Even though there was an unmarried woman on the throne in Elizabethan England, the roles of women in society were very limited. The Elizabethans had very clear expectations of men and women, and in general men were expected to be the breadwinners and women to be housewives and mothers. On average, a woman gave birth to a child every two years, but as a lot of babies and children died from sickness, families were not always large. Childbearing was considered a great honour to women, as children were seen as blessings from God, and Tudor women took great pride in being mothers.
Elizabethan society was patriarchal, meaning that men were considered to be the leaders and women their inferiors. Women were regarded as "the weaker sex", not just in terms of physical strength, but emotionally too. It was believed that women always needed someone to look after them. If they were married, their husband was expected to look after them. If they were single, then their father, brother or another male relative was expected to take care of them.
Many women in this period were highly educated, like the Queen herself; Mildred Cecil, Lady Burghley (wife of William Cecil); Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney, and her daughter Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Women were not allowed to go to school or to university, but they could be educated at home by private tutors. Elizabeth was tutored by the famous Elizabethan scholar Roger Ascham.
Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney
by Levina Teerlinc
Women were not allowed to enter the professions i.e law, medicine, politics, but they could work in domestic service as cooks, maids etc, and a female painter, Levina Teerlinc, was employed by Henry VIII and later by Mary and Elizabeth respectively. Women were also allowed to write works of literature, providing the subject was suitable for women: mainly translations or religious works. Women were not allowed to act on the public stage or write for the public stage. Acting was considered dishonourable for women and women did not appear on the stage in England until the seventeenth century. In Shakespeare's plays, the roles of women were often played by young boys.
Women, regardless of social position, were not allowed to vote (however, only men of a certain social position were allowed to vote). Neither could women inherit their father's titles. All titles would pass from father to son or brother to brother, depending on the circumstances. The only exception was, of course, the crown. The crown could pass to a daughter, and that daughter would be invested with all the power and Majesty of any king. This allowed Mary, and then Elizabeth, to reign. In some cases women could not inherit estates, but women could be heiresses to property, and some women, especially if they were the only child of a great noble man, could be very affluent heiresses indeed. Robert Dudley's first wife, Amy Robsart, was Sir John Robsart's only child, and inherited two estates he owned in Norfolk. It was not always clear what happened to these estates when the woman married i.e. whether the estates became the property of her husband or not.
The laws of inheritance meant that fathers were anxious to have a son, but that does not mean that daughters were unloved and unwanted. The attitude of Henry VIII to his daughters was unusual, and was probably the result of his obsession with providing the country with a male heir and subsequent ruler. Parents did love their daughters and saw them as precious gifts from God. Of all the children Thomas More had, his daughter Margaret was his favourite, and William Cecil was a devoted father to all his children, male and female. Queen Elizabeth would write letters of condolence on the death of daughters as well as on the death of sons.