Patriarchal negotiations : women, writing and religion 1640-1660
Women were prominent in the Lollard movement in the fifteenth century, but it is only in the mid-seventeenth century that women begin to produce theological texts which contribute to the controversy over popular religious expression and women's part in religious culture. After 1640 women began to publish on a number of theological issues and in a wide range of genres: prose polemic, prophecy, autobiography and spiritual meditation. Subject to widespread criticism, they quickly had to fashion a rhetoric of justification with which to defend their intervention in print and pacify male critics. This thesis shows that they achieved this in two ways: by producing a literature which complied with the expectations of masculine theological culture and by manipulating these assumptions so as to create space for a female symbolic language of piety. They developed a literary self-consciousness which depends on the idea of subjectivity as a gendered experience and they often resisted their detractors by valorising denigrated forms of female subjectivity and pursuing theological conclusions irrespective of normative ideas of gender. Women did not engage in theological debate in isolation, however. They often intervened as committed members of religious sects and thus deserve to be read as representatives of corporate and communal theologies. In contrast to earlier studies which have sought to recover neglected women writers as early feminists, without reading their work historically, this thesis seeks to uncover the social and the theological rather than the authorial origin of much early modem women's writing and to measure its engagement with early modem debates on women and religious culture. It seeks to challenge the increasingly dominant view of early modem women writers which invests them with too modem an authorial presence, by reconstituting the seventeenth-century debates which gave rise to their work and by bringing modem French feminist perspectives to bear on a period largely untouched by theoretical approaches to literature. To this end it proceeds by way of several close readings of women who wrote as women and as Baptists, Independents, Levellers, Presbyterians and Quakers.