4 Mar 2024

A Woman’s World

We celebrate International Women’s Day on 8th March and are encouraged to “Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated.”

While there is much yet to be achieved, we can certainly join together in celebrating how far we have come and now is a good time to look at two sample Etiquette Guides from 1743 and 1875, which are eloquent reminders of the inequalities, rigid expectations and repressiveness that was the lot of women in British society.

The Lady’s Companion or, An Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex, Containing Observations for their Conduct thro’ all Ages and Circumstances of Life was published in 1743.  At the time it was no doubt considered an indispensable guide for young ladies who were contemplating their entry into society, although it sounds extremely patronising to the modern ear.

What was the quality that was most valued and treasured in the young women of the mid-18th century? It was certainly not the adventurousness, independence, determination and boldness that we value so highly today:

Modesty checks and controls all rude Eoxrbitances, and is the great Civilizer of Conversations. It is indeed a Virtue of a general Influence, does not only ballast the Mind with sober and humble Thoughts of ourselves, but also steers every Part of the outward Frame. It appears in the Face in calm and meek Looks, where it so impresses itself, that it gives the greatest Lustre to a Feminine Beauty.”

Modesty was considered the prime virtue, because a modest young lady would be characterised by a meek and biddable exterior, and would never fall into the trap of self-assertiveness, over-confidence or argumentativeness. It ensured that she was condemned to be a listener, a person whose engagement in conversations was signalled by mild interest and ready assent:

As Modesty prescribes the Manner, so it also does the Measure of speaking; it restrains all excessive Talkativeness…He who engrosses the Talk, enforces Silence upon the rest, and so is presumed to look upon them only as his Auditors and Pupils, while he magisteriously [sic] dictates to them. It is universally an insolent, unbecoming Thing, but most peculiarly so in Women.”

A talkative woman who commanded the attention of an audience was seen as peculiarly repugnant – it reversed the natural order of the genders, forcing men into a subservient and secondary position. Most gentlemen of this era would have found it humiliating to succumb, especially in public, to a dominant woman, and there is much talk about how assertive women were seen as unnatural:

Such a degenerate Age do we live in, that every Thing seems inverted, even Sexes, whilst Men fall into the Effeminacy and Niceness of Women, and Women take up the Confidence, the Boldness of Men.”

This comment repeats a common trope in 18th-century commentaries: the fear that the world is being turned upside-down, and the more assertive and confident women become the more that men are emasculated and demeaned. These humiliated men are characterised as effeminate and “nice”, in the archaic sense of being particular and finicky:

Not only the Air, but Vices of Men are carefully copied by some Women, who think they have not made a sufficient Escape from their Sex, ‘till they can be as daringly wicked as the other. A sober modest Dialect is too effeminate for them; a blustering ranting Stile is taken up, and to shew themselves proficient in it, adorned with all the Oaths and Imprecations, their Memory or Invention can supply… And when to this a Woman adds the Sin of Drunkenness, nothing that is human approaches so near a Beast. She who is first a Prostitute to Wine, will soon be so to Lust also.”

It would appear that women were not universally acquiescent when it came to the much-vaunted virtues of modesty and meekness. Even in 1743 they were being accused of aping the manners of men and even making a display of masculine vices such as drunkenness – it is certainly conceivable a small minority of courageous and enterprising women were intent on breaking the bonds of a repressive society and asserting their willingness to behave as they chose. Such “anti-social” behaviour was, however, roundly condemned; the vice of drunkenness is firmly linked with lust, and female adventurers were seen as “prostitutes”, a terrible accusation in a society where reputation and sexual probity were paramount concerns.

Beeton’s Manners of Polite Society or Etiquette for Ladies, Gentlemen and Families (1875) was published well over a century later and it is fascinating to see how much has changed. The paternalistic and patronising tone of the earlier book, the extolling of female virtues and the moralistic condemnation of female vices has all but disappeared, and the book is written in a much more recognisable and modern style:

To form a perfect conversationalist many qualifications are requisite. There must be a knowledge of the world, knowledge of books, and a facility of imparting that knowledge; together with originality, memory an intuitive perception of what is best to say, and best to omit, good taste, good temper and good manners. Few things are more delightful than for one intelligent and well stored mind to find itself in company with a kindred spirit – each understanding the other, catching every idea and comprehending every allusion.”

It would appear that – finally – women are being valued for their intelligence, sensitivity, quick wit and experience, rather than their ability to stay quiet and remain meek and modest. Reading this passage, it seems that the conversational capacities of women are being recognised and that they are finally being allowed to take an equal place in drawing and dining rooms, able to enjoy the cut and thrust of conversation on an equal footing with their male companions.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that equality has in any way been achieved:

Generally speaking, it is injudicious for ladies to attempt arguing with gentleman on political or financial topics. All the information that a woman can possibly acquire or remember on these subjects is so small in comparison with the knowledge of men that the discussion will not elevate them in the opinion of masculine minds. Still, it is well for a woman to desire enlightenment, that she may comprehend something of these discussions when she hears them from the other sex, but let her refrain from controversy and argument on such topics, as the grasp of the female mind is seldom capable of seizing or retaining.”

The freedom of women to speak their mind on a range of topics is severely curtailed and we are informed that political or financial topics are considered well beyond their grasp. Of course, in late Victorian England the worlds of politics and finance were exclusively male, and it was felt that it was impossible for women to gain any in-depth knowledge of these arcane subjects – something that was palpably untrue, if a woman was resourceful, intelligent and determined.

The final insult is the patronising aside that it is desirable for women to “desire enlightenment” (presumably ask simple questions) so that they can “comprehend” the lofty and well-informed discussions on these topics conducted by men. “The female mind”, we are told, is incapable of grasping, or retaining this kind of knowledge.

This is an excellent example of the kind of discrimination that was to bedevil women for the following century. Excluded from the world of work, and patronised and belittled for their lack of knowledge and experience, they were consigned to an ambiguous role: they were expected to be good conversationalists, capable of quick-witted and flirtatious banter, keen observation, and empathy; they were not expected to be bracingly well-informed and intelligent commentators on worldly matters. It was not until after the Second World War that these social attitudes began to break down.

Picture (top): The Life and age of woman, stages of woman's life from the cradle to the grave. James Baillie, c. 1848.


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