3.3: Women and Gender in Utopia
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Cultural Context: Representations of Women in Utopia
In Thomas More’s Utopia, the depiction of women within the context of marital customs, gender relations, and family structures provides context to the cultural values of his time. The societal structure that More sets up in Utopia, especially in Book II, draws from the expectations of women common within More’s sixteenth-century life. In More’s creation of gender relations within Utopia, it is clear that marriage is a vital and sacred structure for the Utopian people. Premarital sex was strictly prohibited, women were expected to attract husbands with their morality and "virtue". More’s writing was heavily influenced by Christian Humanist tradition, and his religious beliefs also influenced his view of the role of women in society
Jacqueline Eales’s book Women in Early Modern England helps to provide a context in which readers can understand Thomas More’s depictions of women in early modern England. More lived and wrote during the Early Modern era and the way he wrote about women was doubtlessly influenced by how women were treated and perceived by society as a whole and by More himself. In the section titled “The Family,” Eales describes traditional English practices surrounding marriage, including what happened for women before, during, and, in rare cases, after marriage through separtion or divorce. Overall, Eales’s work reveals that although there were strict rules from the Catholic Church that dictated marriage practices in early modern England, people in the middle and lower classes (who made up the vast majority of the English population) often found ways around the rules. We just do not often see that side of history because of our tendency to focus on the aristocratic lives of the historical upper class.
Women in Utopian Marriage and Family Life
More spends a significant portion of Utopia describing the marriage process for Utopians, which shows both similarities and differences to how marriage processes worked in More’s own society. More writes that “anyone found guilty of illicit sexual relations prior to marriage is severely reprimanded and permanently banned from marriage” (More 92). However, according to Jacqueline Eales’s Women in Early Modern England, policing of premarital sex was less common among the middle and lower classes in More’s society, so long as a couple was planning on getting married (Eales 63).
Another difference between marriages in More’s society and marriages in Utopia is the ability for a husband and wife to separate if they “are not well matched” and they “encounter other individuals with whom they might hope to lead a happier life” (More 93). This was not the case in More’s England, where marriage was the business of the Catholic Church. While a couple might get a marriage annulled by the Church on the grounds of it not being consummated or if there was mistreatment involved, it was extremely uncommon for couples to pursue divorce or annulment (Eales 66). This does not mean it never happened, though. Couples who found themselves disinterested in or fighting with their spouse often unofficially separated and illegally re-married (Eales 66). More’s overall view of marriage as something that happens through the government in Utopia reveals an argument for the separation of Church and state, which More fiercely advocated for throughout his own career. Because sixteenth-century English women were often stuck in marriages they could not leave, the process of Utopian divorce can also be seen as a means of liberating women from traditional oppressive boundaries.
Although More mentions that both women and men are held accountable for breaking marriage rules in Utopia and the divorce practices serve as a possible means of liberating women, Utopian marriages still oppress women in the same ways that early modern English marriages oppressed women. More writes that “husbands discipline their wives, as parents do children,” and the primary traits in a wife are “virtue and loyalty” (More 94-95). This shows striking similarity to the ways in which women were expected to serve and respect their husbands, no matter what, in More’s times. Similarly, in Utopia, “the responsibility for planning the meal and preparing and cooking the food rests exclusively with the women,” and in the communal dining areas, “men are placed with their backs to the wall and the women are on the outside” (More 71). In the circular setting of Utopian dining areas, then, the men can converse with one another, while the women are literally stuck on the outside of the circle, indicating that women do not have a place in men’s discussions.
Women & Work in Utopian Society
While Utopian women are expected to serve their husbands within their family units, they experience relative equality to men in Utopian society outside of the household. More calls women “the weaker sex,” yet he writes that in Utopia, “everyone—and that is not just the men but the women as well—learns one of the approved crafts” (More 63-4). Outside of their work, both men and women devote time to “intellectual pursuits, for it’s the regular practice to have public lectures daily before dawn” (More 64). More was writing at a time when women were not traditionally educated, so these ideas represent a major shift from traditional Sixteenth-century European norms. He goes on to explain that when women participate in the workforce, “the time so allotted [for work] is adequate to provide not only a sufficiency but more than enough of the essentials—and some of the comforts—of life” (More 65). In addition to believing women to be capable of working, More understands that everyone in Utopia benefits from the contributions of women because when women work, everyone can work for fewer hours each day.
It is hard to tell whether More’s depiction of women in Utopian society shows an argument for women’s liberation in England or if it is merely an aspect of More’s fictional account of an imagined land. Considering the fact that More made the uncommon choice to educate his daughters, it seems that More is probably arguing that women in England should have access to things like education and be able to contribute to society through jobs. As is seen in his descriptions of Utopian women in family life, though, he would not go so far as to say that women should be equal to men in all aspects of life. More deeply valued his own family, and since he understood women to be the upholders of family life, he sees it as a necessity for women to hold traditional roles in order to run a household. This reveals More’s dualistic value for women as both members of their family and members of society. Regardless of gender, people’s lives cannot be fully separated in the way that More separates the home and work life for women, which further connects to his overall exploration of the existence of the “no place” of Utopia.
By Lisie Fahrenbach, Abigail Pinnow, Brynne Volpe, and Jo Ward.