These essays celebrate thirty years of the Women’s Studies Group, showing the historical variety of women’s lives despite the masks of femininity, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh

Louise Duckling, Sara Read, Felicity Roberts and Carolyn D Williams (eds), Exploring the Lives of Women 1558-1837, (Pen and Sword History 2018), xxvi, 224pp.

The essays here are collected to celebrate thirty years of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 (WSG), formed in 1987 to promote women’s studies of the early modern period and the eighteenth century. Its particular aim is to support women working outside, or isolated inside, mainstream academia (p.xiii). Ranging across the period, the essays demonstrate the breadth of work carried out by group members, from studies of book dedications to Lady Jane Grey, Mary I and Elizabeth I, to the career of the famous early nineteenth-century actress Eliza O’Neill.

In their preface, the editors comment that a common thread running through the pieces is the number of Elizas who appear in them; Elizabeth having been an enduringly popular name in England since Elizabeth I’s accession in 1558. A more fundamental connection is the way in which, as Anna Jameson wrote in 1832, women’s history ‘may make a pleasant companion but a most fallacious guide’ (p.165). Women’s history is all too often an exercise of finding women in sources determined to see them, if they see them at all, as reflections of the men to whom they were related. Thus, Valerie Schutte’s essay on book dedications to Tudor royal ladies shows how in this practice the ladies were being treated as and reminded that they were intermediaries between their male relatives and the dedicating authors.

Yvonne Noble’s piece on the poet Anne Finch (1661-1720) demonstrates the difficulties of reconstructing details of the lives even of noble women with powerful husbands. Even when women were given obituaries, as Gillian Williamson shows here, they were usually defined only in relation to their male relatives and were rarely allowed characters of their own beyond traditional female virtues. The women who appeared in eighteenth-century obituaries were most typically praised for being ‘an affectionate wife, a tender parent, and an uniform promoter of happiness in others’ (p.55).

These stereotypes of women do not just affect the sources we have available to reconstruct their lives, but they also influenced previous generations of (male) writing about female figures. As Louise Duckling sets out here, nineteenth-century biographies of famous women became more and more interested in the ‘setting of womanly greatness above poetic genius’ (p.157). In this genre, the female figures held up for admiration were poets like Felicia Hemans, ‘the sweet singer of the hearth, the home and the affections’ or Lady Jane Grey, who the 1866 Cyclopedia of Female Biography described as having ‘the loveliest graces of woman, mildness, humility, and modesty’ (pp.162-3). Small wonder that in this genre the most popular Queen of England was not Elizabeth I, the most powerful and successful, but Queen Anne, for her ‘feminine helplessness of mind’ (p.158).

The difficulties of extracting the reality of women’s lives from these sorts of sources are clearly considerable, so much so that early modern women can appear as unknowable as the suspected witch in Jacqueline Mulhallen’s brilliant poem, Stilts (pp.33-4). The poem is based on the real accounts of Parliamentary soldiers in 1643 coming across a woman walking on water, ‘treading of the water with her feet, with as much ease and firmnesse as if one should walk or trample, on the earth’ and killing her as a witch: 

Not that we’re superstitious. We don’t hold with miracles

Or such like papist stuff. But walking on the water?

Out of nowhere she came. What were we to think?

My father once saw a play where witches came out of the mist.

They led a man on to murder.

We didn’t wait to see if she floated.

The soldiers attack what they don’t understand. ‘What else could she have been but a witch?’ the last line asks. The woman in the poem (which transplants the incident from near Newbury to the fen country of East Anglia) is a stilt walker, a traditional way of navigating the then-undrained fens, but the question has a much wider application to the women’s lives hidden behind the stereotypes.

Many women in the period covered by the WSG did work and have lives outside the home, not always in stereotypically female occupations, even if in their obituaries their work was subsumed into those of their husbands. In the eighteenth century, as Peter Radford demonstrates, many women did physically demanding and dangerous work in mines, for example, and even traditionally female sedentary occupations like spinning turn out to involve much more physical exertion than you might think. Women also participated in sport, with more than two hundred races for women recorded in Britain between 1700 and 1799.

The work of the WSG members here also reclaims women in more expected female work like acting or prostitution from one-dimensional views of their choices and agency. In this vein, Julie Peakman’s essay on female friendships shows the importance of female networks in the life of celebrated eighteenth-century brothel keeper Peg Plunkett. Before the mid-eighteenth century, female actors had been generally regarded as little better than prostitutes, but as Jacqueline Mulhallen demonstrates about the early-nineteenth-century actress Eliza O’Neill, women in the theatre could be just as talented, and be as serious professionals in their acting, as the men.

This work of reclaiming female lives from the representations of how women should behave has not of course been restricted to modern writers. As Louise Duckling points out, the eighteenth and nineteenth-century celebration of historical female figures for their womanly virtues was not unchallenged. Jane Austen’s youthful scorn for Lady Jane Grey: ‘she preserved the same appearance of knowledge, and contempt for what was generally esteemed pleasure, during the whole of her Life’ is a famous example but by no means the only one (p.164). Perhaps the most important theme running through these pieces is how the imposition of femininity, whether on living women or on the reputations of historical figures, was never uncontested.

The works here also uncover some commonalities of female experience across the centuries. Julie Peakman comments for example that her experience of the support network of the WSG was what led her to consider the importance of female friendship in the eighteenth century. While, fortunately, the advice to unmarried women in eighteenth-century conduct manuals on topics like ‘the snares and consequences of seduction’ (p.81) is now only of historical interest, that views on female sexual behaviour are profoundly contradictory is not. Tabitha Kenlon’s poem Gretchen’s Answer, imagining the voice of Faust’s seduced and abandoned love interest from Goethe’s play, deals with a woman ‘ruined’ by having extra-marital sex, but ends on a note all too familiar to modern women dealing with abusive men:

The women at the well, 

I am sure, tell my story. The young girls listen,

Ashamed and appalled. They swallow the no

That is forced into their mouths

And they believe that they will never say yes.

Not the way that I said it.

For if they should meet a man, they will say no. 


Unless, of course, he loves them (pp.97-8)

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.