Over on Twitter we asked if there were any questions people would like answered about history, politics, and society during the English Civil Wars. First up was Mat, who asked “Was the question of “the poorest She” – female suffrage – ever raised by any of the revolutionary groups during the English Civil War?”
Thanks for the great question, Mat!
It is almost an understatement to say that the 1640s and ‘50s saw some of the most radical political movements in British history.
From the Levellers to the Diggers, from Quakers to Muggletonians, a massive proliferation of radical ideas erupted as the old institutions of government broke down. In the chaos of war and political strife, previously unthinkable notions bubbled to the surface and called into question every assumption society had about itself: the war had created what poet John Milton called the “womb of teeming birth”.
In a series of debates between the New Model Army and the Parliamentarian grandees at Putney in 1647, the radical notion of universal male suffrage put forward by the Levellers was treated with barely concealed horror by Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton. Meanwhile, groups such as the the Ranters claimed they could not sin as sin itself was immaterial and the Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, attempted to establish a religious form of proto-communism that eschewed the private ownership of land – an idea that would not be seen again in western civilisation for another century and a half. These groups have long been portrayed as early modern progressives, claimed by modern political movements as their antecedents. In the political tumult of the age it seemed any idea was on the table, so surely it makes sense that these radical movements would be fighting for equality between the sexes?
But they did not.
Although women became a much more visible part of public life during the period, in her brilliant best-selling account of the lives of women in seventeenth century England, The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser shoots down any suggestion of 17th Century Suffragettes: “Hindsight – and only hindsight – has shown the importance of female suffrage in the elevation of women’s condition; this importance was certainly not appreciated in the seventeenth century”
That is not, however, to say that women were invisible during the English Civil Wars – quite the opposite. If anything, their voices begin to be heard at levels never seen before in British history. From the Leveller “lusty lasses” demanding the release of arch-pamphleteer John Lilburne who laid siege to Parliament for three days in April 1649 before rioting when told to “look after their own business, and meddle with their huswifery”, to the forthright language of their Women’s Petition, which demanded that:
“…since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportional share in the freedoms of this Commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes, as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House.
“Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?”
Elsewhere, The Quakers were regarded as particularly radical because they allowed women to preach, which showed that within radical sects those who previously enjoyed little autonomy or opportunity for self-expression could find positions of leadership. Indeed, this seemed to be part of such sects’ appeal.
Alison Plowden’s Women All On Fire also details just a few of the women – both Parliamentarian and Royalist – who found themselves organising the defence of castles, campaigning to secure the release of their husbands, printing pamphlets, defending their homes, and dealing with the depredations of war. That we can hear their voices 400 years later demonstrates just how much more weight those voices carried at the time.
But, simply put, no-one was pushing for women to have the vote.
In a country where men not only had complete control over the nation’s economic structure but were also simply seen as better and more worthy human beings than women, the suggestion alone would have been considered ludicrous.
Most importantly, it would have been considered so by women themselves.
A century after the incredible advances won by the Suffragettes, it seems antithetical to us that anyone would not want political agency and a greater say in affairs of state – but this was the prevailing structure of English society at the time.
Fraser points out that there were occasions when women did try to vote. The political position of widows of “freeholders” (i.e. landowners) was ambiguous in Stuart England: since the qualification for voting was owning property, as owners of their late husbands’ estates some women did try to vote in elections in the early 1640s. More often than not these votes were annulled after complaints and when barrister and politician Sir Edward Coke published another of his legal treatises, The Institutes of the Lawes of England (which formed the backbone of English common law), in 1644 it starkly disenfranchised even these small numbers, stating that people without “freehold” could not vote and nor could “all women having freehold or no freehold”.
Several years later, extending suffrage to men who did not possess property or land was considered so dangerously radical that it had to be suppressed – the Leveller ‘agitators’ were purged from the New Model Army, the Diggers were harassed until they gave up, and other non-conformist movements were suppressed by the post-Restoration Act of Uniformity. Even in an age when it seems like no idea would have been too far fetched, votes for women was never one of them.
Mat’s original question references Colonel Thomas Rainsborough’s famous quote from the Putney debates:
“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…”
It was a noble and far-reaching defence of the rights of the common man to political expression. But even the most extreme Levellers never suggested they were fighting for anything other than the rights of men.
Fraser says it is significant that “throughout a period of unparalleled radicalism – and radical debate – in English history, when so many revolutionary political ideas were discussed that to contemporaries it must have seemed that Pandora’s Box had been opened, the series question of giving a vote to Pandora herself was never even mooted.”