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and everyday life for men, women, children, and servants was manifestly
wide™. Moreover, she states,
Despite the precepts of advice literature, in the early-modern world masculinity
and femininity were not equatable with publicity and privacy; nor was the
household a private sphere. The domestic world had a well-established correla-
tion with the public and the political; disordered households had implications
for the moral order of society.11
In short, the social history of early-modern England consistently under-
mines the descriptive veracity of separate spheres for men and women,
and reveals the family as ˜a structure deeply implicated within the social
order™.12
9 10
Landes 1998, p. 16. See Wright 2004.
11 12
Gowing 1998, p. 269. Hinds 1996, p. 105.
Conversations in Political Thought 217
Women™s historians caution as well that we need to be mindful of how
to interpret strong gender imperatives in prescriptive literature. A public
focus on proper roles for women in the private realm may indicate
women™s expanding roles outside the domestic sphere and men™s desire to
limit them.13 For Amanda Vickery, rejection of separate spheres analysis
is connected to the need to avoid pervasive generalizations about women™s
diminished public status in the nineteenth century. A separate spheres
analysis falls short, in her view, in its ability to represent the complexity of
gender relations; even within the context of the private, it ˜fails to capture
the texture of female subordination and the complex interplay of emotion
and power in family life™.14 Gowing and Vickery, among many others,
highlight the conceptual and theoretical difficulties with a straightforward
mapping of public and private onto separate spheres, and the historical
problems that arise from assuming a priori the power of public and
private discourse to determine the fate of women™s lives within a given
historical context. Since thinking in terms of separate spheres has little
descriptive value, it seems futile to continue to allow this approach to
govern our thinking about women™s past.
The rejoinder to be appropriately historically sensitive in our analyses
of public and private in the early-modern era might also be extrapolated
from conversations in the history of political thought. Unlike women™s
historians, historians of political thought have not engaged in an explicit
critique of the public/private analysis developed in feminist political
theory. Nevertheless, the imperative within historical readings of political
thought to avoid imposing contemporary concerns onto the past could
be instructive in this conversation. Historians of political thought guide
their inquiry with vigilance to prevent the reading of history backward.
For example, in his study of the Medieval roots of the concepts of consent
and coercion, Arthur Monahan urges caution ˜against reading material
through modern lenses.™ The concepts into which he is inquiring, he
explains, ˜usually have a different, less specific, meaning for thinkers in
the Middle Ages than in contemporary thought™.15 In other words, past
and present terms might look the same, but their present meanings
cannot simply be grafted onto the past. Gender historians and historians
of political thought agree that we should recognize differences in the
historical contexts in which terms such as public and private are
employed.

13 14 15
Vickery 1993, p. 400. Vickery 1993, p. 401. Monahan 1987, pp. xviiÀxviii.
218 joanne h. wright
The question at this point becomes, can we continue to talk in terms
of public and private at all? Does the use of this terminology necessarily
indicate that we are in fact reading history backward? Although feminists
no longer agree in principle on how or if public and private should be
used, Landes argues that there is little use in exaggerating the differences
between feminist positions, for that would ˜risk freezing, or perhaps
˜˜essentializing™™ the positions within feminist theory that have gener-
ated an ongoing conversation about the contours of public and private
life™.16 Nevertheless, since my purpose is to stimulate further conversation
among these fields of inquiry, it is necessary to point to areas where
women™s historians, feminist political theorists and indeed historians of
political thought could mutually benefit from more cross-pollination.
Recognizing the problems associated with public and private thinking,
and building upon the insights gleaned so far, might it yet be possible
to bring these ˜evanescent notions . . . down to earth™, to anchor them
˜in the particularities of history and the specificities of theory™?17
I suggest that, as important as the historical corrective is, something
vital is lost to our analysis of the political when we move away from
the terms public and private altogether. Recognizing that the construction
of public and private is complex and interwoven with other discourses,
that their meanings are essentially contested, and that the lines between
the two are blurry and often permeable, we need further inquiry into
these terms, more nuanced and historically-sensitive inquiry, not less of
it. Political theorists cannot simply abstain from the use of these terms,
however unsatisfactory they might be, precisely because they are part of
our inherited discourse; the negotiation of the boundary between the two
has involved ˜profoundly political struggles™.18 Within feminist political
theory, public and private were not used merely to describe men™s and
women™s locations in a given historical context. Far more than simple
descriptors, public and private are understood to be important ideological
constructs in the early-modern period, which have a powerful influence
on historical actors above and beyond what the advice literature dictates.
There is no denying that the analysis of public and private developed
within feminist political theory emerged from the specific historical
circumstances of the Second Wave. Still, these questions are not brand
new: they have been asked in other ways and in other contexts. The
benefit of the Second Wave analysis is that it has the effect of opening our

16 17
Landes 1998, p. 16. Elshtain 1993, p. 4.
18
Ackelsberg and Shanley 1996, p. 217.
Conversations in Political Thought 219
eyes to the politics of public and private that may have been identified
by historical women À and more importantly in this context, women
thinkers À but to which we have been inattentive.19 Reading history
forward means making no assumptions; rather, it requires that we
investigate whether these terms were meaningful to seventeenth-century
women such as Margaret Cavendish, and if so, pursuing further inquiry
as to what the terms meant to them.


cavendish™s ˜grave of love™
Perhaps the most compelling reason to retain the language of public
and private in our analyses of early-modern England is that the terms
were used frequently by, and had meaning for, Cavendish and her
contemporaries.20 A brief look at Cavendish™s The Life of the Thrice
Noble . . . William Cavendishe illustrates the regularity with which she
uses the discourse of public and private to describe the nature of their
affairs. For example, she frequently refers to the Duke™s personal,
economic matters (the ˜prudent mannage of his private and domestick
affairs™; and ˜his private affairs [which] he orders without any noise or
trouble™) in contrast to his public service to the commonwealth (he ˜never
ventures upon either publick or private business, beyond his strength™).
And, in keeping with another common usage of private, to denote
something secret, something that ought not to be revealed, Cavendish
˜cannot forbear to mention™ the advice book written by Newcastle to King
Charles II, but explains that, ˜it being a private offer to his sacred Majesty,
I dare not presume to publish it™.21 In Orations of Divers Sorts, she uses
public and private to demarcate acceptable religious practice; debating the
issue of conscience and the religious sects, she queries, if they ˜disturb
not the public weal, why should you disturb their private devotions?™22
For Cavendish, the discourse of public and private was both a meaningful
and useful one, accounting for differences in the sorts of business being
attended to.
Cavendish also uses the terms to refer to spatial locations, which are
implicitly gendered. She deplores those who, in the future, will attempt

19
I am thankful to Gordon Schochet for sharing his thoughts on method in the history of
political thought, especially as found in Schochet 1999.
20
The range of meanings of private and privacy in early-modern England is discussed in
Huebert 1997.
21 22
Cavendish 1916a, pp. 128À9. Cavendish 2003, p. 168.
220 joanne h. wright
to tarnish the Duke™s ˜heroick actions, as well as they do mine, though
yours have been of war and fighting, mine of contemplating and
writing: yours were performed publickly in the field, mine privately in
my closet: yours had many thousand eye-witnesses, mine none but my
waiting-maids™.23 Cavendish™s apparently benign distinction here between
the Duke™s public contributions as against her private ones belies her
darker view of the private for women. Ronald Huebert argues that
women and men experienced the private differently:
. . . private life in the early-modern period, however companionate, was at all
times inflected by the semiology of male privilege. In a world where one gender
was expected to govern and the other expected to obey, it could not have been
otherwise.24
Patriarchal authority in the family and within the private context of
the domestic realm was a widely-recognized social fact in seventeenth-
century England. There was virtually no thought that marriage might
function democratically, as all relationships were assumed to require
a hierarchy of power to work properly.25 Cavendish determines that, as
far as the judiciary was concerned, relations between husbands and
wives were indeed private, and the ˜prerogative of a husband™ to rule
the wife À being analogous to that of master over servant and parent
over child À was grounded in ˜Nature, God, and morality™.26 Of course,
in practical terms, marriages varied tremendously, then as now. Sara
Mendelson and Patricia Crawford identify ˜an affectionate but
hierarchical relationship™ as ˜the dominant ideal™,27 and indeed, this
may have even been the norm. However, Cavendish™s writings bring
the power relations of the private realm into sharper focus, revealing
that women™s experiences of subjection had the potential to be much
harsher.
In contrast to the advice literature, which encouraged women™s
acceptance of their place in the marital hierarchy, and to the justifications
for masculine authority found among early-modern political theorists,
Cavendish™s depiction of marriage is stark and unsentimental. In The
Convent of Pleasure, a series of vignettes that form a play-within-a-play


23 24
Cavendish 1916a, pp. 7À8. Huebert 2001, p. 63.
25 26
Sommerville 1995, pp. 84À7. Cavendish 2003, ˜Oration 49™, pp. 178À80.
27
Of course, the data for what plebeian wives expected and derived from marriage is much scarcer
than for women of Cavendish™s social class. See Mendelson and Crawford 1998, p. 132.
Conversations in Political Thought 221
reveals a group of ˜gossiping women™ whose conversations detail a litany
of abuses experienced by women in marriage: physical violence, husbands
who gamble all their money away, the taking of whores and mistresses,
the expectation of relentless breeding, the threat of infant and maternal
mortality, to name a few. Upon being told that a neighbour™s husband
has run off with another woman, one woman responds,
I would to Heaven my Husband would run away with Goody Shred the
Botcher™s Wife, for he lies all day drinking in an Alehouse, like a drunken Rogue
as he is, and when he comes home, he beats me all black and blew, when I and
my Children are almost starved for want.28
Through their shared stories about marriage and childbirth, the female
characters undermine the dominant narrative of their natural subjection
within marriage, and lay the foundation for choosing a communal life
of retired contemplation.
In The Convent of Pleasure, Cavendish gathers and synthesizes the
common knowledge, or folk wisdom, about women™s marital experiences
and develops it into an incisive analysis of power relations within the
private realm. Although Cavendish is critical of women™s gossip else-
where, especially in her Sociable Letters,29 she casts these vignettes, not as
trivial or malicious, but as an important À yet insufficiently recognized À
site of knowledge production. This is not the university or the Royal
Society, but the knowledge acquired here is not available anywhere
else; moreover, it makes sense of women™s experiences, both public and
private, in a way that other, more publicly-validated institutional knowl-
edge cannot.30 That Cavendish explores the theme of women™s oppres-
sion within marriage in a dramatic medium allows her to give these
ideas, in Jean Howard™s terms, an ˜embodied representation™:31 rather
than having their stories described, the characters within the vignettes

28
Cavendish 2000, p. 112. The vignettes are found in Act II, Scenes IIÀIX, with Scene X being
a declaration of the curse of marriage and the decision to enter a life of retirement.
29
Cavendish 2004, ˜Letters 91, 103™, pp. 143À4, 157À8.
30
My discussion of the epistemological significance of gossip and women™s talk is informed by
Code 1995; and Dalmiya and Alcoff 1993.
31
Howard, in this volume, p. 143. Cavendish™s dramas were never performed publicly, yet
Straznicky 2004 problematizes the traditional categorization of plays according to audience,
with some plays intended for commercial performance and others written as closet dramas.
The division between the two does not take account of household performances of plays,
which, although not fully public, were also not completely private either. She argues that the
closure of theatres to public performance during Cavendish™s writing career blurred the
distinction between commercial and closet drama and had the effect of politically charging
private readings of plays.
222 joanne h. wright
give voice to their own experiences. In viewing this series of female
conversations, the audience-within-the-play is led to a truth about
the oppressive aspects of marriage and motherhood for women that
confirms their commitment to remain ˜incloystered™. The one opinion
in exception to this, and the only defence of marriage found in
The Convent of Pleasure, is offered immediately after the vignettes by
the Princess, a character whom we discover at the end of the play
is actually a man. While Cavendish rarely places herself ˜among the
women™ À most often she seems anxious to distance herself from
them, especially those of her own class and status À in The Convent
of Pleasure she makes it clear that it is from women™s talk and from
women™s experiences that her knowledge of the perils of the private
is derived. And this is indeed why the private looks different from
Cavendish™s purview.
Even as an economically and socially privileged woman, Cavendish was
not herself immune to the potential hazards of a disastrous marriage.32 In
a patriarchal society before the advent of divorce, marriage was essentially
all-determining for women: one might be ˜lucky™ or not. Indeed, women
understood that marriage would be life-altering for them, ˜a violent
discontinuity™ from their former, single state.33 As Sara Mendelson and
Patricia Crawford note, ˜marriage was experienced in bodily as well as
social terms™, since men expected sexual access to their wives and could
subject them to physical ˜correction™ if they saw fit.34 Physical violence by
men against their wives was socially acceptable as long as it was within
moderation, and in fact such violence was thought necessary to the
proper maintenance of order in early-modern households.35 It was
generally assumed that ˜a man could do what he liked inside his own
home, that his wife was his sexual and physical property™.36 Except in
extreme cases, death was the only end to a marriage: ˜there can be no
Honourable Divorce but by Death, for all other Divorces are Marked
with some Disgrace™.37 In her judicial oration on domestic violence,


32
Disrupting the dominant romantic view of intellectual harmony in the Cavendish marriage,
Smith 1997a draws attention to several divisive issues, including William™s infidelities and

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