Historical Feminism

A review of the new Gainsborough show described the great artist as “an 18th-century feminist dad”, a term I am really not happy with, though it may be a catchy headline. By viewing the past through modern terminology, we risk losing sight of the many differences between our two worlds, in this case the relationships between men and women, both within families and the wider society.

Thomas Gainsborough was a prolific and talented portrait painter though he claimed his true passion was for landscapes. As a child he often bunked off school to paint the countryside round his home in Suffolk, so was one of the many young prodigies of the period.

The review claimed Thomas presented his daughters as ‘Romantic rebels’ in an age when marriage was the only outlet for women, but this was not the case. Most English families were too poor to provide daughters with dowries, so they had to earn their own, hence the age of marriage for them was about 26 with their partners averaging 28. Thus most girls had some form of employment, often as agricultural servants, working in the dairy or kitchens of large farm houses; until farming was mechanised in the early 19th century, many earned as much as the men. They were often hired at fairs, so they knew their value and did not expect an easy ride in life.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough were taught art by their father, which was the basis for the claim he was a feminist, but many people encouraged young women to be educated and to learn useful skills so they could contribute to a family’s economy. Spinning was so strongly associated with single women it named them as spinsters. William Cobbett recommended they plait straw to make summer hats.  This was not feminism, but common sense; whether those skills made them more eligible on the marriage market or helped with the family economy, it became common at the time.

Britain’s many wars in the 18th century meant that, in addition to the many men lost at sea, many more were killed in the many wars fought with Europeans – especially the French and Spanish, over the American colonies. This explains why so many women in Austen’s novels were desperate for husbands; estimates suggest for ever 2 men there were 3 women, so large numbers knew they would never marry so middling sorts became governesses or businesswomen, and many were involved in good causes such as the promotion of education and the abolition of the slave trade. Many wills can be found that leave more money and legacies to women than to male heirs, a reflection of the limits on women to support themselves. In Bath, a third of the Blue Plaques celebrating famous residents were women, including novelist Fanny Burney, actress Mrs Siddons, artist Angelika Kaufman,.

Caroline Herschel has traditionally been presented as the helper of her famous astronomer brother William, but she is now emerging from his shadow. They grew up in what is now Germany where her small pox scarred face led her father to tell her she was too ugly and too poor to marry, showing the shortage of men was found in Europe. Like many women, she was urged to be productive, sitting still to knit and sew; these skills later became invaluable to her when she became an astronomer in her own right, sitting patiently gazing at the heavens, and she made more discoveries than did William.

Elizabeth Linley was part of the famous musical family in Bath, and was a popular soprano until forced to abandon her career when she married the politician/playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. But there is growing evidence that she helped with his career and even that he claimed credit for some of her work, so again, this was not modern feminism, but a woman contributing to the family economy.

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