Alice Ferron, a final year PhD student at University College, London reports back on her paper at the last ‘Parliaments, Politics, and People’ seminar. Alice spoke on ‘The widow’s peak: early Stuart female voices of authority in Parliament’…
My doctoral research has centered on various strands of censorship in women’s writing in the first half of the early modern period. I am interested in the concept of the ‘liberated female voice.’ My paper looked at how five widows sought to navigate the stigma of print in printed parliamentary appeals. Whereas the notorious prophetess, Lady Eleanor Davies, more obviously mediated her own voice by taking on the persona of the prophet Daniel, some lesser-known widows more subtly used the rhetoric of universality to stress the general widow’s plight and to separate themselves from their printed appeals.
I argued that close reading early Stuart women’s appeals forces us to confront what the current scholarship tells us about the chronology and the style/tone of women’s petitioning. Much of the historiography and literary criticism that examines female appeals looks at the period after 1640 where groups of women, such as the Levellers in 1649 petitioned parliament to ask for the release of some of their leaders. For many literary critics, these group petitions marked a decisive moment in women’s literary history, but these later petitions drew on tropes established by single women petitioners in the first part of the period. Moreover, historians who have studied female appeals have argued that the voices of the petitioners gained strength from either the claimant’s individual voice or from the persuasive force of a number of different female voices. Widows’ appeals to parliament show us that petitions could be both universal and individual. These female petitioners emphasized that their grievances reflected the plight of many women, but they petitioned parliament alone.
The paper prompted an extremely interesting conversation and gave me several new ideas to expand my research. The limited biographical information on many of these women means that we cannot know the logistics of their suits or even in some cases if their bills passed. However, by focusing on women’s voices in the most unexpected of places we can tell a story about female authorial strategies, which is perhaps surprising. Women sought to negotiate the stigma of print by emphasizing the universality of their claims to show that their act of writing was not individual but rather for the greater good.
Join us tonight at the ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar when Priscila Pivatto and Emma Peplow from the History of Parliament will speak on ‘MPs in their own words: the History of Parliament’s oral history project’. Full details here.