Constructing Gender in the Eighteenth and Twenty-First Centuries

In this post, facilitator Jessica Haldeman discusses one of the aims of the session on Georgian Women, which drew parallels between the constructions of ideal femininity in this period and today.

Working as a facilitator for the Moving Beyond Boundaries project was definitely one of the biggest highlights in my year so far. It’s been a great chance to share my work, continue the process of developing my own ideas, and enable others to peek into women’s history. Last week, my workshop partner Ruth Mather and I spent a few hours presenting on the topic of Georgian Women and discussed the realities of their lives and experiences. In this post, I’d like to discuss a concept that we introduced to the students: the feminine ideal. By comparing quotations from eighteenth-century conduct books with quips from contemporary articles, we were able to show the students that the notion of what makes a ‘real woman’ still applies to our lives today. By dissecting writing of the past, it allowed the students to question the messages that women are faced with on a daily basis.

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The Georgian Woman: Ideal vs Reality

Far from the glamour of a Jane Austen novel or BBC adaptation, women in the eighteenth century faced social pressures from a wide variety of sources. No matter their social status, women had specific expectations about how to be feminine, what to wear, and even what leisure activities to enjoy. Take this quote from Samuel Richardson, for example:

‘…I would have you remember, my dear that as sure as anything intrepid, free, and in a prudent degree bold, becomes a man, so whatever is soft, tender, and modest, renders your sex amiable. In this one instance we do not prefer our own likeness, and the less you resemble us the more you are sure to charm: For a masculine women is a character as little creditable as becoming.’
Samuel Richardson, Letters from Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions, 1741, Letter xc, p.125.

Here, Richardson defines masculine and feminine behaviour. Citing masculinity as “intrepid, free, and bold”, Richardson makes femininity its contrast as something “soft, tender, and modest”. Richardson even addresses the concept of “masculine women”, stating that this type of woman has no credibility or appeal to men.

These messages aren’t unique to the eighteenth century. Today, women are constantly told to be amiable, soft-spoken, and delicate from an incalculable amount of channels. Glossy magazines beckon from our supermarkets, blogs and twitter accounts advertise products in the comfort of our own homes, self-help and beauty books occupy our shelves. Sources and voices have always told women how to act, how to dress, what to think. They did it in the eighteenth century. They do it today.

Participating in this project allowed us to share with the students that they don’t have to bend to expectations that society puts on them. We impressed upon the students that there’s no “recipe” for being feminine or masculine. No amount of stereotypically feminine behaviour, makeup, or clothing will ever take away who you are or add to your worth. By looking at Georgian women and learning about how they navigated the slippery slope of public approval, the students began to identify all of the messages they receive about femininity and how they might be affected by society’s voice.

Jessica Haldeman

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In 2011, I graduated with a BA in English Literature from UCLA. After teaching English for a year, I completed a Master’s Degree at the Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of York with a dissertation on the social and theological connections between Baptist and Anglican women writers. I am currently a first year PhD student in the same department, researching Nonconformist women in the Eighteenth Century and representations of the physical body in their writing.

 

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