Women's Roles in Eighteenth-Century Europe

Women's Roles in Eighteenth-Century Europe

Women's Roles in Eighteenth-Century Europe

Women's Roles in Eighteenth-Century Europe


This concise historical overview of the existing historiography of women from across eighteenth-century Europe covers women of all ages, married and single, rich and poor.

• Illustrations

• A selected bibliography

• Chronology


A woman’s experience in eighteenth-century Europe might have differed little from that of her counterparts in the previous or following century in the most basic sense. She was still subordinate to her husband and parents, still subject to the same agonies of childbirth, and burdened by the same domestic concerns that plagued her forbears. A woman who found herself among the exceptional few occupying a masculine role—as a writer or political leader, for example—continued to walk a very difficult tightrope and make the same apologies for her femininity made by her predecessors.

In other ways, however, subtle changes had occurred. Her work in the fields would now be more often interspersed with some sort of craftwork, such as straw hat-making or wool spinning, or she might even have left the fields entirely for work in the textile industry (see Chapter 2). Her urban counterparts who had previously worked as domestic servants or in artisan workshops continued to do so, only now their work was often more menial and less likely to involve as many male co-workers. If she were fortunate enough to have been born into a middling family, she now distinguished herself from those above and beneath her by her industry, piety, and chastity and enjoyed a wealth of consumer goods that had been unavailable to her seventeenth-century counterparts.

By mid-century, many European women noticed—or were themselves part of—a growing undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the social order. Demonstrations and riots erupted as people protested high grain prices or the abuse of feudal privileges. These protests often sought to reestablish the old paternal duties of the social hierarchy, rather than eradicate it altogether. The women directly involved or on the sidelines experienced a . . .

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