During the Civil War, said Clarendon, who lamented its moral ill-effects on the structure of the family, ‘the young women conversed without any circumspection or modesty.’ At this time women were beginning to discuss such topics as their lack of education, divorce and polygamy with an unwonted openness.
Tracts like The Womens Sharpe Revenge and The Ladies Champion are early contributions to the corpus of feminist literature. Equally significant was the fact that for the first time in English history they were publicly and in numbers claiming the rights of political petition and debate.
Women had always – particularly since the Reformation – been a major source of strength to religious minorities. In many Anabaptist communities they had long had an equal standing with men, and in the London Independent congregations they were allowed to debate and vote – so much so that the vitriolic Prynne observed that this was simply to expand the membership of those congregations.
The women of London were also often noticeably vociferous. In Elizabeth’s reign Bishop Grindal had on more than one occasion had to barricade himself against a ‘womanish brabble’ demanding the reinstatement of their Puritan lecturers. By 1642 they were coming to play a remarkably vigorous part in politics too.
Their petitions and the harsh treatment they met with at the hands of Puritan soldiers and Royalist pamphleteers alike, many of whom had been scandalized enough to see them preaching, let alone petitioning, argue a political involvement hardly exceeded by the later suffragettes.
It is as lively petitioners that they first emerge in the rough and tumble of political life. At the beginning of February 1642 they presented a petition to the Commons, complaining that previous ones had not been answered and alleging-a commonly enough heard lament at this time – great want through the decay of trade. ‘We had rather bring our children and leave them at the Lords door,’ they added, ‘than have them starve at home.’
They had not been heard because of ‘the meere opposition of some bishops or lords’, and, reviving the memories of earlier animosities with the Church, they prayed ‘that bishops with their whole usurped Government… may be extinguished and abolished… that popish lords may be sequestered the House… incendiaries and delinquents be brought to tryal and punishment’.
The redoubtable Major-General Skippon, who was entrusted with the defence of the two Houses, was somewhat at a loss to know what to do… ‘there being great multitudes of women at the Houses… and their language is that where there is one woman now here, there would be five hundred tomorrow; and that it was as good for them to die here as at home’.
Already a month before, Cheapside and other large streets had been barricaded with benches and women were said to be boiling up water to pour on the heads of expected Royalist marauders. The Commons not unnaturally welcomed their petition and Pym, with other leaders of the House, went down to Palace Yard to thank them for their support.
On February 4th Mistress Anne Stagg from Southwark led another petition. This time she and her followers were full of apprehension that the Papists might bring about ‘bloody persecution in this Kingdom as they have done in Ireland’. This document admitted that it might be thought strange and unbecoming of the fair sex to engage in petitioning but that it was not presented ‘of any self-conceit or pride of heart, as seeking to equal ourselves with men, either in Authority or Wisdom’.
A few days later, after the passage of the Bishops’ Exclusion Bill and rumours that the Queen was about to leave the country they submitted an even more gloomy jeremiad, forecasting economic ruination.
When war broke out in the autumn, this pessimism was transformed into tremendous energy. The Lady Mayoress was said to be armed with an entrenching tool and many women set about fortifying the City, while militant fish wives marched in rank and file from Billingsgate headed by a symbolic goddess of war. It was probably such as these whom Samuel Butler was lampooning in Hudibras, who –
‘From ladies down to oyster wenches
Laboured like pioneers in trenches…’
During the next few years there is abundant evidence that women sustained an active share of the fighting, helping to raise such bodies as the ‘Maiden Troop’ in London and Norwich-but far from all seem to have been enthusiastic. By 1643 many Members of Parliament had fallen into disfavour with the City women.
In August of that year, while Pym was busy getting the ‘Accommodation’ proposals of the Lords for a compromise with the King turned down, they proceeded to mount another large demonstration. Described by Sir Simmond D’Ewes as two or three hundred oyster wives, they cried ‘peace! peace! and interrupted divers of the members both as they went in and as they came out of the House’.
On the following day their number seems to have increased to about five thousand, including some men in women’s clothing, who threatened to cast the ‘rounde heades’ of the Parliament into the Thames. They started to throw brickbats and only dispersed on the appearance of two troops of horse, departing at length with ill grace, threatening to tear Master Pym in pieces and ‘to demolishe all the works aboute the towne’.
According to some accounts a troop of horse later fell upon them in the Strand, killing four; and D’Ewes goes out of his way to censure the treatment of the Parliament guards who wounded them with ‘their swords and pistolls, with no less humanitie than if they had been bruit beasts’. This he contrasted with the leniency shown to male petitioners two days before – though perhaps he forgot that the men had not resorted to missiles, but had contented themselves with simply scowling at the guards.
The mauling they received is probably one explanation why they do not appear to have petitioned Parliament again until 1647. Individual petitioning went on, however; for, as the imprisoned Thomas Knyvett explained to his wife in 1644, ‘women solicitors are observed to have better audience than masculine malignants’. Widespread unrest among the women continued. It is reflected in such satires as Neville’s Parliament of Ladies and in various mock petitions where women are depicted as discussing their grievances in conference.
In the Leveller petitions women really came into their own, and seem to have taken almost as active a share as the men. It was said that ‘when the men durst not any more petition in behalf of Lilburne and his associates, the women took it up’. In 1649 they presented a petition with ten thousand signatures on it.
One M.P. was bold enough to remark on the strangeness of women to be petitioning. He drew on himself a speedy and crushing rebuke: ‘Sir, that which is strange is not therefore unlawful; it was strange that you cut off the King’s head, yet I suppose you will justifie it.’
The decay of trade is still lamented, but a more assertive note is creeping in. This petition particularly stresses that women have an equal share and interest with men in the Commonwealth and, referring to the riot in St Giles, Edinburgh, reminds Parliament that ‘the overthrow of Episcopall tyranny in Scotland was first begun by the women of that nation’. When they returned a little later, they were dismissively told that ‘the matter was of higher concernment than they understood… to look after their own business and meddle with their housewifery’.
It was not in the nature of Leveller wives to submit to docile domesticity when their husbands’ fives were in danger. Two years earlier, the pregnant Mrs Overton had forced her captors to drag her to Bridewell; an episode which her husband, John, the Leveller leader, was able to treat in mock heroic vein in The Commoners Complaint, with his description of hectic battle done between the fainting women and puissant Lords.
Elizabeth Lilburne was well respected for her courage and strength of character throughout her husband’s multiple misfortunes. ‘This,’ Lilburne wrote in a letter to Cromwell, ‘I have sent by the gravest, wisest and fittest messenger I could think of, and, though a Feminine, yet of a gallant and truly masculine spirit.’
One of their ablest supporters was Mrs Katherine Chidley – mother of one of the treasurers of the party – who had written a pamphlet in favour of Independent Church government, attacking Thomas Edwards, author of Gangraena. It is just possible that she had a hand in the Petition of Women, Ajfecters and Approvers of the Petition of September 11th, 1648, which was presented in the following May.