Beyond the Old White Men: Women in English Republicanism

‘The history of old white men is on its way out’, a friend of mine and I agreed on a recent Zoom call. He is working on seventeenth-century English royalist thought, I’m working on republicanism. We’re both interested in gender issues and wondering how to make our research more inclusive and relevant.

Old-white-men history should have been out ages ago, but it has taken rather longer than I thought. Maybe the #MeToo movement had to happen first. A couple of statues had to be toppled, the National Trust had to fight an internal war over the colonial connections behind some of the country estates in its care. Old patterns have to be broken up before new structures can be created.

Working on English republican thought I am guilty of having done a bit of old-white-men history myself. My first monograph was on Henry Neville, my second on three male English republican exiles on the Continent. 

However, I felt that both books naturally had to engage with the role of women in English republicanism too, not least because the classical republican thinkers I was studying constructed their thought in opposition to patriarchal political ideas in the state, but failed to extend their anti-patriarchal views to the family and the household.

Title page of The Parliament of Women (1640), on which Henry Neville modelled his Parliament-of-Ladies pamphlets.

English republicans were political innovators while remaining socially conservative. Neville’s pamphlets on a Parliament of Ladies were positively misogynist, full of irrational women with a voracious appetite for sex. His mistreatment of his wife, whom he married for her country estate, was public knowledge. She was probably dead by the time he went into exile, but we hardly hear anything about her.

We know virtually nothing about Algernon Sidney’s wife or mistress either, except that he must have had a daughter with her called ‘Marie’ who grew up in France, but might have been conceived when Sidney was ambassador in Copenhagen in 1660. Marie later married a French Huguenot and might have moved to England with him in the 1680s.

The story is very different for Edmund Ludlow and his wife. Elizabeth is an integral part of the life he describes in his exile memoir ‘A Voyce from the Watch Tower’. She helps to organise his escape to Geneva on the Restoration, provides funds and offers emotional support. Elizabeth joined her husband in exile in Vevey later and was credited by him for her ‘zeale for the publique Cause’.

This makes me think that there were probably many republican wives who similarly shared their husbands’ political outlook and supported the ‘good old cause’, but rarely feature as independent political thinkers because they did not leave any published writings – with the notable exception of course of Lucy Hutchinson, who wrote a biography of her husband John.

Lucy Hutchinson by Samuel Freeman. Stipple engraving, circa 1825-1850
NPG D19953 © National Portrait Gallery, London

We have more evidence of Leveller women, such as Elizabeth Lilburne, Mary Overton, or Katherine Chidley engaging publicly in politics through protests and petitioning and sometimes through their own publications too. But the main form of women’s political writing, as Amanda Capern and others have shown, was religious writing.

Given that politics and religion were virtually inseparable in the seventeenth century, religious writing was always political too. Puritan women believed in liberty of conscience and questioned the right of the magistrate to persecute religious dissent. They considered themselves as having a stake in the Commonwealth, which allowed them to speak out and engage, and they might have derived rights of resistance – against their husbands as well as against political rulers – from their stance on religion too.

Yet, too little is still written about women’s republican thought, because it requires a rethinking of what is considered political thought in the first place. In order to include women in the canon of republican thought we need to broaden the definition of the political to include the religious and the domestic, and move away from a narrow focus on statecraft and parliamentary politics. But I think we’re finally on our way.



By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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