Letter:When England was a woman's paradise

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From Mr Barry Haisman Sir: I was surprised to read in Geoff Nicholson's article "Pleasure in store" (12 December) that "from the mid-19th century onwards [department stores] were places where for the first time women could circulate freely, without having to account to anyone".

I would date such freedom much earlier, by at least 250 years, to the playhouses and taverns of the Tudor period. While the Victorians decided that respectable women did not attend plays, assuming the Puritan view that "few women came from plays with safe and chaste minds", the wives of London citizens in fact paid no attention to such strictures. It is now clear that London women had always done as they pleased and expected to go on doing so.

To Europeans, England was known as a "paradise for women" (Marchette Chute); foreigners were startled by the freedom they took, a Russian visitor commenting "the womenfolk of England wish to be in at everything". Another foreigner noted women went into taverns alone or with other women.

And even 200 years earlier than this we have Chaucer's belligerently liberated Wife of Bath. An unreal figure of pure fantasy?

I think it might be truer to say that the Victorians, in spite of their new department stores, put the brakes on female emancipation.

Yours faithfully, BARRY HAISMAN Stainsacre, North Yorkshire 13 December