LIFE FOR WOMEN IN THE 17TH CENTURY
By Tim Lambert
In the 17th century the professions (lawyer, doctor) were closed to women. However some women had jobs. Some of them worked spinning cloth. Women were also tailoreses, milliners, dyers, shoemakers and embroiderers. There were also washerwomen. Some women worked in food preparation such as brewers, bakers or confectioners. Women also sold foodstuffs in the streets. A very common job for women was domestic servant. Other women were midwives and apothecaries.
However most women were housewives and they were kept very busy. Most men could not run a farm or a business without their wife's help.
In the 17th century most households in the countryside were largely self-sufficient. A housewife (assisted by her servants if she had any) had to bake her family's bread and brew their beer (it was not safe to drink water). She was also responsible for curing bacon, salting meat and making pickles, jellies and preserves (all of which were essential in an age before fridges and freezers). Very often in the countryside the housewife also made the families candles and their soap. A housewife also spun wool and linen.
A farmer's wife also milked cows, fed animals and grew herbs and vegetables. She often kept bees. She also took goods to market to sell. On top of that she had to cook, wash the families clothes and clean the house.
The 17th century housewife was also supposed to have some knowledge of medicine and be able to treat her family's illnesses. If she could not they would go to a wise woman. Only the wealthy could afford a doctor.
In the 17th century poor and middle class wives were kept very busy but rich women were not idle either. In a big house they had to organize and supervise the servants. Also if her husband was away the woman usually ran the estate. Very often a merchant's wife did his accounts and if was travelling she looked after the business. Often when a merchant wrote his will he left his business to his wife - because she would be able to run it.
In the 16th century some upper class women were highly educated. (Elizabeth I was well educated and she liked reading). They learned music and dancing and needlework. They also learned to read and write and they learned languages like Greek and Latin, Spanish, Italian and French.
However towards the end of the 16th century girls spent less time on academic subjects and more time on skills like music and embroidery. Moreover during the 17th century boarding schools for girls were founded in many towns. In them girls were taught subjects like writing, music and needlework. The first women's magazine was The Ladies Mercury published in 1693.
Famous English women of the 17th century included the philosopher Mary Astell (1666-1731) and the writer Aphra Behn (1640-1689). Elena Piscopia (1646-1684) was a great Italian woman philosopher. A German woman, Maria Clara Eimmart was a noted astronomer (1676-1707). So was Maria Cunitz (1610-1664).
In 1637 Amye Everard Ball was the first woman in England to be granted a patent (for making tinctures from flowers).
In the 17th century most women were wives and mothers. Life could be hard for spinsters. Often they lived with relatives but they had to work long hours to support themselves.
In the 17th century women wore a linen nightie like garment called a shift. Over it they wore long dresses. The dress was in two parts the bodice and the skirt. Sometimes women wore two skirts. The upper skirt was gathered up to reveal an underskirt. However women in the 17th century did not wear knickers.
From the mid 17th century it was fashionable for women to wear black patches on their faces such as little stars or crescent moons.
Life in the 17th Century
England in the 17th Century
Life for women in the Ancient World
Life for women in the Middle Ages
Life for women in the 19th Century
A history of women's rights