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Title:Reproducing Women: Female Bodily Narratives and English Patriarchies, 1600-1660
Author(s):Luttfring, Sara D.
Director of Research:Gray, Catharine
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Gray, Catharine
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Neely, Carol T.; Newcomb, Lori H.; Lesser, Zachary L.
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):English literature
Seventeenth century
Female body
Women's speech
Abstract:During the early Stuart period, England’s return to male monarchal rule resulted in the emergence of a political analogy that understood the authority of the monarch to be rooted in the “natural” authority of the father; consequently, the mother’s authoritative role within the family was repressed. As the literature of the period recognized, however, there would be no family unit for the father to lead without the words and bodies of women to make narratives of dynasty and legitimacy possible. Early modern discourse reveals that the reproductive roles of men and women, and the social hierarchies that grow out of them, are as much a matter of human design as of divine or natural law. Moreover, despite the attempts of James I and Charles I to strengthen royal patriarchal authority, the role of the monarch was repeatedly challenged on stage and in print even prior to the British Civil Wars and the 1649 beheading of Charles I. Texts produced at moments of political crisis reveal how women could uphold the legitimacy of familial and political hierarchies, but they also disclose patriarchy’s limits by representing “natural” male authority as depending in part on women’s discursive control over their bodies. Due to the epistemological instability of the female reproductive body, women play a privileged interpretive role in constructing patriarchal identities. The dearth of definitive knowledge about the female body during this period, and the consequent inability to fix or stabilize somatic meaning, led to the proliferation of differing, and frequently contradictory, depictions of women’s bodies. The female body became a site of contested meaning in early modern discourse, with men and women struggling for dominance, and competitors so diverse as to include kings, midwives, scholars of anatomy, and female religious sectarians. Essentially, this competition came down to a question of where to locate somatic meaning: In the opaque, uncertain bodies of women? In women’s equally uncertain and unreliable words? In the often contradictory claims of various male-authored medical treatises? In the whispered conversations that took place between women behind the closed doors of birthing rooms? My dissertation traces this representational instability through plays by William Shakespeare, John Ford, Thomas Middleton, and William Rowley, as well as in monstrous birth pamphlets, medical treatises, legal documents, histories, satires, and ballads. In these texts, the stories women tell about and through their bodies challenge and often supersede male epistemological control. These stories, which I term female bodily narratives, allow women to participate in defining patriarchal authority at the levels of both the family and the state. After laying out these controversies and instabilities surrounding early modern women’s bodies in my first chapter, my remaining chapters analyze the impact of women’s words on four distinct but overlapping reproductive issues: virginity, pregnancy, birthing room rituals, and paternity. In chapters 2 and 3, I reveal how women construct the inner, unseen “truths” of their reproductive bodies through speech and performance, and in doing so challenge the traditional forms of male authority that depend on these very constructions for coherence. Chapter 2 analyzes virginity in Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s play The Changeling (1622) and in texts documenting the 1613 Essex divorce, during which Frances Howard, like Beatrice-Joanna in the play, was required to undergo a virginity test. These texts demonstrate that a woman’s ability to feign virginity could allow her to undermine patriarchal authority within the family and the state, even as they reveal how men relied on women to represent their reproductive bodies in socially stabilizing ways. During the British Civil Wars and Interregnum (1642-1660), Parliamentary writers used Howard as an example of how the unruly words and bodies of women could disrupt and transform state politics by influencing court faction; in doing so, they also revealed how female bodily narratives could help recast political historiography. In chapter 3, I investigate depictions of pregnancy in John Ford’s tragedy, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1633) and in early modern medical treatises from 1604 to 1651. Although medical texts claim to convey definitive knowledge about the female reproductive body, in actuality male knowledge frequently hinged on the ways women chose to interpret the unstable physical indicators of pregnancy. In Ford’s play, Annabella and Putana take advantage of male ignorance in order to conceal Annabella’s incestuous, illegitimate pregnancy from her father and husband, thus raising fears about women’s ability to misrepresent their bodies. Since medical treatises often frame the conception of healthy, legitimate offspring as a matter of national importance, women’s ability to conceal or even terminate their pregnancies could weaken both the patriarchal family and the patriarchal state that the family helped found. Chapters 4 and 5 broaden the socio-political ramifications of women’s words and bodies by demonstrating how female bodily narratives are required to establish paternity and legitimacy, and thus help shape patriarchal authority at multiple social levels. In chapter 4, I study representations of birthing room gossip in Thomas Middleton’s play, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613), and in three Mistris Parliament pamphlets (1648) that satirize parliamentary power. Across these texts, women’s birthing room “gossip” comments on and critiques such issues as men’s behavior towards their wives and children, the proper use of household funds, the finer points of religious ritual, and even the limits of the authority of the monarch. The collective speech of the female-dominated birthing room thus proves central not only to attributing paternity to particular men, but also to the consequent definition and establishment of the political, socio-economic, and domestic roles of patriarchy. Chapter 5 examines anxieties about paternity in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1611) and in early modern monstrous birth pamphlets from 1600 to 1647, in which children born with congenital deformities are explained as God’s punishment for the sexual, religious, and/or political transgressions of their parents or communities. Both the play and the pamphlets explore the formative/deformative power of women’s words and bodies over their offspring, a power that could obscure a father’s connection to his children. However, although the pamphlets attempt to contain and discipline women’s unruly words and bodies with the force of male authority, the play reveals the dangers of male tyranny and the crucial role of maternal authority in reproducing and authenticating dynastic continuity and royal legitimacy. My emphasis on the socio-political impact of women’s self-representation distinguishes my work from that of scholars such as Mary Fissell and Julie Crawford, who claim that early modern beliefs about the female reproductive body influenced textual depictions of major religious and political events, but give little sustained attention to the role female speech plays in these representations. In contrast, my dissertation reveals that in such texts, patriarchal society relies precisely on the words women speak about their own and other women’s bodies. Ultimately, I argue that female bodily narratives were crucial in shaping early modern culture, and they are equally crucial to our critical understanding of sexual and state politics in the literature of the period.
Issue Date:2010-08-31
Rights Information:Copyright 2010 Sara D. Luttfring
Date Available in IDEALS:2010-08-31
Date Deposited:2010-08

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