It is an odd but indisputable fact that the seventeenth-century English women who are generally regarded as among the forerunners of modern feminism are almost all identified with the Royalist side in the conflict between Royalist and Parliamentarians known as the English Civil Wars. Since Royalist ideology is often associated with the radical patriarchalism of seventeenth-century political theorist Robert Filmer—a patriarchalism that equates family and kingdom and asserts the divinely ordained absolute power of the king and, by analogy, of the male head of the household—historians have been understandably puzzled by the fact that Royalist women wrote the earliest extended criticisms of the absolute subordination of women in marriage and the earliest systematic assertions of women’s rational and moral equality with men. Some historians have questioned the facile equation of Royalist ideology with Filmerian patriarchalism; and indeed, there may have been no consistent differences between Royalist and Parliamentarians on issues of family organization and women’s political rights, but in that case one would expect early feminists to be equally divided between the two sides.
Catherine Gallagher argues that Royalism engendered feminism because the ideology of absolute monarchy provided a transition to an ideology of the absolute self. She cites the example of the notoriously eccentric author Margaret Cavendish (1626-1673), duchess of Newcastle. Cavendish claimed to be as ambitious as any woman could be, but knowing that as a woman she was excluded from the pursuit of power in the real world, she resolved to be mistress of her own world, the “immaterial world” that any person can create within her own mind—and, as a writer, on paper. In proclaiming what she called her “singularity,” Cavendish insisted that she was a self-sufficient being within her mental empire, the center of her own subjective universe rather than a satellite orbiting a dominant male planet. In justifying this absolute singularity, Cavendish repeatedly invoked the model of the absolute monarch, a figure that became a metaphor for the self-enclose, autonomous nature of the individual person. Cavendish’s successors among early feminists retained her notion of woman’s sovereign self, but they also sought to break free from the complete political and social isolation that her absolute singularity entailed.