I seem to recall that Shakespeare’s plays featured anatomically correct women in female roles.
I’m not sure what you mean by this, but if it’s meant to be taken at face value, it’s quite erroneous – all of the female roles in Shakespeare’s plays were played either by boys or perhaps, in some comic older female roles, adult men (in Shakespeare in Love they have Juliet’s nurse being played by a grown man, which makes sense). There’s a lot we’re not sure about when it comes to the boy actors – who they were and how the audience may have responded to them. Well, we know how some members of the public responded, because theatrical cross-dressing is one of the hot-button issues of Puritan critics of the Elizabethan/Jacobean theater (although iirc one of them, confronted with the alternative that women could play female roles, recoils from that as even worse, and William Prynne’s 1633 screed Histriomastix, an 1100-page rant on how the theater is the root of all evil, condemns actresses as well, which got him into trouble because Queen Henrietta Maria was fond of performing in masques).
In any case, Shakespeare’s theater – by which I mean the public theater; in courtly entertainments the case was different – remained unisex. This is why you have so many cross-dressing female characters – it gave the boy actors a chance to appear onstage with pants on, and added another level to the gender confusion. (I’m seeing an all-male Twelfth Night in a couple of months, so I’ll finally get to see how this works in practice. :D) Women didn’t appear on the English stage until the Restoration in 1660 – during the interregnum, the theaters had been closed by the Puritan-leaning government. There had been actresses on the continent since before Shakespeare’s day – in the Italian commedia dell’arte, for instance – but I don’t know as much about continental theater, so I’ll pass it by, except to say that it was frowned on in England even by defenders of the stage; Thomas Nashe has some unkind words for the practice in Pierce Pennilesse, where he contrasts the manly historical plays on the English stage to the sleazy Italian commedia.
In any event, I’m not sure why the change came about – part of it might be simply because after the downtime there weren’t any boy actors, and nobody who really knew anything about training them. One of the articles I recently read for my Restoration drama course points out several other factors in the acceptance of actresses after 1660 – for instance, Charles II and many of his courtiers had been in exile on the continent (mostly in France) during the interregnum and would have seen a lot of them, and then the court had closer ties to the public theater then it had in the Tudor and early Stuart periods. And Charles and his friends were all pretty active ladies’ men (well, not always just ladies, in the cases of some courtiers) and that attitude did influence the theater; cf. the plots of most Restoration comedies.
(A lot of that was condensed and oversimplified from Elizabeth Howe’s The First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700, if you’re interested.)
That said, you’re certainly right that women who were involved with the theater were stigmatized, and that that stigma hasn’t wholly gone away even today. It wasn’t just actresses – the poet/playwright Aphra Behn, who was the first Englishwoman to make a living by writing, was called some pretty nasty things by contemporaries (well, and later writers too). A lot of it is the whole stigma of public display – actresses are essentially on display for money (as is a playwright like Behn, though it’s the body of her works rather than her physical body), and that was considered a form of prostitution. As a classmate of mine pointed out, men and women were expected to have different spheres of influence, public and private respectively, so a woman who was a public figure was generally going to be considered a transgressive one as well.
I should point out, though, that the all-male theater was stigmatized in Shakespeare’s day, too, which is why the theaters were located on the South Bank along with the bearbaiting pit and the whorehouses. (Although this was not always the case in England at any rate – the medieval mystery cycles, performed by members of the trade guilds for the feast of Corpus Christi, were an act of religious and civic celebration, but then, too, this had little to do with professional theater as it was known in the Renaissance and later.)
This should be enough for a start – I love talking about early modern theater…