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Women of Quality

Women of Quality: Accepting and Contesting Ideals of Femininity in England, 1690-1760

Ingrid H. Tague
Volume: 1
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Women of Quality
    Book Description:

    Focusing on the complex relationship between discourse and experience, Women of Quality examines the role of gender in aristocratic women's daily lives during a period of significant cultural change. In the years following the Glorious Revolution, didactic writers and other social critics responded to a perceived crisis of gender relations by creating a new discourse of 'natural' feminine behavior in opposition to the luxury and decadence of fashionable women. Modern scholars have often portrayed this agenda as representing the rise of a middle-class ideology, but Ingrid Tague argues that the new rhetoric held enormous appeal for those women who would appear to be its greatest targets: wealthy, fashionable 'women of quality'. Using the correspondence and diaries of these women, Tague traces the ways in which they adopted, adapted, and exploited ideals of femininity. In their hands, feminine values could become powerful tools that enabled them to compete for status and reputation. Ironically, by identifying femininity with private, trivial concerns, these ideals created unique opportunities for elite women. Female participation in informal social and political activities placed women at the heart of aristocratic power in the early eighteenth century, even as they employed the language of wifely subordination and domesticity. Ingrid Tague is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Denver.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-178-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. Note on the text
    (pp. ix-x)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-17)

    With this verbal portrait of “Fulvia,” first published in March 1711, Joseph Addison described the woman that didactic authors of the early eighteenth century most hated and feared: the woman of fashion. In his scathing portrayal, Fulvia overturns all the rules that were supposed to govern women’s lives. Rather than obeying her husband, she treats him as her servant. Rather than caring for her family, she is bored at home and has so little feeling for her children that their death would cause her less grief than missing opening night at the opera. She ignores her domestic responsibilities on the...

  7. 1 Ideals of Femininity
    (pp. 18-48)

    How did early eighteenth-century women know how to behave? What were the standards against which their actions were measured? As they always had, they learned from their parents, and from observing others at home, on visits, and in public. They listened, as they had for centuries, to sermons providing information both general and specific about virtuous life. And, more and more, they were exposed to feminine norms through print. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw a tremendous boom in the publication and sales of all forms of printed material, of which women were important consumers.¹ This trend in...

  8. 2 The Attack on Fashionable Society
    (pp. 49-71)

    In return for accepting a life of domestic bliss in a sentimental marriage, women were promised the pleasures of love, education, and household power. At the same time, they were constantly reminded that modern, fashionable society was undermining those values, destroying loving families by encouraging mercenary matches where the only consideration was money. According to many writers, however, such marriages represented only one aspect of the myriad dangers posed by modern life. The strong connection drawn between feminine modesty and chastity meant that a wide range of activities could be presented as violating this natural modesty and thus associated with...

  9. 3 Marriage
    (pp. 72-96)

    In this letter to her sister, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu expresses what was, in the early eighteenth century, a commonplace view of wedlock. Marriage, she writes, is such an object of mockery that even women have lost interest in it, and married women like herself must “excuse” themselves for their unfashionable behavior. Obviously, Lady Mary’s tone is light, but, as we saw in Chapter 1, she expresses ideas that were being argued quite seriously in a variety of circles. Many of her contemporaries agreed that marriage was becoming an object of mockery, used only as a cynical means of increasing...

  10. 4 Household Management
    (pp. 97-132)

    When Lady Cassandra Willoughby’s brother invited her in 1687 to live with him and oversee his household, she was happy to accept. “This proposal I was much delighted with,” she recalled three decades later, “thinking it would be no small pleasure for me to be M[ist]r[es]s of Wollaton, and to doe whatever I had a mind to, believing that such a government must make me perfectly happy.”¹ Her comment that she looked forward to the “government” of Wollaton Hall, with its connotations of power, draws attention to the special place that household management held in the lives of many women....

  11. 5 Consumption and Fashion
    (pp. 133-161)

    Consumption, like household management, was considered quintessentially feminine not only by moralizing authors but by women themselves. Yet it presented even greater potential problems for women of quality. If the moralists were primarily concerned with the supposedly pernicious effects of such behavior, it offered more complex issues for aristocratic women. In the elite world of competitive display, women’s visibility in public through participation in fashionable activities, wearing costly clothes and jewelry, and circulating gifts was crucial in demonstrating their membership in the Quality. At the same time, however, the pervasive view that such behavior posed a moral threat, coupled with...

  12. 6 Politeness and Sociability
    (pp. 162-193)

    Just as consumption and fashion were seen as areas of particular feminine concern and expertise, so were the rituals of politeness and sociability that dominated much of elite life. Like fashion, sociability was both trivialized and seen as morally suspect. Didactic writers fretted over the wasted time supposedly represented by fashionable women’s constant round of visiting, dining, and conversation. For them, female participation in such activities and the supposed uselessness of this behavior were mutually defining and reinforcing. The behavior was trivial and idle because it was feminine; it was feminine because it was trivial and idle. Yet many women...

  13. 7 Public Life, Influence, and Politics
    (pp. 194-217)

    In a 1712 letter, Anne Pye asked for help in getting her brother-in-law a job in the Lynn or Yarmouth customs house. “I dont question but you have your share of trouble frequently of this nature,” Anne apologized, “the inconveniance that attends great men, impossible to sattisfie all.”¹ But the “great man” in this case, Lord Treasurer Oxford, was not the recipient of the letter. Instead, Anne was writing to her cousin and friend Abigail Harley, Oxford’s sister. Her comment, moreover, revealed her assumption that Abigail must often receive such requests. Her letter was indeed just one of many such...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 218-223)

    Conduct writers and other early eighteenth-century social critics looked around them and were horrified by what they saw. Their society was collapsing under the weight of decadence and luxurious display, marriage and family were no longer respected, money instead of virtue dominated their contemporaries’ lives. And at the heart of all these problems were women, who suddenly seemed to be leaving their houses in droves to enjoy themselves in the fashionable diversions that catered to them. Those who stayed at home were perhaps even worse, lost in the false worlds of lascivious novels written expressly for women’s entertainment. In response,...

  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 224-245)
  16. Index
    (pp. 246-254)