Karen Bowman - Essex Girls

A woman's lot was not a happy one.
Women's rights and status have changed over the centuries, not always for the better. With equality for women built into the law today, it's easy to overlook the lack of rights our forebears suffered. To better understand the achievements and/or notoriety of women throughout history it is first necessary to understand the constraints that were placed upon them.

From birth women were taught that they were inferior to men. Shaped by the church Medieval and Renaissance society led women to believe they were instruments of the devil, the only imperfection in God's Creation. Strong stuff by today's standards but very real in 1558 when John Knox, in his treatise, First Blast of the Trumpet against Monstrous Regiment of Women, wrote 'Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man'.

Young girls were hardly given any freedom. Raised to obey their parents without question, marry and bear children, when they did embark upon matrimony they were expected to 'render unquestioning obedience to their husband and to learn in silence from him in all subjection'.

Education provided little escape. A waste of time to all but the rich it was thought to corrupt, and where it did occur it was in order to produce a good and moral wife and not to promote independent thinking. Where exceptions did occur, public opinion was still reserved, for example Lady Jane grey was quite a scholar 'for a woman, and both Katherine of Aragon and Katherine Parr, wives of Henry VIII, judged 'virtuous despite their education'.

For women sex before marriage was forbidden and sex within it deemed by the church only for the 'the procreation of children' Even the service used to marry a couple required the bride to vow to be 'Bonaire and buxom in bed and board'. Pregnancy was usually an annual event, many women dying in childbirth. It was not unusual for an expectant mother to, not only prepare for her confinement, but also make arrangements for someone to care for the child should she die.

With a woman's body and her goods becoming her husband's property when she married and the law allowing him to do whatever he wanted with them, it is needless to say that infidelity in a wife was not tolerated. An adulterous wife of a peer could be executed if the King granted her husband's petition to put her to death. Also a wife who killed her husband was guilty of petty treason and not murder, the punishment being death by burning.

Thus throughout history a wife who displeased her husband in any way, real or imagined, could be turned out of the house with just a shift to cover her, and no right of redress. Divorces were rare and Annulments granted only by an ecclesiastical court or by the Pope.

The Anglo-Saxon woman however, enjoyed more legal rights than her Norman and subsequent sisters. Within marriage, all finances and property were held jointly with her husband, except for the 'Morgengifu'. This 'morning gift' was as an essential part of all wedding arrangements, which a prospective husband was required to pay to the woman herself. One wealthy Saxon, Godwine of the early eleventh century, promised his future wife a pound's weight in gold, an estate, 150 acres at Burmarsh, 30 oxen, 20 cows, 10 horses, and 10 slaves. Wives, in turn, had control over the morgengifu, at liberty to give it away, sell it, or bequeath it as she pleased. The marriage contract also required the husband to promise that he would properly maintain his future wife, and state what inheritance he would leave her should he die. Additionally, the woman remained under the protection of her kin even after marriage. This meant that even if she moved away from them after the marriage, her kin could still help her if she became embroiled in legal difficulties. Married women, it appears, had some power.

This legal recognition of the woman within marriage all but ended with the Norman Conquest. By changing the laws of kinship, the Normans created the concept of the chattel wife, which endured until the end of the 19th century, effectively denying a woman rights over her estate or her children. After the Conquest only unmarried women of property shared a legal ability to make a will and sign documents. These rights she forfeited when she married. On the death of her husband she was entitled to one third of his land upon which to support herself.

Widowhood became a desirable condition. As a widow, a woman again became the head of the household and she herself a valuable commodity. If a man could convince a widow to marry him he could increase his power and wealth for himself and his family. Many chose to remain widows, a reasonable choice under the circumstances, or they become nuns...

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