The Civil War and Women’s Rights

The English Civil War was hard on women. In addition to the usual strains of helping run businesses and constant childbirth and childrearing, they had to cope with absent men – 1/4 of them fought in the war. Many of them built barricades and gave money to the battle, but they were treated as they were in law – with no rights, so their petitions to parliament for payment, for food for the poor were ignored. Only the Levellers supported women’s rights, which is why so many women were supporters of them.

Traditionally, power belonged to those with land, and there were women who inherited land, so were allowed to vote in local and national elections, though of course they held no high offices but were active on parish councils. Single women and widows were treaded as independent.  But the Civil War changed this. This is from Stevie Davies’ Unbridled Spirits:

The tide turned in 1640, and the manner of its turning clarified the extent to which the female presence in the electorate had been an anomaly. the holes in the system were sealed. At the October elections in the borough of Eye in Suffolk, several widows appeared, were ‘sworn’ and duly cast their votes. after outraged protests, these votes were discounted. Sir Simonds d’Ewes expressed the general revulsion, ‘conceiving it a matter very unworthy of any gentleman, and most dishonourable in such an election, to make use of [women’s] voices, though they might in law have been allowed.’ The phrase, ‘unworthy of any gentleman’ exquisitely articulates the dependence of the hierarchical values of gentry elitism on the exclusion of large classes, considered as contaminants to a well-regulated system. ‘Gentlemen’ of both sides would be equally mortified at votes cast by non-gentlemen, whether riff-raff or females. Common law, the law ff the nobles, overtook the law of locality and custom, sanctioned by public opinion which had not wholly excluded women.

In 1644, the jurist Sir Edward Coke’s authoritative Institutes were published, disqualifying from suffrage all males who were minors (under 21), ‘all that have no freehold.. and all women having freehold or no freehold.’ Women were effaced from the electorate in one stroke of the pen. the epoch of Revolution whose watchwords were ‘rights’ and ‘liberties’ saw he disenfranchisement of women. A woman born n 1645 would belong to the first generation in which every single member of her sex was shorn of all political rights.”

And yet they were not completely invisible – well into the 18th century, women whose fathers were freemen could pass on that freedom to their husbands and sons, so they were vessels of male rights, without possessing them themselves, though it may have helped their marriage prospects for men born out of the area.

IN this and several other pieces from this fine book, it can be seen the seeds of the women rioters of the 18th century, the river of women attacking the mayor, those standing up to soldiers. This was not a tradition, but the result of social fabric being torn apart and put back as those in charge chose.

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