 

This article looks at the difficulties of viewing Queen Elizabeth as an example of female lives, and the ways in which she was treated as both an anomaly and as the epitome of female accomplishment by her contemporaries and near contemporaries. The article looks at two 17th century texts written by women that used Elizabeth as the focus of arguments in favor of women’s education. The author points out that women, more often than men, held up Elizabeth as a model for other women, as opposed to viewing her as an isolated exception, or as being essentially masculine in her accomplishments.

Contents summary: 

This article looks at the women’s religious educational communities founded in the early 17th century by Mary Ward, the School of Blessed Mary. As an English woman setting up Catholic institutions during a period when Catholicism was out of favor in England, and as a woman becoming a prominent religious leader in the Catholic Church at a time when women were not encouraged to take leadership positions, the hierarchies of both sides found Mary Ward problematic.

Part of the focus of the authorities’ objections to Ward’s communities were their focus on the education of girls, aiming for a broad liberal education more traditionally associated with men, as well as traditionally feminine skills relevant to household management. Ward’s female-organized institutions were self-governing, electing their leaders internally and answerable only directly to the pope. (A structure set up with papal approval.) This set them in contrast with the usual model for female religious orders, which put them under local episcopal authority. Despite modeling her institution on existing religious communities, in particular the Jesuits, Ward’s schools were specifically not religious orders, neither maintaining the cloistered life nor adopting a religious habit.

In England the risk of official persecution led to practices of integrating into the fabric of society rather than standing out as an identifiable religious group. Teachers might live in the households of their students, or find Protestant patrons and protectors. Ward’s schools and teachers were often highly mobile to avoid trouble, but this very free mobility, and living within secular society, was part of what annoyed the Catholic establishment. Teachers might adopt the appearance of a variety of classes, moving between the clothing and habits of working class women and more elite women as it suited their needs.

Both Catholic and Protestant leaders were disturbed by the reputation Ward’s institution had for encouraging women to engage in public preaching and to hold opinions in matters of conscience. Though fairly conventional and orthodox in her religious opinions, Ward’s institution was clearly feminist and its approach and in its goals of making women equal in intellectual fields.

Contents summary: 

This article pokes at the problem of “anonymous” authorship of early modern works. Given that there were strong social pressures against women writing and publishing publicly under their own names, might it be reasonable to put more weight on the possibility of female authorship for “anonymous” works, especially when the views expressed are sympathetic to women’s position? The specific work under consideration is an early 17th c play Swetnam the Woman-hater Arraigned by Women, a direct challenge and response to the misogynistic work Arraignment of Lewd, Idles, Froward, and Unconstant Women by Joseph Swetnam. The play was preceded by three prose responses to Swetname, at least two of which are clearly pseudonymous authors (the attributed feminine names being clearly allegorical) with one considered to accurately identify the female author. Note that Swetnam originally published his work under an allegorical pseudonym too.

Wayne doesn’t take a direct position on the gender of the author, but addresses the general question of “gender indeterminacy” in authorship of the early modern period.

The play clearly takes down Swetnam and misogyny in general in its conclusion, but the question of female agency in doing so is muddled by the central figure of (male) Prince Lorenzo disguised as the (female) amazon Atalanta. (Compare the disguised-as-amazon motif in Sidney’s Arcadia.)

The article concludes that regardless of the gender of the play’s author, they operate as an “ally” to women (in the play and generally). The article is fascinating and worth a read, but not directly pertinent to the Project except in how it depicts the range of possible attitudes of the time to feminist issues.

Contents summary: 

The focus of this article, in Andreadis’s words is “a class of women and behaviors described by their contemporaries in ways that coincide with our modern ‘lesbian’.” There is still much uncertainty within that description as to how these women and their society understood these concepts, and Andreadis’s thesis is that as such behaviors begin to be framed in public discourse as transgressive, women who engaged in the same behaviors but wished to be viewed as “respectable” developed a coded language to express sexual feelings in the language of female friendship – a shift that Andreadis labels “double discourse” as it parallels the more overtly transgressive language that was coming into use. [So, in essence, they developed a “closeted” language to deflect condemnation.]

Double discourse is particularly apparent in the poetic expression of female friendship, beginning with authors such as Aemelia Lanyer and Katherine Philips. This phenomenon partakes of a long tradition of making lesbian sexuality “undefinable” as explored, for example, in Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian. The ways in which female same-sex desire are expressed make that desire erasable, even as they protect the women who recorded these desires.

Andreadis discusses the resistance among historians to acknowledging female same-sex eroticism in England before 1600 despite an undeniable vocabulary for female same-sex activity, dating at least as early as the 16th century. This vocabulary occurred in medical and travel literature, for example. This unambiguous vocabulary, including terms such as tribade, fricatrice, and rubster identified a specific type of transgressive and stigmatized sexuality. When specific activities are indicated, it is rubbing the genitals together, or penetrative sex using an instrument or a (probably mythical) enlarged clitoris.

The treatment of sex between women undergoes complex shifts from a relatively matter of fact, if misogynistic, curiosity in the 16th century, to a more self-conscious and often prurient presentation in the 17th century. At that time, in addition to documentary contexts, allusions to sex between women are appearing in literary works, both by male authors and by those female authors willing to be viewed as unconventional. Mid-seventeenth century female authors who write of same-sex eroticism include Margaret Cavendish, Anne Killigrew, Aphra Behn, and Delarivier Manley. With the exception of Killagrew, these women were all considered scandalous to some degree. The question is open whether their reputations gave them the freedom to write on sexual matters, or whether their writing was the driver of their reputations.

In reaction to that intersection of infamy and using same-sex erotics as a literary subject, there appears to have been a shift (roughly following after the Restoration) by which women who wish to protect a respectable reputation developed a separate literary vocabulary for expressing same-sex desire. By using this vocabulary, they could distance themselves from the image of tribades and fricatrices.

What was the nature of this literary language? It included emotionally charged, erotic (but not sexual) imagery, including the assumption of largely homosocial lives (but ones unable to entirely avoid marriage and childbearing) and drawing on specific tropes and categories that were considered acceptable for women writers. These tropes included praise of patrons or social supporters, elegies for female friends, poems either celebrating or lamenting the dynamics of friendship, poems about women’s life stages, poems about reading and writing, and dedications on other authors works. Acceptable themes included meditation, philosophy, pastoral fantasy, and compliment – but the genres of political satire and explicit sexuality fell on the other side of the line. But when writing within these permitted themes and genres, erotically-charged sentiments could emerge.

Parallel shifts in society of the later at 17th century include the rise of professional women writers, increasing publication in English (rather than Latin), a greater focus on female education, the growth of the middle class and the ideals of domesticity, and greater sexual permissiveness and behavior.

Women writers such as Aemilia Lanyer and Katherine Philips often addressed their work specifically to a female audience. Philips organized a literary social circle celebrating female friendship, while writing strongly erotic poems for her favorites among that circle. Philips’ work be can be considered a model for the creation of a passionate discourse between women that lay outside the contemporary understanding of the sexual. This tradition continues in the work of Mary Chudleigh, Anne Finch, Jane Brereton, and the pseudonymous “Ephelia”.

Their work can be seen in contrast to the more explicitly sexual writings of Behn, Manley, Cavendish, and Killigrew. What is difficult to determine is whether the women in these two “movements” saw a commonality in their experiences and desires (simply with a different mode of expression) or whether they consider themselves to have no common concerns. There is an allusion to this contrast in a poem by Brereton addressed to a female friend, which describes, “The Behns, the Manleys, head this motley train, Politely lewd and wittily profane.” But the poem, while critiquing the mode of expression, is reticent about whether the subject matter had common inspiration.

Also unknowable is whether the absence of explicitly erotic content in an authors work corresponds to an absence of genital activity in her relationships with women. The remainder of the article consist of close readings of several poems that follow within the “passionate friendship” genre. This poetry of intensely intimate female friendship developed the vocabulary and motives that would underlie the development of “romantic friendship” as an important theme in the later 18th century and onward.

Contents summary: 

The restoration of Charles II to the English throne brought the return of many royalist supporters from exile – an exile that left psychological marks within the culture they created. Themes of exile and return may have served to create a sense of continuing community that set them apart from those who had remained in England during the interregnum.

This article argues that the writings of Aphra Behn expressed these themes, both explicitly and implicitly, from a gendered perspective, but also in her work Oroonoko using racial passing as a type of exile.

Exile becomes more than a state of being, even a personal identity, creating an outsider’s perspective on one’s own culture. But for a writer, exile can mean not only separation from one’s culture, but also from one’s audience.

One theme the article explores is the connection between the pastoral genre (a type of deliberate imaginative exile) and the inclusion of “gossip” as a motif indicating the creation of connection and the exploration of emotional hypotheticals, under the cover of a “frivolous” activity. Behn’s “Our Cabal” creates a network of fictional alliances – between characters, between author and reader – via the medium of gossip as a narrative type.

In the epistolary poem “To Mrs. Price” Behn again intersects the themes of pastoral retreat and exile. The narrative voice describes the pleasures of pastoral retreat and begs the recipient to leave the court and city behind, to step out of time in space into the pastoral “exile” and join the writer there. The pastoral setting is framed as a preferred goal, but one of ambiguous enjoyment, given the writer’s depicted isolation and entreaty for company. The companions in this exile are mythic nymphs and shepherds, but the writer longs for the “home “of her prior friendships and companions.

The final part of the article tackles the question posed to the author – inspired by certain racial themes in Behn’s writing – whether Aphra Behn was “passing” in a racial sense. The author doubts this possibility, based on the known facts of Behn’s life (which, admittedly, are scanty and ambiguous), but tackles the question of whether there are themes in her writing that parallel the dynamics and concerns of a passing experience.

[Note: the discussion is fairly jargon-rich.]

There is no firm conclusion about the relationship of Oroonoko narrator to its author (Behn) or the relationship of either to a hypothetical mixed race origin. Rather, the analysis asks, “is the narrative consistent with a hypothetical case where Behn had a Black grandmother, and based the content and viewpoint of Oroonoko on her own background and experiences?”

This also raises the question of whether the themes of exile in Behn’s work might also be informed by a sense of exile from (part of) her own heritage.

Contents summary: 

This article examines early origins of the default understanding of “woman” as racially specific (i.e., white women). This is viewed through the lens of early 17th century author Aemelia Lanyer that explores the concept of “womanhood” as a social rather than individual identity defined to some extent by who that identity excludes. Specifically including racialized exclusions as experienced by the author via her own Italian and Jewish heritage (identities that were racialized in Early Modern England).

[Lanyer’s life, work, and context are complex and deeply fascinating—too much so to go into here.]

Lanyer is interesting not only for her family background and her complex connections within the English court, but for her ground-breaking position as a published female poet, and for the ways in which she reframed the themes and narratives of her culture from a non-dominant perspective. In particular from the perspective of a woman arguing for her right to have intellectual value, and who worked to create a network of female patronage for her work.

Although the analysis of the racial aspects of Lanyer’s work is detailed and interesting, it’s hard to sum up concisely, so I’m simply going to say check it out if you’re interested.

Contents summary: 

The summary discusses the importance of studying women in the Early Modern period not simply as individuals (possibly unusual ones), but in the context specifically of female networks and alliances. Men are assumed to participate in structures; too often women are viewed as isolated individuals, or else as existing only in relation to men. Individual women might have agency in negotiating their own position within society, but only in groups did women have any hope of making changes to society. Alliances between women have impact when they view women as a group as within their scope of concern, whether that concern is education, rights of property and inheritance, or challenging misogyny.