Women and the Levellers: Beyond Domesticity, by Dr Rachel Foxley

Participating in politics forces women in any male-dominated society and political system to make a whole suite of decisions, conscious or otherwise, about how to present themselves and their aims. The Leveller movement of the 1640s pressed for a representative, non-monarchical settlement after the civil war which would rest on the electoral consent of a broadly inclusive male electorate. When women appeared in print or in public as part of the Levellers’ campaigning, they had to navigate the gender expectations of society without (further) alienating those suspicious of Leveller radicalism.

Women who engaged in the politics of the English Revolution did so in a period when women’s formal involvement in politics (now that the line of male Stuart monarchs had succeeded Elizabeth I) was assumed to be entirely unnecessary and illegitimate. The arguments for this were hardly rock-solid: even some relatively modest male property-owners and household heads did have political representation when parliament sat, and many women – particularly widows – might be property-owners and household heads of very similar status. What is more, these widows really did have some of the status which went with their economic and household roles, for example in actively continuing their husbands’ businesses in their own names. Nonetheless, the largely customary way in which politics was done meant that these inconsistencies over representation went undebated before the English Revolution.

The Levellers, however, brought the issue of representation to the fore as they developed an argument that (in John Lilburne’s words) ‘the poorest that lives’, not just the propertied, were entitled to vote. For the Levellers, all legitimate government was founded on the consent of the governed, and this, in the Levellers’ radical constitutional proposals, was to be granted both through popular subscription of a new constitution, the ‘Agreement of the People’, and thereafter through the annual re-election of the new unicameral Representative which would govern the country. In seeking to radically expand the electorate, the Levellers found themselves having to define its limits in ways which had not been so urgent before, and they were explicit that the new electors were to be malean assumption which echoed Colonel Rainborough’s telling version of Lilburne’s demand: at the Putney debates in 1647 he argued that even ‘the poorest he’ had the right to vote, ‘as the greatest he’.

But there were active Leveller women. Katherine Chidley’s role in the movement grew from her involvement in the radical religious congregations which formed the base of Leveller support in London. Writing to justify religious separatism against its opponents, who accused it among other things of encouraging wives to disobey their husbands, she accepted that a husband had authority over his wife ‘in bodily and civill respects, but not to be a Lord over her conscience’. Only Christ could govern the conscience.[1] Other individual Leveller women, unlike Chidley, are known to us almost entirely through their husbands’ pamphlets and their own individual petitions on behalf of their husbands when they underwent imprisonment. This is not to underplay their extraordinary grit and political engagement, which indeed their husbands paid tribute to: Mary Overton, for example, even when imprisoned herself, refused to obey the authority of the House of Lords, regarded by the Levellers as illegitimate, for her transfer to another prison, but (in her husband Richard’s words) ‘to the utmost testimony of her weake power, made opposition and resistance against it… like a true-bred Englishwoman.’ Not only did this refusal lead to her being brutally dragged through the streets and verbally abused with her baby still in her arms, but, as her husband stresses, any onlooker would have concluded that she was ‘no woman of honest & godly Conversation, whom they so barbarously abused, but a vile strumpet or whore’, endangering her ‘reputation’ for ever.[2] While even a ‘weake’ woman could be courageous and principled, it was evidently the Levellers’ enemies, not the Levellers themselves, who were violating gender norms by treating a respectable woman so outrageously. Thus Ann Hughes has argued that the Levellers invoked the idea of a politics fundamentally based not on individuals but on households when they publicised the travails of their wives in their writings, and ultimately sought to claim full citizenship only for male household heads.

In spite of these claims for the protection of respectable domesticity against the incursion of the authorities, Leveller women did also sometimes act collectively, as women, in a way which made explicitly gendered statements about their stake in the radical politics of the English Revolution. Rather than simply petitioning individually on behalf of their husbands, in 1649, on the eve of the crushing of the movement by the new post-regicide regime, they also presented two notable collective petitions, as women, which – to reinforce their message – were physically taken to Westminster by a crowd of women to be presented to the House of Commons. A Commons official predictably told them to ‘goe home… and meddle with your huswifery’,[3] but the women’s petitions made very clear that it was the violation of their households which had forced them to come out and petition in the first place:

“We are so over-prest, so over-whelmed in affliction, that we are not able to keep in our compass, to be bounded in the custom of our sex; for indeed we confess it is not our custom to address our selves to this House in the Publick behalf, yet considering, That we have an equal share and interest with men in the Common-wealth, and it cannot be laid waste… and not we be the greatest & most helpless sufferers therein… and we are not able to see our children hang upon us, and cry out for bread, and not have wherewithall to feed them, we had rather die then see that day…”

Nonetheless, the women’s claim of ‘an equal share and interest with men in the Common-wealth’ was bold, and they made entirely clear that they knew and agreed with the causes for which their ‘husbands, sons or servants’ were campaigning and being arrested.[4] In a further petition on 5 May 1649, the women reported themselves ‘no whit satisfied with the answer you gave unto our husbands and friends’, implying, as Gary de Krey comments, that they as well as their male colleagues could hold the government accountable.[5]

However clever their rhetorical moves, the sight of a crowd of perhaps 500 women, bringing a printed petition perhaps signed by hundreds more to a parliament which even their male colleagues in the movement did not intend them to vote for, was certainly unprecedented. But so were the times. As one of the women retorted when an MP told them it was ‘strange’ that women should petition, ‘It was strange that you cut off the King’s head, yet I suppose you will justify it.’[6]

Rachel Foxley is Associate Professor of History, specialising in the history of political language and political thought, particularly in seventeenth-century England.

[1] Katherine Chidley, The Justification of the Independant Churches of Christ (1641), p. 26.

[2] Richard Overton, The Commoners Complaint (1647), pp. 17, 19.

[3] Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer, 24 April – 1 May 1649.

[4] To the Supreme Authority of this Nation, the Commons Assembled in Parliament, The Humble Petition of divers Wel-affected Women (April 1649), p. 4.

[5] Gary de Krey, Following the Levellers (London, 2017, vol. 1), p. 245.

[6] John Rees, The Leveller Revolution (London, 2016), p. 291.