The representation of women in early 18th century England

Term Paper, 2006

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3



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.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


The representation of women in early 18th century England
University of Erfurt  (Philosophische Fakultät)
The Rise of English Journalism in the Early 18th Century
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
424 KB
England, Rise, English, Journalism, Early, Century
Quote paper
Claudia Wipprecht (Author), 2006, The representation of women in early 18th century England, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The representation of women in early 18th century England

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free