Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Gender and the English Revolution- Ann Hughes - 192 pages : Routledge 2011 ISBN-13: 978-0415214902

Studies of the role women during the English revolution both in the past and present have been few and far between.  Ann Hughes’s book Gender and the English Revolution is an attempt to rectify this anomaly.

History and for that matter, historians have not been kind to women who took part in political activity on both sides of the English Civil War. There is a dearth of material on women’s struggle at this time. As far as I can ascertain no major biography exists of two of the most famous Leveller women Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne.

Gender or women’s studies is a new type of historiography and have been taught by universities really only in the last two decades.  The recent proliferation of books, articles, etc. has many reasons. One major factor being the growth of women historians who have started to explore this previously under-researched subjects. Another no less important reason is that women, in general, have a much-increased degree of political freedom and economic independence than previous generations of women.

According to studies, women make up nearly fifty percent of the English working population. They also have a degree of freedom not heard of in previous generations. In other words, the origins of women history studies appeared as a direct result of the struggle for social equality amongst women.
Whether one agrees with gender studies or not it stands on its own merit and does play a major role particularly as regards research into the role of women in 17th-century English revolution.

I must confess that while doing some research for this review, it has not been easy in finding relevant material to add to this article. In fact, research into the role of women in the 17th-century revolution is very scarce.  It is after all over eighty years since Alice Clark wrote a major work analyzing the working life of women in the 17th century. A excellent article on her work and life can be found at Early Modern Notes by Sharon Howard entitled Alice Clark, working women’s historian.

Howard wrote, "I have a soft spot for Alice Clark (not least for her maxim that “those who don’t make mistakes don’t make anything”). This was her only book. She wasn’t a well-known academic historian; rather, a feminist and businesswoman whose life encompassed many other activities and who only began historical research at the age of 38. In fact, she was a member of the Clark family, who were Quakers, of shoe making fame (you know, those horrible sensible shoes you wore as a kid because your mum made you, except they recently got all trendy and cute).Born in 1874, she was firmly influenced by the ‘first wave’ of feminism, particularly by debates about female economic dependence and ‘parasitism’ on men and its adverse effects on women and society as a whole. She also needs to be understood in the context of early 20th-century concerns about the social consequences of industrialization and pioneering sociological investigations into contemporary conditions of the poor, and increasing interest in what was then called ‘economic history’ (it would now be termed social history). The contribution made to that historiography by women was subsequently ignored by many historians; feminist historians have in more recent decades worked to reconsider their significance “.

As I said, early Gender historiography is a relatively new concept in which to study women’s role in history. The study of sex is largely a by-product of the genre  “History from below” instigated by the Communist Party History Group. While producing some treasured research and publications, the replacing of gender over class in the study of historical events was a move away from the classical Marxist approach. 

Gender studies became unusually high in within the History Workshop movement. The growth of sex studies was facilitated by such books such as E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class in the early 1960s provided a platform for gender studies to grow.  This coincided with the rise of independent women historians and writers who “insisted that women's experience no longer is 'hidden from history.' Sally Alexander and Anna Davin, 'Feminist History,' History Workshop Journal, no 1 Spring 1976; Barbara Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the 19th Century, 1983.To name just two.

It would be correct to say that these books examining women’s role in history have not had a significant readership. The historian Keith Thomas who taught history at Oxford in the 1950s decided to set up a series of lectures on Women and the 17th century. Thomas’s attempt was met with at best indifference and worse outright hostility.

The period that Hughes writes about was truly a world turned upside down, where traditional family roles were coming under high pressure.  As Alison Jones points out “The Civil War of 1642-1646 and its aftermath constituted a time of great turmoil, turning people’s everyday lives upside down. It not only affected the men in the armies, but it also touched the lives of countless ordinary individuals. It is well known that women played a significant role in the Civil War, for example defending their communities from attack and nursing wounded soldiers. What is often forgotten, however, is that some women took advantage of the havoc wrought by the conflict to dissent from conventional positions in society.The slightest deviation by women from their traditional roles as wives and mothers was condemned by this patriarchal society; and therefore dissent could take many forms that today do not appear particularly extreme – for example, choosing to participate in emerging radical religious sects, having greater sexual freedom, fighting as soldiers and practicing witchcraft”.

It took a lot of courage to take part in the struggles of the day. The punishment for doing was swift and brutal, the heavy punishment was meted out to those women who rebelled against the prevailing orthodoxy. One such ‘rebel’ was Margaret Cavendish who wrote in a tract  Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655),”We become like worms that only live in the dull earth of ignorance, winding ourselves sometimes out by the help of some refreshing rain of good educations, which seldom is given us; for we are kept like birds in cages to hop up and down in our houses, not suffered from flying abroad to see the several changes of fortune, and the various humour, ordained and created by nature; thus wanting the experiences of nature, we must need want the understanding and knowledge so consequently prudence, and invention of men: thus by an opinion, which I hope is but an erroneous one in men, we are shut out of all power and authority, despised, and laughed at, the best of our actions are trodden down with scorn, by the overweening conceit men have of themselves and through despisement of us”.

Hughes in her book adopts the notion that society’s problem was not the making of a clash of ruling elites or a class struggle but was because England was a patriarchal society.  While Hughes acknowledges the fact that political and economic differences did occur among men and women these are mostly ignored, and she contends that the primary motivating factor for pursuing civil war was the struggle of women versus men.

Hughes is a noted historian of women’s history of the 17th century. On page 29 of the introduction Hughes makes the point that “neither women nor men form a homogeneous category, and in this book their experiences during the English revolution are structured by age, social and marital status, religion, and political allegiance, and sometimes by national or ethnic identity, as well as by gender. One category missing from this list is class.

I must admit I have problem historians who advocate the theory of patriarchy. Under the guise of investigating all women’s history which I have nothing against there has developed a tendency to reduce all of the women’s struggle to a fight against repression regardless of what class they belonged to and regardless how right wing and reactionary.

It must be said that a class understanding of the English revolution has come under sustained attack from revisionists for well over thirty years and has taken differing forms. I am not saying that Ann Hughes work is part of this revisionist assault, but her uncritical promotion of gender studies and especially the theory that the Civil War can be best understood from a struggle against patriarchy does damage to a class based approach.

What then are the strengths of the book I agree with Gaby Mahlberg when she says “The power of Hughes’s book, and what makes it so valuable to both specialist scholars in the field and their students, is the great wealth of primary source material on which it is based and the ease with which the author moves between the micro-stories of early modern men and women, their wider context, and ongoing historiographical debates. Gender and the English Revolution are likely to join The Causes of the English Civil War (London, 1991) as staple reading for students of the mid-seventeenth century”.

Further Reading:

Alice Clark, Working life of women in the seventeenth century 1919])

Drama and Politics in the English Civil War by Anna Beer Published in History Today 1998 

Dissent and Debauchery: Women and the English Civil War By Alison Jones Published in History Review 2003 Gender Military English Civil War Early Modern (16th-18thC) England 

Gaby Mahlberg’s review Gender and the English Revolution can be found at Women’s History Review 12th July 2012