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Title: The representation of women in early 18th century England

The representation of women in early 18th century England

Term Paper, 2006

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3

English Language and Literature Studies – Literature

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I) The first half of the 18th century

II) The status of women in society

III) The myth of passive womanhood

IV) ‘Periodical literature’ in the first half of the 18th century

V) The Spectator

VI) The perception of women in The Spectator
VI) i. Marriage in The Spectator
VI) ii. Education in The Spectator


I) The first half of the 18th century

The important essay by John Locke Essay concerning human understanding (1690) made an exceptionally high impact in the 18th century. His rejection of Descartes’ ‘innate ideas’ constituted the basis for the discussion about abilities and rights of women in the 18th century. A.R. Humphreys noted:

“Throughout the century a skirmish went on between conservatives who argued for the grand principle of subordination and progressives, who, guided by the clear light of reason, contended for woman’s rational and social equality.”[1]

The married woman was considered to have neither rights nor property due to the fact that with the marriage all her property exchanged automatically to her husband. The ideal of marriage in the 18th century is described by W.L. Blease:

“ … the ideal of marriage had been brought to its lowest possible level […] it emphasized the sexual side of the connection, and almost entirely disregarded the spiritual.”[2]

The average age for marrying rested with 17 years, which was the reason that most young women could not satisfy their positions as mothers. The only profession women could have was that of a wife and mother; as Blease said “A respectable woman was nothing but the potential mother of children.”[3]. However, there was the problem of a surplus of women. Some women had the possibility to teach children, which was not very high regarded. Most women, however, had only the possibility to prostitute themselves which was a crucial problem of this times (Einhoff, 1980: 35).

Terms like ‘the fair sex’, ‘the soft sex’ and ‘the gentle sex’ designated the relationship of the sexes; the weak and tender woman needs to be protected by the strong man, which disguised the reality of absolute subordination of most women. It is also remarkable that there were only a few legal divorces which can be interpreted as a sign for the tacit sanction of adultery, the general standing of the value of marriage and the hopelessness of a divorced woman without rights and financial resources.

The education of women maintained in a shadowy existence; most women received no education at all and poor women could neither read nor write, nor cast up accounts (ibid: 36). So-called ‘charity schools’ were founded for boys and girls of lower social levels to teach basic knowledge like reading and writing. Higher education was a privilege for some girls of the middle and higher social levels who were educated at ‘boarding-schools’ in subjects like English, French, Dancing, Music and Needlework. The education was finished at the age of 15 or 16 due to the early marriage of women. After this education in school, women were allowed to educate themselves e.g. by the library of their husbands but most did not. The few ‘learned ladies’ and their literary work mostly remained covert so that it could not be criticized or made ridiculous (ibid: 37). A certain emancipating act can be seen in the literary work of these women because they tried to get rid of the usual (even) mental suppression and rendered outstanding services to female abilities on intellectual areas (ibid: 38).

Women novelists were connected by anxiety about the audience, which results from a readership being mainly urban and anonymous created by an impersonal and diverse metropolitan literary culture. The awareness of the need to please this readership directly informs women novelists’ authorial self-fashioning. Women had precarious positions in this predominantly male literary culture (Prescott, 2003: 39). A specific readership allowed women novelists to circumvent the problem of addressing a wide and unspecific audience and enabled them to disassociate themselves and their poetry from the commercial side of literary life (ibid: 40).

II) The status of women in society

Theoretically, the legal status of the single woman was the same as that of a man in the 18th century. The legal position was crucially affected depending on whether she was single or married. Single women had, for the most part, the same rights and responsibilities as did men; owning properties, making contracts, suing, however, her gender would always make a straightforward equivalence to a man difficult. In private law, no woman had any rights; there was no place for them, which led to an exclusion from citizenship.

The married woman was seen quite differently (Skinner, 2000: 91). It was broadly agreed that, whatever the lived reality, the representation of marriage certainly moved towards such an ideal in the literature of the period, e.g. The Spectator. A married woman had no separate legal identity; her existence was ‘covered’ under that of her husband. Her property passed into the control of her husband. She neither was able to enter into contracts nor to sue or be sued. Moreover, she had no legal rights over her children and, unbelievably nowadays, had no right to leave the house without the permission of her husband. The law therewith infantilised married women by treating them as incapable of handling their own affairs (ibid: 92).

Equity was, amongst others, a kind of law with particular significance. Equity made it possible for married women to own property through trusts, set up before marriage to keep a wife’s property separate from her husband’s (ibid: 94). The control of this separate estate passed to almost invariably male trustees rather than to the wife herself. The motives for such a trust were complex and not always related to the woman involved, e.g. allowing a wife’s father to pass property directly to the grandchildren (ibid: 95).

A married woman could own property but her power did not increase anyway due to severe limitations.

These limitations avoided that women could take property intended for maintenance and use it as capital. This resulted in a lack of economic power and agency and is one of the key factors in women’s exclusion from citizenship, which was rooted in the ownership of land (ibid: 103).

The new sentimental family of the 18th century, with its emphasis on women’s role as domestic and dependent rather than outward-looking and self-sufficient, and on women’s talents as in the areas of sentiment and feeling rather than those of reason and judgment, bears significant responsibility for the continuing exclusion of women from definitions of citizenship.


[1] A. R. Humphreys: The Rights of Women in the Age of Reason. In: Modern Language Review, Vol. 41, July 1946, p. 256.

[2] W. Lyon Blease (1910): The Emancipation of English Women. London: Constable, p. 8.

[3] Ibid, p.7.

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The representation of women in early 18th century England

University of Erfurt

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The Rise of English Journalism in the Early 18th Century
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Claudia Wipprecht (Author) , 2006, The representation of women in early 18th century England, Munich, GRIN Verlag,

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72 | 2015 : Aurea mediocritas

Female and Male Activism for Women’s Rights in Eighteenth-Century America and France

Linda Garbaye
p. 213-230

Résumé  | Plan  | Notes de la rédaction  | Texte  | Bibliographie  | Notes  | Citation  | Auteur


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Les femmes ont participé à la Guerre d’indépendance américaine et à la Révolution française, que ce soit dans des manifestations de rue, dans leurs écrits, ou bien, dans des cas plus rares, dans les armées combattantes. En dépit de leur participation, la question de leurs droits était controversée pour plusieurs raisons qui tiennent, en particulier, au rôle des femmes dans les sociétés américaine et française à cette époque. Elles étaient souvent reléguées à un rôle social très restreint puisque leurs activités demeuraient essentiellement domestiques. Malgré ces obstacles, des hommes et des femmes des deux côtés de l’Atlantique ont choisi de s’engager en faveur des droits des femmes. Cette communication vise donc à présenter ces individus et ces groupes – plus ou moins connus et de milieux sociaux divers –, leurs objectifs, et les arguments utilisés pour les atteindre. Tout en mettant l’accent sur les spécificités sociales, politiques et institutionnelles des deux pays, cette comparaison sera aussi l’occasion de mettre en lumière des points communs, comme l’utilisation des idées sur les droits individuels par les partisans des droits des femmes dans les deux pays.

This paper retraces the involvement of American and French women and men in favor of women’s rights during the periods of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. In both the United States and France, women participated in these major historical events through street protests, in their writings and correspondence, and, in rare cases, they took part in fighting. In spite of this, the issue of women’s rights remained controversial, mainly because their social role was strictly confined to domestic tasks. Nevertheless, some women and men, on both sides of the Atlantic, chose to be involved in activities favoring women’s rights. These individuals and/or groups were more or less well-known, and they came from various social backgrounds. In this article, I seek to present them, as well as the objectives and arguments they used to achieve their goal. While taking stock of the social, political and institutional specificities of each country, I will highlight the parallels between the activities of these women’s rights supporters on both sides of the Atlantic, focusing in particular on their use of the Enlightenment’s concept of natural rights and of other revolutionary ideas.

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Women’s Political Rights in The United States
The Colonial Period and the War of Independence
The Early Republic
Women’s Political Rights in France
The Ancien Régime
The French Revolution and the Republic

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Notes de la rédaction

This article was presented in the “XVIIIe siècle” workshop at the SAES 2015 conference on “L’engagement”.

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1Supporters of women’s rights in this period were mostly Enlightenment intellectuals and politicians who strongly believed in individual rights, whatever the sex of the person. Among prominent supporters – men and women – who are often presented in the historiography on this subject, are Abigail Adams (Garbaye, “Women and Politics in North America”) or Judith Sargent Murray (Skemp). In France, the classic references on the subject include Nicolas de Caritas, better known as Marquis de Condorcet (Badinter) or playwright Olympe de Gouges (Blanc). In addition to these historical figures, there are also American and French citizens, individually or in groups who, on specific occasions, voiced the necessity for women to obtain equal rights with men. I highlight the diversity of active participants who supported and acted in favor of women’s rights. In addition to the prominent political actors and writers of the time, there were also ordinary American and French citizens, acting either individually, in all female groups, or in mixed ones.

  • 1  In the 1780s public schools were opened to girls in the north, and the majority of white women cou (…)

2What are the main resemblances and differences between the United States and France regarding women’s rights and their supporters? Even though the history of the two countries, their respective institutions and systems of government, language and religion differ, one finds in both countries several points of similarity. For instance, they both experienced a revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, and supporters of women’s rights were influenced in each case by Enlightenment ideas, insisting on equality, education, solidarity, reason, rationalism, science, anti-absolutism and sociability, and which had an impact on the issue of women’s rights. Whether in Europe or in America, equal educational opportunities were greatly advocated, by comparison with other types of rights, like political rights, which were considered to be less consensual claims. 1

3Beyond these resemblances, however, the two countries are also characterized by key differences related to the organization of government and the public space. In the U.S., a federal country, issues such as political rights should be understood both at the local and the national levels, which is not the case of the French Republic. Additionally, as I also show below, women’s rights supporters in France went further in their claims than their American counterparts, for instance on the question of voting rights. As also mentioned by Lynn Hunt, the fact that secular female organizations existed in France, and that they discussed politics collectively, is considerable for the period and had no equivalent in other countries. The political spaces that existed in France did not exist in America. American women had to resort mostly to charitable and benevolent societies to act collectively (Hunt 204-05). Following Hunt’s approach to the differences between women’s political participation in the United States and France, one possible explanation for this, among others, thus seems to be linked to the differences in the mode of expression of conflicts; in France, public and political spaces – salons, streets, clubs, and societies, etc. – were more open to women. It is these public and political spaces that may have enabled French women to participate more actively than their American counterparts.

4American women did not entirely abstain from taking collective action; one can mention for instance the boycott of British products, or the support lent to the American continental army through the collection of funds, as for example by the Philadelphia Ladies Association in 1780. This type of endeavor was also a way for such groups to show their patriotism and to engage in informal politics (Norton 178). However, there remains the fact that women were less active than in France in political debates, and that they mainly attended or participated in smaller, more private circles, and in their personal correspondence.

Women’s Political Rights in The United States

5In America, both women of the elite and working-class women participated in the revolutionary war effort in a variety of ways. There were rare individual involvements in the army like the one of Deborah Sampson Gannett. And some women participated to the American Revolutionary Committees of Safety (Kerber, Women of the Republic 54-55). Women from a privileged background such as Mercy Otis Warren and Abigail Adams considered that it was fully appropriate for women to be interested in politics. Working-class women were preoccupied by revolutionary concerns and they participated in food riots as well (Knott & Taylor 24; Zagarri, “The Rights” 206). As mentioned above, they would also engage in the collection of funds for the army or the boycott of British products.

The Colonial Period and the War of Independence

6In colonial America, any colonist, including unmarried women, possessing at least fifty pounds was qualified to vote. But in practice not many women voted, for several reasons such as the weight of traditional exclusion of women from public activities. Furthermore, in rare cases, changes took place in the seventeenth century in disfavor of women’s political entitlements; this was the case of the Virginia Laws of 1699 that withdrew these entitlements for propertied unmarried women. And in Maryland, Margaret Brent tried to use her voting rights, as she was the legal executrix for the deceased Leonard Calvert. He himself had represented his brother Lord Baltimore. Consequently, she claimed that she had to be granted two votes, i.e. one vote due to the fact that she was Calvert’s executrix, and the other on behalf of Lord Baltimore. But she failed to achieve this (Flexner 14).

7Later, in their writings, American revolutionaries insisted on the right for proprietors to be politically represented. On this subject, a major source of inspiration for American revolutionaries was John Locke, who had established tightened links between voting activities and property in the seventeenth century:

The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property; and the end why they choose and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society: to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making […] For the people having reserved to themselves the choice of their representatives, as the fence to their properties, could do it for no other end, but that they might always be freely chosen, and so chosen, freely act, and advise, as the necessity of the commonwealth, and the public good should, upon examination and mature debate, be judged to require. (Locke 469-70)

8His natural rights theory implies that in the state of nature men are equal and they choose to set up a social contract collectively; in this contract, they accept limitations to their liberties to a certain extent, in exchange of the protection of their property by the government.

9The issue of political representation was thus at the heart of the American War of Independence. In this context, a “citizen,” in the political sense of the term, was a proprietor who had the privilege to vote, in theory regardless of his or her sex. Voting “rights” came later.

10James Otis Jr., a Patriot during the American Revolutionary period, wrote in his pamphlet of 1764 that “taxation without representation is a tyranny.” And, contesting the legality of British economic and political measures, he expanded debates on the principles of the British Constitution. The British authorities had no right to tax colonists, whether men or women, if they had no actual political representation in the House of Commons:

Is not every man born as free by nature as his father? Has he not the same natural right to think and act and contract for himself? Is it possible for a man to have a natural right to make a slave of himself or of his posterity? Can a father supersede the laws of nature? What man is or ever was born free if every man is not? What will there be to distinguish the next generation of men from their forefathers, that they should not have the same right to make original compacts as their ancestors had? If every man has such right, may there not be as many original compacts as there are men and women born or to be born? Are not women born as free as men? Would it not be infamous to assert that the ladies are all slaves by nature? If every man or woman born or to be born has and will have a right to be consulted and must accede to the original compact before they can with any kind of justice be said to be bound by it, will not the compact be ever forming and never finished, ever making but never done? Can it with propriety be called a compact, original or derivative, that is ever in treaty but never concluded? (Otis 420)

11Women’s rights in this extract are not the central preoccupation, but it is worth noting that to mention these rights publicly was significant at that time.

12Women from a privileged background, or entrepreneurial women, expressed their views on issues such as women’s entitlements or political participation. Hannah Lee Corbin, sister of Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, promoted women’s voting rights. Her brother represented the state of Virginia in Congress and, in a letter of March 1778, she asked him to act in favor of single women and widows. She argued that because these women were also taxpayers they also had to be admitted to the suffrage, in coherence with the revolutionary slogan “no taxation without representation”. On this principle, Richard Henry Lee agreed with his sister but he did not try to implement it (Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash 668). Instead he referred to the existence of a delegated representation of women, through their male family members, to resolve the problem. Some other women, like Mary Willing Byrd, encountered similar problems. She paid taxes in the early 1780s, but she had lost her property during the war. But, in her case, and even though she considered that Virginia legislators had to treat propertied men and unmarried women equally, she did not claim voting rights for women (Norton 226). Other women were concerned by this issue in this wartime period context, like Rachel Wells, a widow of New Jersey, and North Carolina Elizabeth Steele. The latter used the phrase “great politician[s]” (Norton 171) to refer to her and to other women’s informal political participation.

The Early Republic

13Some changes occurred during and after the American War of Independence on the subject of voting rights. American states drafted their specific constitution, some expanded voting rights, and others did not. The diversity of American experiences in expanding or restricting voting qualifications concerns women, as well as free African-Americans, Amerindians and foreigners. In 1756 Lydia Chapin Taft cast a ballot in the hall of a Massachusetts town-meeting, in place of her deceased husband. But it was no longer possible to do so later on, because the Massachusetts Constitution of March 2, 1780 did not allow women to vote. In eighteenth-century United States, five states – New York, Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts –, restricted the vote to men exclusively: the terms “males” and “sons” were used in their respective constitution, which was not the case in the Constitution of New Jersey (Garbaye, “Opacity and Transparency”).

14Among the few supporters of propertied women’s voting rights, there were American politicians, like James Otis Jr. (as previously mentioned), who publicly voiced his support, under his own name, and judge George Tucker of Virginia (Kerber, Towards an Intellectual History 37). Others expressed their support through anonymity, like “Essex” [William DeHart] in New Jersey in an article published in the New York Journal of 1776 (Kruman 106; Gerlach 473). Still in this state, legislators passed election laws in the 1790s that granted voting rights to widows and single women. It is worth noting here that the specific rights that could be established in American states could not be implemented in centralized France at the very end of the eighteenth century.

15Among the mainstream American citizens who voiced their ideas in favor of women’s political rights is Priscilla Mason, at her graduation from the Philadelphia Young Ladies Academy in 1793. In her address, this student claimed that women could work in all types of professions: “[…] the Church, the Bar, and the Senate are shut against us […]. Who shut them? Man; despotic man, first made us incapable of the duty, and then forbid us the exercise.” She also suggested the creation of “a senate of women”:

[It] would fire the female breast with the most generous ambition, prompting [it] to illustrious actions. It would furnish the most noble [sic] theatre for the display, the exercise and improvement of every faculty. It would call forth all that is human – all that is divine in the soul of a woman; and having proved them equally capable with the other sex, would lead to their equal participation of honor and office. (Zagarri, “American Women’s Rights” 674)

16Women’s political rights were also dealt with in major writings and in some fictional works. The British writer Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman “I really think that women ought to have representatives instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government” (335). As her book became famous, her ideas fuelled the debates on women’s rights in the United States. In Charles Brockden Brown’s Alcuin: a Dialogue, published in 1798, a central character, Mrs. Carter, denounced the paradox between the ideals of the new American nation, such as freedom, and the exclusion of women from this freedom and from any participation in public political decisions. In the novel, Mrs. Carter says to her companion Alcuin:

I shall ever consider it, as a gross abuse […] that we are hindered from sharing with you in the power of chusing our rulers, and of making those laws to which we equally with yourselves are subject. […] Even the government of our country, which is said to be the freest in the world, passes over women as if they were not [free]. We [women] are excluded from all political rights without least ceremony. Lawmakers thought as little of comprehending us in their code of liberty, as if we were pigs, or sheep. That females are exceptions to their general maxims, perhaps never occurred to them. If it did, the idea was quietly discarded, without leaving behind the slightest consciousness of inconsistency or injustice. […] [This reality] annihilates the political existence of at least one half of the community. This constitution […] is unjust and absurd. (Zagarri, “American Women’s Rights” 675)

17And some women from a privileged background would voice their views on women’s rights as mentioned previously. Abigail Adams was aware of New Jersey women’s voting rights, at a time when the Constitution of Massachusetts did not include voting rights for women (Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash 33).

18The variety of expression in favor of women’s political rights in the eighteenth century indeed ranges from legislators to mainstream American citizens, and to famous writers or wives, sisters and daughters of major politicians. A similar observation can be established on the question of women’s political rights in France. But, as noted below, women’s political demands were not necessarily expressed in France in the same way as in America; French women could benefit from emerging political clubs, for instance, to express their views on their rights.

Women’s Political Rights in France

19As mentioned previously, there are considerable parallels between the revolutionary experiences of France and the United States. In addition to these parallels, I also highlight the considerable specificities that characterize France compared to America. These specificities are linked to the singularities of French history and politics in the late eighteenth century. For example, women’s clubs were numerous and active in France compared to other countries in that period. And in France in the same period, the issue of women’s voting rights was put forward both locally and nationally.

The Ancien Régime

20In addition to the use of the Salic law to exclude women from the throne of France, there were many writings and speeches that underlined the “nature” of women, which was supposed to expose them to physical instabilities, and to prevent them from exerting power. But customs in specific French regions gave liberties, autonomies and acknowledgements to women, in particular to widows.

21In the Ancien Régime, some women ran the Aquitaine, Champagne, Toulouse or the Flanders regions, with respect to feudal custom’s succession rules. From a strict legal point of view, according to royal regulations, Article 20, of January 1789, female proprietors possessing a fiefdom – as well as female members of religious communities – could be represented to the bailiwick assembly, through the delegation of their votes (Godineau 200). When King Louis XVI called for an Estates General meeting in January 1789, the orders’ privileges from the Ancien Régime were maintained, and the French, including women from the Third Estate, wrote down their claims. They denounced their unequal educational opportunities in the Book of Grievances. Their expression was anonymous but they put forward the paradox existing between the French nation acknowledging natural rights and their exclusion because of their sex (Remontrances, plaintes et doléances des Dames françaises, 1789, Guilhaumou & Lapied 140).

22In the last years of the Ancien Régime, politics became more important in the salons, as well as in French public debates (Kale 43). Many liberal constitutionalists and Girondins discussed politics. Freemasonry played an important role as well; in Europe and in America, it advocated ideas of equality, education, solidarity, reason, rationalism, science, and sociability. Originally, women were excluded from Masonic lodges, and this was made clear in James Anderson’s Constitutions of the Free-Masons of 1723. But in some cases, and at certain periods, women could be included among the membership of some lodges. In France, there were female freemasons as early as the 1740s and mixed lodges existed in the 1760s. Among famous female masons were Madame Helvétius and Sophie de Condorcet (Burke & Jacob 515, 519, 533). With the exception of Saint Ann Lodge in Boston at the end of the 1770s, it is only later, in the nineteenth century, that American women were also able to become freemasons (Bullock 154-61).

23During the Ancien Régime, the “citizen” did not exist and some rights that we today consider to be associated with citizenship, such as voting rights, were not necessarily perceived as such then (Godineau 199). With the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, things started to change: Article I of this declaration stipulated that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” In spite of this universal rhetoric, the individuality required of citizens was denied to women (Scott 32). When women participated in the revolutionary events of October 1789, whether in the province or Paris, they denounced the contradiction that existed between their participation and their political exclusion (Requête des dames à l’Assemblée nationale).

The French Revolution and the Republic

  • 2  Collection des lois et décrets, approuvée et encouragée, par le Comité de Salut Public de la Conve (…)

24As mentioned above, whether in the United States or in France, women of the elite and working-class women participated to the revolutionary war effort, in various ways. There were rare instances of individual involvement in the army like the one of Ursule Aby in France. 2 French working-class women were the first to intervene in periods of starvation; they led the way in food riots from 1789 to 1795 (Badinter 12). Women of the elite – for example the members of the Société Fraternelle Des Patriotes Des Deux Sexes, Défenseurs de la Constitution, founded in 1790, insisted more on educational and political rights.

25Women voiced their will to be acknowledged as full participants of the new regime and, in some examples, as full French citizens to the National Assembly members (Adresse des femmes bretonnes, March 29, 1790 and Vues législatives pour les femmes, Guilhaumou & Lapied 143). Additionally, the political pamphlet Les Étrennes Nationales des Dames strongly and vividly denounced women’s subordinate status and the role that men played to maintain this inequality (November 30, 1789, 1). The demands formulated in this publication were radical: Women had to be elected to represent French citizens in government, to be full participants in the assemblies, and to be members of the National Guard (McIlvanney 31).

26As the French constitutional proposition of 1791 contains no word on the political role that women could play in the country, some legislators, close to the Girondins faction, like Condorcet, tried to change this situation. But Jean-Denis Lanjuinais, a Girondin too, voiced his opposition against women’s voting rights. Gilbert Romme, a Mountain legislator, later favored women’s rights in the National Assembly. There was thus no opposition between the Girondins and the Mountain political factions on the question of women’s rights; individuals from the two political sections expressed their views on this subject.

27During the French Revolution, elections or referendums took place within assemblies called primary assemblies. There citizens met, whether in large cities sections, or in towns, or in counties. Women could not participate in these assemblies, in theory. But other types of vote existed in which some women participated (Godineau 200). The Société de Largentière in Ardèche granted voting rights to women but men still monopolized the highest elective positions in the executive board. In Paris, in the Société fraternelle, women possessed a member-ship card, and they could vote and take important initiatives. Both men and women organized a campaign to abolish the French monarchy after the king had attempted to flee the country. At Besançon, the members of the Société des Amies de la Liberté et de l’Egalité of 1792 pushed the municipality to regulate prices, they drafted petitions to the Convention and they asked that voting rights for women be included in the Constitution of 1793 (Guilhaumou & Lapied 147). Many female clubs throughout the country voted in order to show their acceptance of the Constitution; in Damazan, Clermont-Ferrand, Le Mans, Nancy and Beaumont, women sent their respective endorsement to the National Convention during the summer 1793. They wanted to have a more important political role in French society. Women’s clubs in Nancy, Le Mans and Beaumont also denounced the denial of their voting rights and of their capacity to “ratify the act” and wanted the legislators of the Convention to take them into account (Desan 12).

28The writer and legislator Charles De Villette wanted to achieve political equality for women through their vote. For him, any woman or widow of twenty-five years old at least, and who possessed a property, should be enabled to vote in primary assemblies. Under the Constituante Assembly the distinction between “passive” and “active” citizens was still existent (Blanc, “Charles de Villette” 137-38).

29As already indicated, among French legislators and ardent supporters of women’s rights was scientist and philosopher Marquis de Condorcet. He considered that women’s exclusion violated the principle of equality of rights between men and women. His article on women’s rights is very often mentioned in the historiography: “L’admission des femmes au droit de cité,” published on July 3, 1790 in the Journal de la Société of 1789. Condorcet denounced the denial of political inclusion for women as a violation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’s principles. For him, this denial was irrational since women and men belonged to the same humanity and women were endowed with the use of reason too (Guilhaumou & Lapied 105; Sewell 105).

30Deputy Pierre Guyomar’s pamphlet emphasized voting and office-holding rights for women for the 1793 constitutional project, which was debated in April that year. In the document, he put forward Condorcet’s ideas in favor of an equal participation in politics for men and women. For him, a sexual difference could not be translated as an inequality of rights (Badinter 15-17). The legislator called for reason, for right and for justice for all individuals, which led him to think the same way as Condorcet on the question of women’s rights: all or nothing, rights for all individuals of human kind or no rights at all (15-17). Whereas for legislator Jean-Pierre-André Amar it was impossible that women had political rights (Guilhaumou & Lapied 152). But the rare legislators who advocated women’s political rights failed in their attempt to translate revolutionary ideals into political outcomes, and Amar, the spokesperson for the Committees of the Convention, took a repressive stand against women’s rights (Guilhaumou & Lapied 153).

  • 3  As revolutionary events turned more radical later, moderate republicans became less influential. J (…)

31In addition to Condorcet’s writings were those written by play-wright Marie Gouzes, under the pen name Olympe de Gouges. During the constitutional debates of 1791, she published her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen, inspired by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Her seventeen articles asserted that women possessed, by nature, all the rights of individuals, just like men, and in accordance with French major texts on the universal rights of human beings (Scott 20). Additionally, her Les trois urnes, ou le salut de la patrie supported French federalism. This promotion of federalism in France was put forward by the Girondins as well (Scott 51). The Jacobins, on the contrary, supported centralism and insisted that any danger against the integrity of the Republic had to be stopped; they considered De Gouges as a traitor to their ideas. Though she asserted that she did not belong to any political party, she was arrested and, after her trial, was guillotined on November 3, 1793 (Scott 52). This revolutionary period saw increased suspicion of potential enemies in and outside the country. 3 One result of this was to make women’s clubs illegal on October 30, 1793. The official justification given by some deputies of the government was the presence of fights in 1793 between female members of clubs and market women, over the most appropriate revolutionary costume to wear. Thus not only were women unauthorized to bear arms but, in addition, their clubs were forbidden in 1793. On the other hand, they had obtained a civil status in 1791 and 1792 (civil marriage and inheritance and divorce rights), a liberal status that they would lose later, nevertheless, through the adoption of the Code Napoléon in 1804 (Sewell 105).

32In addition to salons and lodges, important places for debates were the political clubs or societies. Among prominent clubs was the Cercle Social, which was founded in November 1790. It was the first political club that officially admitted female members. This club was close to the Girondins political group and it strongly promoted women’s rights in newspapers and pamphlets in the years 1790-1791. Mixed clubs or societies were more likely to be found in France rather than in the United States.

33Etta Palm d’Aelders, a Dutch woman who had settled in Paris and who became famous for her speeches on women’s political rights, founded the Société patriotique et de bienfaisance des Amies de la Vérité on March 23, 1791 (Guilhaumou & Lapied 147). At the beginning of the war in 1792, she was at the head of a group of women at the Legislative Assembly on April 1, 1792, to claim women’s admission in civil and military jobs, an equality of political rights, etc. (Badinter 44). The mixed Société Fraternelle and the Club des Amis de la Loi founded by Théroigne de Méricourt, Gilbert Romme and François Lanthenas, contributed to promote women’s rights too (Badinter 43). Big clubs like the Jacobins and the Cordeliers authorized women to attend their meetings, but they could not participate to the deliberations and they could not vote (Badinter 42). Women participated actively in the revolutionary events from May 31 to June 2, 1793, whether in the streets or in the Conventional Assembly’s galleries. Some of them created a women-only club on May 10, 1793: the Club des Citoyennes Républicaines et Révolutionnaires. It organized its meetings at the Club des Jacobins’ library, it had about 170 members who were from a popular background or from the petty bourgeoisie, and it fought to achieve several goals ranging from food needs to participation in political debates. The Citoyennes wanted to bear arms to defend the Revolution: on May 1 Pauline Léon led a delegation to the Club des Jacobins to ask for arms for women, aged from 18 to 50, and to organize them into regiments capable of fighting against the insurgents from the Vendée. Women of the Club des Citoyennes attended the meetings of popular societies and of clubs, but they did not have the right to register as members (Cerati 53).

34There were collective claims of French women to form a national guard, to bear arms and, in the process, they claimed women’s rights in general. To bear arms was generally understood as being part of the duties of French citizens, and it was included in the 1789 Declaration of Rights and of the Citizen. Due to the events of the late eighteenth century, a French national citizenship emerged, and many questions were raised about the implication and extent of this new citizenship. The abolition of the distinction between “active” and “passive” citizens on August 10, 1792 gave all men voting rights as well as the right to bear arms (Godineau 201). But women remained excluded from this change and they were forced to resort to informal styles of political participation. For instance, Pauline Léon presented a petition before the Legislative Assembly on March 6, 1792, a petition that was signed by 319 female Parisians (Riot-Sarcey 15).

35For Suzanne Desan, the women’s clubs of Jacobin tendency “left a mixed legacy,” in the end, because they enabled the political partici-pation of women, but at the same time, and for various reasons, women could become more quickly excluded than men because their exclusion was understood as necessary for the restoration of social order (11). In the legislation of August 1795, women’s clubs were targeted by the Directory, especially clubs and associations on the right of the political spectrum (Kale 58).

36The implementation of the Year III Constitution, initiated by the Thermidorians, put an end to the natural rights of man and to the principles of citizenship as they had been laid down in 1789, and which had enabled French women to express themselves, as citizens, using the rhetoric of liberty and of natural rights – even though they had still remained excluded from the right to vote legally. In the new Constitution, the Thermidorians suppressed the natural rights of the human being (right to life, to liberty, to citizenship, etc.), and women were relegated to an inferior social and political status. Men became heads of households, they did not have to share power within the family, and women of the popular movement were mostly represented as radical rioters, as yelling furies (Guilhaumou & Lapied 164). During the Revolution, public speech became political speech and enabled women to act in both feminine and mixed spaces of sociability. As already mentioned, the presence of French female organizations whose members could discuss politics publicly was a novelty at the time. It had no equivalent in America at the same period (Hunt 204-06).


37In spite of these political spaces that were opening up to women in France, the Enlightenment philosophers generally supported women’s rights but not women’s political rights. However, with the Revolution, the French were no longer subjects, they became citizens entitled to political rights. In both countries, the issue of women’s political rights was both radical and not considered as a priority. Women’s demands to obtain political rights were highly visible, but they were always unambiguously rejected. Men were generally prejudiced and reluctant to accept potential competition from women. Nevertheless, French clubs, including women’s clubs, were influential and relevant regarding the question of women’s rights, in particular their voting rights, which was debated both locally and nationally.

38As mentioned previously, American and French histories, institutions, systems of government, language and religion differ, but one finds certain parallels. In the two cases, supporters of women’s rights were influenced by many Enlightenment ideas. But the analysis of women’s political rights in both countries highlights considerable differences as well.

39Women’s rights supporters in France went further in their claims than their American counterparts, on questions such as voting rights, the bearing of arms, or their inclusion in the national guard. As for women’s voting rights, the available primary sources show that they tended to be more debated and demanded in France than in America in the last decades of the eighteenth century. One explanation for this seems to be linked to the differences between the modes of expression of issues. One example is the notable phenomenon of women’s clubs in France, compared to the relative marginality of such organizations on the other side of the Atlantic. This resulted in higher levels of participation by French women in public debates, compared to their American counterparts who mainly attended or participated in the debates in smaller private circles.

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Badinter, Elisabeth. Condorcet, Prudhomme, Guyomar… : paroles d’hommes, Paris: P.O.L, 1989.

Blanc, Olivier. Marie-Olympe de Gouges, une humaniste à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, Bélaye: René Viénet, 2003.

Blanc, Olivier. “Charles de Villette, député homosexuel et féministe sous la Révolution.” L’Engagement des hommes pour l’égalité des sexes. Eds. Éliane Viennot & Florence Rochefort. St Etienne: PU St Etienne, 2013. 129-41.

Burke, Janet & Margaret Jacob. “French Freemasonry, Women, and Feminist Scholarship.” The Journal of Modern History 68.3 (1996): 513-49.

Cerati, Marie. Le Club des citoyennes révolutionnaires. Paris: Editions sociales, 1966.

Desan, Susanne. “Constitutional Amazons: Jacobin Women’s Clubs in the French Revolution.” Re-Creating Authority in Revolutionary France. Eds. B.T. Ragan Jr. & E.A. Williams. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1992. 11-35.

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle, the Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1973.

Garbaye, Linda. “Opacity and Transparency in 18th-Century New Jersey Electoral Reforms : The Case of Women’s Voting Rights.” RSEAA XVII-XVIII 69 (2012): 231-46.

Garbaye, Linda. “Women and Politics in North America : The Experience of Abigail Adams.” Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos, posted on April 8, 2014. 30/06/2015.
< >

Gerlach, Larry. Prologue to Independence, New Jersey in the Coming of the American Revolution, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1976.

Godineau, Dominique. “ ‘Privées par notre sexe du droit honorable de donner notre suffrage…’, Le vote des femmes pendant la Révolution française.” La démocratie ‘à la française’ ou les femmes indésirables. Ed. Éliane Viennot. Les Cahiers du Credef 4-5 (1995) : 199-211.

Guilhaumou, Jacques & Martine Lapied. “L’action politique des femmes pendant la Révolution française.” Encyclopédie politique et historique des femmes. Ed. Christine Fauré. 2e éd. Paris: PUF, 1997. 139-68.

Hunt, Lynn. “Male Virtue and Republican Motherhood.” The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture. Ed. Keith Michael Baker. Vol.4. New York: Elsevier, 1994: 195-208.

Kale, Steven. French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2004.

Kerber, Linda. Women of the Republic: Intellect & Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: The U. of North Carolina P., 1980.

Kerber, Linda. Towards an Intellectual History of Women. Essays. Chapel Hill: The U. of North Carolina P., 1997.

Kruman, Marc. Between Authority and Liberty: State Constitution Making in Revolutionary America, Chapel Hill: The U. of North Carolina P., 1997.

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McIlvanney, Siobhan. “Revolutionising Women: Conflicts of Class and Gender in the French Women’s Press during the French Revolution.” French and Francophone Women Facing War / Les femmes face à la guerre. Ed. Alison S. Fell. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009. 27-45.

Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996.

Otis, James Jr. The Rights of British-Americans Asserted and Proved. Boston: 1764. Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750-1776. Ed. Bernard Bailyn. Vol. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1965: 411-20.

Riot-Sarcey, Michèle. Histoire du féminisme, Paris: La Découverte, 2002.

Scott, Joan W. Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1996.

Sewell, William H. Jr. “Le citoyen/la citoyenne: Activity, Passivity, and the Revolutionary Concept of Citizenship.” The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern political culture. Eds. Keith Baker & Colin Lucas. Vol 2. New York: Pergamon, 1988. 105-123.

Skemp, Sheila L. First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania P., 2009.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures and Political and Moral Subjects. 3rd ed. London: 1796.

Wood, Gordon. Empire of Liberty, a History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. New York: Oxford UP, 2009.

Zagarri, Rosemarie. “The Rights of Man and Woman in Post-Revolutionary America.” The William and Mary Quarterly 55.2 (April 1998): 203-30.

Zagarri, Rosemarie. “American Women’s Rights before Seneca Falls.” Women, Gender and Enlightenment. Eds. Sarah Knott & Barbara Taylor. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan. 2005. 667-91.

Zagarri, Rosemarie. Revolutionary Backlash, Women and Politics in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania P., 2007.

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1  In the 1780s public schools were opened to girls in the north, and the majority of white women could read by 1800 (Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash 52). Education was advocated by major educational reformers such as Timothy Dwight (Wood 501-02) and Benjamin Rush, for whom the education of American women could also benefit American society as a whole; in this way, educated women could promote American patriotism more efficiently. As for other types of entitlements, American women had the same rights as men regarding petitions or trials by juries. And, in specific places like Pennsylvania, they were authorized to divorce. But they were excluded from equal political citizenship. Most people who wanted to see an improved status for women essentially stressed educational rights. They did so individually, in their correspondence for instance, or in clubs and in salons. In Europe, the claim for equal educational opportunities was not a new phenomenon in the eighteenth century. In the fourteenth century, Christine de Pisan had advocated the necessity to treat women and men on the same level of equality and, in the seventeenth century, Poulain de la Barre wrote De l’Égalité des Deux Sexes. Regarding inheritance and divorce, both Girondins and Montagnards supported inheritance laws reforms and a liberal divorce – the law on which was passed on September 20, 1792 (Hunt 200).

2  Collection des lois et décrets, approuvée et encouragée, par le Comité de Salut Public de la Convention Nationale, Tome 6, Douai : imprimerie de Lagarde, 1794, 90.

3  As revolutionary events turned more radical later, moderate republicans became less influential. Jacobins considered salons as intermediary bodies where conspirators could meet (Kale 60).

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Linda Garbaye, « Female and Male Activism for Women’s Rights in Eighteenth-Century America and France », XVII-XVIII, 72 | 2015, 213-230.

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Linda Garbaye, « Female and Male Activism for Women’s Rights in Eighteenth-Century America and France », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 72 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2016, consulté le 07 septembre 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/1718.371

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Linda Garbaye

Université Blaise Pascal – Clermont-Ferrand

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ISSN 1749-8155

Womens Work in the Eighteenth Century Printer-friendly version PDF version


The Invisible Woman: Aspects of Womens Work in Eighteenth-Century Britain
edited by: Isabelle Baudino, Jacques Carré, Cécile Révauger
Aldershot, Ashgate, 2005, ISBN: 9780754635727; Price: £48.99


Womens Work and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Brittany
Nancy Locklin
Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007, ISBN: 9780754658191; Price: £55.00


Dr Amy Erickson
Institute of Historical Research


Dr Amy Erickson, review of Womens Work in the Eighteenth Century, (review no. 708a)
Date accessed: 7 September, 2018

Work in the 18th century has long been neglected by historians, who have focused instead on other aspects of economic life: notably consumption, but also on the legal structures of inheritance and marriage which shaped working lives over the life cycle. So we can identify the legal differences and similarities between 18th-century Brittany and Britain. Inheritance was partible in Brittany, in theory equally divided among all children, although the eldest male generally got the dwelling house. Britain employed a mixture of primogeniture for land and partibility for movable goods, although there was always much greater freedom for the testator than in France. From the age of 21 in Britain and 25 in Brittany a woman, like a man, was a free agent for all legal purposes (buying and selling, contracting, suing). But upon marriage the rights of the Breton woman and the British (especially the English or Welsh) woman diverged: in Brittany a married woman retained her dowry and her inheritance from her parents, and all property acquired after marriage (or after one year of marriage, to test its viability) was held in community, administered by her husband; whereas Britain had complete coverture, whereby the husband took absolute possession of all or almost all of his wife’s property, with no grace period. Upon widowhood, the Breton woman enjoyed the community property after her husband’s debts were paid, in addition to the property she had retained throughout marriage, whereas the British woman was not legally entitled to anything (although in practice she usually got most of her husband’s estate). In the event of marital breakdown, separation was possible in Brittany, but extremely difficult in Britain.( 1 )

This brief summary suggests some of the ways in which working lives must have been structured by the law in the different regions. Nancy Locklin cautions (p. 91) that separation cases in Brittany were ‘rare’, pointing to the fact that the region of Tregor in the northwest had only 160 applications in a 25-year period. Compare that with England, where 160 cases in 25 years in a single small agricultural area would have been an inconceivably large number. Nearly 70 percent of the Breton applications were made on the basis of the husband’s brutality, but in England a husband’s brutality was not even a legal ground for separation unless it were accompanied by adultery.

Most people received something by way of inheritance; most people got married and so experienced the law of marital property; a very large minority of people were widowed and experienced a property division at that point; a relative handful of people went through the legal process of marital separation. All of these are economic events over the life-cycle. But it is work that is the most universal economic activity of all, and yet work is the aspect of people’s economic lives about which historians know least. Partly this is a source problem: the laws governing inheritance and marriage are readily available in published texts, and their implementation is fairly readily apparent in wills and inventories and marriage contracts, sources which are generally well-catalogued and clearly written. The evidence on work, on the other hand, must be sought instead in the more sprawling, more complicated sources of court cases and guild records and tax registers.

The type of work which appears in the historical record was overwhelmingly remunerative, whether that was paid labour or entrepreneurial. Unpaid work on behalf of the family is virtually unquantifiable in centuries before the 20th, although it certainly deserves analysis in other ways. But early modern women’s work was not restricted to unpaid domestic work, and the records show substantial numbers both in paid labour and running their own shops and businesses. The Breton married woman had a more clearly defined right to trade than the British woman. Unusually for Europe, she could trade as a merchant without her husband’s authorisation, whereas elsewhere his permission was required. Throughout Europe, these provisions for married women traders which created legal exceptions to the normal marital property laws were related to concernes over debt liability, and not to any conception of the rights or needs of married women. But no one knows what difference it made in practice that the husband’s authorisation was not needed in Brittany, or if it made any difference, because the research has not yet been done outside of Brittany.

Locklin has produced a well-researched, clearly written, thorough analysis of women’s work in Brittany. She grapples with the big questions: the sexual division of labour and its causes; whether women had a work identity; the relationship between levels of pay, occupational status, and work identity; and longstanding historical assumptions that only poor women worked, because they had to, whereas prosperous women merely served as bridges between fathers and sons in family trades. She shows a multitude of women – single, married and widowed – in a range of occupations: bakers, merchants, midwives, but most of all in ‘selling and sewing’ (p. 63). She recognises the significance of her conclusions: ‘it would surprise no one that poorer people had to combine incomes in order to survive … But I find that this marriage pattern exists even among artisans and shopkeepers in Brittany. Among these middling sorts, it was not unusual to find a merchant or tradeswoman, literate and in possession of guild membership, married to a lawyer or craftsman’ (p. 140).

The aim of The Invisible Woman is similar: to show that not only current preconceptions but also the ‘contemporary perception of the range of women’s employments did not correspond to what it really was: far from being employed exclusively in domestic and pseudo-domestic tasks, working women were also found … in supervisory and professional jobs’ (p. 2). The first section, ‘Women in the Domestic Sphere’, focuses on middle and upper-class households, and includes essays on the new profession of housekeeper (Gilly Lehmann), the representation of housework in the press (Marie-Claire Rouyer-Daney), needlework and feminism in literature (Christine Hivet), and governesses to the nobility (Sophie Loussouarn), all of which are interesting and, to the best of my knowledge, the first detailed forays into their subjects.

The second section, ‘Women in Male Strongholds’, opens with an essay on the Scottish Highlands (Marie-Hélène Thévenot-Totems), which is not about work, but about male writers’ perceptions of women’s work, and appears to be completely innocent of either source criticism or any recent research on actual Scottish women. Unfortunately, this is also the only chapter to focus on Scotland in the collection. The section picks up a little with a review of women in the army based on secondary work (Guyonne Leduc), and hospital nurses based on primary research (Jacques Carré). The final two contributions to this section, on women in freemasonry (Cécile Révauger) and in urban communities (Deborah Simonton), are the most comparative in the book, mentioning Scottish (and, in Simonton’s case, Irish), as well as English towns, and looking at the French case. Otherwise, ‘Britain’ is used in the book and the essay titles as a synonym for ‘England’, and even for ‘London’.

The final section, ‘Women and the Cultural Scene’, offers chapters on actresses over the century (Séverine Lancia), the female characters of Elizabeth Inchbald in the 1780s and 1790s (Angela J. Smallwood), professional musicians (Pierre Dubois), the publishing phenomenon of the Lee sisters (Marion Marceau), and images of street-sellers (Baudino). Inexplicably, the only illustrations in the book were given to the article on the Scottish Highlands, rather than to these much more interesting and deserving essays which would have profited by them. The Invisible Woman doesn’t promise anything more than ‘aspects’ of women’s work, and the essays are tasters – interesting glimpses of occupations which may have meant survival or even wealth to their practitioners, but which will never comprise more than tiny fractions of all women engaged in remunerative work.

Locklin’s approach, by contrast, is systematic: she assesses all the women she can find in the various guilds, in different types of tax records (which included many more occupations than the guilds, and many more women than the guild records), and in court rolls. She negotiates the intricacies over time of changing guild regulations (which ones admitted women when, and on what terms) in the Breton cities of Nantes, Rennes, Quimper, and Brest. This exercise usefully illustrates the variability of guild control of trade within a single region, let alone within a single country.

One factor that clearly distinguishes Brittany from other parts of Europe is its high number of female-headed households. It is usually thought that female-headed households were more common in urban areas than in rural ones, due to the greater economic opportunities open to women in cities and towns. Local studies suggest that on average 13-15 percent of rural households were headed by women, and nearly 20 percent of urban households.( 2 ) But Brittany reverses this pattern: the incidence of female headship was higher in rural areas than in urban ones, and in seven of the 11 locations studied more than 20 percent (and up to a third) of households were headed by a woman. There were also high proportions of single women, rather than widows, among the household heads, perhaps reflecting the relatively egalitarian Breton inheritance regime.

In the depth of her documentary investigation and her regional focus, Locklin’s study calls to mind Sheilagh Ogilvie’s A Bitter Living (2003) on Württemberg, and Pamela Sharpe’s Adapting to Capitalism (1996) on Essex. It is odd that neither of these appear in Locklin’s bibliography. Her conclusions are more optimistic than either Ogilvie’s or Sharpe’s. She rightly draws attention to the ‘ingenuity and persistence’ (p. 47) shown by women in the market who had less access to resources and training than their brothers. Most importantly, Locklin’s Brittany confirms the earlier German and English work establishing the ubiquity of women’s remunerative labour in early modern Europe, whether that be paid or entrepreneurial.

In all three areas women were concentrated in the food and textile sectors. In Brittany these sectors accounted for between two thirds and three quarters of all women. The concomitant of that observation might be merely than men were concentrated in the building and transport sectors – and, of course, the educated professional sector. What is interesting is the particular divisions of labour within the sectors, and the differences in those divisions over time and place. In 1749 in Nantes, the largest town in Britanny with perhaps 55,000 people, all of the clockmakers, masons and carpenters were male, while all the lingères ( 3 ), hairdressers and marchandes de mode were female. The only one of these six occupations in mid-18th-century London (with three quarters of a million people) which matched this exclusive gender profile was the masons. Women were clockmakers and carpenters, and men were linen drapers, tailors, sold women’s clothes and dressed hair.( 4 ) Whether these differences were due to the difference in size of city or to cultural differences is as yet unclear.  Thanks to Locklin, we know that in Nantes, one third of the innkeepers and mercers, and half of the whole-cloth merchants and fish vendors, were women. Something like the same may have been true of London and of other cities, but the intensive research required to find out has not yet been undertaken. Two recent theses on the northern Netherlands show similarly high levels of female activity in the commercial world and in the textile industry.( 5 )

Locklin devotes an extended discussion to the intersections of work, sexuality and honour for women, and how accusations of sexual impropriety could be used against a commercial rival for financial advantage (pp. 115-31), the evidence for which is found in court records. Such accusations against single or otherwise independent women occurred in Brittany’s two largest cities, Nantes and Rennes (population c.100,000) on average between two and five times per year. For purposes of comparison, recall the frequency of applications for marital separation, which averaged more than six per year in rural, sparsely populated Tregor region. Not that there is any necessary connection between the two types of case, but if the occurrence of separation is described as rare, then accusations of sexual impropriety, while more frequent than we might wish, must also be pretty unusual in fact. And significantly, the number of convictions in these cases appears to have been much smaller than the number of accusations (p. 121, note 28). Locklin is eminently sensible in her conclusions: ‘Women had to be careful about their social conduct in a way that men did not. But it would be foolish to conclude from this that women could never enjoy social lives outside the home’ (p. 131).

Both books struggle with the apparent contradiction between patriarchal legal and economic structures which attempted to control women’s labour, property, and reputation to a much greater extent than they attempted to control men’s labour, reputation and property, and evidence of women not merely entering the labour market and the public sphere, but not infrequently doing so successfully and on a long-term basis. The editors of The Invisible Woman offer as evidence of the invisibility of the professional woman that women were not represented as writers or painters or actors (p. 5). But the recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, ‘Brilliant Women: 18th-century Bluestockings’, brought together a large number of rarely seen but significant pictures. Portraits of the artists Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffmann, the ‘milkwoman’ poet Ann Yearsley, the scholar Elizabeth Carter, historian Catherine Macaulay, and writers Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft, among others, all represented the tools of their professions. The mythologised but nonetheless real group portrait of the ‘nine living muses’ (painted in 1777, and subsequently etched and engraved for reproduction, so relatively widely seen) also represented these women as the possessors of artistic skills.( 6 ) As Locklin might have pointed out, some women carved out a space to create and were both lauded and attacked for it. These were of course only the most prominent women, and only those in the bluestocking circle. But thousands of women took more mundane public roles. The matron of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, who in 1771 supervised more than 100 sisters, nurses, servants, and porters (Invisible Woman, p. 94), like her predecessors and successors in the job, was seen daily by hundreds of people in her official capacity, albeit she was not (as far as I know) represented for posterity in a portrait.

Dubois’s study of London musicians articulates a recurring problem in the study of women’s work: one ‘comes up against the difficulty of having a clear picture of the concrete reality of this work. One is soon led to tackle the question in terms of representations, as most primary sources tend to obliterate the practical details which might enable one to build up a clearer idea … of the material, practical and technical aspects of the profession, beyond the common stereotypes of the period’ (p. 160). The same applies to many, many trades across Europe, from the humblest (the fripiers, the Nantes junk dealers’ guild, for example), through the hospital matrons, to the most elite (noble governesses, say).

But it is not only female occupations about which historians know so little: not a great deal is known about male occupations either. The qualifications often appended to discussions of women’s work – that it was largely unskilled, insecure, seasonal, and part-time – probably also applied to most men’s work. Both of these books are part of the project leading towards a fully gendered view of the early modern economy and a fully gendered account of work and identity. The essays in The Invisible Woman offer pointers and ideas for future research. Locklin’s study provides impressive evidence of the extent of remunerative work among Breton women at all social levels and also at all stages of their lives. (The female occupational cycle may have been less affected by the familial cycle in the early modern period than it would become in later centuries.) The process of understanding develops through a dual process of highlighting the presence of women in economic activities traditionally thought of as ‘male’, like farming or business, and at the same time restoring traditionally female pursuits like housekeeping and needlework to the status of economic activities.


  1. I have summarized Nancy Locklin’s chapter on the law here for Brittany. For more detailed examination of the legal comparisons between Britain and the continent, see A. L. Erickson, ‘The marital economy in comparative perspective’, in The Marital Economy in Scandinavia and Britain 1400–1900 (Ashgate, 2005), ed. Maria Agren and A. L. Erickson. Back to (1)
  2. The most detailed discussion of female headship is Sheilagh Ogilvie, A Bitter Living: Women, Markets and Social Capital in Early Modern Germany (Oxford, 2003), pp. 219–24. Back to (2)
  3. Lingère is translated by Locklin as linen draper, which does not work for England, where the drapers’ guilds represented large-scale cloth merchants. Since the descriptions of a lingère‘s work appear to have been closer to that of a seamstress, she should perhaps be identified as the equivalent of a tailor. Back to (3)
  4. For further information on women clockmakers, see A. L. Erickson, ‘Married women’s occupations in eighteenth-century London’, Continuity & Change, 23 (2008), 267–307. Back to (4)
  5. Danielle van den Heuvel, Women and Entrepreneurship: Female Traders in the Northern Netherlands, c.1580–1815 (Aksant, 2007) and ‘Partners in marriage and business? Guilds and the family economy in urban food markets in the Dutch Republic’, Continuity & Change, 23 (2008), 217–236, and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, ‘Cooperating couples? Dutch textile workers, family labour and the “industrious revolution”, c. 1600–1800’, Continuity & Change, 23 (2008), 209–216. Back to (5)
  6. See Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Peltz, Brilliant Women (National Portrait Gallery, 2008). Back to (6)
December 2008

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