Women In History

Scattered through historic records are some horrific cases of women abused and/or neglected by their spouses. And much current research is highlighting the neglected contributions of women in science, literature and other areas. But bless noted are the many women whose independence shines a light on less famous people.

Legally women had rights as spinsters and as widows but these were lost to their husbands on marriage. This seems like misogyny but it made men financially and legally responsible for their wives and children which suggests there was a problem with them abandoning their families from early times.

Couples were often seen as oxen yoked together for life which is far from romantic but it meant that if one stumbled, the other had to pick up their share of the burden.

But for much of history, high male mortality – from farming and industrial accidents, at sea and in wars, meant they were outnumbered by women. Some were widows who ran family businesses, even in building trades. By mid 18th century this was as high as 2 to 3 which left many spinsters.

Women were highly visible in food riots, objecting to speculation in essentials. They often led riots as they were unlikely to be shot at by militia. For decades food prices were controlled by riots especially in the West Country. There is a wonderful description of a river of women pouring through the windows of an inn, tearing off the mayor’s wig to demand he sign a document or they would kill him. Other women were educated & contributed to good causes such as building churches & schools& were essential to the abolition of slavery in petitioning and fundraising.

Caroline Herschel was told by her father she was too poor and too ugly (smallpox scars) to marry. She spent much of her time sitting reading & needlework. Such eye to detail& patience were useful when sat staring at stars to make more astronomical discoveries than her famous brother. She was also an accomplished singer and musician

Ada Lovelace was also encouraged by her mother the queen of parallelograms to study maths to avoid the madness of her father. Dr Johnson encouraged Mrs Thrale to study arithmetic and many took lessons in geography. In Waltham Abbey the widow Phillipa Walton, mother of 10, ran the country’s biggest gunpowder works.

When you look at Millais’ images of country people, there are barefoot women who were strong, hardworking and who knew their worth. If they chose to marry it is hard to imagine them as subservient.

When EPThompson was giving a WEA lecture to some country people, a woman put him in his place. She said they knew their worth. Invisibility in records does not mean women were invisible in life.

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