'Women May Be Perfect as Well as Men'

Self-identity and Patriarchal Oppression in the Writings of Mary Ward and her Followers

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys
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Mary Ward’s initial view of her vocation as a nun challenges the seventeenth- century English reformed church’s view of women’s role but is firmly within the patriarchal boundaries of the seventeenthcentury Catholic church. In 1620 she writes of her early position as part of a retrospective attempt to explain her later activities: ‘I saw not how a religious woman could do more [good] than to herself alone. To teach children seemed then too much a distraction … nor was it of that perfection and importance as therefore to hinder that quiet and continual communication with God which strict enclosure afforded’ (1620, Letter to Mgr. Albergati). However, by 1620 her view had changed and Ward’s later work for female educational emancipation and her attempt to establish self-government and freedom from enclosure for the institute of Jesuitesses which she sought to establish, have led to her being labelled the first known English feminist by Warnicke. This striking shift is due to visionary experiences which convince her that ‘women may be perfect as well as men’ (TGW, 58). Her resulting challenge to the discourses of patriarchy meets with disapproval from most representatives of the establishment of the Catholic church. Even her abbess dryly informs her that it is, ‘no longer the time “when young maidens should have visions.”’ Her subtext seems to be: ‘And especially not ones like these!’

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