As part of our Women and Parliament blog series to mark the centenary of the first women gaining the vote in 1918, this week we hear from Assistant Editor of the Commons 1640-1660 project, Dr Vivienne Larminie. She describes a seventeenth century satirical pamphlet about a fictitious women’s parliamentary meeting and explains how women interacted with Parliament in the seventeenth century…
In 1640, a year marked by the calling of two Parliaments after an eleven-year gap when there were none, and by a rapidly-expanding market for pamphlets, there appeared an anonymous satire entitled The Parlament of Women. Its title page, appropriately illustrated with a woodcut of females gathered in a plausibly parliamentary space, proclaimed that it described ‘the merry lawes by them enacted. To live in more Ease, Pompe, Pride, and wantonnesse: but especially that they might have superiority and domineere over their husbands’. Harking back to an occasion when Roman matrons had presented themselves to the senate, the opening female speaker complained that ‘our Sexe is now of late grown cowards, carpet and curtaine-hearted’. What had become, she enquired, of ‘those magnanimous and Masculine spirited matrons? Those valiant Viragoes? … those daring Amazonian Damsels?’.
In response, a succession of women stepped up to air their grievances. Mistress Tattle-well declared that ‘it was not onely fitting but necessary, that every woman should have two husbands’; Besse Blot-book the scrivener’s [copyist’s] wife desired that marriage contracts should be rewritten to women’s better advantage; Mistress Dorothy Doe-little thought that ‘every woman of sense’ should be free to indulge herself with any material object or man that took her fancy. Many others had their say, but while the session had begun with respectful silence towards speakers, it soon declined into ‘mere confusion’. Those yet to speak ‘had not the patience to stay the time, and take their turnes … tumultuously breaking out into clamour, every one desiring to be heard first, and the more they were heard, the lesse they were understood’. Descending into chaos, the meeting was dissolved, but in a surprising turn the author recounted that its resolutions were accepted indulgently by the male legislature. However, in printing on the final page ‘The chiefe heads of the womens lawes’ he (presumably it was a he) intended to appal his readers – or tease them in the comfortable knowledge such things would never come to pass.
None the less, in the charged political atmosphere of the mid-seventeenth century female voices did reach Parliament. The varied and complicated franchise attached to boroughs allowed a few women to exercise a vote in elections, as illustrated in indentures from 1640 (see my blog on the subject). There was a history of female participation in petitioning to Parliament (see blog, ‘Women and Parliament in the fifteenth century’), and as that process itself ratchetted up in the context of unprecedentedly prolonged and contentious sittings at Westminster, their involvement seems to have intensified. Attention was drawn to this in a seminal article ‘Women petitioners and the Long Parliament’, published in 1909 by Ellen McArthur. A pioneering economic historian at Cambridge and the LSE, and a founding member of the Historical Association, she made this her final publication before concentrating on promoting the education of women and, crucially, campaigning for the vote. By that year she was on the Cambridge Association for Women’s Suffrage, and in 1910 she was elected to the executive committee of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
Neither the Long Parliament nor the Parliaments of the commonwealth and the protectorate enacted legislation to enfranchise more women (although they did create new constituencies to reflect economic development). Nor was there, among their other short-lived or lasting reforms, any move to improve women’s status in law. But some attention was paid to certain of their grievances, and there was some action to address them, especially when it suited prominent politicians. Women who petitioned the House in February 1642 seeking reform of abuses – religious, political, commercial – received a sympathetic hearing from critics of the royal government with whom they had common cause. In contrast, the several hundred women sporting white ribbons who in August 1643 besieged the Houses demanding the cessation of civil war and a peace which would ‘restore this languishing nation and our bleeding sister the kingdom of Ireland’, and threatening ‘to take the round heades of the Parliament’ and ‘caste [them] into the Thames’, got nowhere – although the violence used to disperse and punish participants was widely condemned [‘Women Petitioners, 703-4].
The widows and wives of those killed or wounded in parliamentarian service elicited partisan sympathy and obtained pensions – through genuine generosity, or an awareness that taking care of military casualties was good for future recruitment, or a complex combination of both. With somewhat less success, other wives and widows sought the alleviation of financial penalties or of imprisonment and punishment visited on their royalist spouses, defeated in battle or captured after insurrection. Similarly liable to disappointment were the Leveller women led by Elizabeth Lilburne who lobbied for the release of their radical husbands, although they set new levels of persistence and of sophistication in their use of the press to argue their cause, and they attained new heights of celebrity or notoriety.
Meanwhile, the prospect of assertive women using Parliament to gain subversive rights continued to fascinate and repel. New editions of The Parlament of Women appeared in 1646 and (in two different versions) in 1656. Now or Never (1656; Thomason E.885.9) closed with ‘A brief Abstract of Laws and Orders made by the New Assembly of Women’. The first was the alarming statement ‘That women bear rule, and have power over their husbands’ (p. 6).
For background, see:
- Ellen McArthur, ‘Women Petitioners and the Long Parliament’, English Historical Review 24 (1909), 698-709
- ‘McArthur, Ellen Annette’, Oxford DNB.
For other blogs in our Women and Parliament series, click here.