Don’t marry a Christian
- Women in 18th-Century Europe by Margaret Hunt
Longman, 484 pp, £21.99, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 582 30865 7
It was a hackneyed truth that while European Christian women in the 18th century were essentially free, ‘“Oriental” and Muslim women were incarcerated body and soul behind veils,’ as Margaret Hunt puts it. Browbeaten British wives accused oppressive husbands of Turkish despotism, drawing attention to the illegitimacy of domestic tyranny in the land of Liberty as well as to their total ignorance of Ottoman Europe. The most influential Orientalist novel of the 18th century, Montesquieu’s bestselling Lettres persanes (1721), drew a melodramatic comparison between Christian and Muslim marriage, contrasting Muslim polygamists who made sex slaves of their wives with Christian monogamists who allowed their womenfolk to rove and socialise freely (possibly too freely). Montesquieu had not ventured into a single Muslim country when he wrote the book, relying instead on Orientalist cliché. A self-serving fantasy of the exotic East as foil to Western superiority took deep root. It even permeates letters I have read in provincial archives in the north of England in which happy British women congratulate themselves on having escaped the fate of their benighted sisters in the East.
Vol. 33 No. 20 · 20 October 2011
I was intrigued to read in Amanda Vickery’s review of Margaret Hunt’s Women in 18th-Century Europe that elite women ‘engineered revolts’ in 18th-century Poland (LRB, 8 September). I was not aware that any of the Polish revolts in the 18th century were ‘engineered’ by women, so I went back to Hunt’s book. With regard to Polish elite women, Hunt notes that they ‘played leading roles in several revolts’. A huge difference. But Hunt’s comment isn’t in any case historically accurate. She mentions the decorated woman soldier Joanna Zubr (1786-1852), but Zubr was a working-class woman, not a noblewoman; furthermore, she fought in military campaigns only in the 19th century. ‘Elite women participated in high politics to a far greater degree in Eastern Europe than in most Western nations,’ Vickery writes, echoing Hunt. Maybe so, but in 18th-century Poland they neither ‘engineered revolts’, nor ‘played leading roles’ in them.
Vickery’s glowing account of the political activism of elite women in Poland is seductive, but lopsided. She passes over in silence the fact that Polish women’s access to education was extremely limited. Polish universities first admitted women only in 1898 – Maria Sklodowska, the future Marie Curie, had to seek higher education elsewhere. When education was available to Polish women in the 18th century and during much of the 19th, it had very little to do with intellectual development and everything to do with moral upbringing, including the inculcation of ‘proper’ gender roles.
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Vol. 33 No. 23 · 1 December 2011
Amanda Vickery is badly, albeit fashionably, misinformed as to the role and rights of married women in the past (LRB, 8 September). Quoting the position of wives at common law is not helpful, as the rules of canon law and equity prevailed, so much so that a common law marriage became a synonym for mere cohabitation, where the rights of the spouse were not affected by the union.
Canon law and equity, on the other hand, rigorously enforced the principle that a married couple was one person – a position to the advantage of women even today – and also the promise by the husband to endow the wife with all his worldly goods. Statute enlarged this into a duty to support, so that the practice arose that the husband also became liable for his wife’s breaches of contract, torts and tax, the first until the mid-20th century and the last until the 1990s. It did not follow that because a man was responsible for his wife’s affairs she was not responsible too, or could not sue or be sued.
In marriage, as in life generally, the law and custom ensured that men bore an unequal, heavier burden.
Vol. 33 No. 24 · 15 December 2011
Where to start with C. Coghlan’s feminist-baiting misrepresentation of 18th-century social history (Letters, 1 December)? Perhaps by referring him (presumably Coghlan is a man) to Mary Wollstonecraft, who spelled out what legal disabilities meant in practice and refuted the idea that an absence of responsibility was a desirable condition for an adult human being: ‘Struggle with any obstacles rather than go into a state of dependence!’ It is patently misleading to assert that a married couple were deemed to be one person: what happened was that the wife’s identity was subsumed in that of the husband. As Blackstone put it, woman’s ‘civil death’ on marriage was written into the law of the land. For 18th-century women, the marriage contract was ‘an agreement to cease to be’, and the institution a negation of freedom.