Women of the Upper Class

When most people think of the upper class, they usually think of money. Belonging to the upper class, however, does not only refer to income. Admittedly, occupation and education do have a significance but ownership of wealth, exercise of power and membership of an exclusive social network are also key factors. In most cases, belonging to the upper class is a birth right and it is rarely achieved through personal efforts and success. Women have traditionally been associated with this class in relation to their families, notably as the daughter or the wife of an upper class gentleman. Upper-class women rarely worked, although there are examples of women who contributed to the family wealth by writing novels, poetry and articles for a living. In the vast majority of cases, women were mostly engaged in social, cultural and charity organizations.

A good example occurred in the 19th century, when upper class women were influential in Paris. Upper class society was also called the nobility, the aristocracy or the new wealthy elite. Such women attended concerts and operas and were known for their love of fashion and expensive jewellery. Portraits of upper class women can be found in the work of French impressionist artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917) including Portrait of the Bellilli Family (painted between 1858 and 1860), a painting of the artist's family and Carriage at the Races (1869). The work of American artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) includes The Loge (1880) and Le Figaro (1878), which are paintings portraying upper class women.

The first major study in the United States of the upper class was the 1967 bestseller Who Rules America? This book was written by psychologist and sociologist G. William Domhoff (b.1936), who set a list of three criteria relating to the upper class. These included social register, club and school. Domhoff claimed that meeting any of the criteria was sufficient to be an upper class member. In 1984, the first survey on women of the upper class was published by Temple University, Philadelphia. Its author, Susan A. Ostrander, a Professor of Sociology specializing in issues of class, gender and race, interviewed 36 upper-class women on matters concerning their everyday life as wives, mothers, club members and community volunteers. All of them met at least one of Domhoff's criteria and 22 met at least two. Ostrander's research shows that even though there are occasionally newcomers in upper class circles, they are always viewed as outsiders. It turns out that contrary to popular beliefs, upper class women do not spend their days shopping for clothes and going to parties but are in fact active and busy members of society with plenty of voluntary and social duties to attend to.

These women admitted that being upper class members provided them with endless opportunities. The most commonly cited advantage of their status was the availability of material goods and the fact that they had never experienced shortage or lack of anything. Thus, they felt it was their moral duty to contribute to the community in order to justify their class privileges. This was also perceived as a way of continuing the deed of their ancestors who in their turn contributed to society in various ways. On the other hand, they felt overprotected with little chance to prove themselves. Moreover, some of the women claimed that they were bored by the need for constant material satisfaction. Another drawback that many women highlighted was the fact that they had to remain emotionally reserved and to behave "properly" in all kinds of situations. Even if they faced problems in their relationships, they were expected to keep these feelings private in order to preserve the reputations of their husbands.

Society has extremely high expectations of upper class women. They are expected to be exemplary wives and mothers, well groomed, caring and entertaining hosts and sensitive and loving companions. Making their husbands proud of them is among their central responsibilities as upper class women regularly accompany their husbands to social events. The upper class woman's role as a mother is also demanding as they are responsible for the upbringing and teaching of their children on issues such as how to behave in public. According to an article entitled Women's Experience and Gender Roles by Drew VandeCreek, many upper class women read widely, enjoying books and magazines including Godey's Lady's Book and Harper's Weekly.

Women of the Upper Class: Selected full-text books and articles

Women of the Upper Class By Susan A. Ostrander Temple University Press, 1984
Patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Fifteenth-Century England By Joel T. Rosenthal University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991
Librarian's tip: Part III "Widows"
Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England By Joan Perkin Routledge, 1989
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "One Law for the Rich"
Aristocratic Women in Medieval France By Theodore Evergates University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999
Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium By Judith Herrin Princeton University Press, 2012
The White Man's Ladies By Fernandez, Miguel History Today, Vol. 48, No. 10, October 1998
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