The Status of Women in 18th Century English Society



If women don't want to be men, what do they want?

(Grand, 1894, p. 270)


The 18th century is a significant period for analyzing how women were ill-treated by the male-dominated society. It is an age defined by gender inequality and discrimination. The idea of the superiority of men and their ownership of women made women oppressed victims of the patriarchal society. Receiving little respect, surrounded by an ill-conditioned society, women were the suffering sex relying on the mercy of men. As child-bearers and homemakers, women spent their lives as 'dependents'. The home was the woman's sphere. Female education was limited to practical training for their domestic roles such as home management, laundry, cookery or piano classes, and needlework. These customs and beliefs of society, reflected in the English language and also in many works of literature, defined 'the woman' as the second sex; however, women began to defend their rights towards the end of the century.


Kauffmann, a woman painter from the 18th century defies the patriarchal conventions; the fifth model steps behind the male artist, takes his brush, and starts painting.

The only identity a woman could have in the 18th century was being a wife of a prosperous man. The sole purpose of a woman's life was to find a husband, serve them flawlessly, and reproduce. That way, she was able to have a respectable and fulfilling life with economic security. However, the life of a married woman did not necessarily include 'freedom.' Women were unable to even leave the house without their husbands' consent. Even though unmarried women were able to own properties or make contracts, their rights were severely limited. Therefore, single, married, or widowed women were imprisoned without having any unique identity or entity.


According to English common law at the time, women had very little economic freedom. All properties that women possessed before marriage automatically became their husbands' after the union. For that reason, women coming from wealthy families were regarded as "preys." A married woman basically had no legal identity before common law.


A 19th-century edition of Dr. Johnson's dictionary.

It can be argued that literature is a reflection of a society's customs and beliefs. In 1755, A Dictionary of the English Language was created by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). He was a prominent English critic, lexicographer, biographer, essayist, and poet of that time. When the research scholar, Hazarika, used the dictionary to analyze how women were represented through definitions relating to women at the time, the study found that the dictionary contained sexist definitions which pictured the status of women in 18th-century English society. Some examples in Dr. Johnson's dictionary include:


Critik-(n)- A man skilled in the art of judging the literature; a man able to distinguish the faults and beauties of writing.
Emascula`tion-(adj)- Womanish qualities; unmanly softness.
Vira`go-(n)- A female warrior; a woman with the qualities of a man; It is commonly used in detestation for an impudent woman.
Inhe`ritress-(n)- A woman that inherits.

(Johnson, 1755, online dictionary).


The study concluded that the definitions clarified "how women were placed or treated in 18th century English language as well as in society... It is found that even in dictionaries time women have been projected as inferior, servile, self-sacrificing and as essentially instruments of sexual gratification" (Hazarika, 2012, p. 354).


The Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie.

Mary Wollstonecraft, born in 1759, was regarded as one of the prominent feminist philosophers. She was an English writer who devoted her life to women's rights. She was the daughter of a farmer and received a poor education. While working as a governess, she published Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) in which she shared the experiences that inspired her views. After she started working as a translator, she published several more of her works. However, the peak of her career as a female English writer was when she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In her book, Wollstonecraft clarified that both men and women, without any discrimination, were granted inalienable rights to life, liberty, work, education, and the pursuit of happiness. She argued that the educational system of that time aimed to train women to be incapable, putting forward the idea that women must have the same advantages as men since women were just as capable workers in many professions.


She was the only woman philosopher pursuing a career as a writer without a sponsor. Her works were translated into French and German, and in that way, she crossed English channels. She established the roots of equal rights, proved how a woman can succeed by educating herself, and influenced many women to think about equality. The publication of the book provoked considerable controversy but failed to achieve any immediate reforms. After the 1840s though, her book’s principles influenced women’s rights pioneers.


Consequently, the 18th century was oppressive for women in a male-dominated English society. The purpose of life for a woman was designated by men; to be educated in home management skills such as cookery, laundry, and needlework in order to be an efficient and subservient wife without possessing equal rights. These restrictions and perspectives on women can even be seen in the famous dictionary of the period, A Dictionary of the English Language created by Dr. Johnson in 1755. However, women like Mary Wollstonecraft began to speak out publicly for women's rights towards the end of the century. In that sense, the 18th century became a stepping stone for the following era in terms of equality in rights, society, employment, relationships, and so on.



Bibliographical References

Barker-Benfield, G. J. (1992). The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-century Britain. University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.hu/books?hl=en&lr=&id=BouI7s6uMzwC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=women%27s+status+in+18th+century+britain&ots=YPT_2lFt67&sig=vWlVtvrAV4rA_8CSM03p_MfGf2s&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=women's%20status%20in%2018th%20century%20britain&f=false


Bellhouse, M. L. (1991). Visual Myths of Female Identity in Eighteenth-Century France. International Political Science Review / Revue Internationale de Science Politique, 12(2), 117–135. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1601392


Ferguson, S. (1999). The Radical Ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft. Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue Canadienne de Science Politique, 32(3), 427–450. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3232731


Grand, S. (1894). The New Aspect of the Woman Question. The North American Review, 158(448), 270–276. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25103291


Hazarika, K. (2012). Social Status of Women in 18th Century English Society As Reflected In a Dictionary of the English Language of Dr. Johnson. International Journal of Chemical and Environmental Sciences, Basic, Applied & Social Sciences, Volume II. Retrieved from https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.303.1903&rep=rep1&type=pdf


Johnson, S. (1755). A Dictionary of the English Language. Accessed 2022/05/27. Retrieved from https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/


LeGates, M. (1976). The Cult of Womanhood in Eighteenth-Century Thought. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 10(1), 21–39. https://doi.org/10.2307/2737815


Todd, J. (2014). Mary Wollstonecraft: A revolutionary life. Bloomsbury Publishing. E-Book. Retrieved from https://books.google.hu/books?hl=en&lr=&id=08HGAwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT5&dq=Mary+Wollstonecraft&ots=vRuJ86uuWx&sig=igwopb9pKOCCH6uMOjGw1JoVSAE&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Mary%20Wollstonecraft&f=false


Wollstonecraft, M. (1792). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Retrieved from https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/wollstonecraft1792.pdf



Visual Sources

Kauffmann, A. (1778). Zeuxis Selecting Models for His Painting of Helen of Troy [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Angelica_Kauffman_-_Zeuxis_Selecting_Models_for_His_Painting_of_Helen_of_Troy.jpg


Odt.co. (2018). A 19th-century edition of Dr. Johnson's dictionary [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.odt.co.nz/lifestyle/summer-times/heroic-synthesis


Opie, J. (1791). Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_Wollstonecraft_Tate_portrait.jpg


Author Photo

Melis Güven

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