Maligned, Marginalised and Misunderstood Blog #3

In this third of our blogs featuring “informations and examinations”, we‘ll focus on the unheard voices of women. Even women who were born into rich families were not always given an education, so their voices remain largely unheard.

In 1735 Elizabeth Ayleworth tells how she was sexually assaulted after a man ‘endeavoured to put his hand under her petticoat’. Afterwards, he kicked her in the street and she was bedridden for three days. Even today, women who find the courage to speak out risk having their reputation called into question, so Elizabeth may have been a woman with some level of respect and social standing who felt her version of events would be believed.

In 1751 we hear from Jane Harrison of Woodchester, singlewoman, who accuses two men of poisoning her drink with Spanish Fly. This is a beetle which produces a toxic chemical called cantharidin, believed to be a sexual stimulant but is actually highly toxic. The two men accuse each other, then back track and one of them says they tried to reduce the amount. Their punishments are not given in the statement.

It’s easy to believe that women were regarded as totally unimportant, the property of their fathers or husbands. However the Quarter Sessions records include many cases where women come forward and publicly name and shame the men who abused them. This is one of the places where we can say that women were listened to.

In 1736 Anne Fox of Tytherington comes forward and accuses her husband of domestic abuse: ‘she is afraid he will kill her unless some means may be found to prevent him doing her further harm’. The court had previously fined him for this but it’s unclear whether the deterrent worked. We don’t know how Anne Fox ended up. Was she safe? Did she leave? We are left wanting to know the end of her story.

Many cases of bastardy appear because the parish wanted to determine who was financially responsible for the child. In 1745 Sarah Baker of Cirencester Stow, single woman, states ‘that William Banet had carnal knowledge of her body in the cloister at Gloucester’ and her child ‘when born is likely to be a bastard chargeable to the parish’. Her statement also specifies that she is saying this ‘voluntarily without compulsion’. This suggests there must have been women who were forced to come forward, even if they didn’t want to.

Attitudes towards women and issues affecting women shift back and forth, but some of the cases above will certainly resonate today.

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