An Evolution of the Eighteenth-Century Conduct Book: Expanding the Domestic Woman's Presence in the Public Sphere

Sunday, January 5, 2020
3rd Floor West Promenade (New York Hilton)
Kristin Morrison, Loyola University Chicago
Conduct books regulated behaviors throughout the private and public realms to create appealing young women fit for a marriage to men of good social standing. They reinforced ideals of an obedient, domestic woman under the patriarchal, economic man fit to inhabit separate spheres. Conforming women to an idealized behavior and marital status damaged their social mobility before taking into account their class, race, or other marginalized identities. Maintaining standards of an appropriate wife and mother, women received little of the freedom wielded by men to become who they wanted to be. However, as argued by scholar Nancy Armstrong, the ideal woman was supposed to develop the basic qualities of human morality and identity. As conduct books sparked further distribution and social discussion throughout the public realm, exemplary women’s influence indirectly ventured into the public realm with the books. As the dialogue surrounding women began to evolve, the cultural changes provided prerequisites for a long-term institutional change. This project focuses on conduct books published in eighteenth-century London. Throughout a chronological analysis of four conduct books in a visual timeline, this project explores the evolution of female influence in the private and public spheres with the interpretations of two schools of thought evolving from the early eighteenth century versus the late eighteenth century. Although viewed as inherently oppressive toward a woman’s freedom of expression, conduct books alternatively began a period of new power and influence of women by encouraging curiosity and an acknowledgment of the female presence in public spaces.
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