Thomas More’s multifaceted work Utopia has historically been subject to numerous interpretations. The main focus has primarily been on its religious, social, and political references by scholars. Although well founded his work also touches on a gender that was not universally accepted at the time, the women in his Utopian society were allowed liberties but they were still restricted in numerous ways.
His progressive outlook with a desire to better his world and produce a more productive society stands out among his fellow writers during a time that was still considered the dark ages was a literary marvel. Numerous writers such as Plato in his work Republic introduces a society that produce active members of a community and improved lives and living conditions as a whole. An envisioned and improved urban industrialized world such as this would produce an ideal environment among a repressed society that catered only to the aristocratic upper class of England during More’s time. A fair and just society within the grasp of More’s mind could be laid out in verse but to actually present it as just for both sexes proved to be more of a challenge. However, Utopia’s patriarchal view still deny women an egalitarian right to More’s envisioned world. As individuals and as a citizen, men have been given an adventitious ability to live by their own merits and achievements. Men have greater access to politics that once was dependent on entry through aristocrat connection and birth. On the contrary, women have not been granted such liberties and are still mostly restricted to their traditional roles in the home. They also remain inferior and dependent on their male counterparts in the new imagined world of More. In contrast More has not created a Utopian society for women like he has done for men but actually a dystopian one that cannot allow women to pursue individual goals of freedom that would allow academia or government to play a larger personal role in their life. It seems that More does not partake in everyone’s pursuit of happiness or enlightenment as one has been lead to believe in the beginning of his liberated society. Therefore, More’s commonwealth as he describes it, does not do justice to both sexes. Men have always held a role in government and their community which directly correlates to the education given to them.
More continued this in his Utopian society by allocating education to men and women but placing more emphasis on the role a man would play with his education. Women who were educated were viewed unjustly during Mores time period because to men it meant they were not focusing on their primary roles as mothers and wives. A woman’s children and her husband were of the utmost importance to her and she should not busy herself with such foolish ideas of academia thought most men. In other words, a woman needs to subjugate to her husband and children with a desire to remain obedient, diligent, and have no interest beyond the home.
Although, More did give women a broader and more progressive role in his utopian society such as giving them an education, allowing them to work, and opening up military service they still remained a larger fixture within their home. More choose to educate his daughters but it wasn’t quite the progressive image he portrayed in his Utopian world. He still believed that their education would help them fulfill their lives of being a better wife and mother. Plato, who was a Greek philosopher, wrote his Republic that touches on another type of utopian society. It was written in similar fashion to More’s Utopia in regard to the role of women. Athens, Greece had adapted an early form of democracy but still much like More’s England only allowed men freedom to an education, politics, and religious endeavors. The roles given to women in both men’s works are more shared and productive than the roles given to women during each man’s contemporary societies.
They each agreed that all sexes should have equal parts in developing and sustaining an ideal society. Plato’s views were in fact more equal to men and women than More’s, he argues that the only difference between men and women is a physiological one-women are able to give birth (Plato) More showed a view that was dominated by his religious background that did not occupy Plato’s era. More did distinguish women and men differently because his devout Catholic views that encouraged women being subservient to men. Thankfully, More did give equitable marriage to his citizens with a need for both parties to agree to the marriage which would have been unheard of in sixteenth century England. Women in the patriarchal society of sixteenth century was told who to marry and it had to be an advantageous move for her parents otherwise the marriage would not be granted. Therefore, More’s insistence on equal opportunity for both sexes have his ideas still falling short of equality among women. He felt that women were to have Christian virtues and values.
More also pushed for women to perform their duties in the home such as meal preparation, child rearing, and household chores. (More) In this encouragement it deflects from his want to present women and men as equal and productive members of society due to the fact men are still not involved in the home or child rearing. The want for women to create their own path and their own identity was growing ever more strongly in sixteenth century England. Women had no way of creating an identity for themselves if they were considered property of their father and then their husband. They would then only become labeled as a wife and mother, nothing else could a woman embody at this time in history. More still did not give women the chance to go beyond the image and position given to them by men and society.
His utopian society still gave way to a hierarchical foundation even though women worked and fought alongside her husband at times. The only title a woman could hold was as a priest when they would be admitted into priesthood, which was extremely rare. More truly left a woman in the traditional and domestic role known to them and left no room for them to enter public roles beyond that of priesthood. Although, the aforementioned did occur it was again on rare occasion when women are widows in advanced age this way she would still be able to carry on being a mother or wife (More). They are no longer a wife and her children no longer need her, so she can devote herself to God. Women were not in the public eye even with the label of priest, so it was not necessarily a beneficial role to a woman. However, in general a woman was very much treated along the same lines in a patriarchal way in religion as they were in everyday life. They were subject to admitting their sins to their husbands and be forgiven, however, it was not clear if husbands had to admit their sins to their wives. (More) Women’s subjection to their husband would indicate man’s belief that they need guidance in their spiritual journey due to them being weaker and subject to sin that they would be unable to turn away from if given the chance.
The unfavorable position a woman filled in religion was due in part to the very beginning of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, when Eve ate the forbidden fruit and her subsequent downfall because of her sin. This type of thought is more dystopian rather than utopian for women and completely gender biased to a man’s intellect and inferiority to the weakness and lack of self-control a woman is subject to without a man’s guidance in her life. Even though More’s work alleges to have created equal ground for women intellectually and morally keeping them confined within their stereotypical roles does not allow them to participate or be productive in the commonwealth as a citizen.
More’s utopian themes in essence has actually been presented in a way that does not improve women’s roles and in fact is in direct opposition to his image of an improved state of being for the citizens in the commonwealth. It elicits the dystopian world mentioned previously where a utopian world is truly not something that is attainable. More seems to indulge in elevating women in his community because he saw potential in their abilities in society but still keeping restricted to the mainly to the home as a wife and mother. His views would come to fruition after decades and centuries of when his work was published. Women’s roles may have been greatly restricted during More’s time and the fact that he held to the social patterns known to him, however, time would prove to be a woman’s friend and ally.
Literature, government, and the home would be greatly affected by the ever-increasing roles women would soon identify with in the future of human civilization. More’s honorable and noble attempt to address gender issues does not create an uplifted and inspired woman with potential to make a place in his commonwealth. He aims and desperately lands on a better world for men only with a perfect woman who falls directly under her husband. Her actions are strongly influenced by her husband and societies unjust views of a woman’s place and the way she should act. Conforming to this dystopian agenda would allow the woman to suffer and keep her hopeless instead liberating her into a life of political and socioeconomic reform. Two reforms that should never have been restricted to a woman at any time in history, including an education and a reasonable life outside of being a wife and mother.
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