the value of gentle women

"In the past, historians tended to compare Eliabeth of York favorably to Margaret of Anjou, that "great and strong labored woman"; yet today in the wake of a revolution in female emancipation, it is the proactive Margaret, vigorously fighting her husband Henry VI's cause, who earns our admiration, rather than the passive Elizabeth. Gentleness, fruitfulness, and piety are no longer qualities esteemed in women. We have learned to admire then for what they do, and for their strengths." - pg197, Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York.


1. Comparing the descriptors used for Margaret - great, strong, proactive, vigorous, fighting - with that for Elizabeth - passive - immediately proves the author's bias. Especially considering evidence she herself provides in the book suggests that Elizabeth of York was infact proactive in many instances throughout her life. When I think of the words we use for women today to express our admiration, I realise how easy it is to shape a perception of what femininity should be. Fierce, fiesty, strong, even bitchy, are all adjectives used in with positive intent, although beautiful is still the reigning compliment. That women were once admired for being gentle (now called passive) and quiet or domestic or introverted (now called dull) only shows how backwards our society once was. At least according to some commentators.

1a. There should be no comparison of the value of these two women at all. Elizabeth was who she was. Margaret was who she was. That should be enough. Why should only one temperament be admirable?

1b. I equate it with the way people deal with introversion. They accept it exists, and may even see its virtues to some extent, but there is still the underlying assumption (even with some introverts themselves) that social companionship is essential for everyone, and that wanting to be alone is ultimately unhealthy. In the same way, women who are quiet and reserved, gentle and sweet, are admired to some extent, but we all know what they really need is to speak up for themselves and find their inner fire.

2. I wonder if the qualities of gentleness, fruitfulness, and piety truly have lost their value to society in general. Gentle mothering is considered the ideal. Lack of fruitfulness in child-bearing is a real tragedy for thousands of families. Lack of fruitfulness in artistic production is grieved by fans always wanting more from their favourite artist or writer. And piety is still extremely important to billions of people not living in secular first world nations. I suspect it's certain gender politicians who deride and shame these values, and whose loud voices in the media make us believe their view is the cultural norm.

2a. I read this morning about middle aged women who bravely keep their hair long (and in some cases even grey!) in this age of short hair for middle aged women being the preferred cultural norm. The response from women tended along the lines of, "women should have their hair whatever length they like." The response from men tended to be, "long hair is sexy, we love long hair, keep hair long." It seems to me that the media, and certain inviduals, decided their own view was the norm. In real life, however, opinions were quite different.

3. We have indeed learned to admire women for what they do, just as we admire men and children for the same thing. We are a work-centric society. Family life, homecare, seasonal rest, only working with the light - all the natural ways of old, lived in accordance with  nature's rhythms - are increasingly being lost. Work sustains urban existence. And cities have swallowed up vast tracts of land, suffocating nature. We disconnect from nature to the extent that we even change time twice a year so we can work - or do! do! do! - for longer into the evening throughout summer. We don't value darkness, quiet, just being. Nor do we value anyone for who they are, only what they produce.

4. And we admire women for their strengths. Which is good of course, but why is no one admired for their softness, their fragility, their tenderness and emotional depth?

All through Alison Weir's biography of Elizabeth of York there was a palpable sense of her frustration with her gentle, caring, charitable heroine. She sought every possible evidence that Elizabeth wielded power behind the scenes or used her influence in way which compensated for her not being allowed to rule in her own right as she was entitled to do. I see the same attitude in many articles and books by other women. Women should be strong, vigorous, always grasping their opportunities and laying claim to their power.

But there is great power too in being true to yourself. A gentle woman, unambitious, not desiring fame, only seeking peace and happiness in life for herself and other people - she has as much value as any other type of woman, simply for the sake of being herself.


  1. There is so much considered thought in here that I hardly dare leave a foot print. And yet I feel that the characteristic that seems left out of this equation is consideration.
    I hate it when my theatre seat falls behind a woman well endowed with a good head of hair, left long and abundant and usually wide and fluffy. Every shake of the head, craning of the neck and sideways whisper pushes an unpredictible furry animal in my face. Plus a wave of overbearing perfume. So, I say: Off with their hair :-).
    Also, I am envious of course, having thin hair that refuses to grow :-)
    Who was this Elizabeth of York? Or rather, what do I remember about Henry VI.

  2. Ha, that woman was probably me ;) Except for the perfume. Can't stand too much perfume on people.

    Elizabeth of York was the wife of the first Tudor king of England and the mother of Henry VIII. Her marriage to Henry VII was important because their families were engaged in The Cousins' War (Known now as The War of the Roses) for a very long and terrible time. A union between Henry and Elizabeth solidified the peace - and also ensured Henry that he disempowered Elizabeth and anyone who might have fought for her against him in seeking the crown.

    Elizabeth was also the one who bought the beautiful and famous red-gold hair to the Tudor line. :)

  3. I am interested lately in the idea of gentle power...

  4. I really enjoyed reading through your notes; you've given me much to ponder. My daughters and I have been having conversations about women and how the qualities esteemed in women have changed and why. Good stuff!