18thc Women, Education & Earning a Living

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Brief background to Radcliffe’s concerns:

In the UK today career opportunities are theoretically open to anyone with the right education and / or skills. In the 18thc career opportunities were complicated by gender (women effectively had no career oppportunities) and social hierarchy (younger sons from well off families could find themselves having to go into the church or the army ie ‘respectable’ professions whether or not they had skill or interest in them). For those who were fortunate enough to have an education and to be able to earn a living, it was a question of finding an acceptable occupation. The idea of a gentlewoman earning a living was generally regarded as unacceptable because she was effectively selling her skills, therefore herself. Occupations such as governess and companion were aceptable but often led to difficult and unhappy living circumstances to those who had no option but to take such posts.

Education was limited according to gender and of course had to be paid for, although churches started free Sunday schools to teach people to read so that they could read the Bible for themselves; the skills they learned could then be applied to the workplace if such opportunities arose. Women’s education tended at best to be designed to make them good domestic managers and companions to their spouses, at worst simply to be decorative. There were impressive exceptions such as Mary Astell but no career opportunities for them to use their intellectual skills so if they had independent financial means they could write, work for social change in terms of education, fighting poverty etc, if they didn’t have financial support, they had to marry or live with family members for as long as they were tolerated.

NB this is Mary Ann Radcliffe, not Ann Radcliffe who wrote The Italian, The Mysteries of Udolpho etc.

‘What statute is there, which grants that men alone shall live, and women scarcely exist?'(p.434).

‘where do we see the father or mother of a family, with an independent fortune, be it ever so small, who would not be shocked at the bare idea of placing their daughter in the world in such situations as would enable them to rise through their own industry and merit, or fit them for becoming wives to some honest and  / industrious tradesman? No: that would be a degradation that must not take place. It is the etiquette of the times for the daughters to be bred fine ladies, although it be without a fortune, either dependent or independent, to support it. As for trade, that is out of the question. The sons, indeed, are differently provided: the eldest, in course, inherits the paternal estate, and the younger ones are placed in the church, the army, the navy, or at the bar [law, not tavern!]'(pp.446-7).

‘But for the female part of the family, what appears in their favour? what prospects have they in life? – The parents die, and leave them without a provision, a burden on their connections; which forms the first step to deprive them of friends as well as subsistence.'(p.447).

Mary Ann Radcliffe, The Female Advocate Or, An Attempt to Recover the Rights of Women from Male Usurpation (1799), London: Garland, 1974.

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