In this post, facilitator Ruth Mather reflects on teaching the ‘Georgian Women’ workshop.
Our major aim for this lesson was to explore how the realities of life for Georgian women might differ from contemporary ideals or modern media stereotypes, and thus to encourage the students to consider the socially constructed nature of gender both then and now. We began with the basics though, asking the students what they knew about women’s lives in the period 1714-1830. Because we allowed the opportunity to confer with a partner, and stressed that we didn’t mind guesses, the students were happy to contribute their understandings of a period that had not featured heavily on the history curriculum. Most of the responses focused on fashion and physical appearance: they were aware of ‘big wigs with fruit in’, hooped dresses and corsets, while one student mentioned the famous figure of Marie Antoinette. This might be due to the aspects of the period that tend to be highlighted in popular representations.
Popular representations of Georgian women
Media representation of the Georgian period was the next subject we sought to explore, showing a video clip from the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and asking the students to comment on the way that Mrs Bennett and her daughters are portrayed. In the particular clip we used, the students said that women seemed frivolous, marriage-obsessed, and dependent on men. Indeed, the idea of dependence on men was pervasive as we moved to our next task, in which we looked at advice literature and what was expected of the ‘ideal’ Georgian woman. We began with a quick guessing game, in which we read excerpts from 18th century didactic literature and from a 21st century blog on femininity, and asked the students to guess which was which. They were shocked to find that even today women can be advised to be submissive, gentle, and quiet. Finally, the students used posters to represent the ideal Georgian woman in words and images, which were then shared with the class. Again, quietness, demureness, chastity and submissiveness, as well as fashion, elegance and an appropriate degree of education came to the fore.
Student working on ‘Ideal Woman’ poster
After a quick break, we returned to these thoughts about ideals of womanhood, and began to question the kinds of other factors which might affect an ability or desire to achieve ideals, both in Georgian Britain and today. As well as personal inclination and values, we thought about social status, education, and the views of family and friends. We should perhaps also have mentioned the conflicting demands in a lot of advice literature! Moving on, we launched a series of quickfire introductions to aspects of women’s lives, following which the students had five minutes to respond in words and pictures on their posters. This worked very well, as we were able to convey quite a lot of information in a short period. This kept the attention of the students, who were able to ask questions or request more detail in the five minutes response time, and we were pleased that many did use this opportunity. The quickfire lectures covered the topics of love, home and work, education and religion and politics. We tried to highlight variety in the lives of women, talking about difference within as well as between social groups. Contrary to the students’ expectations, they became aware that women were able to exercise agency in a number of situations: they had considerable power within the home, they could use their religious enthusiasm to travel and to speak out, and women of different social statuses participated in politics in different ways. They were also surprised to hear about cross-dressing and lesbianism, and we used this opportunity to encourage them to think about whether or not gender is fixed or fluid. In the feedback period, the students discussed how their views had changed and we felt that the session had been successful in encouraging them to think about ideals and realities of life for Georgian women. We thoroughly enjoyed the session and hope that the students did too.
After graduating from the University of Cumbria with a BA in History in 2009, I completed a Masters degree in Modern History at the University of York in 2010-2011. Since 2012 I have been working on a PhD within the Department of History and Centre for Studies of Home at Queen Mary, University of London, exploring the relationships between politics and the homes of working people in England, c.1790-1830. I work primarily on late-Georgian Britain, and my research interests include gender and class in popular politics, the history of the family, and the study of material culture. I also work as a volunteer with York Museums Trust and with the Borthwick Institute for Archives and am interested in widening participation in historical research.