8 Mar 2021

Outdated Rules on International Women's Day

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, and the drive towards gender equality that it recognises, we have been browsing through the pages of some 19th-century etiquette guides and contemplating just how far women have come.

As trade boomed in the 19th century the middle classes expanded rapidly, and a stream of guidebooks were published to help them steer their way through a host of social dilemmas – from how to address a viscount, to calling card etiquette and when to serve champagne. The guides encouraged modesty, propriety, cleanliness and politeness. Children deferred to parents, and women to men.

A woman ignored the codes that applied to her behaviour – both at home and in public spaces – at her peril. To transgress was to risk sullying her reputation, which – in the marriage markets of the 19th century – was an indispensable attribute.

Etiquette Tips from a Bygone Era:

• Ladies do not wear pearls or diamonds in the morning.

• When a lady is introduced to a gentleman, she should bow but not give her hand, unless the gentleman is a well-known friend of a member of the family. A gentleman must not offer to shake hands with a lady until she has made the first movement.

• In conversation a well-educated lady never uses vulgarisms, flippancy, coarseness, triviality or provocation in her speech.

• A gentlewoman walks quietly through the streets, seeing and hearing nothing that she ought not to see and hear. She recognises acquaintances with a courteous bow, and friends with words of greeting. She never talks loudly, or laughs boisterously or does anything to attract the attention of passers-by.

• A lady never forms an acquaintance upon the street, or seeks to attract the attention or admiration of persons of the opposite sex.

• A lady never looks back after anyone in the street, or turns to stare in a public place. She should never walk alone in the street after dark.

• A lady keeps from contact with her neighbour in public conveyances as much as is possible, never leaning up against another or spreading her arms. She may accept the offer of services from a stranger in alighting from, or entering a conveyance, and should acknowledge the courtesy.

• At public balls, a lady should dance only with gentlemen of her own party, or those with whom she has a previous acquaintance. Young ladies must be careful how they refuse to dance. She should give a good reason, lest the gentleman takes it as a personal dislike. Once a lady refuses, a gentleman should not urge her to dance, nor should the lady accept another invitation for the same dance. An unattached lady never dances more than three dances with the same partner.

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