Feminism Was Alive in Renaissance England, Researcher Says

Glasses sitting on open books.
Open books and spectacles. (Image credit: Tischenko Irina, Shutterstock)

When one thinks of England in the 1600s, feminism probably isn't the first word to come to mind. But a researcher says a newly transcribed text shows that some Renaissance women launched battles for equality, which they sometimes won.

Jessica Malay recently put together a complete edition of a 600,000-word text by one of Britain's earliest feminist figures, Lady Anne Clifford, finding the so-called Great Books of Record "challenge the notion that women in the 16th and 17th centuries lacked any power or control over their own lives."

"There is this misplaced idea that the feminist movement is predominantly a 1960s invention, but debates and campaigns over women's rights and equality stretch back to the Middle Ages," Malay said in a statement from the University of Huddersfield in England.

Lady Anne, who lived from 1590 to 1676, was one of those campaigners. She fought an infamous legal battle to gain control of her family's vast estates in Cumbria and Yorkshire after they were handed over to her uncle when her father died in 1605. She eventually won control of the properties, which included five castles, but not until she was 53.

In her three-volume text, Lady Anne makes an argument for women to be accepted as inheritors of wealth and titles of honor, Malay said. Titles of honor, Lady Anne claimed, should be passed down to female heirs as well as males, since many men of her era had been given their titles of honor from their mothers or grandmothers. She also insisted that women were fit for the title of Baron since part of the job was to advise Parliament, and women, she argued, were excellent advice-givers. 

Malay said the books also explain some of the avenues available for women to assert power.

"As part of marriage settlements many women had trusts set up to allow them access to their own money which they could in turn use in a variety of business enterprises or to help develop a wide network of social contacts," Malay said in the statement. "Men would often rely on their wives to access wider familial networks, leading to wives gaining higher prestige in the family."

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.