How not to write women out of history

The Parliament of Women (1646), on which Neville based his satirical libels.

Admittedly, my headline sounds a bit dramatic. But I am serious about this. Several years ago, I reviewed two books in short succession: one, a collection of essays on Oliver Cromwell, another, a history of gender in the English Revolution. The former barely mentioned any women at all, the latter focused on gender relations during this crucial period of British history.

The two books could not have been more different from each other, and yet, they covered similar issues. This made me think more about the way in which I was treating women in my own writing on seventeenth-century English republicanism.

I had to admit to myself, that I too had written my PhD thesis on a male republican, Henry Neville (1619-94), who was a bit of a misogynist himself. (He married a much younger woman to lay hands on her estate and then largely ignored her for the rest of her short life.)

It had not even occurred to me to look for a female subject to write about, mainly because I was under the naïve impression that – with the possible exception of Lucy Hutchinson – female republicans in the seventeenth century simply did not exist. This impression, no doubt, was based on the existing literature.

Ironically, it was through Neville himself that I came to engage with women in the English Civil War and its aftermath after all. In his Parliament-of-Women satires, Neville had used the image of an all-female assembly to poke fun on the weak and useless male MPs at Westminster in the late 1640s and early 1650s. This led me to investigate the political activities of women during the period from female petitioners to prophetesses and the activist wives of Leveller leaders.

IoP_Full_Wood copy
Frontispiece of Neville’s The Isle of Pines (1669).

Likewise, Neville’s fictional Restoration travel narrative The Isle of Pines had used a particular depiction of gender relations to pose questions about the legitimacy of political patriarchalism and hereditary rule. So I got hooked on the gender theme and promised myself to pay more attention to the female figures and voices that appear like faint shadows in the documents and secondary literature.

When I was writing my forthcoming book on The English Republican Exiles in Europe during the Restoration, for instance, I realised what an important role Elizabeth Ludlow (c 1630-1702) held in the wider republican nexus.

Not only did she facilitate the flight of her regicide husband, Edmund Ludlow (1617-92), into continental exile in 1660, she also maintained a communication network that allowed the fugitive to stay in contact with important allies over many years.

Henrietta Maria of France, the Queen Mother (1609-69).

In fact, many extraordinary women play important supporting roles in my book, either on the republican or on the royalist side.

There is the Queen Mother, Henrietta Maria (1609-69), who returned to France after the Restoration and together with her daughter Henrietta, duchess of Orléans (1644-70), engaged in a hunt for Charles I’s murderers.

There is the former Swedish queen Christina (1626-89) who might have encouraged the republican Algernon Sidney (1623-83) to go Rome when he was seeking a temporary hiding place after the Restoration.

Christina of Sweden (1626-89).


As a Catholic convert she would also become an influential figure in Rome being well connected with Cardinal Decio Azzolino and the Squadrone Volante.

There is also the royalist agent Aphra Behn (1640-89), who had been spying on the republican exiles in the United Provinces before she made a name for herself as a Restoration playwright, poet, translator and writer of fiction.

And there are the Huguenot Mme Caux who helped Ludlow on his flight across France to Geneva, and the wife of Charles Perrot who looked after him and fed him when he arrived in the protestant city.

These and many other women might not have been as visible and prominent as they might deserve, but they are hard to ignore. They had political convictions and beliefs, and they acted as parts of bigger networks.

Aphra Behn (1640-89), playwright, poet, spy and writer of fiction.

Despite what we have long been led to believe, it is completely untrue that there are no records of female political activity and that we therefore cannot or do not need to write about women in accounts of seventeenth-century political or intellectual history. 

Historians and literary scholars like Ann Hughes, Sharon Achinstein, Marcus Nevitt and Laura Knoppers, among others, have done a lot to highlight the political activities of seventeenth-century English women. And most recently Katharine Gillespie dedicated a whole book to female republicans, even though her definition of who or what could be considered ‘republican’ might be somewhat controversial. None of them have complained about a lack of sources, the sources are just different. 

We might not find many works of political philosophy written by women in the seventeenth century, especially not works that made it into print. But we do have petitions, letters, diaries and other less formal records of women’s political activity. And there might be numerous works that were strongly influenced by women’s ideas and benefited from their collaboration, even though their names never appeared in print.

So if anyone tells you, ‘there are no women in this story’, get suspicious!




By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.


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