Women in the 17th Century

By Tim Lambert

Women’s Jobs in the 17th Century

In the 17th century, some women had jobs. Some of them worked spinning cloth. Women were milliners, dyers, 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 a 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) often had to bake her family’s bread and brew their beer (it was usually 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 family 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 family’s 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 from home the woman usually ran the estate.

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.

Women’s education in the 17th century

In some towns, young girls might go to dame schools where they were taught skills like reading. During the 17th century boarding schools for girls from better-off families 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.

Women’s Clothes in the 17th Century

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.

Famous Women of the 17th Century

Famous English women of the 17th century included the philosopher Mary Astell (1666 – 1731) and the writer Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689). In 1637 Amye Everard Ball was the first woman in England to be granted a patent (for making tinctures from flowers).

In other parts of Europe, Elena Piscopia (1646 – 1684) was a great woman philosopher. Marie Le Jars de Gournay (1565 – 1645) was a French writer. Clara Peeters (born in 1594) was a famous artist.

Maria Clara Eimmart was a noted astronomer (1676 – 1707). So was Maria Cunitz (1610 – 1664).

In the world of music, Francesca Caccini (1587 – c. 1640) was a composer and singer. Barbara Strozzi (1619 – 1677) was a composer. So was Isabella Leonarda (1620 – 1704).

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (c 1651 – 1695) was a famous writer. She was born in Mexico.