Europe, and more specifically the United Kingdom, is the cradle of modern vegetarianism. Before being called “vegetarianism”, the practice of abstaining from the consumption of meat and the flesh of other slaughtered animals was called the “Pythagorean diet”, in the name of the famous Greek mathematician and philosopher who lived from about 570 to about 495 BC. The earliest practices of vegetarianism as a concept concerning an eloquent number of people can be found in ancient India : the vegetarian diet was strongly linked to the idea of benevolence, the respect for life and the avoidance of violence toward animals (called ahimsa in India) and it was spread by religious groups and philosophers. Vegetarianism then reemerged in Europe during the Renaissance, evolved in the 17th century and continued to be spread in the 18th century. In Great Britain, a lot of food such as meat, fruits and vegetables, tea etc. were reserved to the upper class only : poorer people could not access those expensive commodities. Therefore, the new interest of British people for vegetarianism was not necessarily linked to the protection of animals yet but to the fact that the great majority of people did not have enough money to get copious meals. But for several other people, vegetarianism was linked to ethical and moral ideas; or to health and medical reasons. 


• Vegetarianism and romanticism

Vegetarianism was rising during the 18th century thanks to the Romanticism movement in western Europe and particularly in Great Britain. The meatless diet was really widespread at the age of Enlightenment when society was changing and new humanist ideas began to develop. Several romantic writers promoted vegetarianism because of their compassion and their deep relationship to Nature : they denounced the consumption of meat as a inhumane and monstrous thing. They had negative ideas about the industrialisation and consumerism that regulated the economy. Therefore, the rising costs of the meat, the agricultural changes and the emerging humanist values encouraged more and more people as well as romantic writers to follow a vegetarian diet. Among the romantics, Thomas Tryon, Alexander Pope, Joseph Ritson and Percy B. Shelley were the most emblematic vegetarians. Thomas Tryon was an English merchant who early advocated vegetarianism after having heard an inner voice that he called the “Voice of Wisdom” in 1657. He inspired Benjamin Franklin to adopt the same lifestyle. Tryon strongly opposed violence against animals so his vegetarianism was linked to his belief in spiritual progress (he was influenced by Pythagoras and his religious views). He first adopted that diet at the age of 23, saying that he only drank water and ate bread, some vegetables, butter and cheese. In his autobiography Some Memoirs of the Life of Mr. Thomas Tryon, late of London, Merchant. Written by himself published posthumously in London in 1705, he argued : 

“It is a grand mistake of people in this age to say or suppose: That Flesh affords not only a stronger nourishment, but also more and better than Herbs, Grains, &c.; for the truth is, it does yield more stimulation, but not of so firm a substance, nor so good as that which proceeds from the other food; for flesh has more matter for corruption, and nothing so soon turns to putrefaction. Now, ’tis certain, such sorts of food as are subject to putrify before they are eaten, are also liable to the same afterwards. Besides, Flesh is of soft, moist, gross, phlegmy quality, and generates a nourishment of a like nature; thirdly, Flesh heats the body, and causeth a drought; fourthly, Flesh does breed a great store of noxious humours; fifthly, it must be considered that ‘beasts’ and other living creatures are subject to diseases and many other inconveniences, and uncleanness, surfeits, over-driving, abuses of cruel butchers, &c., which renders their flesh still more unwholesome. But on the contrary, all sorts of dry foods, as Bread, Cheese, Herbs, and many preparations of Milk, Pulses, Grains, and Fruits; as their original is more clean, so, being of a sound firm nature, they afford a more excellent nourishment, and more easy of concoction; so that if a man should exceed in quantity, the Health will not, thereby, be brought into such danger as by the superfluous eating of flesh.”  


Thomas Tryon died in 1703. He was, hence, one of the precursors to advocate vegetarianism in the early 18th century. 

Like Tryon, Alexander Pope thought that meat consumption was linked to man’s desire for superiority. He was an English poet, very famous for his translation of Homer and poems such as “An Essay on Criticism” and “The Rape of the Lock”. He was a fervent defender of vegetarianism as he considered the slaughter of animals as a “tyranny” so the vegetarian diet was a way to rebel against the Enlightenment modern ideas. Moreover, he came from a Catholic family so he was affected by the anti-catholic measures of the time and the Test Acts which was aimed at maintaining the established Church of England and banned the Catholics from teaching, studying, voting, etc. He published an essay entitled “Against Barbarity to Animals” in The Gardian in 1713, in which he declared : 

“Nothing can be more shocking and horrid than one of our kitchens sprinkled with blood, and abounding with the cries of expiring victims, or with the limbs of dead animals scattered or hung up here and there. It gives one the image of a giant’s den in a romance, bestrewed with scattered heads and mangled limbs.”

For Joseph Ritson, besides Tryon and Pope’s reasons, vegetarianism was also seen as means to avoid health problems. He was an English antiquary and one of the most radical vegetarian. He wrote an essay entitled An essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty published in 1802, in which he asserted that vegetarianism would cure any human disease or medical illness. He became vegetarian at the age of nineteen after reading Mandeville’s Fable. He strongly criticized the cruelty of killing animals and the effects that it produced on humans. In his essay, Ritson argued that “the use of animal food disposes man to cruel and ferocious actions.” Moreover, he was anticlerical so he was against religion and most particularly against Christianity. He often linked the fact of eating animals’ meat to cannibalism : eating human flesh was an inevitable consequence of eating animal flesh.


The engraving is a caricature of Joseph Ritson made by James Sayers in 1803. On the top shelf, next to the cat, we can see a copy of Ritson’s Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food 

Percy B. Shelley was another major English Romantic poet who shared most of his ideas on vegetarianism with those of Ritson. He wrote several essays on the subject of vegetarianism, the most famous ones being “A Vindication of Natural Diet” (1813) and “On the Vegetable System of Diet”. Even in his famous poem of 1813 entitled Queen Mab, Shelley wrote about the change to a vegetarian diet: “And man … no longer now/ He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,/ And horribly devours his mangled flesh.” His vegetarianism can be explained by the fact that he struggled for the rights of animals after witnessing varied mistreatments towards animals and many slaughters. He agreed with Joseph Ritson on many points and he used his book to defend his integrity and vegetarianism. Shelley wanted his children to follow a vegetarian diet too, but it caused him several problems with judges after his wife committed suicide. He considered the vegetarian diet man’s natural diet which would preserve health and prevent from diseases. For him, following a vegetarian diet would lead to the end of social injustices such as poverty, crime, aggression, capitalism and war. In “A Vindication of Natural Diet”, Shelly made an allegory between vegetarianism and the Creation myth, saying “The allegory of Adam and Eve eating of the tree of evil, and entailing upon their posterity the wrath of God, and the loss of everlasting life, admits of no other explanation, than the disease and crime that have flowed from unnatural diet.”


Through the emblematic vegetarian figures of Tryon, Pope, Ritson and Shelley, we can link Vegetarianism with Romanticism from the 18th century to the 19th century, influenced by humanist views and the age of Enlightenment (with the realisation that animals too could communicate, feel pain, and even feel emotion). These writers found the consumption of the animal flesh unnatural and barbaric. It was also a way to rebel against the consumerist market that evolved in the 18th century. Indeed, more varieties of vegetables became available so practicing a meatless diet became much easier. In Joseph Ritson, Percy Shelley and the Making of Romantic Vegetarianism, an essay published in 2006, Timothy Morton asserts : 

“The end of A Vindication alludes to Ritson on Pythagoras: ‘never take anything into the stomach that once had life’. Ritson’s Pythagoras shines through Shelley’s prose. Shelley marked the following passage: ‘the Samian philosopher, a man of universal knowledge, who flourish’d about 500 years before Christ, forbad to kil, much more to eat, liveing creatures, that had the same prerogative of souls with ourselves: and ate nothing himself that had had life. The truth is, he enjoin’d men not to eat of things that had life, but to accustom themselves to meats that were easeyly prepare’d, quickly at hand, and soongot ready without the help of fire 

• Vegetarianism as a solution to obesity : a diet based on temperance 

Since the 17th century and during the 18th century too, vegetarianism rose in England as a treatment for obesity for the wealthy people who consumed a lot of meat during their mealtime. People began to see vegetarianism as a solution to avoid obesity, thinking that it would reduce the risks of cardiovascular and heart diseases. One of the most famous 18th century obese who advocated vegetarianism was Dr George Cheyne (1671-1743). He was a physician, a mathematician and a philosopher born in Scotland. He is very well known for his contribution to vegetarianism. He was a popular figure who suffered from obesity because of the quantity of food and drink he consumed, which caused him several health problems. To counter them, he started a vegetarian diet composed of milk and vegetables only. It helped him to recover health but as soon as he stopped his meatless regimen, his health deteriorated again so he decided to follow a strict vegetarian diet for a lifetime


Portrait of George Cheyne made by John Faber Jr in 1732

(source :


George Cheyne was against gluttony and luxury and he claimed for temperance (especially concerning meal time) as we can read in his Essay on the Gout of 1720. Morale and religious motives were also linked to the medical reasons to follow a vegetarian diet. He often frequented taverns and dining-rooms looking for new clients but it played a big role on the deterioration of his weight. Therefore, after becoming obese, he decided to go to Bath to follow a dietary therapy and where he first acknowledged vegetarianism with a high consumption of milk. As by the early 1720s he could scarcely walk, he was obliged to follow a harsh vegetarian regimen. In 1724, his Essay of Health and Long Life was published, making him be much more famous. A great deal of the essay concerned evacuations and diet, through vegetarianism that he presented as an ideal more than a lifestyle at the time. That diet was based on moderation, with the consumption of white meat, vegetables and water mostly. 

His several of his works Cheyne gave dietary advice with more and more religious concerns, as in the English Malady (1733). According to him, a meatless regimen only composed of milk and vegetables would return corrupted people to purity. That arguments are more and more present in his other works : the Essay on Regimen (1740) and The Natural Method of Cureing the Diseases of the Body, and the Disorders of the Mind Depending on the Body (1742).

Here is an extract from another essay entitled Essay on Regimen : together with Five Discourses Medical Moral and Philosophical, &c of 1740, more focused on the treatments toward animals :


“ The question I design to treat of here is, whether animal or vegetable food was, in the original design of the Creator, intended for the food of animals, and particularly of the human race. And I am almost convinced it never was intended, but only permitted as a curse or punishment . . . At what time animal [flesh] food came first in use is not certainly known. He was a bold man who made the first experiment.

Illi robur at œs triplex

Circa pectus erat.

To see the convulsions, agonies, and tortures of a poor fellow-creature, whom they cannot restore nor recompense, dying to gratify luxury, and tickle callous and rank organs, must require a rocky heart, and a great degree of cruelty and ferocity. I cannot find any difference, on the foot of natural reason and equity only, between feeding on human flesh and feeding on brute animal flesh, except custom and example. 

I believe some [more] rational creatures would suffer less in being fairly butchered than a strong Ox or red Deer; and, I natural morality and justice, the degrees of pain here make the essential difference, for as to other differences, they are relative only, and can be of no influence with an infinitely perfect Being. Did we not use and example weaken this lesson, and make the difference, reason alone could never do it. ”

• The care for animals and the political activism linked to vegetarianism

One main focus of the 18th century vegetarianism was the inhumanity linked to the consumption of meat : there was a sort of “humans’ duty” towards animals but also towards people (as it was for the evangelical forms of Christianity). They claimed that making animals feel pain was a sin, as they were suffering as humans do. Vegetarianism became therefore inevitable to avoid causing pain to animals. 

Also, vegetarianism was linked to slavery and the developing trade and industry between the British Empire and its colonies (in the Caribbean and in America mostly). Vegetarian people wanted to show their disapproval of slavery and of the mistreatments of people because of the color of their skin. It was a way for them to show their political commitment. Even Dr George Cheyne,  in his Essay of Health and Long Life of 1724, showed that vegetarianism was also a way to take part in political activism by characterizing the “sensitive” (intelligent and imaginative people) in contrast to the eaters of Roast beef described as stupid and idiots; as we can see here in the painting of 1748 by William Hogarth :


The Roast Beef of Old England – by William Hogarth (1748) – The Tate Gallery, (Mennell 10th of 29 photoplates) 

The painting is about French and English people. Indeed, during his visit in France in 1748, Hogarth could see how the French did not eat well. He had a very low opinion of the French so that was a way for him to spread Britain’s wealth and power with the huge beef carried by a fat clergyman (in the middle of the painting) destined to an English inn located in the North of France. The clergy represents the absolute monarchy that starved the French people. By contrast, the English ate and thrived on their food. In its summary of the painting, Tate’s website adds : “To the left of the gate, framed by vegetables, sits Hogarth himself. As he sketches the drawbridge, the arresting officer’s hand clasps his shoulder.” Therefore, thanks to the representations of meat and vegetables, Hogarth showed in his painting how politically active he was and what he thought of the western Europe societies.  






• Bibliography 


Primary sources :


– Cheyne, George. An Essay of Health and Long Life. London, 1724. 

– Cheyne, George. The English malady : or, A treatise of nervous diseases of all kinds, as spleen, vapours, lowness of spirits, hypochondriacal, and hysterical distempers, etc. London, 1733.

– Cheyne, George. The natural method of curing the diseases of the body and the disorders of the mind, depending on the body. London, 1742.

– Ritson, Joseph. An essay on abstinence from animal food, as a moral duty. London, 1802.

– Spencer, Colin. The Heretic’s Feat : A History of Vegetarianism. London, 1993. 



Secondary sources


– Guerrini, Anita. “A Diet for a Sensitive Soul: Vegetarianism in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” Eighteenth-Century Life, Volume 23, Number 2 (May 1999) : 34-42 


– Puskar-Pasewicz, Margaret. Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism. Santa Barbara, California, 2010


– Morton, Timothy. “Joseph Ritson, Percy Shelley and the Making of Romantic Vegetarianism.” Romanticism 12.1 (2006) : 52-61 



Britain in the eighteenth century witnessed “a release of the libido” (Lawrence Stone, 327) due to the Enlightenment’s idea of the pursuit of happiness which made of sexual expression, pleasure and passion essential elements of life. During the eighteenth century contraception was mostly used by the aristocracy and the urban elite (Lawrence Stone, 263) and just like today contraceptive methods could be used by women and men, but did both sexes used contraceptives for the same reasons?

In the eighteenth century, women could have a lot of children – Queen Charlotte for instance had fifteen children with her husband King George III – and “the interval between births was between twenty-four and thirty months” (Lawrence Stone, 52). These repeated pregnancies were very dangerous and many women died giving birth. One of the methods used to space out pregnancies was breast-feeding. Indeed lactation has a contraceptive effect called “lactational amenorrhea” (Robert A. Hatcher and others, 407) because when breast-feeding, a woman has no menstruation and the ovulation is postponed which makes her infertile for some months. Nowadays this method is still used by some women but it is not as popular as it was during the eighteenth century as women are less aware of it and as it is a very restricting way of contraception. Well-fed women could profit from this temporary infertility for about six months and women suffering from malnutrition were infertile for about eighteen months (Lawrence Stone, 52). Moreover this post-natal infertility made it more difficult for women to conceive once the lactational amenorrhea was over which made of this birth control method a very popular one in the eighteenth century. Women were advised to breast-feed themselves their children by doctors so that breast-feeding became a sort of fashion (Lawrence Stone, 248). As we can see on the satirical print below, wealthy women no longer gave their children to wet nurses so that they could be seen topless and feeding their babies in their richest dresses which made of breastfeeding a more fashionable than maternal behavior.


Women could also buy medicines sold on London Markets; these recipes could be used as a contraceptive or for abortive purposes. But these methods were used by a minority only.

“If the party … would not conceive, take one paper of powders in a glass of warm ale, every morning after the man has been with her, and shall be out of danger.”

(Lawrence Stone, 266)


The will to space out pregnancies came also from men who wanted to prevent their wives from suffering or dying while giving birth and new sexual behaviors were adopted. Coitus interruptus, also called withdrawal, was the most used method. This method consisted of the withdrawal of the husband before ejaculation and is said to depend on “extraordinary measures of self-control” (Lawrence Stone, 262). It is even referred to in the Bible:


“And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.”

(Genesis 38: 8-10)


Though in the Bible Onan is punished for practicing coitus interruptus, in the eighteenth century because of “the collapse of moral Puritanism” which was at the origin of the released libido, the Bible had lost some of its strength and withdrawal was no longer seen as a sin (Lawrence Stone, 263). However the method is not completely effective. Indeed some semen always escapes from the Cowper’s glands before ejaculation, so that the risk of pregnancy still exists (Vern L. Bullough, 74).

One of the reasons for the development of contraception was economic, for upper classes had larger families than lower classes and the elite wanted to reduce births because of the cost of raising a child. The upper classes had enough money to raise their children but at the time a more child-orientated society developed and families started to limit the number of births because education was expensive and children did not always live long. The Reverend Ralph Josselin spent one third of is £160 a year on the education of his ten children but only five of them still lived when their parents died (Lawrence Stone, 264). It was to prevent this waste of money than families chose to have fewer children.


Other popular contraceptive methods called barrier devices were used by the upper classes. Among them were condoms. As we can see on the following picture, eighteenth century condoms were made of “sheep gut and were secured to the wearer at the base with a red ribbon, which was tied around the scrotum” (Lawrence Stone, 334).                                   


In the eighteenth century condoms were not easy to purchase as they were mostly sold in big European Cities such as  Paris and London (Lawrence Stone, 334). These devices were not only used as a contraceptive method, they actually were associated with vice because they were mostly used for “extra-marital affairs”, men used them as a protection against venereal deseases. In his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Francis Grose defined “cundum” as:

“The dried gut of the sheep, worn by men in the act of coition, to prevent venereal infection”. (Francis Grose)

 And in 1776, a London advertizer described condoms as “implements of safety which secure the health of my customers” (Lawrence Stone, 266). Condoms could be used several times and men only had to wash them after each use (Vern L. Bullough, 82). On the caricature below we can see a women in a “condom warehouse” is  blowing up a condom to make sure that it is not damaged and a man who appears to be a clergyman is blessing the newly frabricated condoms. A condom trade greatly developed in London during the century and was mostly owned by “a matron of the name of Philips” (Francis Grose) and Mrs Perkins (H. Youssef, 227).



(Quality control in condom warehouse, 1744)


The Scottish lawyer James Boswell frequently had to use condoms because of his libertine way of life. His London Journal is the richest source of information on sex in the eighteenth century:

“At the bottom of the Haymarket I picked up a strong, jolly young damsel, and taking her under the arm I conducted her to Westminster Bridge, and then in armour complete did I engage her upon this noble edifice. The whim of doing it there with the Thames rolling below us amused me much.”  (James Boswell, 255)


“…so I sallied the Streets and just at the bottom of our own, I picked up a fresh agreable young Girl called Alice Gibbs. We went down a lane to a snug place; and I took out my armour, but she begged that I might not put it on, as the sport was much pleasanter without it; and as she was quite safe. I was so rash as to trust her, and had a very agreable congress.” (James Boswell, 262)

He often met with prostitutes such as the “jolly young damsel” of the first extract and the “Alice Gibbs” of the second and he used these devices which he called “amour”  to be protected from veneral deseases.


“BOSWELL. Madam, I have had no connection with any woman but you these two months. I was with my surgeon this morning, who declared I had got a strong infection, and that she from whom I had it could not be ignorant of it”.

 (James Boswell, 149)


In 1763 James Boswell had a relationship with an actress named Louisa who gave him one of the numerous venereal diseases he had during the course of his life. Boswell did not think it was usefull to wear an “armour” with her but when he discovered she had transmitted him a desease she told she actualy had one three years before but that she no longer had any symptoms for several months and thought that it was cured.


Contraception in the eighteenth century became more common but mainly in families from the elite. People needed contraceptive methods to trim the size of families. To preserve their health women were advised not to have too many children and to space out pregnancies as much as possible. Men also wanted fewer children for economic reasons as raising a child cost a lot of money and they were not assured that the children they spent money for would survive. But men mostly used contraceptive method the preserve their own health as they tended to have mistresses and did not want to have venereal diseases and illegitimate children.




Bibliography–       Planned Parenthood of America. “A History of Birth Control  Methods” New York,  

–       HATCHER Robert A. and others. Contraceptive Technology. 2009.  

–       Genesis – 38 – 8

–       Genesis – 38 – 9

–       Genesis – 38 – 10

–       STONE, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in the England1500 – 1800. London: Penguin Books, 1977.

–       MEYER SPACKS, Patricia. Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003.

–       BULLOUGH, Vern L. The Encyclopedia of Birth Control. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 2001.

–       BOSWELL, James. Boswell’s London Journal. New Haver, CT: Yale University Press, 1950.

–       YOUSSEF, H. “The History of the condom.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, no. 86 (April 1993): 226-228.

–       GROSE, Francis. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. London: Hooper and Wigstead, 1796.



–       Seductive fashions: the topless style and the cult of maternal breast-feeding. 1796 (Lawrence stone, 22 image) “The Fashionable Mamma, or The Convenience of Modern Dress” Caricature

–       ALLEN, Paul. Trigger Issues, One Small Item, One Giant Impact: Condom. Oxford, New Internationalist, 2007. Page 14.

–       HARVEY, A. D. Sex in Georgian England: Attitudes and Prejudices from the 1720s to the 1820s. London, Phoenix Press, 2001.


 In this paper, we will be interested in the question of the female husbands in the eighteen century British society. More particularly, our focus point will be the Mary Hamilton case described by Fielding in his pamphlet The Female Husband, published in 1746. However, according to Sheridan Baker in Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband : Fact and Fiction, on page 213, the author modified some of the real facts. For example, Fielding shifted the male name from Charles Hamilton to George. Sheridan Baker also highlights some parallels between Fielding’s fictional characters and the way he wrote the discourse in the pamphlet. He speaks about the similarities between Mrs Rushford and Mary Price’s ways of speak. This fictional part of the pamphlet creates questions about the reality of the female husbands. So, we will picture the background from the artistic wold to the Fielding’s text to conclude by a representation of those women. 

Cross-dressing : a notion of seduction 

Cross dressing as used in theater since the sixteenth century because women were forbidden on stage. So, men had to dress as women to perform the plays. But, as it is mentioned on page 22 of A Lesbian History of Britain by Rebecca Jennings, in the eighteen century, women started to go on stage. And more than that, they dressed as men to play male roles. The reversal was a way to attract more public, women were a symbol of seduction even cross-dressed. Females were the embodiment of seduction and the cross-dressing made them even more attractive towards the audience. Rebecca Jennings developed the example of the actress : Margaret Woffington. She was a famous actress of the eighteen century Britain and was familiar with cross-dressing. It was an other way to approach the female beauty. It created a kind of mystery around the body because feminine attributes were hidden and bodies were shaped by the clothes to look as masculine as possible.

In 1739, Margaret Woffington played the role of Harry Wildair in Farquhar’s The Constant Couple.




Margaret Woffington    


Margaret as Harry Wildair

by William Hoare

 Cross-dressing :  an example of early feminism?

            Males had the power in the eighteen century British society so we can think that if women dressed as men, it was a way for them to get a little of this masculine power. And it was the case. On Friday the 20th of November 1719, the newspaper the Free-Thinker published an article on «philifophizing upon the Nature of Coquetterie». The first paragraph is about the frontier between men and women and the idea that the limit between gender is not clear. He told the reader about «this bewitching Quality is as apparent even in Men» (The Free-Thinker, 1719, 1). It means that women acted in coquetterie and seduction as men did. There was a kind of shift in power. Then, later in the article, he gave the example of a woman called Angelica who was not well seen by society because she seduced men exactly in the way that a man could seduce a woman. Because of Coquetterie, men lost their control on the field of romance and seduction. But they still had this dominant place in the couple and upon society.

             Cross-dressed women lived as men towards society so they get the same rights as men. They were free and had power but they were biologically women. So, as Rebecca Jennings on page 25, it was a certain kind of feminism. But it was seen as an offense by society. Cross-dressing was not officially considered as a crime but women living as men and who married an other women were accuse of stealing the woman’s goods. Once again, this is only a matter of power. They were accused only on a material basis, not the moral point of view. And power comes with money and at that time, women were not supposed to be financially independent from her husband. So, those women were attacked because they got more freedom than their initial place in society let them have.

            So, the daily cross-dressing can be seen as a step towards feminism because it was a way for women to exist in the outside society and not only in the inside wold of their homes.


The Mary Hamilton case of 1746

             In his pamphlet Female Husband, Henri Fielding exposed the cross-dressing case of Mary alias George Hamilton. In the introduction, he described Mary Hamilton as someone «who was convicted of having married a Young Woman of WELLS and lived with her as her husband» (Fielding, 1746, 2).

The first idea developed in the pamphlet is the criticism of homosexuality. This is the entire first paragraph of the second page. The argument that a woman as to be married to a man not only «for the continuance of the human fpecies» (Fielding, 1746, 3) but also because this is an attitude «directed by virtue and religion» (Fielding, 1746, 3) and this is the «moft rational felicity» (Fielding, 1746, 3). Those women’s behavior not only went against society but most important against the principals as fundamental as religion from which this same society came from.

            He used very strong terms to depict the general situation of female husbands. According to Fielding «there is nothing monftrous and unnatural, which they are not capable of inventing , nothing fo brutal and fhocking which they have not actually committed» (Fielding, 1746, 3). This is on this exposed point of view that he started to tell the story of Mary alias George Hamilton. He first explained the education that Mary received as a chid. Telling that she was raised in the respect of her condition in the «principles of virtue and religion» (Fielding, 1746, 4). So, her mother did her best to prevent her daughter from vice but despite her efforts, Mary was guilty of «the moft abominable  and unnatural pollutions» (Fielding, 1746, 3).

            He followed the chronology of the events by telling her meeting with «Anne Johnfon a neighbour of hers» (Fielding, 1746, 4). Then came the description of the process in which their relationship evolved from friendship to a romantic relationship. He used testimonies from both women to reinforce the truth of the history and those letters were nothing less than love letters. But he did not mention love because according to his point of view, love can be between a man and his wife only. He pulled a moral from this story because at the very end, we learnt thatMary had been condemned to whipping and sent to prison. Fielding wrote : « The prifoner having been convicted of this bafe and fcandalous crime, was by the court fentenced to be publickly and feverely whipt four feveral times» (Fielding, 1746, 24).

            We could even read a general warning towards the readers on the last page : «But it is to be hoped that this example will be fufficient to deter all others from commiffion of any fuch foul and unnatural crimes» (Fielding, 1746, 25). There was a moral conclusion to this history, trying to be a man when you were not was a crime which had to be hardly punished because each role had its own world and had to stay in.

            But we can question the truthfulness of Mary Hamilton’s story because of the tittle of the pamphlet which is « The surprising history of Mary Hamilton» so the end could be darkened by Fielding to be used as a moral. Nonetheless, Ann Marrow, a female husband had be condemned for money fraud in 1777 because she had been accused to benefit from her wife’s money because she pretended to be a man to marry her. (Jennings, 2007, 34, and The Gentleman Magazine 5th of July 1777)




Here are two prints of Mary Read and Ann Bonny. They were pirates in the Bahamas during the 1720’s.




On this print, we can see that they are dressed as men but showing their female attributes.

They are using weapon so having the same status as male pirates.



On the second print, the women are represented breasts hidden. The only sign of femininity are their long hair. They were a real case of daily cross-dressing.



Unlike our modern society in which beauty and cosmetics seem to be clearly gendered and rather reserved to women, in the eighteenth century, men did wear make-up. Indeed, the eighteenth-century Englishman was also subjected to fashion and make-up trends yet this century seemed to witness a change in the use of beauty product by men and in society’s idea of masculinity.

The early eighteenth century: The “White Look”.

Image ImageImage
In the eighteenth century, men (see fig. 1 & 3), women, and sometimes children (on fig. 2 Henry Benedict Stuart was only 13yo) wore make-up in order to match their social status. The aristocrats at court “painted” their faces, but also the bourgeoisie and even the middle-classes complied with fashion and followed the trend of the pale face with red cheeks and lips (Laughran, 2003, 7). Indeed, eighteenth-century men adopted the fashionable three-piece suit, the large powdered wigs and they also used a range of cosmetics they had at their disposal to complete their appearance. In order to reach a pale complexion they whitened their faces with lead powder, then they applied “rouge” in circular or triangular shapes on their cheeks and even on their lips. They also used beauty patches to contrast with their white skin and darkened their eyebrows. (Hunt, Fate, Dodds, 2011, 4)


Thereby, men took rather good care of themselves, in the early century some of them –called fops or beaus (West, 2001, 170)- used a large amount of beauty products such as anti-freckle night masks, tooth powder, cold cream (see fig. 1) or even perfumed mouth water (Kirstin Olsen, 1999, 106) and were often targeted in beauty advertising. Moreover, the cosmetics and beauty products they used were very often home-made. Indeed, in the eighteenth century make-up and cosmetics receipe books were quite popular, there was for instance Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz’ s The Toilet of Flora (1772) which was very complete and comprehensible, therefore one could make his own rouge paste made of creuse or vermilion. However, these home-made products were toxic and contained lead or mercury and led to poisoning (Hunt, Fate, Dodds, 2011, 4).


Thus, in the first-half of the eighteenth century it seems that gender differenciation  was not linked with the use of make-up or wigs. Yet, the 1760s macaroni phenomemon clearly challenged the idea of masculinity in England, and the use of beauty products by men started to be linked with feminization.

Macaronis: just an extravagance?


Figure 4- Philip Dawe, Pantheon Macaroni [A Real Character at the Late Masquerade], printed for John Bowles, 1773

In the 1760s the young British elite came back from their Grand Tour – a travel in Europe, mainly in Italy and France- with new and foreign stylish clothes. They dubbed themsleves the Macaronis and were characterized by their enormous wigs and their excessive use of make-up (Kirstin Olsen, 1999, 107). As we can see on figure 4 The Pantheon Macaroni is portrayed in front of his mirrored dressing table in which there are different pots of cosmetics, he is obviously powdered ans has two beauty patches. With such an “effiminate” representation of macaronis, one may wonder if they took part in the emergence of an early homosexual subculture. Yet, macaronis were not specifically linked with homosexual practices since it also existed tales of their agressive heterosexuality. Therefore they didn’t raise a sexual issue but rather a questioning on masculine identity (Rauser 2004, 107).


The macaroni phenomenon began in the aristocracy but also spread into middle-classes (Rauser 2004, 101) and even if it was an ephemeral trend (West, 1998, 170), the rejection of the macaronis may had  contributed to the redifinition of masculinity in England.

 Indeed, in the 1770s macaronis were widely caricatured in prints and even mocked in theaters, Robert Hitchcock wrote a comedy entitled The Macaroni (1773) in which he depicted macaronis as an unpatriotic consumerist elite with excess frivolity. In its mocking epilogue one can read that macaronis decorated their faces like the French, therefore underlining their unpatrioc spirits:

The world’s so macaronied grown of late,

That common mortals now are out of date;

No single class of men this merit claim,

Or high, or low, in faith ’tis all the same:

For see the Doctor, who with sapient wig,

Gold cane, grave phiz, ere while look’d more than big,

With France’s foretop decorates his face,

Describes and dresses with macaronied grace;

Then swears he hates of formal stuff,

For gravity in practice is a puff.




Macaronis were easily called “women”, “monkeys” and even “hermaphrodites”: they clearly threatened the stability of gender difference in England (West, 1998, 174). Thereby, for both men and women, fashion exaggeration would soon become socially unacceptable and at the end of the eighteenth century men experienced “the great masculine renunciation” (Laughran, 2007, 10). They radically changed their view on beauty and by the nineteenth century they adopted a rather different style, their clothing became much more sober and heavily make-up became unfashionable.


Thus, the use of cosmetics by men and to some extent the dogma of masculinity seemed to evolve in England throughout the eighteenth century. If in the first part of the century the “dead white” look was still fashionable among different classes – men used on daily basis make-up to powder their faces, darken their eyebrows or wore rouge on their cheeks- however the rejection of the extravagant macaronis may showed that at the end of the century English society sought a more distinct gender differentiation.



-Hunt, Fate and Dodds. “Cultural And Social Influences On The Perception Of Beauty: A Case Analysis Of The Cosmetics Industry” Journal of Business Case Studies 7, no. 1 (2011): 1-10.

– Rauser, Amelia. “Hair, Authenticity, and the Self-Made Macaroni”, Eighteenth-Century Studies 38, no.  1, (2004): 101-117.

– Shearer West. “The Darly Macaroni Prints and the Politics of “Private Man””, Eighteenth-Century Life 25, no 2, (2001): 170-182.

-Olsen, Kirstin. Daily Life in 18th Century England, London: Greenwood Press, 1999.

-Laughran, Michelle. “History of Fashion from Head to Toe: Cosmetics from Ancient Times to the Present Day” Aspects of American Culture Series, Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, November 24, 2003.

– Hitchcock, Robert. The Macaroni. A Comedy. As it is performed at the Theatre-Royal in York, York: A.Ward, 1773.


For historians, every objects of our ancestors’ daily life can appear as a material from which we can learn about the periods of time in which they lived. Clothes can be seen in this light too. Throughout history, fashion has always reflected the social status or the wealth of an individual, the customs of groups of people, and even the relation of people with their body. There is also always one piece of clothing or a style that stands out as representative of a historical period: the toga for the Roman Empire, the ruff for the sixteenth century, or the stays during the eighteenth century


Stays were inverted conical shaped garments women wore under their dresses. They were made of thick linen or cotton weaved or glued. The stays were constructed with a continuous series of vertical channels between the outer and inner layers, in which whalebones were sewn. Whalebones gave rigidity to this garment thus allowing it to raise the breast, tighten the waist and straighten the back. They were also worn with a piece of cloth on the chest in order to cover it. Nevertheless, stays did not only shape the body, it also created the “fashionable silhouette”. Stays created a “social body” that had an extreme importance in women’s life. Indeed, there are even occurrences of women hesitating to part with their stays even though their life was endangered: “They were such an important part of her identity and self-image that she could not imagine her daily life without them” (Lynn Sorge-English, 2011, 1). One may wonder how stays emphasized the gender role and image on women during the eighteenth century. In order to study this question, we will focus on the concept of modesty, femininity and eroticism, and finally the criticism of the consequences of stays on women’s physiology.

The concept of modesty

At the time, stays were strongly linked to the idea of modesty. Indeed, “artists variously used stays to represent a woman’s honor” (Valerie Steele, 2001, p.21), and only when she wore her stays that a woman was properly dressed. On the other hand, if a woman was seen not wearing her stays, she could be considered a loose woman.


Indeed, as one can see with the narrow firm shape on the picture above, stays created a tight body and this was considered to be a sign of tight morals. On the other hand, a woman not wearing stays was thought to have morals as loose as her body. Therefore, stays were worn by women of every social class not only to have the fashionable silhouette, but also in order to be considered respectable.

In his work A Rake’s progress, William Hogarth chose to depict the dishonor of a woman through the absence of stays on her body.


In the third painting of the series, Hogarth depicted a loose woman that one can easily identified as a prostitute because of the absence of stays on her uncovered body, but also because of the black spots she wears on her face in order to hide her syphilitic sores. Well known for his use of symbolic garments and accessories in his work, the eighteenth-century English artist believed it was possible to “know the very minds of the people by their dress”(Linda Baumgarten, 2002, 52). Even though the fabric used in their fabrication varied, stays were both worn by middle-class and aristocratic women as they functioned as a sign of respectability. Indeed, “since they controlled the body, [they controlled], by extension, the physical passions” (Valerie Steele, 2001, 28).

Femininity and eroticism

Nevertheless, stays were paradoxically associated to eroticism. Indeed, women’s curves were exaggerated and emphasized. As Valerie Steele states in her book, “anyone who has seen more or less authentically costumed films set in the eighteenth century, such as Dangerous Liaisons, knows that the stay of that period not only push the breast upward and together, but create an illusion of amplitude not to be matched until the advent of the Wonderbra” (Valerie Steele, 2001, 20). Although stays were worn with a piece of cloth to cover the chest, stays had gained an erotic aspect. Therefore, numerous examples of this aspect of stays appeared in this period’s artistic productions. In his work La Toilette (1771), Pierre-Antoine Baudouin depicted a woman in her boudoir being laced into her stays by her maid, while a man sitting in front of her stares at her, and while his sword is pointing at her unhidden leg in a suggestive way.


Other prints such as An Abbé Lacing a Lady’s stays or Trying on the Corset also depicted the eroticism of stays.  All these works have in common the process of lacing. At this moment, women appeared undressed but also in an erotic disposition: “including the exposure of underwear, the symbolism of lacing as a surrogate intercourse, and the way stays displayed the bosom” (Valerie Steele, 2001, 20). Indeed, the tight embrace of the garment on the body and the panting breath caused by the sudden pressure on the lungs gave women an appealing sexualized look. It appears that during the making of stays, staymakers who were mostly men had thought of the eroticism of stays in the first place: “And while some changes were almost certainly brought about for reasons of comfort, this book suggests that other changes were adopted with seduction and eroticism in mind” (Lynn Sorge-English, 2011, 3)

For modern eyes, the eroticism surrounding stays in the eighteenth century can appears as a key to understand some of the aspects of femininity of this period. While both men and women wore stays in their youth, women in the eighteenth century displayed exaggerated curves. But although stays’ design was define by gender, they were not just to differentiate men and women. Indeed, the perception of their bodies’ self-image was not just given by men; it appeared first in the eyes of women. Thus femininity was also something they wanted to achieve but they would also compete with other women for this. This idea of competition was based on social classes, indeed “class distinctions sometimes overlapped with distinctions of gender, as working-class women were envisioned as being strong like men” (Valerie Steele, 2001, 48), while on the other hand, women from the aristocracy and bourgeoisie liked to think they were thinner and more delicate.


Stays with silk damask such as this one were appreciated by aristocratic ladies.

The picture above represents a corset that had been created for an aristocratic lady as the rich fabric and the color indicate. Upper-class women appreciated such creations as it created another distinction between them and working-class women. Therefore, stays were not just use to represent a woman’s honor but also “her sexuality, gender, class, beauty and vanity” (Valerie Steele, 2001, 21). Thus, stays were worn by every woman and were the basic part of a woman’s wardrobe, even if she was poor.

Criticism of the consequences of stays on women’s physiology

According to Lynn Sorge-English, “as an article of clothing […] stays played a vital role in establishing the visual aesthetic of eighteenth-century female clothing and the body” (Lynn Sorge-English, 2011, 2). Nevertheless, criticism of stays began to arise during the eighteenth century. While some preferred to not patronize women and not treat them as if they just were oppressed by fashion: “by patronizing the women of the past as passive victims of fashions, historians have ignored the reason why so many women are willing to wear corsets for so long”, (REFERENCE) others clearly believed that men were at fault: “if those women who lace tightly from a desire to please men, had found by experience that instead of rendering themselves more lovely, they were more disliked, they would have remained content as nature made them: so that the fault is more in the men than in women” (George Nicholson, 1797, p.14). Still, wearing tight stays had consequences on the bodies, because of the pressure on the ribcage, women could not breathe normally. Lung volume and digestion was restricted by the hard laced stays, and ladies often fainted at strong emotional affection. While it could be seen as a sign of a woman’s purity (since it meant the woman was not used to passion), it was also a clear sign of weakness caused by stays. For Nicholson, who quotes Rousseau: “Infirmity or sickness may excite our pity; but desire and pleasure require the bloom and vigor of health”.

Because of their moral connotation and the influence of fashion, stays in eighteenth century Britain were the most importance piece of clothing a woman could, and had to, own. Not only did stays gave indication of a woman’s moral and social class, it also emphasized the curve of her gender (while “protecting” them with a solid and thick garment) and the concept of modesty which was seen as very feminine. Therefore, because of emphasize on women’s beauty, the symbolism, and the consequences of stays on the body, this garment managed to create a social body which emphasized the idea of a gender role and image. At the time,“easiness” was seen as the most important element of fashion. Yet, in order to wear clothes, people had to transform their body to a fashionable silhouette with uncomfortable garments and accessories. With the evolution of fashion, people chose to wear clothes that were more and more comfortable, thus leading to a gradual unfastening of stays and of clothes in general.


Primary sources:

  • NICHOLSON, George, On Clothing, London, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 1797
  • Stays, England, 1780-1789 (made), Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Woman’s Corset (Stays), England, circa 1730-1740, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • Stays, England, 1770-1790 (made), Victoria and Albert Museum
  • La Toilette, Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, 1771
  • A Rake’s Progress, William Hogarth, 1732

Secondary sources:

SORGE-ENGLISH Lynn, Stays and Body Image in London: The Staymaking Trade, 1680-1810 (The Body, Gender and Culture), Pickering & Chatto, 2011.

BAUMGARTEN Linda, What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection, Yale University Press, 2002

STEELE Valerie, The Corset: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 2001)


In the eighteenth century, homosexuality was considered as a sexual deviation and a crime. At the time, it was called the “crime of sodomy”. When someone’s homosexuality was known, there was a trial and a punishment. How did men hide their homosexuality? What were the consequences of the “crime of sodomy”?

First of all, in the eighteenth century, homosexuals were called “sodomites”. In the Bible, Sodom was a city that – along with three other neighboring cities – has been destroyed by the Divine Jugement because people committed too many sins there. Since then, there was a deviation of the word “Sodom” and this passage of the Bible was used to illustrate the homosexual repression. In the eighteenth century, men of the upper classes who were suspected to be homosexuals, were men who inherited lands and who never married. Men in this situation were more and more common, so it could mean that there were more and more homosexuals in the upper class in the eighteenth century (Lawrence Stone, The family, sex and marriage in England 1500-1800, 541). For Philip Carter, masculinity was more a “social rather than sexual criteria” (Philip Carter, Men about town: representations of foppery and masculinity in early eighteenth-century urban society, 34). According to him, the only “eighteenth-century image of unmanliness” that was considered worse than the sodomite, was the fop. As sodomy was considered as a crime, homosexual men had to hide their homosexuality.

To do so, some of them married a woman and had children – sometimes to make people think that they were heterosexuals – but slept with with other men. Marriage was a sort of protection for them. Homosexual men used to go to molly houses. Molly houses were taverns where men could meet and possibly have sexual relations in private rooms. Homosexual men used to go there to meet other homosexuals. Molly houses were protected and there, men could openly have homosexual relations. Sometimes, there were raids in molly houses and men who were caught were imprisoned, judged and punished. But it still was the better place for men to meet other homosexuals because it was a safe space –  because it provided an enclosed space – and there were private rooms for them. Most of the raids happened in 1726 and 1727 – about 17 raids. But except for these years, raids in molly houses rarely happened (Amanda Bailey, Welcome to the Molly-House: An Interview with Randolph Trumbach). When they wanted to send letters to their lover, homosexuals used messenger boys. They used them only for that purpose, to be sure that no one would find their letters and would know that they were homosexuals (Rictor Norton, My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, 11). Most of the time, homosexual letters were discovered only after the death of the man who had written them. Some of them even censored themselves by burning their letters before someone could find them (Rictor Norton, My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, 12).

It was essential for homosexual men to protect their homosexuality and their identities because of its consequences. Indeed, homosexuality was a crime that led to trials and punishment. During the eighteenth century, many men were condemned to death for homosexuality.


On this image for example, we can see a man who was accused of sodomy and who is in the pillory at Stratford ( People are shouting at him “Shave him close”, “Flogg him” or “Cut it off”. It’s a satirical image. Indeed, the man says “I’m now in the hole indeed (reference to the sexual act) come all in my friends”. We also can see a woman on the left who is taking some food from her basket to throw it at the man. The note of the painter that is under the  image shows the violence of the people, as the note says that this man was killed by the population.

Punishing someone for sodomy was really hard because they had to prove that penetration and ejaculation had actually occurred, but it was very difficult to prove it. If it could not be proved, the “crime” was an “Assault with Sodomitical Intent”.

Despite the fact that during their punishment homosexuals were humiliated and victimized by the people, some of them didn’t want to hide. Even if there were risks, some of them wanted a real relationship with their lover. For example, in the letters he wrote to Stephen Fox in 1730, John, Lord Hervey told him that he wanted them to live together. Indeed, he wrote “Why should we see one another by Visits, but never have a common home?” (Rictor Norton, My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, 87). Furthemore at the end of their letters, they often wrote how much they loved each other, like “Adieu, mon bien aimable, mon bien aimé” or “I love you & love you more than I thought I could love any thing” (Rictor Norton, My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, 92). Even if people were becoming more tolerant towards homosexuality, there were still violent prejudices and writing such things in letters was very risky.

Some people used the violence of the punishment for sodomy in order to blackmail homosexuals. They threatened them to denounce their homosexuality if they refused to give them money. But even heterosexuals were threatened, because people could blackmail them the same way even if they were not homosexuals. People could ask something to an heterosexual man and tell him that if he did not do what they asked, they would say to everybody that this man was an homosexual. They could not prove anything about it, but if someone would say something like this about someone else, it could ruine his reputation (Randolph Trumbach, Blackmail for Sodomy in Eighteenth-Century London, 25-26).

In 1707, at least forty homosexuals were arrested in a “club” in London. Three of them killed themselves when they were imprisoned in the Compter. The Women-Hater’s Lamentation – written in 1707 – is a “broadside sheet” that mocks the men who had committed suicide while they were waiting for their judgment.


But see the fatal end

That do’s such Crimes pursue;

Unnat’ral Deaths attend,

Unnat’ral Lusts in you.


Ye Women-Haters then,

Take Warning by their Shame,

Your Brutal Lusts restrain,

And own a Nobler Flame.

In the picture which is above the poem, on the left we can see a man cutting his throat while another man hangs, on the right there is a hanged man being cut down, and in the middle, we can see two men embracing one another.

In order to prevent homosexuality, people from the upper class tried to inform their children about homosexuality.They protected they children by telling them about the existence of homosexuality (Lawrence Stone, The family, sex and marriage in England 1500-1800, 542). In his essay “Offences Against One’s Self” written in 1785, Jeremy Bentham – who was a heterosexual man – argued against the criminalization of homosexuality “If all men were left perfectly free to choose, as many men would make choice of their own sex as of the opposite one, I see not what reason there would be for applying the word natural to the one rather than to the other”. He thought that homosexuality was not “unnatural” and that there should not be laws against the “crime” of sodomy, but this essay was not published until 1931 because it could be considered as an offense to public morality.


Image. “This is not the thing: or, Molly exalted” (1762).

Rictor Norton, “My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries” (United States: Leyland Publications, 1998), 11, 12, 87, 92.

Image. “The Women-Hater’s Lamentation”, (London: J. Robinson, 1707).

Amanda Bailey, “Welcome to the Molly-House: An Interview with Randolph Trumbach,” Cabinet magazine, Fall 2002.

Randolph Trumbach, “Blackmail for Sodomy in Eighteenth-Century London” in Historical Reflections Vol. 33, No. 1, Eighteenth-Century Homosexuality in Global Perspective. (New York, Owford: Berghahn Books, 2007), 25-26.

Lawrence Stone, “The family, sex and marriage in England 1500-1800” (London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977), 541-542.

Jeremy Bentham, “Offences Against One’s Self,” last modified June 11, 2010,

Philip Carter, “Men about town: representations of foppery and masculinity in early eighteenth-century urban society,” (London: Longman, 1997), 34, 40.



(Mary Parker, the Ladies of Llangollen, outside with a dog. 1828)

When talking about same-sex relationships between women in the eighteenth century it is important to differentiate romantic friendships and real love. Indeed, we can find examples of women living together, adoring each other but keeping their relationship non-sexual. There is the example of the Ladies of Llangollen, as represented in the painting by Mary Parker (1799-1864), an English Lady. This painting represents Eleanor Charlotte Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, known as the Ladies of Llangollen, both dressed in black, walking their dog. They are both dressed the same way because they were close friends. Those two aristocratic women eloped together to Wales in 1778 where they established a home together, shared the same bed, called each other “my beloved” and signed conjointly the letters they wrote. However, nothing indicates that their level of intimacy went beyond this romantic friendship (Jennings, 2007, 39).

The first lesbian known is Sappho. She lived on the isle of Lesbos and was a poet. She became the source of a lot of mysteries and her life has inspired writers and poets for centuries (Reynolds, 2000, 14). She was said to be the most beautiful women and would have made the perfect wife, as we can see in this stanza (Cavendish, 1778)

Ah! were the gentle sex like you,
You wou’d be rational and true,

And women might have fame:

You are a pattern of a wife,
That could resign a husband’s life,

To raise a Sapphick name.

She was pure and her homosexuality is seen in Cavendish’s work as a happy one:

Thus happy Sappho past her time,
In making love, and making rhime,

To all the Lesbian maids:

Who were more constant and more kind,
More pure in soul, more firm of mind,

Than all the Lesbian blades.

Lesbian sex is described as an equal one, full of happiness in other works as well, such as the work of Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718), an English writer and poet.

Thus to themselves alone they are
What all Mankind can give;
Alternately the happy Pair
All grant, and All receive.


With happier Fate, and kinder Care,
These Nymphs by Turns do reign,
While still the falling, does prepare
The rising, to sustain.

(Rowe, 1715, 26)

            We can also see this idea in the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 1728

Beyond the Plyers at St. Katern’s Stairs;
She kisses all, but Jenny is her dear,
She feels her Bubbies, and she bites her ear:

In such works, we can see that, at the time, sex between women could be satirised and considered as something possible, not only existing in myths.

However, we can see in the same works that, apart from Sappho herself, all other lesbians are seen as kinds of sorceress, who compel their lovers to fall in their arms. This is not a new vision of things. Indeed, to explain phenomenon such as women falling in love with each other, people tended to accuse one of them of being a kind of siren.

When Sappho, the fair Lesbian belle,
Had gain’d the knack to read and spell;

She woo’d the Graces all:

No wench of Mytelene’s Town,
Or black, or fair, or olive brown,

Refus’d her amorous call.


Such Birds of Paradise as these,
Are the fell Syrens of the seas,

With faces not their own:

They may awhile allure the beau,
For in the morn they come and go,

Then wither on the Town.

(Cavendish, 1778)

Obviously this vision of the lesbian as an evil being was detrimental for them as their love for each other was seen as unnatural and not even true. And thus, more than being supernatural, lesbians were considered as not respecting the laws of society and being criminals.

To decency they’ve no pretence,
The want of that, is want of sense;

For say, what woman shou’d,

In such a case devote her life,
‘Tis worse than stabbing with a knife,

To rip up flesh and blood.


Curse on my stars, that I was born,
In such an age of lust and scorn.

Oh, Sappho, had’st thou been

Alive in these rude, filthy days,
Thy verses had been all in praise

Of me and beauty’s queen.

(Cavendish, 1778)

More than being witches, some justified lesbianism as the result of a medical condition. Indeed, the idea that some women had a large clitoris, very near to the size of a penis, gave people the idea that lesbians were indeed hermaphrodites.


(Georges Arnauld de Ronsil, Dissertation sur les hermaphrodites, 1750)

When women had a very large clitoris, society thought that they would tend to masturbate more, which was related to same-sex sexual activities. It frightened society, maybe because they thought that, by having a “penis”, women would not need men to have sex anymore and therefore they might have been afraid that the human race would disappear because they would not reproduce anymore. This is what the drawing by Georges Arnauld de Ronsil (1698-1774) represents. He was a French specialist of the body. The drawing represents a woman, as we can see with her breasts. However, this woman’s clitoris is large and big, almost like a small penis. That is how they imagined lesbians at that time. So, they made hermaphrodites decide on a sex, whether a man or a woman: “En dépit de la reconnaissance médicale de l’hermaphrodisme, la réponse sociale en Europe occidentale était presque toujours de forcer les hermaphrodites à choisir l’un ou l’autre sexe. (Aldrich, 2006, 128)

When considering women as being homosexuals only because they had a medical condition, they also gave the world the idea that women had to have sex, if only for their health. Otherwise, lack of sexual activity would cause melancholia or medical problems. This vision changed with the years to give way to the idea that women had to be chaste.

In a society not always open-minded with them, lesbians had to hide who they were and often, they used cross dressing.

Often used by actors during plays, cross dressing became a way for lesbians to hide themselves but also a way to affirm their strength and masculinity. Indeed, wearing men clothes gave them the liberty to live freely. Rebecca Jennings explains it in her book, page 25: “Rictor Norton has argued that women did so ‘in order to exercise the privileges and freedom usually reserved for men – freedom of movement, freedom to engage in business, freedom to travel unmolested, freedom to express oneself in a frank manner, freedom to be assertive and outgoing.’ ” Indeed, men lived more freely than women who had a lot of prerogatives and numerous rules to follow. By living as men did, they also affirmed their feminine side, showing that men and women were not so different once dressed alike. Therefore, we can consider them as feminists.

“Transvestites were, in a sense, among the first feminists. Mute as they were, without a formulated ideology to express their convictions, they saw the role of women to be dull and limiting. They craved to expand it –and the only way to alter that role in their day was to become a man … Transvestism must have been a temptation or, at the very least, a favourite fantasy for many an adventurous young women who understood that as a female she could expect little latitude or freedom in her life.” (Jennings, 20007, 25)

However, as I have mentioned previously, cross dressing was also used by lesbians, to live their love freely. We can study the famous example of two pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.


(Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, 1724)

Mary called herself Mark and lived her life with Anne, both dressed as men. They were both arrested in Jamaica in 1720. There is no proof that they were intimate and that they were in love with each other, however their story can lead to such interpretation. (Aldrich, 2006, 135). Indeed, as we can see in the drawing by Charles Johnson, they were dressed in men clothes and were also half naked, suggesting a high level of intimacy.

Some women went even beyond cross dressing and married other women, as men would do. They were called Female Husbands.

Some of those marriages were filled with love from both parts. Either they knew that their future husband was a woman but they did not care and still went through with the wedding or they discovered the truth after the wedding but did not report it and continued living together as husband and wife. (Jennings, 2007, 36)

Some of those marriages can also be seen as a romantic friendship gone serious as was the case of the marriage of Mary East aka James How. Indeed, Mr How and Mrs How met when they were teenagers –so there can’t be any doubt about Mrs How not knowing the real gender of her husband. They lived together for several years and opened a small public house. However, when they were blackmailed by someone who knew James’ real gender, they had to tell the public the truth and therefore, had to close their public house and James had to resign from all his offices. (Jennings, 2007, 32)

For some women, marriage was seen as a way to understand their feelings for other women. “Lotte van de Pol and Rudolph Dekker have argued that taking the role of a husband within the institutional framework of a marriage enabled women, psychologically, to make sense of their desire to other women.” (Jennings, 2007, 30) We can also understand that, for single women at the time, life was not easy and it was better then to pass as a man and marry another woman. “ ‘Marriage was a refuge that seemed to offer so much: social status, domestic privacy, economic convenience, a sense of emotional stability, a “No Trespassers” sign for any man casting an eye at that female husband’s wife.’ ” (Jennings, 2007, 30)

But, some of those marriages weren’t based on love. Indeed, some of them were only performed for economic reasons. Lesbians were not punished for being lesbians but they could be punished for fraud. And some women did marry young girls only to take their portions and then left them to go marry another one. We can see an episode of this: “Appeared at the King’s Bench in Westminster hall a young woman in man’s apparel, or that personated a man, who was found guilty of marrying a young maid, whose portion he had obtained and was very nigh of being contracted to a second wife.” […] “Upon the whole she was ordered to Bridewell to be well whipt and kept to hard labour till further order of the court” (Jennings, 2007, 34)

Lesbians in the Eighteenth Century in Britain lived a difficult life. They were seen by society as witches who compelled innocent girls or as women suffering from a disease. Few saw them as happy women living their desires and love freely. They had to hide their love and their true self by dressing as men and even by marrying women. They were even less free than heterosexual women at the time. However, there was no law condemning them for loving other women. “Legal responses to female husbands were similarly unpredictable. Elsewhere in Europe, women could be executed for passing as men or having sex with other women. In England, there were no specific laws against either sexual encounters between women or cross dressing.” (Jennings, 2007, 34). This absence of punishment might have been the only relief British lesbians had on other lesbians around the world.


-Jennings, Rebecca, A Lesbian History of Britain, Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500 (Oxford/ Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007).

-Reynolds, Margaret, The Sappho Companion (London, RU: Chatto & Windus, 2000).

-Rowe, Nicholas, The Poetical Works of Nicholas Rowe (Edinburg, Scotland: Apollo Press, 1781).

-Cavendish, Jack, A Sapphick epistle, from Jack Cavendish to the honourable and most beautiful Mrs. D**** (M. Smith, 1778).

Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, Saturday, 10 August 1728.

– Aldrich, Robert, Une histoire de l’homosexualité. (Paris, FR: Seuil, 2006)


The relationship we have with the body its image and representation has varied through times along with cultural scientific and philosophical evolutions. Today we have specific expectations over what is the proper way to behave stand, talk, dress and look just as 18th century people did. Whether male or female our 21th century perception of the body is cultural.  In other words it evolves with time and consequently with space. Studying the History of the Body in 18th century Britain allowed me to apprehend how a part of our contemporary perception of the body ensued from the perception people had in 18th century. Even if three hundred years separate us from them; I found myself able to understand them better as well as the world we are living in. I chose to focus my essay on pregnancy in 18th century Britain. The first question that crossed my mind was how it felt to be pregnant in the century of Enlightenment. Did pregnant women take advantage of this profusion of new advanced knowledge in science, philosophy, arts, politics, and so on and so forth? In 18th century, women had only a little part to play in society. The low literacy rate of women was both a cause and a consequence of it. Men being more literate than women were it devised and created a hierarchy in British society. Women only had a narrowed place in public life since they did not have the right to vote. However women found a place in the labour market they worked in cottage industry; two third of the women of Cardington in Bedfordshire worked as spinners or lace makers in 1782.  In times of economic struggle they were sent back home which shows how vulnerable they were. Moreover, their low wages did not allow them to access independence therefore being dependent on men through marriage and forced to be a part of a family unit to access security. Yet the law recognized a greater part to women in England compared to other European countries while it permitted them to own land separately from their husband. Apart from women from higher classes, women were free to court and marry whom they pleased since arranged matrimonies were not the norm. It is clear that any social improvement gained by women was acquired under the strong domination of men, as a consequence women’s role in society even if “central to so many aspects of economic life” was “confined to the margins”(1).


    Sculpture Model of a pregnant woman 18th century

Sources that only deal with the state of pregnancy are difficult to come across. To fulfil my study I found primary and secondary sources that helped me to better understand what is was to be pregnant in 18th century Britain. Knowing that women did not have a secured role in the British society I found it interesting to try and show how the elementary and natural act of pregnancy in a way granted them a part to play in society.  In the article “Explaining the Rise in Marital Fertility in England in the ‘Long’ Eighteenth Century” by E. A. Wrigley and the book Or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines, William Buchan , 1785 I learned that medicine wondered and evolved around pregnant women and their state of pregnancy to secure the life of both the mother and the unborn child. In the articles “Maternal Health in the English Aristocracy Myths and Realities 1790-1840” by Judith Schneid Lewis and “Childbearing and Female Bonding in Early Modern England” by Linda A. Pollock I learned how the state of pregnancy permitted women to create a female bond and a social group that pressed with all its weigh in the British society. And finally in the article “Illegitimacy in Eighteenth-Century Westminster” by Nicholas Rogers I learned how society organized around illegitimate pregnancies and how the rise of illegitimacy can be a sign of a sexual “revolution” for women.

In this context we can ask ourselves how the state of pregnancy did allow women to play a part in 18th century British society. The evolution of medicine and medical research on the state of pregnancy shows how pregnancy was not only considered to be natural anymore but as a “disease” with its cure and symptoms therefore recognizing women the credit they were due, this will be my first part. In addition to this idea the state of pregnancy allowed women to create a strong bond similar to “sisterhood” and exist as a solid social group in the British society, this will be my second part. Finally the British society organized to deal with the problem of illegitimacy in order to make sure that the weight of “bastards” would not be on the community; this shows how society handled illegitimate pregnancies therefore recognizing the right and existence of women in that situation and giving them recourse to ask the father to contribute financially to the unborn child’s life; moreover it can be the sign of a sexual “revolution” for women.

Medicine evolved and stopped considering pregnancy as a natural thing and started to envision it as a “disease” with symptoms and cure. This very realization meant that women were recognized the right to be granted medical care and attention as well as the recognition of pregnancy as something which does not only concerns women but the entire society.

In the 18th century we can note a rise of the fertility rate partly due to improvements of nutrition, and the shortening of the interval between births (2). Medical treatises explaining the way to cure the troubles of pregnancy were published. For example William Buchan gives a proper diet to pregnant women and advises them to eat less of the most nourishing aliments, and do some exercise (3). He also explains the symptoms of pregnancy like heart burn, morning sicknesses, headaches or toothache, incontinency of urine, difficulty of breathing. To cure those symptoms he advises to eat prunes, figs, roasted apples and if the pain is too strong he recommends the use of bleeding. He offers a routine to secure the pregnancy advises pregnant ladies to wake up early and go to bed early (4). Moreover he explains that the mother to be has to be kept calm and comforted. Buchan sets some rules that can ease the troubles of pregnancy, secure the health of both the child and the mother in order to carry the pregnancy to the term (5). Medicine takes a real interest in pregnancy and starts to value the state of pregnancy not as a real disease but as something which deserves medical care and attention. This is the sign of the recognition that pregnant women undergo a real process which put their lives and their children in danger. The common belief ensued from customs and religion that the state of pregnancy is a natural original process is overcome. Women get the credit they deserve for being pregnant thanks to the newly medical interest in them. This is a sign of the recognition of their identity as women by the society.


1)     Woman’s jacket, maternity, quilted white cotton Jacket belonging to three-piece maternity ensemble of quilted white cotton with thin cotton wadding and coarse cotton backing. Jacket is tight fitting with center lacing; cut short in front allowing points of vest to extend below natural waistline. Untrimmed low neckline. Back of jacket is shaped to fit closely, then flared into full pleated and gathered peplum ‘skirt,’ ending with deep point at center back waist. Long fitted sleeves have vent at wrist, each closed with three linen covered buttons. Trimmed with 3/4″ looped linen fringe. Jacket designed to be laced over under vest, which expands waistline to accommodate pregnancy. Women had clothes dedicated to pregnancy to ease their ordinary life while pregnant. This shows how women tried to find ways to handle the state of pregnancy and make it easier to go through.


     Woman’s under waistcoat for maternity Under vest belonging to three-piece ensemble of quilted white cotton with thin cotton wadding and coarse cotton backing. Under waistcoat is sleeveless with high neckline. Open, straight front extends to shaped points below natural waist. Only front panels and back shoulder area are quilted in diamond pattern; lower back panel is plain cotton with worked eyelets to adjust size. Seams turned out. Garment is intended to wear under jacket to fill in enlarging waistline of pregnancy.

The role of women in 18th century British society was little as we already said. Women were wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers in a patriarchal society where men imposed their domination firmly (6). The British upper-class contributed largely to creation of a “cult of domesticity” (7) placing the women at the heart of the household. This common rule affected the way men and women interacted with each other. Some historians consider the implication of male doctors in pregnancy as a theft of women most fundamental experience (8). Male doctors conveyed male “chauvinism” (9) of the British society. Some even argue that the medical implication in pregnancy attacked the trust women had in their ability to be pregnant and to be mothers (10). Some doctors accused the way of living of upper class women as incompatible with the state of pregnancy. Many books and treatises led upper-class women to believe in this idea that they were less capable to become pregnant and carry a child than less advantaged women (11).

Pregnancy was managed by women themselves as a “collective female ritual”(12) nourished with solidarity and sisterhood. Medical recipe books were often written by women and transmitted from generations to generations, the idea of sharing the experience was quite important even if the relationship between women cannot be idealized. Women supported themselves emotionality and technically as part of the same group. It created a female bond, a link between them which strengthened the existence of a social group of women (13).  This is the creation of a “female culture” and identity in the British society. They organize themselves support help and transmit the knowledge they have. The solidarity was preeminent their bond permitted them to interact with one another in a social group. Thanks to this solidarity they exist as a group in a society which neglected their participation to public life (14).

Until 17th century illegitimacy was consider improper. Sexual intercourses were admitted between married men and women. The Poor Law Act of 1576 and 1610 punished the parents of illegitimate children because they were not able to support their children therefore obliging the community to support the price. Local authorities refused to take charge of the illegitimate pregnancies. In 18th century however there was a rise of illegitimacy pregnancies directly resulted from the rise of pre-nuptial pregnancies and sexual intercourses. Industrialization and urbanization can be seen as some of the causes of this major switch in morality and sexual behaviours. It favored the rise of illicit sexual activities between journeyman in tailoring or carpentry and shoemaking and single women. Some historians argued that this is the sign of a sexual “revolution”. 80 to 95% of women who were pregnant with illegitimate children were single, some of them were widows. Some were maids or housemaids employed in inns, taverns, shops or modest households. Most of these women lived in London for a long time before they got pregnant with an illegitimate child. The common image of a lonely country girl coming to the big city and gets pregnant within the months following her arrival is a myth; most single women engaged themselves in sexual relationships after they had found a job. They were women who supported themselves and had worked in the city for several years before they became pregnant with an illegitimate child Most single women entered sexual relationships after, and sometimes well after, their entry into the service economy”(15). Most of these illicit unions happened in households or neighborhoods “Margaret Hind, the servant to a victualler in Portugal Street, testified that she entered a sexual relationship with an esquire’s servant in nearby Lincoln’s Inn Fields whom she met “by carrying Beer” to his master’s house. Mary Evans, on the other hand, became pregnant by a footman who lodged at her parents; while Frances Hutcheson met her lover through her uncle with whom she lived near Temple Gate. He was a journeyman to her uncle’s resident landlord”. Here is the idea of a sexual “revolution” we need to use this concept wisely but it is clear that those women were a part of a generation which did not  envisioned marriage as the only solution to find security. Those women had a job they were independent and it seems like they almost decided when they had children and most importantly with whom. In 1733 an act toughened the laws against men responsible of illegitimate pregnancies women who got pregnant were granted the right to demand money to the man whom they were having a child from. By this mean women pregnant outside of marriage were granted protection. The society recognized their vulnerability as women and offered them the protection they needed. Single women had rights and could almost act on an equal foot with men. Single women pregnant with illegitimate child had a place in society; the law admitted their existence and offered them protection. Even if the main goal was to avoid the community to pay for the illegitimate unborn child it is undeniable that the growing number of illegitimate pregnancies and sexual intercourses outside of marriage shows a slipping of morals and a sexual and social liberation for women.


      Petticoat, maternity, quilted white cotton 1780-1795 England Petticoat belonging to a three-piece maternity gown of quilted white cotton. Full quilted skirt is gathered to waistband, fastening with tape ties at pocket slits on hips. Quilting is done in ground pattern of small diamond lozenges with border around hem and on each side of center front seam showing compartments formed by undulating floral bands. Thin cotton batting and coarse backing. Made from an old bed quilt.

Women had but a narrow place in 18th century British society. Men were dominant and strongly affirmed their domination over women. However pregnancy offered women exclusivity something they had for themselves aside from men. Medicine research studied pregnancies and elevated it to the range of medical matter therefore recognizing the act performed by women as important unique and essential. Pregnancy now had its cure and symptoms. Around this fundamental experience women gathered and organized themselves forming a social group with tight link of sisterhood. Pregnant women formed a social group in a society that did not give them any credit since pregnancy was considered natural and originally attributed to women. I cannot say that women obtained a social position and identity thanks to pregnancy. But it is undeniable that pregnancy allowed women to realize that they belonged to a group which society could not ignore anymore. Indeed society had no choice but to admit that women existed and belonged to it when the loosening of moral values and therefore growing number of illicit sexual intercourses resulted in a rise of illegitimacy pregnancies.


    A courtroom scene with a judge, a pregnant woman, a guilty looking man and an angry wife. Engraving by T. Cook after W. Hogarth. In this image a young woman comes to court to force the father of her illegitimate unborn child to recognize the existence of his child. This shows the emergence of illegitimate pregnancies and how society recognized women the right to protect themselves against illegitimacy. 

(1)  Robert Allan Houston, “British Society in the Eighteenth Century”, Journal of BritishStudies, Vol. 25, No. 4, Re-Viewing the Eighteenth Century (Oct.,1986), (Edited by The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The North American Conference on British Studies, 436-466, 450

(2)  E.Wrigley,  “Explaining the Rise in Marital Fertility in England in the ‘Long’ Eighteenth Century”, in The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Aug., 1998), (edited by Wiley on behalf of the Economic History Society Table), 435-464.

(3)  Or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines, William Buchan , 1785 ,530-532

(4)  Ibid

(5)  Ibid

(6)  Robert Allan Houston, “British Society in the Eighteenth Century”, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4, Re-Viewing the Eighteenth Century (Oct.,1986), (edited by The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The North American Conference on British Studies), 436-466, 448.

(7)  Judith Schneid, “Maternal Health in the English Aristocracy: Myths and Realities 1790-1840”, Journal of Social History, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Autumn, 1983), (Edited by : Oxford University PressStable), 97-114,  97.

(8)  Ibid.

(9)  ibid.

(10)                 ibid.

(11)                 ibid 98.

(12)                  Linda A. Pollock, “Childbearing and Female Bonding in Early Modern England, Social History, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Oct., 1997), (Edited by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd), 286-306, 289.

(13)                  Ibid.

(14)                 Ibid 288.

(15)                  Nicholas Rogers, “Illegitimacy in Eighteenth-Century Westminster, Journal of Social History, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1989), (Edited by: Oxford University PressStable), 355-375, 358.


Nicholas Rogers, “Illegitimacy in Eighteenth-Century Westminster, Journal of Social History, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1989), (Edited by: Oxford University PressStable), 355-375.

Or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines, William Buchan , 1785, 530-532

Linda A. Pollock, “Childbearing and Female Bonding in Early Modern England, Social History, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Oct., 1997), (Edited by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd), 286-306.

Robert Allan Houston, “British Society in the Eighteenth Century”, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4, Re-Viewing the Eighteenth Century (Oct.,1986), (edited by The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The North American Conference on British Studies), 436-466.

Judith Schneid, “Maternal Health in the English Aristocracy: Myths and Realities 1790-1840”, Journal of Social History, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Autumn, 1983), (Edited by : Oxford University PressStable), 97-114.


E. A. Wrigley,  “Explaining the Rise in Marital Fertility in England in the ‘Long’ Eighteenth Century”, in The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Aug., 1998), (edited by Wiley on behalf of the Economic History Society Table), 435-464.



     After the death of his brother Er, Onan was told by his father Judah to fullfill his duty, that is to say marry his sister in law and have children with her to keep the family line alive. But, when Onan had sex with Tamar he withdrew before climax and spilled his seed on the floor. Because of that he died prematurely as God had warned. (Book of Genesis, Chapter 38)


     So when talking about onanism or onania one seem to be referring to the “sin of Onan” as seen above. Since Onania or the heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its Frightfull Consequences in both Sexes  came out around 1712, there was a fusion between the terms “onania” and “masturbation”. Yet, the only similarity between the meaning of these two words is the idea of loss of semen they convey . It seems that when using the word “onania,” the anonymous author was only trying to give his work a religious authority. In fact, according to him “[his] great aim is to promote virtue and christian purity, and to discourage vice and uncleanness”. Moreover, his remarks are introduced and accompanied by scriptural interpretations. Paradoxically, this book marked a change in the way of apprehending the question of masturbation going from an entire religious view to a medical one. Masturbation was not only morally wrong, a sin, it became the source of all kind of diseases, or should we say, many diseases already existing could now be traced back to this sin of self-pollution. This medicalisation of the word was confirmed by the coming of Dr Tissot’s book L’Onanisme, essai sur les maladies produites par la masturbation (first edited in 1860). Compared to the anonymous author of  Onania, Tissot tried to base his analysis on science and on science only. Even though the two books bear te same title, Tissot was not kind towards his predecessor of which he said “[it] is real chaos… one of the most unconnected production thas has appeared for a long time”(Laqueur, 2003, 39). He also insisted that there were no similarity between the two books. Compared to the author of Onania, Tissot is not interested in the religious aspect of masturbation. He only treats the question from a medical point of view and does not see Onania as scientifically accurate. However, both works were roughly organised the same way. They both treated the question of masturbation around three axes ; causes, consequences and cure. 


  In Onania, the anonymous author explains that the main cause for masturbation is ignorance. Because of idleness or loneliness, young people learn to masturbate without understanding how wrong or dangerous this is. Moreover, since there is no witness to the act they cannot learn, they do not feel shame or guilt. Boys too shy to approach girls can satisfy themselves and girls can use it “to combat strong desires” and refuse disadvantageous matches. Finally, the lack of punishment compared to other sins such the death penalty for sodomie encouraged the practice. Tissot does not offer any reason as to why masturbation spread among the youth. However, he does explains why mastubation is at the origin of diseases.  He argued that semen was essential in maintaining the equilibrium of the body. The lost of semen caused the body to weaken. Considering that almost a century separates both works we can clearly see the evolution from a religious and moral condemnation to a total medicalisation of the concept.

   The list of diseases deriving from masturbation is quite impressive. Onania‘s author talks of gonnorrheas, thin and waterish seed, fainting fits and epilepsies, consumtions, loss of erection and premature ejaculation, and infertility. If children came along they were expected to be sick and weakly, “ a misery to themselves, a dishonour to Human Race, and a Scandal to teir parents” ( Onania, 1712). As for women they suffered the same consequences as men and a few on their own such as imbecility, hysteric fits and barrenness. Similar conclusions can be found in Tissot and he too believes that women suffers more than men from the practise. He writes “outre les symptômes que j’ai déjà rapporté, les femmes sont plus paticulièrement exposées à des accès d’hystérie ou de vapeur, affreux, à des jaunites incurables, à des crampes cruelles de l’estomac et du dos, à de vives douleurs du nez, à des pertes blanches […], à des prolongements du clitoris, à des freuns utérines qui, leur enlevant à la fois la pudeur et la raison, les mettent au niveau des brutes les plus lassives.”(Tissot, 1764,58). Finally, According to Jalade-Lafond in Considérations sur les hernies abdominales, sur les bandages herniaires rénixigrades et sur de nouveaux moyens de s’opposer à l’onanisme (1823), « les effets les plus communs sont l’affaiblissement général, le manque d’accroissement […], le développement du corps n’est pas achevé, la maigreur, la décoloration, […] des convulsions, l’épilepsie, l’hypocondrie, des palpitations, des éruptions se manifestent sur la figure ou sur d’autres parties du corps. Les facultés mentales se dégradent et s’affaiblissent comme les forces physiques […] le malade finit par tomber un état de démence ou d’itiotisme qui le rapproche de la brute », (Jalade-Lafond, 1823, 445 ,446).


   When it comes to the cure, Onania‘s author advocates prayors but also a very specific cure. You see, his plan was according to him to originally publish a warning against masturbation accompanied by translations of various phycisians prescriptions to cure the ills that it caused. However, he realized that the ingredients to make the cure would have been terribly expensive and that the medicines were too complex for patients to make themselves. So he transferred his rights over them to a medical friend who in return had thousand copies of Onania printed as his own expense. He supposedly gave the medicine for free but it was not long before it proved too expensive and he started selling them. Ironically, Tissot, a respected scientist who looked down on Onania, only adviced to live a healthy life as a cure with diets and cold bath.


Guillaume Jalade-Lafond created corsets in order to stop this sin of self pollution first for men and later for women.

“C’est un bandage ou corset. Il se compose d’une large ceinture en toile grise ou en nankin, quelquefois d’une espèce de chemise ou juste-au-corps, en toile lacé par derrière, que des épaulettes retiennent en haut, et qu’un demi caleçon assujettit inférieurement, de manière qu’il ne peut ni descendre ni monter . Une suite d’élastiques se voient en avant , pour que ce bandage se prête aux différents états d’expansion ou de resserrement de la poitrine ou du ventre, un écusson en argent, en vermeil ou en or, ayant la forme des parties génitales, et proportionné à leur volume est placé en bas de la ceinture, et reçoit la verge et les bourses […] . Le canal qui reçoit le pénis est plus grand que l’organe lui même […] . Les érections elles-mêmes peuvent avoir lieu; mais n’étant plus exitées par des attouchements manuels, elles sont de peu de durée et deviennent de plus en rares; et c’est ainsi que le sujet finit par perdre l’habitude de l’onanisme.( Jalade-Lafond, 1823,12).



   The most interesting point about the condemnation of masturbation in the eighteenth century is that it put both men and women on an equal foot. Indeed, one was not more guilty than the other.  However, although women are mentioned, compared to men they are almost ignored. Tissot devoted less than a chapter to the question of female masturbation. In the case of Onania, very few letters sent by women were published. The beginning of an explanation can be found in Tissot, and more generally in the causes they believed made masturbation the source of diseases. He argued that semen was essential to the body and loosing it would cause the body to weaken. Obviously, the loss of semen happens through orgasm. Before the eighteenth century, male and female bodies were believed to be variants of one kind, according Imageto Tomas Laqueur ; «  the vagina is imagined as an interior penis, the labia as foreskin, the uterus as scrotum and the testicules as ovaries. » (Laqueur, 1990 , 4). Laqueur also suggested that the eighteenth century marked the change between a one body model to a two bodies model in other words a distinction between the male and the female body. During the century, other theories appeared saying that female orgasm was not needed to make children. Going from there, women’s pleasure became less and less important. From being perceived as sexually aggressive women went on to be seen as sexually passive. If we draw the link with Tissot and the fact that the loss of semen (that is to say orgasm) through masturbation is the causes for the diseases that follow, it could explain why the question of female masturbation was less treated in the eighteenth century, because of a reluctance to associate women and sexual pleasure.

   Masturbation as a cause for disease is an idea born at t beginning of te eighteenthcentury with Onania. Paradoxically, this book based on no scientific knowledge was the basis for many others to come . It is only in the twentieth century that phycisians recognized that masturbation was not at the origin of various diseases.



Anonymous,Onania or the heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its Frightfull Consequences in both Sexes, 

London, 1724.


 Jalade-Lafond,Guillaume, Considérations sur la confection des corsets et de ceintures propres à s’opposer à

la pernicieuse habitude de l’onanisme, Paris: chez l’auteur, 1819


Tissot, Samuel Auguste L’onanisme. Dissertation sur les maladies produites par la masturbation, Éd.: La Différence, réédité en 1998


 MacDonald,Robert H.”The Frightful Consequences of Onanism: Notes on the History of a Delusion”, Journal

of the History of Ideas, Vol. 28 (Jul. – Sep., 1967), pp. 423-431


 Stolberg, Michael “Self-Pollution, Moral Reform, and the Venereal Trade: Notes on the Sources and Historical Context of Onania (1716) “, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 9 (Jan. – Apr., 2000), pp. 37- 61


 Hall, Lesley A”Forbidden by God, Despised by Men: Masturbation, Medical Warnings, Moral Panic, and 

Manhood in Great Britain, 1850-1950″, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 2, No. 3, Special Issue, Part 2:

The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe (Jan., 1992), pp. 365-387


 Laqueur, Thomas W. Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, Zone Books, 2004

Laqueur, Thomas, Making sex : body and gender from the greeks to freud, Harvard University Pree, 1992




Throughout the 18th century, women’s dresses changed constantly as did the concepts of beauty. A noticeable aspect that appeared in England in the beginning of the 18th century was the widespread fashion for extremely large skirts. In order to expand the width of their dresses, women in every social class wore hooped petticoats, which would later be referred to as panniers, after the French word “panier” meaning “basket” since they resembled baskets fastened around a woman’s waist.[1] Even servants could wear small hoops. These panniers were made of wood, whalebone, metal or reeds and were designed to hold out the upper petticoat and skirt. They expanded skirts to widths as large as several feet at each side, so large, that two women could not walk through a doorway at the same time or sit on a couch together, which gave rise to humorous commentary on the part of men. Since wearing such an apparel was not even comfortable for women – indeed it made all their actions like walking, sitting, getting into a carriage require great skill -, it is worth wondering to what extent these big hoops were emblematic of their gender role and what people, notably men, generally thought of it.



A pannier clothing dating from the 18th century




The gender roles assigned to women in the 18th century were very different from those allotted to men. Men, as the stronger sex, were thought to be intelligent, courageous, and determined. Women, on the other hand, were said to be more governed by their emotions, and their virtues were expected to be chastity, modesty and piety.[2] These differences were echoed in the flaws to which each sex was thought to be predisposed. Men were prone to violence and selfishness, while women were associated with vices such as excessive passion, laziness or materialism, which could be seen in the way they dressed up. An eighteenth-century Englishwoman’s world revolved around beauty and domesticity. Prosperous marriage was the goal for most women of the eighteenth century. Beauty, grace and charms were means used to achieve this end. Besides, as the writer Robert W. Jones stated in his book Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain: “the role and concept of beauty was often used to describe the role and significance of women in eighteenth century society; moreover it was a reference which could both damn and endorse the presence of women, suggesting that they refined society or that they disgraced it with their absurdity and presumption”.


As it happened, the iconic silhouette of the time was that of the rectangularly panniered dress that accentuated the smallness of the waist and enlarged hips. Though, the width of panniers could range from modest to extreme, the larger panniers were generally reserved for formal occasions because they were representative of a woman’s economic status. The larger and the more conspicuous their dresses were, the wealthier women were supposed to be for it required not only a great amount of tissue but also a lot of work from the tailors to make such outfits.



A 1750 English Court Dress

This brocaded silk dress exemplifies the extremes to which panniers were sometimes taken by the mid-eighteenth century. Such a dress enjoyed popularity among British aristocrats as it simultaneously announced the wealth, rank and position (actual or desired) of the wearer.


However, the fashion was quite often pointed out as being ridiculous and women were being made fun of for wearing dresses that spread over so much space.

For instance, in 1750, “The Gentleman’s Magazine” published a satirical article, according to which women themselves wanted to reduce the size of their hoop-petticoats:

“The hoop is but an uncouth addition to us, as it is now modelled, in the eyes of men, who make no scruple to assert, not only that it was the invention of some shoplifter for facilitating the conveyance of stolen goods, but that we look as if we carried a hamper on either side under our coats, and gives us such an enormous croup, as renders us quite out of proportion. We pass along, as it were, balancing between two icales. Every person we meet, every post we pass, and every corner we turn, incumber our way, and obstruct our progress. We fit in a chair hid up to our very ears on either side, like a swan with her head between her lifted wings. The whole side of a coach is hardly capacious enough for one of us. We go up a pair of stairs, as if we were pushing some great burden before us, and with our lifted hoops in our hands, expose such a hollow in coming down as surprises all below us. In short, every convenience attends on our reducing this awkward circumference within a reasonable compass, save only that, as we employ our hands so much in the conduct of it, we may be at a loss how to dispose of them, when it no longer requires their assistance.”

Gen. Advertiser, March 15.

The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1750.


This article called to mind some funny images like that of a woman stealing stuff and hiding it under her dress. It also contrasts with the idea that panniers were intended as a means to display material power.

Among the men that worried about the hoops, some saw them as an indicator that women were announcing independence from the masculine control of their sexual and social lives.  They condemned panniers because they were creating private spaces for women. In 1745, an author known as A. W. vehemently attacked the panniers in an essay titled The enormous abomination of the hoop-petticoat. He presented himself as someone who, far from being a woman-hater, spoke in females’ interest and who was moreover in a good position to do so because he was “young enough to retain clear, strong and pleasing ideas of whatsoever is truly beautiful and lovely in the other Sex”. Conjuring up the way their several feet wide skirts made it difficult for women to pass through a door, or get into a coach or even sit on a chair, he asked : “Was ever sight more odious and ridiculous?” and went on by asserting that not only were they inconvenient for the wearers themselves (though he believed that it could even cause death : “Many hundreds, I doubt not, have got their Deaths by them.”) but that they gave trouble to everyone else as well in society. According to him indeed, men were uncomfortable in public assemblies because one woman would take as much space as two or three of them, leaving no room for them. The same thing happened in churches and did not allow men to pray and follow the mass properly. Thus, the writer chided hoops as being incompatible with modesty and piety, which were probably the most important features expected from women at the time : “Modesty which used to be the most amiable and most distinguishing character of That Sex seems now to be as much out of Fashion as the Hoop is in Fashion”. He argued that some went to church only to show off themselves and make a display of their petticoats. In short, he denounced them as being contrary to the law of reason and nature because of its disproportion, its expensiveness and the inconvenience it induced for both women who wore it and their circle of friends and family, or men who simply found themselves around them; and contrary to the law of God “as being inconsistent with the Modesty, Sobriety and Humility of the Christian Religion”. What was probably the most shocking to him was probably the fact that hoops looked like a challenge to men’s domination over women and they emphasized the movement of the hips in a way that exuded female sensuality.

Even some women were critical of the current mode for females as the satirical verses written by Mrs. Selby, who was a mantua-maker in the 18th century, show:



I own the female world is much estranged
From what it was, and top and bottom changed:
The head was once their darling constant care,
But women’s heads can’t heavy burdens bear–
As much, I mean as they can do elsewhere;
So wisely they transferred the mode of dress,
And furnished t’other end with the excess
What tho’ like spires or pyramids they show,
Sharp at the top, and vast of bulk below?
It is a sign they stand the more secure:
A maypole will not like a church endure
And ships at sea, when stormy winds prevail
Are safer in their ballast than their sail.




In this poem, she made fun of the way fashion was inconstant and weird, alluding to the extravagant hairstyles that prevailed in the earlier decades and probably gave women headaches, and the way that trend had now been replaced by the craze for panniers, which looked to her like “pyramids”. She associated them with trees so as to suggest that such garments were so heavy and voluminous that nothing, not even a tempest, seemed likely to make women lose their balance. That was ironic as it has often been noticed that women’s large dresses were very uncomfortable and therefore, if one stumbled or tripped over her dress and fell down, that felt like the most shameful thing which could happen to her.

At the same time, some people thought that the extremely wide skirts women wore were truly fashionable. As a response to the virulent work by W.A, Jack Lovelass published in 1745, The hoop-petticoat vindicated, in which he rejected all the arguments that had been put forward by his contemporary fellow. “Great Hoops are so far from being a hurt to the Society, that they are of very singular Service to it; by encouraging and finding Work for a great Number of Hands, that would otherwise be unemployed.” he declared, thus refuting the idea that it was a foolish expense.

Wide skirts grew very popular in the first half of the 18th century, then the size of hoops for everyday wear began to gradually reduce and panniers became out of vogue at the end of the century, though the crinoline would soon replace it and widen the skirts as well. Panniers had been a synonym of feminity throughout the time they were in vogue. Indeed, they emphasized feminine assets valued in European culture such as full hips and bust, separated by a thin waist while tightly covering real shape, especially of legs. Furthermore, the dual position of women as both agents of corruption and idle ornament is one of the most often repeated ideas about women – at least society women – in eighteenth-century culture. Hence, at a time when the role of the women from socially leading bourgeoisie and rising middle class was to take care of the household and reflect the social status of their husband and family, rich dress, restricting movements was becoming a visible mark of a social position. And although several critics of this style emanated, mostly from men, the extreme width of women’s dresses at this period even influenced the architectural style, for instance, James Laver pointed out: “the curved balusters of eighteenth-century staircases.”


A side view of panniers




Sources :

James Laver, Costume and Fashion, Thames & Hudson, 2002


Robert W. Jones, Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Analysis of Beauty, Cambridge University Press, 1998


Linda Baumgarten, Eighteenth Century Clothing At Williamsburg, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1986


Article by Irene Lewison Bequest on the Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site, 1973


A. W., Esq, The enormous abomination of the hoop-petticoat, as The Fashion Now is, And has been For about these Two Years Fully Display’d: In some Reflexions upon it, Humbly offer’d to the Consideration of Both Sexes; especially the Female, London, 1745.


Lovelass, Jack, The hoop-Petticoat vindicated, in answer to The Enormous Abomination of the Hoop-Petticoat. By the Ladies most humble Servant Jack Lovelass, London, 1745.


Extract from an article by The Gentleman’s Magazine


Mrs Shelby, The Corset and the Crinoline, 1911


[1] James Laver, Costume and Fashion, Thames & Hudson, 2002

[2]  Robert W. Jones, Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Analysis of Beauty, Cambridge University Press, 1998


Today, the science of medicine regards the concept of menstruation as a term referring to the physiological process of discharging blood from the lining of the uterus at approximately monthly intervals and peculiar to the woman’s body only, thus serving to underline the biological distinction between the male and female organism in terms of sex and physiology.  Yet, it seems that 18th century medical though observed this particular type of periodical evacuation in a broader perspective by regarding the menses as a notion giving larger comprehension of womanhood. In particular, a part from highlighting the biological distinction of the woman’s body from that of the man, catamenia, or the discharge of blood from the uterus, also served as a reference to social and cultural differences between men and women, encouraging a distinction between the female and the male not only in terms of sex, but also in terms of gender, thus creating a broad web of attitudes and representations of the female individual. This can make us wonder how women were perceived though the concept of menstruation and how cycles were central to the perception of womanhood in 18th century. In order to answer these questions, as a starting point we shall examine the menses as a physiological process shaping the perception of woman’s place and role in society. Then, we will focus our attention on menstruation as a monthly malady contributing to the representation of the female individual as physically and emotionally unreliable.

The menses as a physiological process shaping the perception of the woman’s place and role in society

In the course of the 18th century, as the historian Alexandra Lord notes, medical observations led “theorists to conclude that menstruation was limited to the female sex” (Alexandra Lord, 1999, 41), thus presenting the concept of menstruation as a central notion in the comprehension of woman’s physics as well as the development of perceptions of womanhood. Moreover, Lord’s further observations that “examinations of menstrual blood led more and more theorists to reject the ancient Greek’s characterization of the fluid as ′so venomous, and malignant, as to be almost ranked among Poysons′” (Alexandra Lord, 1999, 44) may allow one see that the menses was no longer perceived in negative terms. On the contrary, this peculiar for the female individual physiological process was beginning to be comprehended as a sign indicating woman’s maturity to engage in marital relationship. It was also perceived as an evidence for her physical capacity and readiness to secure the future generations which shaped the perception of the woman’s place and role in society.

The physiological phenomenon of menstruation and its very first appearance allowed society, as well as the woman herself, to acknowledge the physical maturity of the female body and envisage the female individual as ready to enter marriage and find its place and status in society as a wife. Indeed, historians point out the idea that in the 18th century, “some writers hint that the onset of menstruation signaled physical maturity; Bacon referred to the onset of ‘the flowers’ as marking a life-stage” whereas “consummation of a marriage may have been deferred until a young wife began to menstruate” (Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, 1998, 79). Therefore, the very first appearance of the menses was presented as a sign of transition of the girl’s body from childhood to womanhood, thus indicating women’s readiness to begin a new phase of their life and contributing to the perception of the female individual as one whose status should be that of a married woman. The idea of woman’s cycles as a central notion in perceiving womanhood through the prism of marriage is furthermore reinforced by 18th century popular medicine according to which “the inclinations of Maids to marriage is to be known by many Symptoms, for when they arrive to Puberty (which is about the 14th or 15th year of their Age) then their Natural Purgations begin to flow; and then the blood, which no longer taken to augment their Bodies abounding, stir up their Minds to Venery” (Aristotle’s Masterpiece, 1717). In this order of reflections, it seems that the appearance of the menses was understood not only as a sign of physical maturity, but also as physiological process which triggered sexual indulgences within the woman’s mind and therefore marked her readiness to engage in a sexual intercourse with a male. Therefore, women were all the more urged to commit themselves to married life and share it with a representative from the opposite sex so as to answer social expectations regarding the female gender whose place in society was considered to be that of the wife. By comparison to women, physicians also agreed that “marriage […] is a state which is suited to man, and in which he ought to employ the additional faculties he has acquired by puberty”. Indeed, in the 18th century, similarly to the female individual’s fate after the arrival of her menses “marriage [was] the natural state of man after puberty” and men were likewise limited on what concerns the number of their partners since “a man ought to have but one wife, and woman but one husband” (Georges Buffon, 1792, 49).

Menstruation tended to be defined by physicians through the concept of “periodical evacuation”. In particular, according to Hamilton, “women […] are subject to a certain Evacuation, which recurs periodically generally every fourth week” the beginning of which “introduces an important change in the female constitution” (Alexander Hamilton, 1974, 75). Hamilton’s allusion that the discharge of blood from the uterus is indeed an “important change” may lead us think that the concept of menstruation was also presented as a phenomenon central to woman’s reproductive potential, thus establishing a link between women and their role of a mothers and shaping the perception of the female sex as the one confined to procreation. In particular, according to Thomas Denman, an 18th century physician, menstrual blood “was designed to preserve the uterus in a state fit for conception” since medical observations proved that “women who do not menstruate from the uterus […] cannot conceive” (Thomas Denman, 1788, 160-161). Denman’s observations upon the connection between the menses, the uterus and conception may be furthermore exemplified through Gautier Dagoty’s image which, although not including any explicit signs of menstruation in its painting, exemplifies 18th century medical thought according to which the female body, together with the process of procreation and the biological functions performed by uterus, were unquestionably linked, thus confining women the function of procreating and giving life.

Sans titre.jpg‘’Standing pregnant woman from side and seated woman wih interns open’’, 1773
From: Anatomie des parties de la génération de l’homme et de la femme … jointe a l’angéologie de tout le corps humain, e a ce qui concerne la grossesse et les accouchemens
By: Gautier Dagoty
Published: J.B. Brunet & Demonville,Paris:  1773, Plate V, Size: (fol.), Collection: Rare Books, Full Bibliographic Record: Link to Wellcome Library Catalogue

But it appears that menstrual blood had been considered as a phenomenon performing a double function since a part from securing the health of the woman’s body and in particular, the uterus, the menses also represented a “supply of Blood which Women ought to collect for the use and aliment of their Offspri” during pregnancy (John Freind, 1729, 48-49). Therefore, the idea that catamenia, or menstrual blood, were perceived as central to the woman’s body biological functions helped shaping the perception of female’s reproductive potential and the female individual as confined to the function of childbearing.

As one can see, if menstruation was understood as an essential physiological process for women, it was because on the one hand, it indicated physical maturity pointing at woman’s readiness to engage herself in marriage while on the other hand, it was also comprehended as an indicator of a healthy organism ready to secure the continuation of the family and the future generation, thus shaping a positive perception of women and their role in society who were therefore ultimately seen as the epitome of fertility, as wives and mother-figures. And yet, this powerful vision of womanhood was questioned since menstruation and pre-menstrual suffering could be also represented as characteristics of the female’s body indicating weakness.

Menstruation as a monthly malady contributing for the representation of the female individual as physically and emotionally weak

In the 18th century, menstruation was presented as a physiological process which gave women the strength and capacity of conceiving whereas menstrual blood was considered as essential for the growth of the fetus. And yet, that “divine providence”, as called in Aristotle’s Masterpiece, was also represented as a monthly malady rendering the periodical discharge of blood a painful experience which not only affected woman’s mood and behavior but also shaped the perception of women as physically and emotionally weak.

In the course of the 18th century, as the historian Alexandra Lord observes, “the onset and continuing presence of catamenia marked the nadir of a woman’s physical well-being” (Alexandra Lord, 1999, 57). Indeed, by contrast to early 18th century popular medicine exemplified through Aristotle’s Masterpiece, by the end of the 18th century medical observations started focusing on the various phenomena surrounding the cycles rather than questioning the redistribution of gender roles through the concept of the menses. In particular, physicians like Hamilton marked the existence of pre-menstrual suffering which, among many others, tended to cause “depraved appetite, impaired digestion, frequent headache, and hardness and tightness of the breasts” (Alexander Hamilton, 1794, 75) so as to represent the female body’s weak constitution and fragility and shape the perception of women as characterized by physical weakness and delicacy.  The idea of the woman’s fallible physique during the period of her cycles may be furthermore reinforced by Denman’s observation according to whom “the pain with which some women menstruate at each period, is sufficient, from its violence and duration, to render a great part of their lives miserable” (Thomas Denman, 1788, 172). Denman’s observation does not only present womanhood as characterized by physical weakness, but also reveals the attitude of 18th century medical observations according to which, the representatives of the female sex were rather perceived as victims, entrapped in their body and overwhelmed by their own natural bodily functions, thus victimizing women through the biological process of menses.

But apart from being central to the presentation of women as physically weak, pre-menstrual suffering was also considered to be the cause of women’s emotional instability before and during menstruation. For instance, Anna Larpent, an 18th century housewife, described herself as “very unwell & low. Murmuring. Unhappy” and compared her emotional status to an “inconceivable state of depression” (Anna Larpent, 1773–1783). Larpent goes even further in her attempts to depict her gloomy mood by stating that she “was relieved by Hysterics”. In her article, the historian Marilyn Morris seeks for a justification of Larpent’s peculiar physical and psychological dispositions and arrives to the conclusion that “the journals reveal Larpent to have been plagued by a short menstrual cycle” which gives reasoning to her “hormonal mood swings” and points out the source of her complains as being the one of the menses (Marilyn Morris, 2010, 96). Larpent’s diaries and Morris’ diagnosis make one question to what extent society perceived women as psychically stable and reliable during their periodical evacuation since the female individual herself seems to challenge the trustworthiness of her own emotions by comparing them to diagnosis such as depression and hysterics, both being medical terms depicting mental conditions characterized by severe feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy and lack of interest in life. Indeed, the perception of womanhood as emotionally unstable during menstruation was furthermore developed by historians, such as Stolberg, whose researches point out the idea that in the 18th century, the female individual was “subject to very peculiar caprices, to whims of character and taste” whose “intellectual capacities were diminished”. Stolberg also concludes that “in extreme cases […] the periodical deterioration of a pre-existing epilepsy, mania or hysteria could be observe” (Michael Stolberg, 2000, p.312) so as to suggest that women’s intellectual capacities and emotional reliability were highly undermined due to pre-menstrual suffering, thus reinforcing the idea that menstruation was presented as a monthly malady which contributed for the perception of the female sex as characterized by emotional instability.

As one can see, in 18th century, the concept of menstruation was not perceived as a mere biological process underlining the distinction between the male and the female sex. On the contrary, the menses was presented as a notion allowing a broader comprehension of womanhood. In particular, it was an indicator for the maturity of the female body and an essential bodily substance indispensable for the nourishment of the fetus, thus presenting a powerful vision of womanhood and determining women’s place and role and society as wives and mothers. And yet, it seems that menstruation and menstrual disorder were also presented as a counterpoint to this vision since through the prism of pre-menstrual suffering and disorder, women were characterized as physically and emotionally unstable and unreliable individuals, thus creating a complicated ensemble of attitudes and representations of the female sex and representing the cycles as a central notion to the perception of womanhood in the 18th century.


 Primary Sources Secondary Sources:

  • Alexandra Lord, “′The Great Arcana of the Deity′ Menstruation and Menstrual Disorders in Eighteenth-Century British Medical Thought”, Bulletin of the History of medicine 73.1, 1999: pp.38-63
  • Michael Stolberg, “The monthly malady: A history of premenstrual suffering”, Medical History, Volume 44, issue 03, 2000: 301-322
  • Marilyn Morris, “Negotiating domesticity in the Journals of Anna Larpent”, Journal of Women History, Volume 22, Number 1, Spring 2010: pp.85-106
  • Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, Women in Early Modern England: 1550-1720, Oxford University Press Inc., New York, 1998

Primary Sources:

  • Alexander Hamilton, “The family female physician: or, A treatise on the management of female complaints, and of children in early infanc”, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 1793
  • Anna Margaretta Larpent, A Methodized Journal, 1773–1783, Huntington Library Manuscripts, HM 31201, volume 17, folio 4, Huntington Library, San Marino
  • Anonymous, Aristotle’s master-piece compleated, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 1717
  • Buffon, Georges, “Buffon’s Natural History, containing a theory of the earth, a general history of man, of the brute creation, and of vegetables”, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 1792
  • Denman, Thomas, “An introduction to the practice of midwifery”, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 1788
  • Gautier Dagoty, “Standing pregnant woman from side and seated woman wih interns open”, Wellcome Library, London, 1773
  • John Freind, Emmenologia, trans. Thomas Dale, London, 1729


Riding a horse in eighteenth-century England was an activity enjoyed by both men and women : “Men and women alike rode for pleasure” (Olsen, 1999, 148). But the latter did not enjoy this exercise the same way as the former did. Indeed, the “fair sex” had to adapt to restrictions which influenced posture and clothing style. During the 18th century, England still used the common way of riding for women of the time in Europe, but also saw the evolution of their clothing style which aimed at improving women’s comfort while riding. We will try and see how women had to adapt to ride on horses.

Good for the health

Riding was not merely a pleasure, but was highly recommended as being good for the health. Exercise in general was highly favoured in the 18th century for its virtues. Exercise is said to develop one’s spirit and “necessary for the proper exertion of our intellectual faculties, during the present laws of union between the body and the soul” (from The Young Gentleman and Lady Instructed in such Principles of Politeness, Prudence, and Virtue,… Vol. II. 1747, 109). Doctor William Buchan for instance, advises riding to cure nervous diseases. He says that nervous diseases can be the result of the loss of a husband or of a child, and that even though those diseases can never be totally cured, he writes that:

“Exercise in nervous disorders is superior to all medicines. Riding on horseback is generally esteemed the best, as it gives motion to the whole body, without fatiguing it. I have known some patients however, with whom walking agreed better, and others who were most benefited by riding in a carriage” (Buchan, 1790, 423).

This last sentence can make us wonder if precisely, the mode of riding of women in the 18th century was not too tiring. Indeed Doctor Buchan in the quote above says that riding is good to improve one’s health as long as it is not too tiring. In this case, we may question the fact that horse riding is be the best option for women to recover health.

The guide to seat on a horse 


The Countess of Coningsby in the Costume of the Charlton Hunt, George Stubbs, 1760

Riding Sidesaddle

Riding sidesaddle was introduced in England in the 14th century during the reign of Richard II (1367-1400), by his wife Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394). “King Richard married Anne, Daughter to Venceslauce, King of Bohemia; which Anne brought in the fashion of (…) Riding upon Side-Saddles on Horseback; for before, the Women here rode astride as the Men did” (Curzon, 1722, 226-227). As we can see on the painting above, riding sidesaddle consisted in having both legs on the same side of the horse. Therefore it is said that women rode aside and men astride. A woman would sit on the saddle and have one feet on a stirrup and one knee over the pommel (which is the front part of the saddle) in order to gain some stability : “as soon as seated put your left foot in the stirrup and your right knee over the pommel” (Carter, 1783, 10). This position was considered to bring deformities to the body (some instructors would recommend riding astride for women), it was also less comfortable and safe as the one of men. It needed therefore to be secured through modifications on the saddle itself. Some riding masters in favour of riding aside instructed thus : “A lady’s saddle should be (…) considerably longer than a man’s (…); the pommel sould never be less than six inches, as much higher as the size of the lady may require, that her knee may not be thrown off by any sudden spring of the horse” (Carter, 1783, 27). Those differences where precisely made in order to enable women to keep riding aside instead of allowing them to ride astride : “since the improvements (…) a young lady on a modern constructed side-saddle, is as little liable to grow awry as when sitting strait in a chair” (Carter, 1783, 26). This desire to make ladies ride aside came from the fact that riding astride was considered as indecent for women : “The Becoming Position of Women on Horse-back, forbids all Indecency of Expression” (from The Young Gentleman and Lady Instructed in such Principles of Politeness, Prudence, and Virtue,… Vol. II. 1747, 70). This idea of indecency takes its roots from the old-dated belief that a woman’s hymen can break when riding astride. Riding aside was considered essential to protect a woman’s virginity.

How to get on a horse

A woman needed two men to mount a horse. One had to hold the horse’s head still and the other had to help the woman to get on the horse : “the groom should stand before the horse, holding him by the bridoon rein”, “the lady must lay her right hand on the top of the pommel with her whip rest on the off shoulder of the horse, and her left hand on the right shoulder of the person that is to lift her, who stooping and fixing their hands together, by intermixing their fingers, the lady will put her left foot in their hands bending her knee and raising it nearly on a line with her hip, and giving a spring she will be lift on the saddle” (Carter, 1783, 10). A women also needed a man to help her  get off the horse : “taking a foot out of the stirrup, and giving her left hand to her attendant” (Carter, 1783, 11). Therefore, a woman was dependant of men and could not travel or hunt without requiring help beforehand. It was clear at the time that women had more restrictions than men to ride and that this is why, women started to find inspiration in men’s riding style, in order to improve their own.

Riding habit

Submission_3_2006AH0948_jpg_l_1                Submission_2_1976.147.1_207878_1                 Submission_3_2006AP6107_jpg_l_1

A new fashion

Riding colthes, or “riding habits” (see the first image above) were made of a coat (see the second image above), a waitscoat (see the third image above), a a petticoat (or skirt) and in 1780 “a train was added” (Cumming, C.W. Cunnington, P.E. Cunnington, 2010, 173). Throughout the 18th century, around the 1740s, the style of the riding habit became more masculine. This change was due to the desire on the part of women to have more comfortable dresses to ride. Indeed, when mounting or dismounting a horse, a women always had to take a moment to adjust her dress in order to be well seated : “Ladies, till they have acquired a seat, will be liable to have the petticoat get up; they should learn from the beginning to replace it themselves, (…) by degrees in any pace the horse may be going” (Carter, 1783, 12).  This demanded constant attention, and an attention that was, like riding aside, only imposed on women, as men, of course, wore breeches. The new cut was inspired  from men’s coats and waitscoats. In the paintings below, we can see that Lady Worsley wears a riding habit inspired by the uniform of the British regiment (her husband Sir Richard Worsley was himself an officer): the coats are very much alike and share the same simplicity in their cut. The length of the dress was shortened during this century : “At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the coat and waistcoat were almost knee-length. (…) By the 1750, the riding coat was shorter” (Blum, Ettesvold, Druesedow, 1975-1979, 42-43).


Lady Worsley, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1776


This masculine style brought lots of criticism. Mostly men it seems, were outraged by this new fashion. This change of style occurred at a period during in which “fashion was a trivial, feminine interest and (…) women’s behaviour as well as their appearance [were to] be determined by their sex” (Tague, 2002, 52). Indeed, at the time, women had to stay very feminine, and riding was even considered as aiming at amplifying their charm and femininity : “Riding contributes much to the improvement of a young lady, and displays her beauty” (Author, 1747, 110).  On the contrary, this new fashion, according to commentators of the time, blurred the distinction between the two sexes. These riding habits were considered as “making the sex of the wearer difficult to identify, creating confusion in the way men responded to her” (Tague, 2002, 52).

This new fashion was despised by most men, but also by some women:

“A little party of horsemen passing the road almost close to me, arrested my attention, and particularly a fair youth, seemingly dressed up by some description in romance. His hair, well curled and powdered, hang to a considerable length on his shoulders, and was wantonly tied, as if by the hands of his mistress, in a scarlett ribbon, which played like a sreamer behim him. He had a coar and waistcoat of blue camblet, trimmed and embroidered with silver; a cravat of the finest lace; and wore in a smart cock, a little beaver hat, edged with silver, and made more sprightly by a feather. His pacing horse was adorned in the same airy manner, and seemed to shared in the vanity of the rider. As I was pitying the luxury of this young person, who appeared to be educated as an object of sight alone, I perceived, on my nearer approach, a petticoat of the same with the coat and waistcoat; and now those features which had before offended me by their softness, were strengthened into as improper a boldness; and she, who in appearance was a very handsome youth, was in reality a very indifferent women. (…) This model of this Amazonian hunting-dress, for ladies, was first imported from France (…) but I cannot help thinking that is fits awkwardly on our English modesty” (Armstrong, 1763, 234).

The end of the story written by Lydia Armstrong mentions a point that strengthened the dislike of this new style: the fact that it came from France. People feared that after following the French’s dressing style, England would soon become dependant of France on other things, such as its politics. Borrowing this new style of riding habits was seen as a loss of the English identity, of the “English modesty”.

We can see throughout these examples that women, who enjoyed riding very much, had to restrain themselves due to obligations linked to their sex. They had to sit in a precise way that required constant attention and for which they always needed help. Furthermore, they had to face criticism when they tried to improve their condition, by trying the be more equal to men through new riding habits.


– Carter, Mr. Instructions for Ladies in Riding, by Mr. Carter,… London, 1783.

– Curzon, Henry. The Universal Library: Or Complete Summary of Science Containing Above Six Select Treaties,… London, 1722.

– Anonymous. The Young Gentleman and Lady Instructed in such Principles of Politeness, Prudence, and Virtue,… Vol. II.  London, 1747.

– Buchan, William. Domestic Medicine: or a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicine,… London, 1790.

– Ladies. The Ladies Complete Letter-Writer; Teaching the Art of Inditing Letters,… London, 1763.

– Olsen, Kirstin. Daily Life in 18th-century England. United States of America, Greenwood Press, 1999.

– Tague, Ingrid. Women of quality: accepting and contesting ideals of feminity in England 1680-1760. United States of America, The Boydell Press, 2002.

– Cumming, Cunnington C.W., and Cunnington P.E. The Dictionary of Fashion History. United Kingdom, MPG Books Group, 2010.

– Victoria and Albert Museum, “Riding Habit,” V&A Search the Collections,

– Victoria and Albert Museum, “Jacket,” V&A Search the Collections,

– Victoria and Albert Museum, “Waistcoat,” V&A Search the Collections,

– Tate Modern, “Joshua Reynolds: The creation of celebrity: Room guide: Room 7,”

– Blum, Ettesvold, and Druesedow, “Notable Acquisitions” (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Costume Institute, no. 1975/1979 (1975-1979) : 43-44.