The dark side of female alliances

In the early modern period many women lived in a homosocial world. Gendered activities such as cooking, looking after children, medicine making were used by women to create and maintain female alliances.[1] These activities allowed them to advance female education and knowledge, in addition to gain financial and social advantage.[2]

The importance of female alliances

When thinking of early modern women, people tend to picture obedient women working around the household and raising kids. Even if I ever thought about friendships between women, stereotypes made me think their conversations were mostly meaningless gossiping. Amanda E. Herbert’s book made me realise that there is a deeper side to female alliances.

Two women gossiping
Image credit: https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/156627

 
Elite women’s manuscript diaries are important primary sources when it comes to looking for evidence of female collaboration and cooperation. As Herbert argues these alliances are important for historians to understand early modern women’s life much better, as this gives their life another perspective.[3] Linda A. Pollock further argues that the ‘notion of sisterhood’ was a successful way to restore women’s agency and culture.[4] But even though most of these relationships were positive, some alliances broke down. Laura Gowing in Common bodies argues that not all female relationships were positive, but these relationships were essential to their everyday life.[5] Women made alliances with people outside of their class too. For example the kitchen was a space where servants and the elite socialised. Their conversations were not always high-minded, they laughed together while working, also exchanged secrets and gossips.[6] From my point of view this is the most popular image of early modern female alliances.

Failure of connecting with others

Herbert mentions how women had their own sex to help out when it came to “household task and domestic emergencies”, so the loss of these relationships could be a huge disadvantage.[7] In addition Pollock argues that women who broke law or breached morality could be weaker and left without much support.[8] Most early modern women turned to these alliances for advice when they had a medical/financial difficulty, as they were taught to reach out to others when feeling isolated or lonely. They turned to these relationships in times of emotional distress or loss.[9] Like many other women, Sarah Savage relied on her friend’s support. But her Nonconformist actions prevented her from participating in the alliance-building and social activities that most (Anglican) women attended, as Nonconformist women experienced social exclusion.[10] Furthermore, she chose not to engage with other women, as she thrown upon female alliances. Savage avoided the traditional alliance building activities, she rather spent time alone with her books. Interestingly, she enjoyed spending time with women whom she considered to be of lower status.[11] There is no wonder that women like Savage found it difficult to connect with the other women and create alliances, as people associate the most with those who are very similar to them, moreover, they connect easier. Even though it seems like she was alone, she still received some help from others (servants) when she became ill (neighbours), and when she gave birth.
Failure to create female alliances could be dangerous when it comes to domestic abuse. If a mistress treated her servants badly, it was more likely that they would not help her when she was abused by her husband. [12] This example shows that even though marital violence was not happening in every single household, if women did not have their safety net to help them and support them, their life could be much more difficult. Falling as a victim to marital violence made women more vulnerable, especially without help. In addition, alliance was really important when looking for witnesses in the case of divorce/court appearance.

‘The Bottle’ (1847) by George Cruikshank
Image credit: Hulton Archive—Getty Images


Another example can be childbirth and pregnancy. Pollock argues that childbirth was a tribute to female networks.[13]The experience of pregnancy and childbirth was depending on the help women could receive from the people around them. These life events are usually painted very positive, but Pollock mentions how women were afraid of childbirth, so a familiar space and familiar faces could be calming factors when it came to the actual delivery.[14] Conflicts took place in the birth chamber, which could make the experience for the mother worse. In addition if a child was illegitimate, the community refused to help, so therefore the failure to connect with others would leave the mother even more vulnerable and completely alone.[15]
These two examples show how a woman in early modern England without her safety net would have a more difficult life experience. The failure of connecting with other women- similarly to Sarah Savage could lead to a very lonely, more boring life where the woman depended mostly on herself.  

Why focus on the negatives?

I think a question that I have to think about when it comes to this topic is, why did I first focus on the positive sides of female alliances? I think one of the reasons for this are the limited sources and coverage on the topic. When it comes to this topic I find there are more secondary literature on the positive sides of female alliances rather than the negatives. Not everyone had a positive experience, but those women could be from a lower class where writing skills were not taught. Herbert even mentions in her book that most of the sources she used were elite women’s diaries, letters, and recipe books. Even though there were female alliances between different classes, those in lower ones either did not know how to read and write and/or had no time to record their life. From my point of view those who were more likely to live a harder life (lower class women) might have had a more negative experiences but there is so much less left behind. It is important to look at both sides, because it tells us so much more about women’s experience from the early modern period.

This image from my point of view showcases women working together in harmony. This could be a positive example of female alliances. Image credit: https://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/texts/cook/1600s2/queenh/closet.html


To conclude female alliances were not fully positive, as there were some difficulties when women could not connect with others. If they failed to build a safety net in cases such as childbirth (especially illegitimate) or marital violence, women were exposed to greater danger. My main take away from the HR650: The Early Modern Household Project module was that whatever I believed about early modern times was not always necessarily true. There are so many stereotypes about how early modern households, female alliances and relationships in general looked like, but the truth does not always fall behind these stereotypes.

The current situation (COVID-19) and the library closure created some difficulties when it came to researching this blog.

Bibliography

Foyster, Elizabeth, Marital Violence: An English family history, 1660-1857 (Cambridge, 2005).

Herbert, Amanda E., Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014).

Pollock, Linda A., ‘Childbearing and female bonding in early modern England’, Social History, 22 (1997).

 

[1] Amanda E. Herbert, Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014), p. 174

[2] Ibid. p. 2

[3] Ibid. p. 5

[4] Pollock, Linda A., ‘Childbearing and female bonding in early modern England’, Social History, 22 (1997), p. 286

[5] Herbert, p. 4

[6] Ibid. p. 82

[7] Ibid. p. 169

[8] Pollock, p. 287

[9] Herbert, p. 184

[10] Ibid. p. 169

[11] Ibid. pp. 174, 179

[12] Elizabeth Foyster, Marital Violence: An English family history, 1660-1857 (Cambridge, 2005), p. 188

[13] Pollock, p. 288

[14] Ibid, p. 292

[15] Ibid, pp. 299,302


3 thoughts on “The dark side of female alliances

  1. I really like this blog!
    I remember the first day of this module we were challenged to face the stereotype of early modern households, this blog does that really well!
    I really agree with Tallulah’s comment, i think that this should be taught to students at an earlier stage to refute the stereotype. IS this something you would find possible in the present day?

  2. This is really interesting. How do you think you got hold of the stereotypes about women’s lives? Do you think that we need to be teaching women’s history earlier to refute these stereotypes?

  3. Very interesting stuff, I liked how it is structured and the use of the primary sources really adds to the points you are making. Just a question though, why do you think that few of the positive things you described are found in these sources?

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