Women and Gender in 18th-Century Russia

By Young, Nicole L. | Canadian Slavonic Papers, March-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Women and Gender in 18th-Century Russia


Young, Nicole L., Canadian Slavonic Papers


Wendy Rosslyn, ed. Women and Gender in 18th-Century Russia. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003. x, 283 pp. Illustrations. Index. $79.95, cloth.

As the editor correctly notes, the history of eighteenth-century women has been neglected in comparison to those of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, despite the fact that the "long" eighteenth century (1700-1825) provided the groundwork for eventual female emancipation. One difficulty faced by historians of this period, unfortunately, is the dearth of source materials, particularly those revealing the lives of women of the lower estates. Given the relatively greater literacy of upper class women, as well as the manuscripts they produced, female rulers, aristocratic and noble women are more visible than merchants' wives, peasants and urban women. Fortunately, the authors of the present volume successfully address this issue, using available sources in new and creative ways, thus expanding our knowledge of eighteenth-century Russian women's lives considerably.

The focus of this collection is women's social and literary history. Most of the authors do follow the sources and focus on upper class women, though also included are much needed descriptions of ordinary working women. In her introduction editor Wendy Rosslyn has produced an excellent and comprehensive bibliographic survey, systematically examining most published sources available to scholars, as well as bibliographic guides. This will be of particular use to both students and those unfamiliar with the field. Another useful feature is that the volume has been organized thematically. It begins with a discussion of the changes taking place with respect to the definitions of femininity in the period, followed by an exploration of the social lives and culture of upper class women, women and the law, and finally, women outside the nobility.

The first two chapters tackle the fascinating question of perceptions of femininity. First, Lindsay Hughes looks at the early eighteenth century, pointing out that in his attempts to introduce a new universal ideal of femininity and womanhood, Peter I was hindered by authorities unclear about just what type of "new women" fit this definition. Using the first etiquette manual to be published in Russia, The Honourable Mirror, as her guide, Hughes demonstrates that rather than reinforcing the ideal of the reformed woman of Peter's court, the guide focuses on the traditional ideals of womanhood as expressed in the Domostroi. While it is impossible to determine how closely the manual was followed by contemporaries, what is clear is that women were torn between older traditions and the emerging modern. Those outside the court, including Moscow women and those in the countryside, were also much slower to pick up the new trends. In the long run, Peter's position did win out over the traditional Orthodox ideal, but not without a fight. Authors Carolin Heyder and Arja Rosenholm also examine the question of gender and femininity, making the case that male sentimentalist authors marginalized the feminine, presenting instead a model of ideal womanhood: "Symbolic femininity becomes the means and the object of the moral quest in male self-reflection" (p. 55). In both instances, it is male authors who are defining the ideal woman. It wil 1 be up to the women themselves to live up to these changing ideals.

The next two contributors, Helena Goscilo and Semeon Ekshtut, present the lighter side of women's history. Goscilo looks at cosmetics and artifice in all their eighteenthcentury gruesome detail. In an age where appearance was everything, men and women alike went to extremes to achieve their ideal of superficial perfection, suffering head lice, ill health, and a loss of mobility as a result. Ironically, women of the lower classes were forced to use cheaper, yet safer methods for their toilette, and were healthier for it. The short but fun contribution by Ekshtut that follows illuminates the heretofore neglected importance of the history of lap-dogs in Russia, at least as it relates to the sexual lives of the nobility. …

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