Women in the 18th Century

By Tim Lambert

Education for Girls in the 18th Century

In the 1700s girls from well-off families went to boarding schools. Poor girls sometimes went to dame schools where they were taught to read and write. Also, in some towns, there were charity schools called blue coat schools because of the colour of the uniforms. In Britain, women were not allowed to attend university and the professions were closed to them.

Laura Bassi (1716-1774) was a famous women physicist in Italy. There were many other famous women in the 18th century. Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was a famous astronomer. Maria Kirch (1670-1720) was also a famous astronomer. Emilie du Chatelet (1706-1749) was a woman physicist and mathematician. Maria Agnesi (1718-1799) was also a famous mathematician. Catharine Macaulay (1731-1791) was a famous historian. Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) was a playwright.

In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Hannah Glasse (1708-1770) was famous for her cookery books. Anne Seymour Damer (1749-1828) was a famous woman sculptor.

Meanwhile, Queen Anne was the queen of Britain in the years 1702-1714. Catherine the Great was the Empress of Russia in the era of 1762-1796. In 1777 during the American War of Independence, Sybil Ludington made a heroic ride.

Women’s Jobs in the 18th Century

Some women played a prominent part in religion in the 18th century. Anne Dutton (1692-1765) was a Baptist theologian. Sarah Crosby (1729-1804), Sarah Ryan (1724-1768), and Selina Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791) were all prominent in the Methodist movement.

In the 18th century, most jobs required a great deal of physical strength so men usually did them. Also, housework was very time-consuming. There were no convenience foods in the 18th century and no labor-saving devices. Most married women did not work outside the home because they did not have time. Even middle-class women were kept busy organizing the servants. However, life could be hard for spinsters. Single women worked as spinners, tailoresses, milliners, and washerwomen. Many women were domestic servants. Others were midwives and milkmaids.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, a married woman could not own property. However, when a woman was about to marry her family could put some property in trust for her. It was called a separate estate. For instance, land could be held in trust for her and she was entitled to keep any income from it. Her husband had no right to it. Widows who were planning to marry a second time could also create a separate estate. Some people left some property in their wills to female relatives to be held in trust for them, as a separate estate. A husband also had a legal duty to support his wife. The husband was also responsible for his wife’s debts.

In the 18th century, pregnancy could be hazardous. There were no anesthetics and women sometimes in childbirth. Infant mortality was high. About one child in four died before their fifth birthday. Most married women had several children but not all would survive.

Women’s Clothes in the 18th Century

Women wore stays (a bodice with strips of whalebone) and hooped petticoats under their dresses. Women in the 18th century did not wear knickers. Fashionable women carried folding fans. Fashion was very important for the rich in the 18th century but poor people’s clothes hardly changed at all.

In the 18th century, pale skin was fashionable. So were dark eyebrows. Women also used rouge abundantly. Perfume was also common. In the early 18th century a new scent was made in Cologne. Later in the century it became known as Eau de Cologne. In the 18th century, some women wore false eyebrows made of mouse fur. They were glued to the face.

Well-off women enjoyed reading and playing musical instruments. They also went dancing and to the theater. Puppet shows like Punch and Judy also drew the crowds. Furthermore, in the late 18th century the circus became a popular form of entertainment. Girls played with wooden or rag dolls.

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