Epstein states that the world is made of great divides with different polarities and among these is the divide on gender (Epstein 2). These conceptualized divides are formed by human agencies and they define both social and physical boundaries among humans. This statement is very true of the place and position reserved for the female gender in society. The societal constructs on gender define not only social existence and biological roles, but also the ability to develop significant inequalities, promotion of suffering, and the generation of conflicts in both society and families. The gender divide has been deep and persistent in society throughout history; and this is as true currently as it was in the past. According to Epstein, the subordination of women and subsequent commodification of women has been one of the propagated social injustices meant to sustain patriarchy and maintain one of the major divides constructed by society since the olden days (Epstein 4). The continued subordination and suppression of women in society has been propagated for a very long time to an extent that it has become acceptable within society. Virtually all females in the current societies accept the Orwellian notion that silence is power, suffering is pleasure, and restriction is freedom (Epstein 17). This paper reviews the issue of female gender subordination and the commodification of women in society. The review is done through a literary analysis of three plays from past periods, which are truly representative of women’s place in society during their times of authorship. The plays include The Country Wife by Wycherly William 1675, A Bold Stroke for a Wife by Sussana Centlivre, and The Indian Emperor by John Dryden.
The place of the woman in society, or rather the female gender, best emerges in William’s The Country Wife. The women are portrayed as home-makers that are supposed to be totally submissive to the husbands and always play second fiddle in decision-making. The women are treated as property by their husbands and have limited control over what belongs to them. Under this suppression, women have only one option for their liberation – defiance and outright rebellion. The play has three connected plots that make up the major plot. These include the married life of Mr. Pinchwife and Mrs. Pinchwife Margery, the pretense of Horner (the womanizer), and the courtship of Alithea and Harcourt. The marriage life of Mrs. Margery and Mr. Pinchwife best exemplifies the subordination of women among the three presented subplots. In this literary work, women are portrayed as being inferior to men. The men are the providers and keepers of women. As such, women are under them. This becomes evident from Horner in Act One, where he states that, “...Women, as you say, are like / Soldiers made constant and loyal by good pay, rather than / by Oaths and Covenants, therefore I'd advise my Friends to / keep rather than marry... (Act 2, scene 1, page 15). From this allusion, it is evident that men are the keepers of women. As such, they are above them. In the play, the women are treated as property, which the man disposes as he pleases. These women have no freedom whatsoever: even their movement away from their homesteads is restricted and controlled by their men. For example, Mrs. Margery is unable to leave her home because her husband guards her jealously because he fears that if she leaves home, she may find some handsome man and fall in love. This obsession drives Mr. Pinchwife to the extremes of denying his wife the adornment of her best gowns lest she appear beautiful. “… my Husband looks so / grum here in Town? And keeps me up so close, and will not / let me go not walking, nor let me wear my best Gown yesterday?” (Act 1, Scene 1, page 14). Mrs. Margery is restricted from going out of home and she has to constantly seek permission and beg her husband to let her walk around London – something he does not want to allow lest he loses his wife to some handsome man. The obsession gets worse and Mr. Pinchwife locks up his wife indoors to ensure no man can reach her, “Well you are a good Girl then, come let me / lock you up in your chamber, 'till I come back; and be sure / you come not within three strides of the window... (Act 4, Scene 1, page 65). Even when he permits her out to the play shows, Mr. Pinchwife chooses to disguise his wife so that no man can admire her. In spite of Mr. Pinchwife’s efforts, his wife grows stubborn each day and more interested in wild ventures with new men. Finally, she becomes abhorrent of her marriage and seeks to leave her husband and get together with her secret lover, Horner. In order to prevent this, Mr. Pinchwife becomes more abusive and threatens with violence, as he tries to control his wife. Finally, he decides to take her to the countryside so as to prevent the possible negative influence in the city. The play shows outright patriarchal dominion intended to subordinate women and relegate them to the lowest position, where they become men’s puppets. However, as a countering force, the women such as Mrs. Margery display more obstinacy, as their urge to be free grows.
A similar theme appears in A Bold Stroke for a Wife, in which Centlivre critiques the treatment of women in her period. The play also portrays a theme of subordination among the women population, especially through its main character Miss Lovely. At one point in the play, the Colonel interested in meeting one of Miss Lovely’s guardians responds to Freeman’s question by stating that he wishes to address the guardian and find out what he plans to do with Miss Lovely. The statement portrays Miss Lovely as being some form of commodity whose destiny lies in another man’s hands. The Colonel’s statement, “...to address him in his own way, and find what he designs to do with the lady,” (Act 1, scene 1, pages 175-176) indicates that Ms. Lovely has a say in the decisions pertaining to her destiny. Indeed, such perceptions were a common thing in the 17th and 18th century, when women were still perceived as a property for the male members of their lineage. In another instance in the play, the Colonel speaks of Miss Lovely as if she were some piece of material object for acquisition. In speaking about his determination to win her, the Colonel states that, “I am likely to have a pretty task by that time I have gone through them all; but she’s a city worth taking and I’ll carry on the siege” (Act 2, Scene 2, pages 146-148). The powerless state of women in society is portrayed by Anne Lovely’s inability to control her estate and inheritance simply because she is a woman. Miss Lovely was an heiress of thirty thousand pounds, but because she was female, her inheritance was left under the custody of four people that would foresee her marriage and the final transfer of the inheritance to her husband. This is a clear implication that women in Anne’s society were not only not allowed to own property, but to also have no power over it. Apart from the control of property, women also seem to have had very little control over their marriage. For example, in Miss Lovely’s case, the four assigned guardians had to agree upon the choice of an appropriate suitor to marry her. This implies that she not only lacked control over her property, but also control over her own love life and marriage. This portrays a woman as a subordinated personality with no control over her life in virtually all spheres.
Similar compulsion plays out in The Indian Emperor, where Alibech is unbound by Odmar, who declares her his queen. However, Alibech refuses to be declared her queen. Odmar threatens to kill her because of her refusal. Stubbornly, Alibech refuses to budge and, as a result, the bound Guyamor offers to die in her place, but she refuses and stubbornly states that it is still her choice. Odmar further threatens to kill Guyamor if she refuses to marry him (Act 5, Scene 1). This is another clear portrayal of the denial of women’s rights of companionship and decisions over their lives.
The representation of this theme replays itself throughout the three plays and clearly shows that women are subordinate to men in society. This representation of patriarchy is still evident in the current society. There has been little change over time as a result of the assertiveness that women have tried to manifest in defense of their rights and freedoms in society. There is a lot that has been attained in this regard in the current society, but it has not been possible without sacrifice, pain and rebellion, which have been met with the stiff penalties of punishment, detention, beatings, and even killings. This is clearly evident in these plays with Mrs. Pinchwife and Alibech facing a hard choice between offering their love and submission and dealing with harsh consequences of non-compliance. In conclusion, society has been patriarchal and is still patriarchal to some extent, and the treatment of women has been extremely unfair as they have been robbed off their rights and freedom of choice. The three plays from earlier times in society when patriarchy was stronger affirm the statements made about female subordination and commodification in Epstein’s work.