From the Desks of Christina Luckyj and Niamh J. O’Leary: Lessons in Female Alliance

The following contribution comes from Christina Luckyj and Niamh J. O’Leary, editors of Politics of Female Alliance in Early Modern England (December 2017). Luckyj is a professor of English, gender, and women’s studies at Dalhousie University. She is the author of “A Moving Rhetoricke”: Gender and Silence in Early Modern England and The Duchess of Malfi: A Critical Guide. O’Leary is an associate professor of English at Xavier University.

The idea of a collection of papers on the politics of female alliance in early modern England originated in a 2011 Shakespeare Association of America seminar led by Niamh and Elizabeth Kolkovich. No one then could possibly have predicted just how topical the notion of female alliance would be in the year of our book’s publication. Opposition to Donald Trump’s presidency culminated in the Women’s March of January 21, 2017, when millions of women and their supporters donned pink “pussy hats” to march in the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. Yet this powerful demonstration of the politics of female alliance in our own time has some uncanny precedents in the early modern period. In 1620, probably in protest of King James’s foreign and domestic policies, some English women defiantly dressed as men and carried swords in the streets even as preachers in their sermons condemned “the insolency of our women, and their wearing of broad-brimmed hats, pointed doublets, their hair cut short or shorn.” An anonymous play written around the same time, Swetnam the Woman-Hater Arraigned by Women, features a notorious misogynist being tried and punished by a group of women from all social classes. A decade earlier, Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed, and Beaumont’s The Maid’s Tragedy all represent women acting collectively in response to masculine tyranny, and a long religious poem written by a female author (Aemilia Lanyer) offers a series of dedications directed exclusively to women. Our collection of essays maps this prehistory of female alliances.

In the years since the second-wave feminism of the 1980s, literary scholars and historians have increasingly turned their attention to the traces of women’s lives in earlier periods. This has meant both a great deal of archival research and a broadening of our concept of the literary canon. It has yielded wonderful explorations of women’s verse, women’s devotional literature, and women’s domestic literature, such as recipe books and gardening manuals. Despite the overwhelming presence of conduct manual literature ordering women to be chaste, silent, and obedient, we have begun to uncover more and more evidence that early modern women’s lives were vocal and varied. As Keith Wrightson once said (in a dissertation research seminar Niamh participated in at the Folger Shakespeare Library), our goal is not to discover what people thought, but rather, what was thinkable. It seems that women’s collective political action was both thinkable and actionable in early modern England, and our book seeks to uncover its traces.

While we couldn’t have predicted in 2011 how timely this book would seem in 2017, we felt from the beginning that this book was important. Each of us had spent time thinking at length and in depth about women’s alliances in early modern England. Niamh was drawn to how female friendship was represented in early modern literature, and quickly found that the most interesting female relationships were contracted across larger groups, rather than dyadic pairs. She became interested in how these alliances functioned within the social worlds they inhabited onstage, in ballads, and in prose. Focusing primarily on childbirth and complaint narratives, Niamh explored a wide array of women’s relationships as represented in male-authored texts. First Elizabeth, and then Christina sharpened her thinking about these alliances in terms of political action. Influenced by the work of Margaret Ezell, Christina began to question the feminist tendency to idealize earlier female communities, and sought to reconstruct their complex religious and political functions in early modern culture. And many years, and many conversations later, we are proud to share this volume. The essays range from historical to literary, from the archives to the stage, from the domestic to the court. They both express scepticism about the power of women’s alliances to make political action, and uncover evidence of its impressive effectiveness. Together, they demonstrate that, twenty years after Susan Frye and Karen Robertson’s wonderful Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England, we are continuing to learn just how central female alliance was to early modern social order.