Feminism, as a movement, has engaged several projects to give women agency and secure women’s rights within society, and among the most relevant is the quest to uncover the contributions women have made throughout history. Depending on the era in question, women faced challenges and opportunities of a very different nature from men, their opinions and actions often not being taken seriously. Nonetheless, women have certainly had a substantial influence, in spite of the prominence of “Great Man” history and the emphasis of military actions.
Ancient cultural traditions, many based in Judeo-Christian culture, proscribe specific gender roles that limit opportunities for women, with the expectation of women occupying the private home-space, and men in the public/political realm. Often overlooked are succession laws, particularly the germanic gavelkind laws, which generally excluded women from the inheritance of property (a notable exception being Basque culture in spain, and in the state and empires of Western Africa.) One fascinating event forced major changes to this; the black death. The substantial loss of life throughout europe left many women as the only children left to inherit their father’s fortunes, giving a generation of women substantial amounts of property, which unlike a dowry, was truly theirs. We see other important examples of women gaining more power in the dynastic politics as well. Henry VIII, seeking to preserve the Tudor dynasty, gave both his daughters a place in succession, eventually resulting in the ‘Golden Age’ of Elizabeth I. Of course, women attaining a place of power is not always good, with Mary I’s persecutions and the manipulative nature of the Medici women who were queen regents of France, but the faults we witness are equally possessed by men in power. Ultimately, the point of this progress and increase in the profile of women is to be inclusive of the 50% of the human population that has been hitherto marginalised, and show the evidence of their value humanity as a whole.
The Eighteenth century offered some great examples of the increase of women’s public presence. Of course, the War of Austrian Succession saw Europe embroiled in extensive conflict over the Pragmatic Sanction, the subversion of Salic law and ascension of Maria Theresa von Habsburg to the throne of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire. In literary circles, women like Anne Dacier provided some of the most insightful and valued work of the era. It was is this relatively good era for women, that Elizabeth Greenly grew up. Usually known as Eliza, Greenly was said to be ‘a person of so much real merit, & of such superior & general cultivation of mind, that her superiority to the contemporary and surrounding society was too self-evident not to excite astonishment.’ somewhat eccentric (writing sermons in the middle of the night) and an outgoing supporter of Welsh culture, she was well connected to influential literary and political circles. She was an avid patron, and assembled an excellent collection of volumes by the pre-eminent women authors of the time. Greenly left the world a remarkable library of excellent work, continued by her daughter, Elizabeth H. Greenly, who preserved and expanded the library and added the bookplate found in each volume. For modern feminism, the project of uncovering and highlighting the hitherto marginalised works of women is eased greatly by such engaging selections of works, both progressive (indeed sometimes transgressive) and conservative. Those work which Eliza Greenly chose for her shelves may now serve as a window into the lives of the women of her era.