Yesterday, we discussed marital and legal matters when it comes to women. Today, let’s just look the general role of women during the Elizabethan era.
By and large, women were raised to believe in their inferiority to men. The cornerstone in this was the expected obedience to father, brother and other males in the family; failure to do so was punishment by the so-called whipping stool, a fate that not even nobility could spare (just ask Lady Jane Grey).
The noble women, however, did have access to education… to an extent. They could be taught by tutors (like in The Taming of the Shrew), but could not enter universities. Thus, they were also not able to enter into professions (doctor, lawyer, politics, etc). But this was still better than common women, who were afforded no school, except domestic education, training to be a good wife and mother, taught by their own mothers. And for unmarried women, the only profession they could hope for is domestic service (maid, wet nurse, cook, etc). With the end of Catholicism in England under Henry VIII, the one other possible life for women–the convent–was taken away as well.
With no voting privileges (though, honestly, not all men had suffrage, either), women had no say in the improvement in their status. According to law, they could not be heirs to their fathers’ titles (though they could inherit the land). It was only because of a special stipulation in the will of Henry VIII that his daughters (first Mary, then Elizabeth in whose reign Shakespeare wrote his plays) were able to ascend to the throne.