Much Ado About Gender (in Seventeenth Century England)

September 28, 2016 in General

Ludicrous anxieties and moral panics against perceived ‘gender fluidity’ are nothing new. Take seventeenth century England, for instance.

In a recent issue of the History Journal, Oxford University historian Margaret Pelling argues that seventeenth century religious tracts, popular books and pamphlets all drew attention to widespread male anxieties about ‘female numerical strength’, which might ‘require’ polygamy due to ‘insufficient’ numbers of men. While many males were killed during the mid-century Civil Wars, this could be balanced out by eclampsia, the suppression of independent midwifery, and consequent high maternal mortality due to the primitive conditions in which women gave birth. However, misogynist moral panic undoubtedly also played a role, particularly if women were viewed as ‘militant’ within the public sphere, instead of confined to domestic and spousal responsibilities. Part of the problem was that the fledgeling science of statistics was in its comparative infancy. In the event, pioneering statistician John Graunt made his own early assessment of London demographics and found that slightly more males were born than women, but that women lived longer than men- which has prevailed in most western societies until the present day.

Source: Matthew Elton: “The Great Seventeenth Century Gender Scare” BBC History: November 2016: 13.

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