Tuesday 8 December 2015

Opportunities vs. Oppression: A Feminist Man’s Opinion of the 18th Century

It's my pleasure to welcome DD Wynn to the site with a fascinating look at the women on the 18th century...


Opportunities vs. Oppression
A Feminist Man’s Opinion Of The 18th Century

“It was a time when women were so repressed!”
“They lived in a man’s world!”
“There was nothing for women back then!”

These kind of statements drive me mad. I don’t know about other history lovers out there, but it gets on my nerves, intolerably. The 18th Century was such a changing, moving and evolving period that gave opportunities for not just men, but for women alike. I would like to say it is all relative to their class or financial situation, in which yes that is a great part of it. But it was not always the case as I will point out throughout this blog.

But a woman of sure common sense and basic level of intelligence would be surely capable of doing well for herself, no matter what her background was. Like today, things never change, where some of the most accomplished and richest people in the world are women. Yes there was awful sexist attitudes towards the fairer sex from men in this period, but that kind of ignorant thinking hasn’t changed either today. In my opinion, it is futile and intolerant for men to think of themselves superior, when most women have many more attributes that deserve accomplishment than most men of the world.

The 18th Century, of which mainly I speak about in England, was a fantastic era for evolution. The evolution of people’s thinking, ways of making money and basic sense of comfortable living was something that changed so radically. It is a topic not many people know of, which rather annoys me when people say ‘there was nothing for us women out there’. People nowadays like to talk about people who suffer, gritty upbringings and tragedy. But it is from this horror that women mainly could rise in the 1700’s to become so much more. This undoubtable need to have some level of intelligent capability, gave rise to strong and independent women who became icons. 

Ladies wearing the a la mode of French fashion, circa 1750’s. This is the usual fleeting image people think of when they are reminded of 18th Century women.
Ladies wearing the a la mode of French fashion, circa 1750’s.
This is the usual fleeting image people think of when they are reminded of 18th Century women.
Firstly, most ladies of good standing and middle class upwards had one easy way of making themselves much more than just “a woman”. Fashion. Clothes were their best way of expressing themselves and the 1700’s was a time of constant and ever changing way of women upgrading their looks. France led the way with trends and the beau monde of England were sure to become influenced by it. 

But by the end of the period it was infamous ladies like Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, who would become pioneering leaders of style. Painters like Gainsborough promoted the youthful look of neoclassical fashion of which was the natural vogue of the late 1700’s and some of the questionable icons from across the pond like Queen Marie Antoinette invented images which we still associate today. Something like a simple wig design has prevailed into the year 2015 as one of the stern symbols of 18th Century fashion and these were coined by ladies, sometimes designed by men but became classic for being on top of a woman’s head.

It was a time where fashion changed and became rather couture like, almost like pieces of wearable art. Any lady would feel proud wearing a gorgeous mantua gown with silk, jewellery, high wigs, feathers and light ruffles. I mean who wouldn’t? I know I would! But this was superficial in terms of accomplishments of the brain. But it still granted them one quick way of finding a stage either for their voice or beauty. It granted women from the day they were born, one sure and unhindered way of expression, almost like today. Except without the invention of Twitter and Facebook to make a mockery of them, the poor ladies of the 1700’s had newspaper and pamphlets to do that.

Duchess of Devonshire and her sister at the gaming table, Devonshire house, 1791.
Duchess of Devonshire and her sister at the gaming table, Devonshire house, 1791.
Georgiana Cavendish, as I mentioned was an icon. An icon of style, attitude and classed too many as the “first celebrity”. The first non-royal celebrity, whom some of you may not know but she is related to our poor Diana, Princess of Wales, many centuries obviously between one another. Georgiana also, which is strange enough to hear now of a lady with such fortune and aristocratic manners, but she was well known for liking science and politics. She collected rock and mineral samples and travelled Europe with her passion for fashion, science and connections with royalty and politics. I mean for a woman who was married to the richest man in all of England (after the king) this was unheard of. Having almost every action and little thing that she did in daily life, became the headline news of all newspapers and magazines. She was the pitiful but yet beautiful first celebrity of the modern world.

But politics was one of the sure parts of her downfall, as well as her gambling, which was the big scandal of her period of life. Politics was something that was so targeted and really only allowed for men to speak of, be involved with and to even work as part of. But the Duchess was a prominent voter of the early women’s suffrage, trying to get women more freedom when it came to such viewpoints of politics and social life.  She was also a Foxite, a supporter of secretary of state, Charles James Fox and regularly went to protests and held rallies for his elections. Mostly on behalf of the Earl Grey, of whom she had a secret affair with. If you have seen the film with Kiera Knightley in, you will understand what I’m speaking of. He is whom the famous tea is named afterwards, by the way.

You may think she was only able to travel, become fashionable, involved with politics and gamble a lot of wealth because of her standing in society and the fact she was married to a Duke. But it isn’t. She was able to do it through passion and her unwavering length of astute sense of mind that made her do these things and take interests in such “manly” hobbies. She had passion that any lady of the period could have had and used it to her best.

Apart from her and other really high aristocratic ladies, there was many women not fortunate to reach those wealthy highs. People like Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley – author of Frankenstein) who for the time was one of a kind, a marvel, an innovator of women’s liberties and rights. She even wrote a very famous but obviously controversial book called ‘The Vindication of Women’s Rights’. Before the women’s suffrage, the vote, women doing men’s jobs in the War and even before old Germaine Greer, there was Mary
“Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.”
“Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.”

Yes it was a time when issues such as work, politics and rights were not as female friendly as they are now, but it was still a time when there were women who were paving the way for their sex in massive strides. What Mary did was not violently portray her gender as the pivotal goddess they should be, but she argued that women were only inferior because most were not as educated like men. Yes, the 18th Century was not as open as it was a 100 years on for education of the opposite sex; you would be surprised of how many accomplished and very smart ladies were induced into high education, higher than most nowadays. 

What Mary did was try to point out that everyone should be treated as rational beings, almost like biblical scripture. She was a woman though, who some of you may look at her and think “Oh look at her, who does she think she is” but she had just as many problems, even worse, than we do today. She tried to kill herself several times, she was married to an anarchist philosopher and led a very controversial and unorthodox lifestyle. But this does not take away the fact she was one of the first feminists who stood up for her sex and told the rest of the world what she though ought to be right. Thus just short of over 100 years later, the women got what they deserved.

The 18th Century was not just a period of women designed dresses that shocked the world or ladies exhuming their beliefs on others, it was an age of sure invention of science and power. One woman, I came across whilst researching for this blog, to me is the epitome of the accomplished lady of an era of oppression. Yes the days held a light at the end of the tunnel for some women, but it was an age of oppressed views and men could destroy a woman with just a few simple words. But one woman, a comet searching and scientific endearing woman paved the way for more women wanting a life of astronomical pursuits. 
William Herschel
Caroline Herschel
Now here was a woman who, not knowing she even existed up to a few weeks ago, was blown away with what she achieved. She was the sister of the infamous William Herschel who discovered our planet Uranus. She also made significant contributions to the world of astronomy by using a large telescope that her brother so kindly designed for her. The discovery of comets was her main goal and she found quite a few floating around up the there, but the fact of what she discovered and catalogued is by the by for me. I was rather surprised but glad that she was the first woman in history to be paid for her services to science. I mean for a woman 300 years ago that is almost un-heard of. It was hard enough for women like Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth to earn money for their novels, let alone getting them published and receiving what they sought too.

Caroline along with Mary Somerville were the first two women to be inducted in the Royal Astronomical Society, something of rather a grand prize, due to it being rather a strict and man only society. But also she went onto live to the prime age of 97. I mean 97! Most men did not get to that age, so that was a feat in itself. She was a woman who did not let the fact she was born to an almost impoverished band stand leader and she was adamantly taught how to sew and learn millinery, let her slow her down. As soon as her brother William left Hanover in Germany for England, she followed to help him run his household and then soon became interested in his life of mapping the stars.

I mean for me, someone like this is so inspirational to women, that most ladies today probably don’t have a clue who she is or what she did. But the fact she was so regarded she was awarded medal after medal for her contributions to the world of science; which was so repressed in its views of women, is outstanding to me. She did not let the fact so many did not agree with her, stop her from achieving everything she wanted. 

If this is not an opportunity to view unguided oppression with such an investigavite eye, then I do not know what it is.

D.D. Wynn

About the Author

D.D. Wynn is my pen-name in dedication to my grandparents, who influenced me to write with their never ending avail of support. My debut novel 'The Choice of Duty' is dedicated to them. It is a book set in the 18th Century, if time travel was real then I would give anything to go back there and re-live it. Most of my novels I plan to write after my debut is soon to be published, will be set in the period, for I am endlessly enchanted with it's music, people, literature, fashion, politics, everything! 

My website features the reasoning behind my novel and a little synopsis of what it entails. It is simply a tale of a family that go through hell and high water for their daughters, who try their hardest to find love, honest true love in a world that is as deceitful and difficult to traverse as ours is today.
For more information here is my website - www.ddwynn.com

Written content of this post copyright © DD Wynn, 2015.


Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more! A great Period for enterprising women. I'm researching Eleanor Coude. What a business woman she was!

Catherine Curzon said...

I do wish you would be tempted to a guest blog, sir!

Sarah said...

Mary Wollstonecraft was a great woman who unfortunately shot herself and her cause in the foot with her scandalous private life, ensuring that many people would not take her writings seriously or would associate empowered women with immorality. Such a shame! As for poor Georgiana, all her fashion sense did not stop her husband threatening to keep her from ever seeing her children again. It was a time of change, when questions were being asked about the equal ability for women, but men were clinging to their supposed superiority which led to a harsher backlash if any independent woman stepped enough out of line to be censured. Caroline Herschel is perhaps one of the few who asserted her independence without any censure, like Eleanor Coade, who was a very enterprising lady indeed.
I don't say Mary and Georgie were wrong to try to grasp at love, but perhaps it was not the right time... but they both made such a mess of their lives that their knowledge and achievements were, as always happens with scandal, subliminated to the prurient maunderings about their lifestyles.

Demetrius said...

Georgiana was not just interested in the flummery. She supported Dr. Thomas Beddoes, 1760 to 1808 in his scientific work at Hotwells by Bristol, see Wikpedia etc.

Julia Ergane said...

Of course, a bit later in the chronology is the story of Ada Lovelace, the brilliant mathematician who was the daughter of Lord Byron. She was "in at the beginning" of computerization. The tragedy was that she died very young.

D.D said...

Yes another lady I know of who is just as inspirational. There was so many, not just from england but America & Europe who achieved a life in a mans world. Something most people are ignorant today of

Jenny Woolf said...

I have a book written in the early 18th century on the state of England which praises the laws in relation to women, which are almost as favourable as if the women had helped to make them, themselves!

D.D said...

Yes, I mean I think, from what I have read and seen on documentaries, that women helped shape this country. They were the backbone and support these "high up" men had. An estate of a stately home, the palace in London, the little kitchen at home or the fish market, none of these could be fulfilled properly without women. To me, as a man, it is fascinating. Yes, strictly speaking (when it came to the laws as such, and sexist opinion of most traditional men) most women were treated as second class citizens. But there were so many that were so above that, and they showed it. They proved that opportunity could arise from an era of decadance, pitiful degradation and fiery oppression. The whole era, and even before it, was so paradoxical. On the one hand women could achieve things for themselves, express themselves so beautifully, but then on the other hand they were looked down by most successful men as just "a wife - there ot breed children". It is so endlessly fascinating to me. I love it.

D.D Wynn

Sarah said...

It's also an age in which successful men were spurred on by their ambitious wives, who took vicarious satisfaction in seeing their husbands succeed especially in politics. Business wives probably had an actual hand in the success of their husbands if they grew a business from scratch!
By the way, don't forget Sally Jersey who successfully ran Child's Bank as well as being a social leader and arbiter of manners at the notorious Almack's, where the patronesses got to say who was in and who was out. [a lot of the memes about Almack's are no more than that, memes, but that the patronesses wielded social power is undeniable. Georgiana of Devonshire was a Patroness for a while]. I often think of the Patronesses being higher class versions of the Tricoteuses, a bunch of harpies leading pubic opinion.

D.D said...

Hello Sarah. Yes Sally Jersey appears in some of Georgette Heyer's novel!! Yes I mean I know she was a noblewoman and most people would think, god she had loads of money so she was alright. But to think she had an interest let alone have some accumin about her is marvelous really. Yes even hostesses and patronesses of successful assembly ball rooms like the infamous one in Bath, they were women who had a sort of power, socially. Even something as trivial as being the head and voice of the party, is something that is unique for an era in which men had the final say and took advantage in every way possible.