Women's Lives in Eighteenth Century England

In 1651, Robert Burton said that England was, "a Paradise for women and hell for horses (Jarret, 134 )." Paradise seems like a great place to live, until you look at the saying more closely and realize that women and horses are both living out their days in the style provided them by men, their masters.

Englishmen were proud of their reputation for treating their womenfolk with 'lenity and indulgence', but they were even more proud of their determination to exclude them from all authority, domestic and otherwise (Brewer, 462). Women were usually not included in men's discussions, which were held over port after the ladies had retired. It was part of the "paradise" created for women to live in that they should be ignorant of politics and such important worldly matters. John Shebbeare's judgement of 1758 remained true. "Woman," he said, "Was the companion in the hours of reason and conversation" in France, but in England she was only the "momentary toy of passion (118)". The idea of the superiority of men and their ownership of women is eloquently and terribly supported by a glance at English laws involving women. In 1782, Judge Buller declared that it was "perfectly legal for a man to beat his wife, as long as he used a stick no thicker than his thumb (Jarret, 125)."

In the introduction to her book of poetry entitled, Epistles on Women, Lucy Aikin wrote a frightening statement about the role of women:

Let me in the first place disclaim entirely the absurd idea that the two sexes ever can be, or ever ought to be, placed in all respects on a footing of equality. Man when he abuses his power may justly be considered as a tyrant; but his power itself is no tyranny, being founded not on usurpation, but on certain unalterable necessities;....sanctioned, not by prescription alone, but by the fundamental laws of human nature. As long as the bodily constitution of the species shall remain the same, man must in general assume those public and active offices of life which confer authority, whilst to woman will usually be allotted such domestic and private ones as imply a certain degree of subordination (http://www.lib.ucdavis.edu/English/BWRP/Works/AikiLEpist.htm., V).

This statement appears to modern readers as a sickeningly submissive attitude, but Ms. Aikin may have had good reason to fear censure for her ambition in writing. Reviewers of poetry were often condescending or openly hostile to women poets. In 1774, the writers for the Monthly Review reviewed Mary Scott's Female Advocate, saying, "It is dreadful for a man of real knowledge to encounter one of these literary vixens...The effects of real knowledge are gentleness and modesty, particularly in a sex where any thing approaching to assurance is intolerable (Brewer, 608)."

In spite of public censure and harsh critics, some women did speak out about the problems facing "the weaker sex." Mary Wollestonecraft, in her Vindication of the Rights of Women, discussed the "innocent state" in which women resided in bitter terms.

And will moralists pretend to assert that this is the condition in which one-half of the human race should be encouraged to remain with listless inactivity and stupid acquiescence? Kind instructors! what were we created for? To remain, it may be said, innocent; they mean in a state of childhood We might as well never have been born, unless it were necessary that we should be created to enable man to acquire the noble privilege of reason, the power of discerning good from evil, whilst we lie down in the dust from whence we were taken, never to rise again. (ch 4).

Evidently, some women did not find England such a paradise as men like Burton believed.

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