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Abstract

This article examines the symbiotic relationship between narratives of female suffering in the civil war period and its aftermath and the polemical agendas promulgated by various religious sects. It focuses on three specific groups: the female petitioners of the 1640s, the Levellers (1645–53) and the first generation Quakers (1652–1670). The aim is to show how closely intertwined political, legalistic and affective discourses were in the petitionary literature of that era. At the heart of this discursive matrix stands the iconic image of the suffering woman which can be analysed on both a symbolic and literal plane, whether as an emblem of the war-torn body politic or in terms of women’s actual struggle for survival. The article considers the ways in which women were emboldened in this period, either through their involvement in political debates and civic agitation in relation to parliament or due to their religious faith. It also notes the limits of their battle for civil rights, freedom of speech and sexual equality. Tales of female adversity, it is argued, were used both to evoke an empathetic response and as a means of legitimising women’s bold speaking and, by extension, the political agendas of their menfolk.