Blurring boundaries: shifting perceptions of femininity in the context of the English Civil War



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The English Civil War represents a liminal period within the history of the nation, one that offered many opportunities for experimentation with gender roles in social institutions. This historical episode had no universally legitimate authority, in either the government or the church, and the population had to deal with the resulting confusion individually. In comparing the writings and actions of women during this period with the popular publications of men that described and prescribed women's behavior, I argue that a significant number of men and women disregarded prescribed gender roles out of necessity. The major themes of this thesis involve the relationship between power and gender, as seen through contemporary language and writing that reveal how English culture viewed women acting in "masculine" endeavors in a time of crisis. Any perceived threat to the social order or the gender hierarchy of early modern England caused anxiety, but the actual challenges to this social organization posed by the Civil War provoked a substantial backlash. However, the women who acted in the war in public developed an identity independent of their culturally subordinate status. In order to substantiate this argument, this thesis discusses the fluid nature of gender, including the significant changes that resulted within the decades of the Civil War, as it was depicted in seventeenth-century England. Using primary documents, including letters, pamphlets, diurnals, and diaries, I show how the gender roles created by the church, state, and society were contradicted by the reality of the behavior exhibited by the participants in the English Civil War. I examine both women who acted within the traditional confines of femininity and those who transgressed these boundaries. Close attention is paid to women's activities in the areas of defense, religion, and politics. In conclusion, the thesis examines the ways in which historians have sought to interpret this period and place the actions of women within a patriarchal context. Possible challenges to the gender hierarchy caused great anxiety amid early modern England, but actual transgressions of gender roles, which occurred during the English Civil War, prompted a reevaluation of femininity.