Published Articles by Doris Weatherford

“The Great 17th Century Gender Scare”

November 13, 2017

My friend Amy Scherzer sent me via my friend Betty Castor a copy of the BBC’s magazine, “History.” Probably more than half of the TV that Hubby and I watch is produced by BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), but I didn’t know they published a magazine on history. I’m sure Amy wanted me to see it because this issue was largely devoted to women, with cover stories entitled “Games of Queens” and “The Killing of Lady Jane Grey.”


I remember, back when I was about twelve, reading a very affecting book on Lady Jane, who was queen of England for nine days before she was executed. I never thought about whether she was connected to Earl Grey Tea, however, even though it’s my favorite tea blend. I just googled around, and apparently not. It presumably is named for an Earl Grey who was prime minister in the 1830s, while Jane Grey lost her head to a swordsman early in 1554. Teenage Jane’s death was ordered by her cousin Mary I, the rightful heir to the throne-- but also a zealous Catholic who waged war against her own Protestant people. Her name is attached to another drink, Bloody Mary.


The title at the top reflects a different topic, though, as Amy marked that article for my attention. Its subtitle was “Men in early modern England feared that they were being outnumbered by women.” It revealed new research at Oxford University asserting that “women’s numerical supremacy was widely accepted as fact” in mid-16th century England. One Thomas Browne even offered a solution to this perceived problem: because of “the unequal numbers,” he opined that polygamy “may be necessary.”


Unequal numbers of males and females actually are part of Mother Nature’s plan. More boys are born than girls because males die sooner than females. Coincidentally, the science section of last Sunday’s Times confirmed this well-known phenomenon with an analysis of dinosaur bones. Those who died young were vastly disproportionately male, and the headline proclaimed that they died in “silly” ways, taking risks that were less than sensible.


Dying in Silly Ways


It’s not entirely the fault of young males, of course, as older ones push them out of the safety of the herd or the clan. In both the animal and human worlds, however, even males of similar age compete with each other to an excessive extent. That reminds me of an old Jeff Foxworthy joke. Men don’t shop together in the way that women do, he pointed out, because the competition would be too costly. Supposedly Jeff went shopping with two friends: Larry bought a fishing rod; then Jerry bought a boat; and so, “I had to buy a marina.”


But war isn’t funny, and multitudes of people, most of them male, died in Europe’s religious wars during the 16th and 17th centuries. That doubtless led to greater numbers of women than men – but this pattern is routine, not exceptional. There always have been wars in which more males die than females, and there always has been a male predilection for doing dangerously silly things. Even men who behave themselves die younger, with the result that the number of women vs. men in nursing homes is tremendously unequal.


Because of all that, I don’t think that a great demographic change was the real reason for the fears of these male minds in the 1600s -- nor does the BCC article’s author, Matt Elton. He continued by saying that England’s civil war “resulted in the deaths of huge numbers of men, while others had left for new lives abroad. But men were also responsible for propagating their own fears, fed by misogyny. Early modern men were most likely to make numerical claims about women when there were too many of a ‘problematic’ kind. Women were expected to be silent, chaste, and more or less confined to the household."


All of which is true, but the articles goes on to excuse this erroneous belief by saying, “people of the time were, in general, not numerically minded.” That’s an eternal truth, too: then and now, most people are not numerically minded. Indeed, our willingness to ignore mathematical reality is one of the most profound tools of demagogues. Selfish political leaders often take one case and exaggerate it until whatever they are complaining about becomes a widely accepted fact. They expect innumeracy and count on us having no meaningful sense of the difference between a billion and a trillion.


So I agree with the author that misogyny, not demography, was the basis of this 17th century “gender scare.” He missed one other major point, though: For the rest of the century, from the 1553 death of the sickly 15-year-old King Edward VI, women reigned over England: the brief-lived Lady Jane Grey, the sad Bloody Mary, and finally, the brilliant Elizabeth I. Don’t you think that would be a relevant factor to mention?


The Victorian Age and Age of Consent


Just as I felt that I had to write about Harvey Weinstein recently, now I have to say a few words about Roy Moore. (Mostly, how glad I’ll be when this Alabama election is over, and I stop getting umpteen e-mails a day. No one can say that the Democratic Party is not pursuing a 50-state strategy and small-donor outreach.) Their cases are not exactly the same because Weinstein exploited adult women in private enterprise, while Moore, as a district attorney, was in a position of public trust when he targeted teenage girls.


Thinking about this prompted me to put the current issue in context in terms of “the age of consent,” also called “the age of protection.” This is the age at which a man can argue in court that he is not guilty of rape because the “woman” consented to sex. So much of women’s lives have been affected by our willingness to put “states’ rights” over human rights, and this is one of the most egregious cases. The age of consent varied widely by state and was shockingly low in some: in Delaware in 1895, it was seven.



Yes, a seven-year-old girl was presumed legally competent in this regard – although not competent in anything else, including voting as an adult. And yes, these laws protecting predators existed at the height of the Victorian Age. Victoria, like her ancestor Elizabeth, was a great global monarch, but even though she was the mother of nine, she did little to discourage the era’s profound hypocrisy on matters of sex. I’m going to quote from the sidebar I wrote on this issue for Women in American Politics, which was published by Congressional Quarterly Press and won an award from the American Library Association:


“Lawmaking bodies composed entirely of men seldom addressed issues related to women, especially if those issues involved sexuality. Indeed, discussion of rape and other sex crimes frequently was used as an argument against women’s involvement in “dirty” politics. It particularly was useful as an excuse to exclude women from the judiciary, especially as jurors. Even though it was their gender that was most profoundly affected, women were deemed too delicate to hear testimony in rape trials,


“Every state, though, had to have laws under which rape could be prosecuted. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, some women defied decorum and forced legislators to deal with the need for legal reform. These lobbyists usually volunteered at the request of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Although the WCTU focused on alcohol, it also had a long list of other concerns, including child abuse. The WCTU had chapters in every state by the 1880s, and it ran a national – albeit quiet – campaign to lobby state legislatures into raising the age of consent.”


This was one of the measurements of the status of women that Susan B. Anthony and other feminists requested for the fourth volume of the History of Woman Suffrage, which was published in 1900. Women in every state responded with stats on employment, education, jury service, teacher pay, and other data, as well as the age of consent. The results showed that the WCTU had made real gains on this issue, but some states still lagged.


In Georgia, in 1899, a bill to raise the age from ten to twelve was defeated. Nor was this attitude limited to the South: New York also rejected the WCTU, and the legal age of consent in 1900 remained ten. Some states modified their laws, but nevertheless left a great deal to be desired: New Hampshire, for instance, raised the age of consent from ten to thirteen in 1887, but girls could legally marry at twelve. North Carolina and Mississippi rejected any reform, and the age of consent in 1900 was just ten years old. Here in Florida, you’ll want to know, we did better: the 1900 legislature raised the age all the way from ten to sixteen.


Two takeaways: one, the past was not puritanical; instead, it was patriarchal, and this did not begin to change until women got involved in politics. Two, chivalry is a myth, and those who promote the notion that the past was better than the present either are woefully ignorant or deliberate liars. Because women worked for change, our societal standards are higher now -- and the outrage over current scandals shows that, at last, we are not allowing our daughters to be subject to the same predatory behavior that we endured. Do remember, though, that nothing changed until women accepted the risk of being labeled as agitators or worse. Don’t be afraid of labels, and keep on keeping on.


doris@dweatherford.com





Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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