Feminists in Elizabethan England

Source: http://www.historytoday.com/susan-c-...bethan-england

Susan C. Shapiro describes how a struggle for women’s liberation began about 1580 and continued in Jacobean years.




There may be, Ecclesiastes to the contrary, something new under the sun; but contemporary women’s rejection of both male supremacy and female clothing is definitely not. There have always been, of course, isolated individuals who fought their way up in a man’s world; but midway through the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (about 1580), women began to struggle against their traditional subordinate status on a scale that seemed large to their male contemporaries.

This struggle for freedom and equality, which the adoption of men’s clothing encourages and proclaims, cannot accurately be called a movement since it was totally without organization, and its origins or causes cannot easily be explained.

Some social historians point to the great increase in the number of educated women during the sixteenth century; others to the growing influence of Puritanism, which in preaching the doctrine of ‘ideal marriage’ necessarily also preached spiritual equality between the sexes. Still others argue that the impetus for this women’s rebellion came from the great exemplar of feminine achievement, Elizabeth herself.

Elizabeth Tudor came to the throne in 1558 at the age of twenty-five. She had an extraordinarily brilliant mind, developed to the height of its potential by the finest humanist education available in England, and the determination to rule as absolutely as her father had. She was equally determined never to share her power or to put herself into a vulnerable position through marriage or romantic entanglement. She told the presumptuous Earl of Leicester, her favourite for twenty years, ‘I will have here but one mistress and no master!’

Elizabeth’s triumphant assumption of the masculine role, and her appointment of women to positions of power hitherto held only by men, raised the status of women in the eyes even of her male subjects, and had far-reaching effects on their daughters, and granddaughters. These, it now appears, cast off their traditional feminine submissiveness, along with their dresses, in sufficient numbers to provoke a masculine protest.

It is difficult to estimate numbers accurately; but there seemed to be a huge army of militant transvestites upsetting the established social order. The transvestites and amazons may in fact have been rare, but it is apparent from the frequence of attacks upon them in popular literature and in James’s Royal pronouncements that male supremacists saw them everywhere.

For example, the anonymous author of a pamphlet deploring all the corruptions of the age (Muld Sacke, 1620) says, ‘If in this age a general muster should be taken of Women, I am sure to draw up in Battaile one hundre[d] Hos Feminas (i.e. masculine women) for one Haec Femina (feminine woman)’. Obviously a wild exaggeration, but surely indicative that the number of these masculine women was too large to be negligible.

Another indication of how widespread the phenomenon of the insubordinate woman seemed comes from the Prologue to Thomas Middleton’s play, The Roaring Girl (1611):

I see Attention sets wide ope her gates

Of hearing, and with covetous listening waits

To know what girl this roaring girl should be,

For of that tribe are many. One is she

That roars at midnight in deep tavern-brawls,

That beats the watch, and constable controls;

Another roars i’ th’ daytime, swears, stabs, gives braves,

Yet sells her soul to the lust of fools and slaves:

Both these are suburb-roarers.


We see here that the masculine woman was not confined to the aristocracy or London upper class, but was also to be found in the suburbs and among the lower classes.

Among these women, those who provoked the most violent censure were the ones who had the audacity to appropriate masculine dress. Elizabethan and Jacobean women who wore breeches, doublets, and daggers, and who cut their hair short may not have been swaggering everywhere, but there were enough of them to cause alarm.

Consequently, at intervals from about 1580 until at least 1628, men inveighed against this ‘mankind generation’ of women, repeatedly calling them monsters and hermaphrodites.

The opening salvo in the attack on these women was fired by Philip Stubbes, whose Anatomy of Abuses was published in 1583. It is a satirical examination of the Kingdom of Ailgna (i.e. Anglia backwards) in which, among other examples of the degeneracy of this society, one speaker points to the women’s ‘fantastick and Hermaphrodite’ clothing:

The women also there have dublets and Jerkins... buttoned up the brest, and made with wings, welts, and pinions on the shoulder points, as mans apparel is, for all the world, and though this be a kind of attire appropriate onely to man, yet they blush not to wears it, as if they could as well chaunge their sex, & put on the kinde of man, as they can weare apparel assigned onely to man, I think they would as verily become men indeed... Wherefore these Women may not improperly be called Hermaphroditi, that is, Monsters of bothe kindes, half women, half men.

William Harrison’s Description of England (1587), however, identifies the men as the monsters, but makes slighting reference to the transvestite fashion, ‘Some of these trulls in London so disguised that it hath passed my skill to discern whether they were men or women... Thus it is now come to pass that women are become men and men transformed into monsters.’

Perhaps his cryptic reference to the masculine metamorphosis is another use of the old chestnut that a cuckold grows horns: women who scoff at convention by wearing men’s clothes are also more likely to betray their husbands. In 1588 William Averell (A Marvailous Combat of Contrarieties) picks up Stubbes’s monstrosity motif and remarks on the worst kind of women ‘who from the top to the toe, are so disguised, that though they be in sexe Women, yet in attire they appear to be men, and are like Androgini, who counterfayt-ing the shape of either kind, are in deede neither... but plaine Monsters’.

The accession of the misogynist King James I in 1603 encouraged and increased the attacks on insubordinate women, especially those who wore men’s clothing. A character in Middleton’s A Mad World My Masters (1608) comments satirically on the masculine fear of them by stating plainly, ‘Why, the doublet serves as well as the best, and is most in fashion. We’re all male to th’ middle, mankind from th’ beaver to th’ bum. Tis an Amazonian time; you shall have women shortly tread their husbands.’

Leading the ‘backlash’ against these viragoes in Jacobean society was the King himself. James’s crusade is documented for us in the letters of the prolific correspondent, John Chamberlain, who wrote to his friend Dudley Carleton, then English Ambassador at The Hague. When, for example, James appointed a new Secretary of State in 1618, the King called the man in and cross-examined him, ‘asked many questions, most about his wife.

His answer was that she was a goode woman and had brought him ten children, and would assure his Majestie that she was not a wife with a witness. This and some other passages of this kind, seem to shew that the King is in a great veine of taking downe highhanded women’. In 1620 Chamberlain reports that James decided to enlist the aid of his clergy. The King directed the Bishop of London to call together his priests and to pass on to them his commandment:

that they inveigh vehemently and bitterly in theyre sermons against the insolencie of our women, and theyre wearing of brode brimd hats, pointed dublets, theyre haire cut short or shorne, and some of them stilletoes or poniards, and such other trinckets of like moment, adding withall that yf pulpit admonitions will not reforme them he wold proceed by another course...

Chamberlain’s own comment on this deplorable state of affairs is significant: ‘the truth is the world is very far out of order, but whether this will mend yt God knowes’. The King’s instructions were followed to the letter, and about two weeks later Chamberlain could report the results:

Our pulpits ring continually of the insolence and impudence of women: and to helpe the matter forward the players have likewise taken them to taske, and so too the ballades and ballad-singers, so that they can come no where but theyre eares tingle: and yf all this will not serve the King threatens to fall upon theyre husbands, parents, or frends that have or shold have powre over them and make them pay for yt.

Joining the King, the clergy, the players, ballad-singers, exasperated husbands, and John Chamberlain in condemning the liberated women is the anonymous author of a fascinating tract, Hic Mulier: or, The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to Cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminines of our Time (1620). Here we learn how appallingly large and serious was this women’s rebellion:

For since the daies of Adam women were never so Masculine; Masculine in their genders and whole generations, from the Mother to the youngest daughter; Masculine in number; from one to multitudes; Masculine in case, even from the head to the foot; Masculine in Moode, from bold speech, to impudent action; and Masculine in Tense: for (without redresse) the [y] were, are, and will be still most Masculine, most mankinde, and most monstrous.

If being called ‘monstrous’ would not frighten them back into line, he adds that these women are stranger than anything in Noah’s ark or the creatures engendered by the Nile, stranger than strangeness itself. Our anonymous author, whose prose is vigorous and imaginative, goes on to castigate those who have cast off the ornaments of their sex and laid by the ‘bashfulness of your nature’, exchanging the modest attire or comely Hood, Cawle, Coyfe, handsome Dresse or Kerchiefe, to the Ruffianly broad-brim’d Hat, and wanton feather... the glory of a faire large hay re, to the shame of most ruffianly short lockes: for Needles, Swords; for Prayer bookes, bawdy Iigs; for modest gestures, gyant-like behaviors, and for womens modestie, all Mimick and apish incivilitie...


Not surprisingly, when the man-women disease afflicts the rich, it is truly disastrous, for women who have wealth have power, and with power comes the self-assurance to scoff at convention and behave as one likes:

But such as are able to buy all at their own charges, they swimme in the excesse of these vanities, and will bee man-like not only from the head to the waste, but to the very foot, and in every condition: man in body by attyre, man in behaviour by rude complement, man in nature by aptnesses to anger, man in action by pursuing revenge, man in wearing weapons man in using weapons.

Conceding tacitly that these masculine-feminines cannot simply be execrated back into humility and obedience to ‘mans well-ruling hand’ by calling them monsters, hermaphrodites, and a Disgrace to their whole Sex, our author concludes his lively diatribe with a more mundane, practical suggestion: that the fathers, husbands, and sustainers of these ‘new Hermaphrodites’ simply withhold the funds necessary for the purchase of their outlandish fashions.

One week after the appearance of Hic Mulier came the reply, Haec Vir: Or the Womanish-Man: Being an Answere to a late Booke intituled Hic Mulier (1620), which is in the form of a dialogue between the liberated Hic Mulier with her masculine hairdo and hat, and the Jacobean fop, Haec Vir, with his long curls and effeminate clothes.

An eloquently written, serious tract which has been called ‘the Areopagitica of the London woman’ in its vigorous and dignified defence of women’s freedom, Haec Vir opens with a joke: each character initially mistakes the sex of the other; he thinks she is a knight, she takes him for a fine lady. When the identities are sorted out, Haec Vir begins his attack by accusing her of baseness, slavery to novelty, and shamelessness. She replies with a spirit that makes one suspect this remarkable pamphlet was probably penned by a woman:

What slavery can there be in freedom of election? or what baseness, to crowne my delights with those pleasures which are most suteable to mine affection... Now for mee to follow change, according to the limitations of mine o wne will and pleasure, there cannot bee a greater freedome. Nor do I in my delight of change other wise then as the whole world doth, or as becommeth a daughter of the world to doe.

Following this appropriation of the favourite Elizabethan theme of mutability to defend herself, Hic Mulier moves on to answer his other charges with forcefulness and dignity. Her powerful language reminds one of Shakespeare’s most spirited heroines, or even of Shylock asserting in his famous crescendo of rhetorical questions (‘Hath not a Jew eyes’?) his common humanity with the Christians. Hic Mulier pleads eloquently for the freedom and equality of women:

We are as free-borne as Men, have as free election, and as free spirits, we are compounded of like parts, and may with like liberty make benefit of our Creations: my countenance shall smile on the worthy, and frowne on the ignoble, I will hear the Wise, and bee deafe to Ideots, give counsell to my friends, but bee dumbe to flatterers, I have hands that shall be liberall to reward desert, feete that shall move swiftly to do good office, and thoughts that shall ever accompany freedom and severity.

Her defence completed, Hic Mulier brushes aside her antagonist’s feeble rejoinder and moves to the attack, arraigning him for spending more time arranging each of his hairs than Caesar did in placing his troops.

She also accuses the effeminate fop of having ravished from women their speech, actions, sports, recreations, of having stolen their fans and other accessories, and finally of mincing off into society to ‘cast himselfe amongst the eyes of the people (as an object of wonder) with more niceness, then a Virgin goes to the sheetes of her first lover...’

Poor battered Haec Vir immediately repents his effeminacy and after her promise to resume her feminine attributes, the dialogue ends with a prayer for harmony and heavenly love between them.

The Hic Mulier - Haec Vir pamphlets were apparently a commercial success, testifying to popular interest in the phenomenon of the masculine woman, for two months later another printer brought out a pamphlet called, Muld Sacke: or the Apologie of Hic Mulier: to the late Declamation against her (1620). This is obviously the work of a hack and has none of the literary merit of either Hic Mulier or Haec Vir, but in it the definition of the masculine woman is extended beyond the bounds of mere transvestism.

The bulk of the pamphlet is an attack on all forms of social corruption from pawnbroking to Papistry, but in the opening pages we find a concise statement of the seventeenth-century male’s equation of feminity with submissiveness and obedience. Heavy-handed in his ironic pose, the author, assuming the persona of Hic Mulier, begins with a defence of masculine women by citing their ancient ancestry. ‘She’ then goes on to answer her detractor, presumably the author of Hic Mulier, by claiming that the labelling of only transvestites as ‘Hic Mulier’ is too limited a view:

...in your description of the Masculine Feminine, you have erred from the Rule of a good definition, in reducing the general name of Haec Mulier, to those you call deformed monsters, by cutting their haire, wearing French dublets, having open breasts and false bodies: but I call a woman, of whatsoever degree, who exceeds the end of her Creation, Hic Mulier.

A woman was created to honour her Parents, and to obey her husband... so is she a Masculine Woman that bereaves Parents of their authorities, Husbands of supremacie, or debords from the modestie required of her sexe: she then, that dare presume to overrule her Husband (or sometimes for his owne good beate him) although she neither paint, cut her haire, or be deformed with the new invented fashions, is notwithstanding Hic Mulier.

But 1620 seems to have been a peak year for attacks on specifically transvestite women; in addition to the pamphlets, we also find this poem by William Lorte serving Alexander Nic-choles’ discourse on marriage as a preface:

There’s some whose prostituted beauty walkes, Like Ganimeds or girl-boyes: and so stalkes With poniards, pistols and the rifling yellow, The world and hell not paralling (i.e. apparelling) their fellow.

So base iniurious shame of their creation, Pleasing hels magistrate to weare his fashion. Some reformation hath bin to their shames,

By his dread Maiesty, thrice honored James, Which in an instant of their choysest glee, Unmask’d their pride to widest infamie.


This flattering reference to the effectiveness of the King’s campaign was wishful thinking , for the crusade of pulpit and pamphlet against the liberated woman had not been altogether successful. In Robert Aylett’s 1622 poem in praise of the Biblical Susanna, for example, an unfavourable contrast is drawn between her method of defending her chastity and that of the London women, whom he calls ‘You females-masculine that doe pretend/ You weapons weare your honours to defend’. For all James’s and his supporter’s efforts, the transvestites were still in evidence.

Again in 1622, Dr. William Gouge of St. Anne’s, Blackfriars, prefaced a collection of his sermons (Of Domesticall Duties: Eight Treatises) by stating that he had come under censure from some of his female parishioners for preaching the doctrine of male supremacy in delineating the duties of a wife and her subjection to her husband. Doris Stenton, a social historian, comments:

He had said from the pulpit that a wife could not dispose of the common goods of the family without or against her husband’s consent. In saying this he was stating the law of the land. It is revealing to find that the women of Blackfriars were clearly independent enough to think and act for themselves.

Here we have some evidence that the struggle for equality was not just an aristocratic phenomenon, and that transvestism was not the only method of protest.

In 1628 William Prynne, a Puritan preacher, still found it necessary to rail against women’s rejection of the ‘badge’ of their inferior status. He laments:

these Dangerous, Unnatural, and Unmanly times: wherein as sundry of our Mannish, Impudent, and inconstant Female sexe, are Hermaphrodited, and transformed into men; not only in their immodest, shameless, and audacious carriage, (which is now the very manners and Courtship of the times but even in the unnatural Tonsure, and Odious, if not Whorish cutting and (a) Crisping of their Hair, their natural veile, their Feminine glory, and the very badge and Character of their subjection both to God and man...

Later in the book, The Unlovelinesse, Of Love-Lockes, Prynne again picks up the theme of metamorphosis into men which Stubbes had sounded in 1583. In the half-century between Stubbes and Prynne, the male spectators of this struggle for social change had not begun to grasp that insubordinate women did not want to be men, they wanted to be considered equal and to have the same freedom of self-expression.

Having indicated the importance of this feminine rebellion by showing the persistent, angry, and uncomprehending reaction it produced, I propose, to borrow Shakespeare’s words, to give some of these rebels ‘a local habitation and a name’.

Lady Anne Clifford, daughter of the Earl of Cumberland, spent half her life fighting for her inheritance and steadfastly refusing to be browbeaten out of it. When her father died with no male heir in 1605, his nephew appropriated the lands and title which were rightfully hers and no amount of coercion from her first husband or the King could induce her to accept a cash settlement and discontinue her lawsuits.

The estates finally reverted to her in 1643 when her cousin died with no male heir, and Anne spent the rest of her life rebuilding her six castles, acquiring a reputation for bounty and hospitality, suing recalcitrant tenants on principle, defending her rights, and cavilling, like Hotspur, on the ninth part of a hair when her honour was at stake.

When Charles II’s Secretary of State wrote to her, naming his candidate for one of her pocket boroughs, she replied in magnificent defiance, ‘I have been bullied by a usurper, I have been neglected by a court, but I will not be dictated to by a subject; your man shan’t stand’.

Another woman of determination and independence was Lady Elizabeth Hatton, wife of the legendary holy-terror Lord Chief Justice, Sir Edward Coke. So far from terrifying her as he did his hapless defendants, Coke could not even persuade her to bear his name. She so loathed him for seizing her considerable property immediately after their marriage that she had as little to do with him as possible.

What contact they did have was hostile and Lady Hatton must have won a fair number of their skirmishes, for in the same letter where he reports the King’s determination to take down high-handed women, John Chamberlain says, ‘...and yet the Lady Hatton doth manage her matters so well that she daylie wins ground of her husband’.

One important battle she lost, however, was the one waged over Coke’s determination to regain the King’s lost favour and advance his career by marrying their beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter to the lunatic older brother of James’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham.

Lady Hatton hid the girl, but she was taken by force from the hiding place by Coke and his son of his former marriage, and in 1617 Frances Coke became the unhappy wife of John Villiers. As a result, reports one writer on the domestic strife of Coke and Lady Hatton, Frances Viscountess Purbeck, ‘dressed at home and abroad in man’s attire, and swaggered in the Park with sword and plume’.

In addition to sacrificing his daughter, Edward Coke first spoke out against women’s right to vote; once during a debate on clerical franchise in the House of Commons, he said that not only Proctors of the Clergy should be denied a voice in Parliament, but ‘all they that have no freehold, or have freehold in ancient demesne; and all women having freehold or no freehold, and men within the age of one-and-twenty-years’.

Despite the setback they may have suffered as a result of Coke’s dictum, the legal position of women in respect of control of their own property improved significantly in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period; and this accounts in part for the increasing rebelliousness of the aristocratic women. Lawrence Stone, in his important study called The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641, writes:

It was between 1580 and 1640 that successive Lord Chancellors gave judgments which substantially altered the law concerning married women’s property by creating the doctrine of the Wife’s Separate Estate. By the early seventeenth century the economic penalties of a separation for a woman had been substantially diminished.

Middle-class women who had no estate of their own could not, one presumes, simply abandon an unwanted husband and live as they pleased. They could, however, imitate the ‘impudence’, ‘insolence’, and unisex fashions of their aristocratic sisters and the representatives of their sex who peopled the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage.

Middleton’s Roaring Girl, for example, was modelled on a real-life counterpart. Mary Frith, Middleton’s contemporary and still active when his play appeared (in fact, Chamberlain tells us she did penance at Paul’s cross in the same year, 1611), was a transvestite thief nicknamed ‘Moll Cutpurse’. In the introduction to an anonymous life of Mary Frith published in 1662 we are told that in her youth:

A very Tomrig or Rumpscuttle she was, and delighted and sported only in boys’ play and pastimes, not minding or companying with the girls... . she could not endure their sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous as a winding sheet; her needle, bodkin, and thimble she could not think on quietiy, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels.

Middleton’s Moll Cutpurse not only wears men’s clothes, but is what today we would call a ‘radical feminist’ in her aggressiveness, self-reliance, hatred of being treated as a sex object and, especially, in her rejection of marriage. Moll is called a monster, and unnatural creature whom nature repents she made, a mermaid, and other unflattering epithets by the outraged male characters, but she is clearly a heroine to Middleton and she comes across as a rough but lovable tomboy.



If Middleton modelled his heroine on a lower-class thief, Shakespeare modelled his most charismatic female characters on the great ladies of Elizabeth’s court and even on the androgynous Queen herself. It has been said that Shakespeare is peculiarly absent from the ranks of those who sang the praises of the Virgin Queen and explanations have been offered that range from his adherence to the Essex faction to a private anti-feminist bias.

The truth, however, is that Shakespeare’s participation in the cult of Queen Elizabeth was more subtle than that of Spenser or Raleigh. Shakespeare again and again created an idealized portrait of the youthful Elizabeth (now an elderly lady in her sixties) in the brilliant, witty, charming, and universally admired heroines of his comedies.

Elizabeth, like the recurring Shakespearean heroine, was motherless, unusually spirited, resourceful, and impossible to intimidate. She told one Parliament that tried to bully her into choosing a husband or naming a successor, ‘I will never be by violence constrained to do anything. I thank God I am endued with such qualities that if I were turned out of my realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom’.

What we see in many of Shakespeare’s heroines is exactly this: a young woman figuratively turned out of her realm in her petticoat, and living triumphantly by her wit. The most important similarity between the great Queen and these boyish heroines lies in the charisma that springs from an androgynous spirit.

I conclude, as I began, with Queen Elizabeth because it is my belief that she inspired the outburst of feminism I have been documenting. Perhaps it is safer to echo Carroll Camden, who says more cautiously, ‘...one wonders if the man-woman fashion had its unconscious roots in [her] untraditional position.’ Whatever its roots, the man-woman fashion was relatively long-lived, socially significant, and an important forerunner of the modern Women’s Liberation Movement.