Antonia Fraser entitled her 1983 history of women in 17th-century England, The Weaker Vessel, from St. Peter’s advice to husbands that they give “honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel….” Fraser contends that women were not nearly as inferior and dependent as the phrase implied.
According to The Lawes Resolutions of Woman’s Rights, a 1632 description of women’s legal position, the common law gave a father absolute authority over an unmarried daughter and a husband similar authority over his wife. Married women were not considered legal persons. An independent woman was viewed suspiciously.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, women performed the work of absent husbands, raised funds for the cause, served as spies, nursed the sick and injured, and became camp followers. Contemporaries feared that the breakdown of traditional social organization would lead to sexual license. There were radical groups that proclaimed free love, but most of these seem to have been led by men, not women. Women were involved in petitions and marches protesting the war (and its consequences). There was the August 1643 Peace Petition and the April 1649 Humble Petition of divers well-affected women inhabiting the City of London, Westminster, the Borough of Southwark, Hamblets, and places adjacent. The latter petition called for the release of the Leveller leaders, and redress from high taxes, from the lack of work, and from arbitrary government.
The Civil War saw an increase in the number of prophetesses. George Fox, founder of the Quakers, published (1656) the first defense in England of the spiritual equality of women since the Reformation. Puritans in the H of C were less tolerant: in December 1646, they passed resolutions that “no person should expound the Scriptures unless he be ordained in ‘this or some other Reformed Church’.”
Divorce was non-existent. Separations (divortium a mensa et thoro) were possible in cases of abuse or adultery, but neither party was free to marry again. The Commonwealth Marriage Act of 1653 allowed the innocent party to marry again, but this act was revoked with the Restoration. Marriages could be nullified on grounds of consanguinity and affinity of blood, pre-contract, or impotency. The first true divorce by act of Parliament (divortium a vinculo matrimonii) was not until 1698 and involved actions in the House of Lords.
Single women had few means
of support. There was disdain for “she-authors.” Women did not appear on
stage until 1660. Nursing was not considered a profession. The only health
practitioner who was regularly paid for her services was the midwife. Most
women simply did not have the education that was necessary for the “professions.”
A 1696 Essay in Defense of the Female Sex bemoaned women’s fate: “Women,
like our Negroes in our western plantations, are born slaves, and live
prisoners all their lives.”