Controversies About Women
Author: Stearns, Peter N

Date: 1992

Document: Controversies About Women

Changes in family structure and some shifts in the economic roles of
women, plus ambivalent Protestant promptings about women that emphasized the
family context but urged affection and respect between wives and husbands,
touched off new gender tensions in Western society by the 17th century. Some
of these tensions showed in witchcraft trials, so disproportionately directed
against women. Other tensions showed in open debate about women's relationship
to men, in which new male hostility toward women not content with a docile
wifeliness vied with new claims of virtue and prowess by some women. Though
the debate centered in the upper class of Protestant nations such as England,
it may have had wider ramifications; some of these ramifications, though
quieter during the 18th century, would burst forth again in arguments about
inequality and family confinement in the 19th century, when a more durable
feminist movement took shape in the West. In the selections below, the
antiwoman position is set forth in a 1615 pamphlet by Joseph Swetnam; the
favorable view implicitly urging new rights is in a 1640 pamphlet
pseudonymously authored by "Mary Tattle-well and Ioane Hit-him-home,

Swetnam's "Arraignment Of Women"

Men, I say, may live without women, but women cannot live without men:
for Venus, whose beauty was excellent fair, yet when she needed man's help,
she took Vulcan, a clubfooted Smith. . . .

For women have a thousand ways to entice thee and ten thousand ways to
deceive thee and all such fools as are suitors unto them: some they keep in
hand with promises, and some they feed with flattery, and some they delay with
dalliances, and some they please with kisses. They lay out the folds of their
hair to entangle men into their love; betwixt their breasts is the vale of
destruction; and in their beds there is hell, sorrow, and repentance. Eagles
eat not men till they are dead, but women devour them alive. . . .

It is said of men that they have that one fault, but of women it is said
that they have two faults: that is to say, they can neither say well nor do
well. There is a saying that goeth thus: that things far fetched and dear
bought are of us most dearly beloved. The like may be said of women; although
many of them are not far fetched, yet they are dear bought, yea and so dear
that many a man curseth his hard pennyworths and bans his own heart. For the
pleasure of the fairest woman in the world lasteth but a honeymoon; that is,
while a man hath glutted his affections and reaped the first fruit, his
pleasure being past, sorrow and repentance remaineth still with him.

Tattle-Well And Hit-Him-Home's "Women's Sharp Revenge"

But it hath been the policy of all parents, even from the beginning, to
curb us of that benefit by striving to keep us under and to make us men's mere
Vassals even unto all posterity. How else comes it to pass that when a Father
hath a numerous issue of Sons and Daughters, the sons forsooth they must be
first put to the Grammar school, and after perchance sent to the University,
and trained up in the Liberal Arts and Sciences, and there (if they prove not
Blockheads) they may in time be book-learned? . . .

When we, whom they style by the name of weaker Vessels, though of a more
delicate, fine, soft, and more pliant flesh therefore of a temper most capable
of the best Impression, have not that generous and liberal Education, lest we
should be made able to vindicate our own injuries, we are set only to the
Needle, to prick our fingers, or else to the Wheel to spin a fair thread for
our own undoing, or perchance to some more dirty and debased drudgery. If we
be taught to read, they then confine us within the compass of our Mother
Tongue, and that limit we are not suffered to pass; or if (which sometimes
happeneth) we be brought up to Music, to singing, and to dancing, it is not
for any benefit that thereby we can engross unto ourselves, but for their own
particular ends, the better to please and content their licentious appetites
when we come to our maturity and ripeness. And thus if we be weak by Nature,
they strive to make us more weak by our Nurture; and if in degree of place
low, they strive by their policy to keep us more under.

Now to show we are no such despised matter as you would seem to make us,
come to our first Creation, when man was made of the mere dust of the earth.
The woman had her being from the best part of his body, the Rib next to his
heart, which difference even in our complexions may be easily decided. Man is
of a dull, earthy, and melancholy aspect, having shallows in his face and a
very forest upon his Chin, when our soft and smooth Cheeks are a true
representation of a delectable garden of intermixed Roses and Lilies. . . .

Man might consider that women were not created to be their slaves or
vassals; for as they had not their Original out of his head (thereby to
command him), so it was not out of his foot to be trod upon, but in a medium
out of his side to be his fellow feeler, his equal, and companion. . . .

Thus have I truly and impartially proved that for Chastity, Charity,
Constancy, Magnanimity, Valor, Wisdom, Piety, or any Grace or Virtue
whatsoever, women have always been more than equal with men, and that for
Luxury, Surquidant obscenity, profanity, Ebriety, Impiety, and all that may be
called bad we do come far short of them.


Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center