The Role Of Women During Elizabethan Times
The Elizabethan era dates back to 1558-1603, during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I. History shows that Elizabeth was a formidable and intelligent leader, but, although she was unmarried, she was a rare exception in Elizabethan England. The roles of women during that time were very limited, and they had to deal with vast amounts of problems, restrictions and requirements on the part of men and society.
The method of teaching women differed depending on their social status. The women of Noble birth started their education at the age of five or less, and they were taught at home by private tutors. Their learning included languages like Latin, Italian, French or Greek, and some essential skills like dancing or music. Moreover, they were shown how to act properly, because eloquent speech, manners and appearance were highly required.
People from lower classes could not receive any formal type of education. Women could attend Dames’ Schools, where they were given some basic education, learn how to manage the household and become proficient in housewifely duties. The aim of this education was the preparation for the only career option those girls could have – marriage and maternity.
After being given some deficient education, women had to face another limitation which was the inability to attend university. In any case, they were not permitted to enter professions like politics, medicine or law. The only occupations they could afford were domestic service, knitting, gardening or being maids, cooks or writers, only if the literary subject was suitable for women.
The next stage in the life of an Elizabethan woman was married. It was believed that women required someone to look after them. When they were unmarried it was the father or brother who took care of them and after the marriage the husband, who was also the head of the matrimony. Girls were allowed to get married at the age of 12, but usually, only those from wealthy families would marry that young. Brides were also supposed to bring a dowry – goods, money and property – to the marriage.
One of the basic functions of the female gender was childbearing, which was considered an honour to women. On average, they gave birth to a child every two years due to the fact that the omnipresence of incurable diseases was the cause of the high mortality rate among children and infants.
The relations between people were patriarchal – it meant that men were the leaders, superior to women. Men were constantly controlling the females who were perceived as beings not worthy of the same privileges and rights.
Women held little significance in society, although they might not see it, because they were raised to believe they are inferior to men. One of the leaders of Protestants wrote she was expected to be subordinate and dependent on men. Any kind of disobedience, which was perceived as a crime against their religion, was punished with the use of whipping stool – a post to which women were tied and beaten several times, depending on the severity of the punishment. If the man decided his wife needs to be chastised, he had the legal right to do it. It did not mean that he could abuse her, because excessive cruelty and serious bodily harm could have ended with the prosecution.
Women for many years continued to live as men’s possession. Such beliefs resulted from social attitudes that perceived the ideal woman as silent, submissive and unable to express her opinion or object to the generally prevailing norms and principles.
The life of a single woman was significantly worse than the life of a married one. They were often criticized, looked upon with suspicion and thought to be witches. Moreover, they were expected to stay pure, those who were caught engaging in sexual behaviour were punished and labelled as prostitutes.
A woman from the upper class wanting to remain unwed could enter a convent, in order to avoid criticism and accusations. Conversion to a nunnery lifestyle was acceptable, as it was considered to be another form of marriage – marriage to God. After joining a nunnery, she received a male protector, who was supposed to take care of her.
The appearance of upper-class women was extremely important to maintain a proper reputation and represent their family well. In order to do that, they had to obey the sumptuary laws, which dictated the way females should dress, and they often took extreme measures to satisfy the ideal of the time. Wearing tight corsets and several layers of uncomfortable clothing was an everyday reality. Noblewomen used to wear makeup consisting of white lead, carbonate, hydroxide and arsenic to make their skin look pale, which sometimes caused serious illnesses or death.
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