Women in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century began to utilize the persuasive power of the essay in order to put forward their ideas about what values and rights women should have. Whilst many women were beginning to write and philosophize outside of the domestic sphere, the persuasive writing of women gained an audience when utilizing topics relating to domesticity as a springboard for discussing broader subjects relating to gender and morality. This often means that discourse surrounding the role of women in society was approached as it relates to the notion of the ideal woman. This essay will attempt to analyze “The Milliners” (Jameson, 1843) and “The Girl of the Period” (Linton, 1862) as these essays were written by women of the nineteenth century and allow their authors to advocate for a particular role and ideal woman of their time. To a lesser extent this essay with also examine the impact of a particularly notable excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft’s introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Wollstonecraft, 1792) that also interacts with notions of fashion and what that means for evolving gender roles.
As the perennial face of women’s rights in the eighteenth century, Wollstonecraft advocated for the education and emancipation of women citing their enlightenment as key to their value and progress within society. In her introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she pointedly condemns the female obsession with silliness and fashion, an obsession which leads them to neglect the more noble pursuits that are considered inappropriate for their gender (Wollstonecraft, 18). Wollstonecraft’s disruption of these gender roles that keep women uneducated and subservient comes at the end of the eighteenth century setting a radical precedent for the criticism of the ideal woman that is inextricably linked to the value she places on fashion and the domestic.
Increased literacy amongst both men and women of all classes and the cheap manufacturing of texts during this period (Wilson, 58) meant that the reading audience grew dramatically and diversified. This new diverse audience left room for more diverse writing perspectives, leaving the door open to female authors particularly in the publication of periodicals (Wilson, 59). This new space for female authorship gave those who had limited scope for the proliferation of ideas a platform by which to advocate for their viewpoint in essay form. A common preoccupation of the persuasive essay as written by a woman of the 1800s is the criticism of the impact of progress on women and the role of the woman within society. Linton and Jameson both address perceived crises facing young women and girls of their time but in vastly different ways. Whilst Jameson addresses the plight of exploited factory girls, Linton bemoans the loss of the domesticated, homebound, British girl. Both texts also condemn the contemporary obsession with fashionable excess and what the female preoccupation with fashion means for the morality of society as a whole.
Jameson’s essay, “The Milliners”, paints a picture of the modern working-class girl being all but drowned by the wave of progress as her youth, gender and lower social standing leave her vulnerable to exploitation in the manufacturing of luxury garments and fashionable accessories. Jameson compares the experience of the fashionable society ladies who wear the garments and the malnourished, exhausted and sickly girls who produce them, pointing out that they are “fantastically and horribly coupled” (Jameson, 1). This clear condemnation of excess at the cost of another is not only condemning the society that lets these factory girls be treated so poorly, but it is also calling upon society women to forgo some of their excesses in order to advocate for better working conditions. Jameson also posits an alternative to the oppressive millinery workhouses, highlighting more ethical conduct of a particular manufacturer. The female manager, in this case, has shown not only a capacity for creative and competitive business strategy but morality to treat her workers with a degree of respect not afforded to girls in other factories. Jameson is putting forward the ideal of rights for female workers as well as more socially conscious women of means. In doing this she is carving out a role for women in society as both a valued worker and a socially responsible critical thinker. In this way, some of Jameson’s discourse in her essay is a slightly altered echo of Wollstonecraft in the way that she views fashion as being an obstacle to women achieving freedom, knowledge or morality.
Linton, in sharp contrast to Wollstonecraft in particular, refers to fashion as being, not the obstacle to enlightenment and emancipation, but a symptom of greed and selfishness that draws women away from the traditional domestic sphere. Linton is very clear about her expectations of gender roles, looking to the normative family dynamics of the past in which the wife is subservient and only exists to nurture both her husband and children (Linton, 3-4). She insists that a fashionable or independent woman lacks maternal instinct only offering her children a “stepmother’s coldness” (Linton, 3). The essay argues that the modern is woman useless in the domestic sphere meaning that she is not fulfilling her gender role within society to the detriment of both men and women. The fear of the woman in her role as an empowered individual rather than as a demure and subservient homebody drives much of both the criticism of fashion and the cultural isolationist viewpoint in “The Girl of The Period”. The condemnation of fashionable dress and less conventionally privileged British modes of dress (Linton, 3) provides an opening to heated and impassioned discourse regarding the decaying morality of “the girl of the period” (Linton, 1).
Whilst Linton’s arguments for the regression of women’s role within nineteenth century to a state of domestication and servitude are anti-feminist and actively condemn the emancipation of her gender (Fix Anderson, 134) she employs similar condemnation of the frivolous excesses of the fashion of the time as Jameson’s uses in her opening and closing arguments. Jameson is chiefly concerned with ending the terrible conditions of working-class women, however, Linton’s concerns borne of preserving traditional gender roles that are gradually becoming obsolete as women move gradually outside the domestic sphere. In this way, the luxurious indulgences of privileged women are highlighted by both writers as socially irresponsible and contrary to the best interests of their gender and its role in an increasingly industrialized and modern society.
Many movements that sought to redefine the role of women in a world that was changing rapidly due to the explosion of industry were intrinsically tied to an ideal form of dress. As Linton calls for more conservative dress and Jameson calls for more socially responsible, less excessive means of dressing, so too did other female writers of the time push forward their agenda by using the fashion and dress of women. Elizabeth Smith Miller, a proponent of the dress reform movement pushed forth the idea that more practical dress was a means of empowering women and allowing them to abandon the restrictive clothing, such as corsets and long sweeping gowns that caused extensive health problems and limited the activity of the women wearing them (Kesselman, 495). As a means of opening a dialogue about the role of women in society the critique of women’s fashion not only opens the door to discourse regarding the moral values exhibited by the chosen dress of women but also serves as a means to advocate for the rights of women and a changing role for women in a progressive society. Linton, Wollstonecraft and Jameson use the form of the persuasive essay to push forth their reasons for less ornate and fashion dependent modes of dress, but their criticism of this style of dress is used as a vehicle to push back against the role that a changing society has pushed women into.
In the face of the changing social and industrial landscape of the eighteenth and nineteenth century were being called upon to fill traditional domestic roles whilst the practicalities of their modern lives require a flexibility of gender roles. Women’s role as subservient and homebound is being questioned by many writers, whilst others push back against the new freedoms being afforded the modern woman. Despite the differing agendas of the female writers examined (Wollstonecraft, Jameson and Linton) they all utilize, to varying degrees, a critique of what is proclaimed to be the female obsession with appearance and attire. As an aspect of women’s essay writing in the eighteenth and nineteenth century the preoccupation with fashion and its implications for the rights and morality of women should not be underestimated as it is often a powerful mode of discourse employed by a diverse range of prominent writers, to great persuasive effect.
• Anderson, Nancy Fix. “Eliza Lynn Linton, Dickens, and the Woman Question.” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 22, no. 4, 1989, pp. 134–141. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20082411.
• Jameson, Anna. “The Milliners” The Athenauem (1843) in Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: Victorian Writing by Women on Women. Ed. Susan Hamilton. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2004. Print.
• Kesselman, Amy. “The ‘Freedom Suit’: Feminism and Dress Reform in the United States, 1848-1875.” Gender and Society, vol. 5, no. 4, 1991, pp. 495–510. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/190097.
• Linton, Eliza Lynn. “The Girl of the Period.” Saturday Review 14 March 1868. Rpt. in Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: Victorian Writing by Women on Women. Ed. Susan Hamilton. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2004. Print.
• Wilson, Cheryl A. “Placing the Margins: Literary Reviews, Pedagogical Practices, and the Canon of Victorian Women’s Writing.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 28, no. 1, 2009, pp. 57–74. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40783474.
• Wollstonecraft, Mary. Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman. [Auckland, N.Z.]: Floating Press, 2010. Print.