Social Realities for 18th Century Girls
Having examined eighteenth century childhood generally on the Defining 18th Century Childhood page, this page zooms in to explore different social areas specific to growing up as a girl. Be warned: what follows provides a bleak perspective. But I should also mention that exceptions to the general rules certainly existed; they are just unfortunately outside the scope of this particular project.
Click on a part of the graphic below to jump to that section of the page. When done, head to the literary analysis pages to see how all this plays out in eighteenth century literature, beginning with Moll Flanders.
Public schooling as we know it today would not develop until the nineteenth century. But before then, upper-middle class boys could be sent to grammar schools and on to college. Girls’ education was much more limited.
The education of a middle or upper class girl generally ended by age twelve (Glaser 192). Poor girls also had opportunities for basic education in the forms of “charity schools, free schools, dame schools, spinning schools and Sunday schools” (Glaser 192). Higher end girls’ schools existed in the eighteenth century, but their curriculum was not designed to provide a liberal education. Instead, girls’ schools served specific populations for specific purposes.
Brigitte Glaser identifies four reasons for educating a girl in the eighteenth century. Girls’ education should:
ensure girls remained satisfied with their subordinate station in life (subordinate in both their social class and their gender),
allow girls to advance socially through marriage (especially if they were from an upwardly mobile family),
provide just enough skill and knowledge for girls to manage a household and educate their own children in the future, and
develop “ornamental accomplishments,” such as painting, dancing, or music; to “produce pleasure in the beholder” (Glaser 192).
This narrow yet contradictory view of girls’ education depended on the view that too much knowledge in a girl (i.e. a future woman) was undesirable and masculine (Glaser 193-4). The focus was on preparing girls for how they would eventually be called to serve others as well as training their moral compasses so they could protect their virtue and not be led astray. To this latter purpose, in yet another contradiction, girls were encouraged to read a variety of moral texts–i.e. not novels! (Glaser 191)
The nuclear family, not the extended family, was the main unit in the eighteenth century (Giovanopoulos 45). And in such a family, obedience and obligation defined a girl’s experience.
Girls grew up as daughters helping their mothers in the household before transitioning to become wives/mothers raising their own children. A young woman’s husband “assumed a quasiparental role” so that a girl’s obedience merely transferred from her parents to her spouse (Brophy 42).
Should a girl by some misfortune not marry, she remained at home with her parents (Brophy 42). No alternative prospect of independence materialized for her. Whether spinster or not, though, the task of caring for elderly parents fell on daughters (Brophy 42).
The work of a middle or upper class girl was to find a husband (see below). Lower-middle class and poor children, on the other hand, both boys and girls, could be set up as apprentices.
Apprenticeships generally began between the ages of ten and twelve, and an apprentice was essentially a glorified servant to her/his master, under whose roof and (often harsh) rule an apprentice lived (Giovanopoulos 49). Girls could remain apprentices until age twenty or until marriage, whichever came first (Fielding 53). Pauper apprenticeships were arranged by the parish as a form of poor relief, but even slightly wealthier families desired apprenticeships for their children to support the family and prevent dreaded idleness (Giovanopoulos 49).
Boys may have expected to learn some trade as an apprentice, but since girls would not go into trade themselves, their work experience began and ended with service. However, it was not unheard of for girls to be apprenticed to midwives, a trade in which they may hypothetically gain some meaningful work experience (Giovanopoulos 51).
The poorest of the poor entered the workhouse, or what might be called the eighteenth century’s version of a homeless shelter. Workhouse conditions grew notoriously deplorable through the nineteenth century, but they had good intentions. While also a correction facility for vagrants, workhouses provided housing, care, and some education to beggars, orphans, and the elderly. They also provided simple work to promote industriousness and prevent idleness, like working flax or spinning wool. Workhouses did not deliver on their good intentions,
“for whatever these Houses were designed to be, or whatever they at first were, the Fact is, that they are at present in general, no other than Schools of Vice, Seminaries of Idleness, and Common-shores of Nastiness and Disease” (Fielding 96).
Marriage in the eighteenth century was of the utmost importance. Unable to support herself independently, without any training or education in useful skills, a good marriage was a girl’s one and only way of survival, particularly if her family was unable to support her as a spinster. Records show most girls married in their late teens or early twenties (Giovanopoulos 47).
Here is a timeline of other important ages in a girls’ path towards marriage (Giovanopoulos 47):
7 Years Old: a girl can be engaged or married, but a marriage may not be consummated
9 Years Old: a married girl is entitled to a dower should she be widowed
12 Years Old: a girl may consent or disagree to a marriage
14 Years Old: a boy comes of legal age and may choose heirs… there is no legal equivalent for girls, as no age resulted in a girl acquiring or dispensing any property
To expand upon the last point, law prevented a child from an unwed mother holding property, so a bastard born was a bastard for life (Giovanopoulos 46). Ensuring a girl would have a child within a marriage became paramount. In an ironic twist then, elopement proved “virtually the only self-assertive or rebellious action that was likely to succeed for a young woman” (Brophy 67). Yet an elopement only highlighted the problems of the eighteenth century marriage system: a girl who eloped “by definition had masculine aid and protection” and “her parents were forced to accept a fait accompli, because even if the legality of the marriage could be challenged their daughter was presumably no longer chaste and therefore ruined” (Brophy 67).
Nicole DeGuzman ~ 5/6/15