The Ideal Woman (eighteenth-century style)…

This month, I have been mainly thinking about breastfeeding. Not for fun, you understand, but for a chapter I’m working on.  This is an interesting topic for me to study, because I have experienced it in all its gloriousness and goriness. It adds a new dimension to some of my women’s letters because, occasionally, their descriptions of breastfeeding make my own body ache in recognition and sympathy.  I also recognise some of the pressures that are placed upon newly delivered women, and the sensation that your body no longer belongs to you.

In today’s blog post, I’m going to pick up an idea of Aminatta Forna’s about the ‘primitive woman’.[1]  The ‘primitive woman’ is often offered to modern women as an idealised image of birth and motherhood.  She is bandied around by friends, relations and, occasionally, medical professionals.  You may recognise her.  She is the ahistorical figure that gave birth in a field then carried on working.  She slung her child on her back, went about her usual duties, and breastfed on demand.  Within the realms of my knowledge (western, medieval onwards) she didn’t exist.  As I will (hopefully) argue in my thesis, the lengthy process of confinement, delivery and lying-in was pretty much a constant throughout history and across social class.  The invocation of the ‘primitive woman’ is used to tell modern women that delivery and motherhood is not difficult.  The inference is that we should not make a fuss, we should just get on with things.

Whilst ‘primitive woman’ is a relatively new phenomenon, I have been spending a lot of time with her eighteenth-century equivalent – ‘simple country woman’.   Here’s an extract from William Moss’s 1781 book on midwifery.

The benefits attending a simplicity of diet are very fully displayed in country women, who enjoy good health themselves, and have the comfort and satisfaction of dispensing that invaluable blessing to their offspring; – the best gift that can be bestowed by a parent! – and which parents of this class are indebted to for this simplicity, which their stations and situations impose upon them; aided by exercise and pure air, to be immediately spoken of.[2]

James Gillray, The Fashionable Mamma
James Gillray, The Fashionable Mamma

The distinction is even more explicit in James Gillray’s The Fashionable Mother. Look in the background.  Can you see ‘simple country woman’?  She is plump, and her breasts are exposed as she gazes adoringly at her babe.  The contrast between her and the woman in the foreground are clear, as is the message.  The ‘simple country woman’ sacrifices herself to her maternal role and, as a result, finds the whole mothering lark a piece of cake.  Her curvaceous figure lends itself to childbearing, making her deliveries quick and easy.  Her diet makes her milk flow easily.  Here is William Cadogan’s pronouncements on ‘simple country woman’.

‘In the lower class of Mankind, especially in the country, disease and mortality are not so frequent, either among the adult or their children. Health and posterity are the portion of the poor, I mean the laborious. ‘The Mother who has only a few rags to cover her child loosely, and little more than her own breast to feed it, sees it healthy and strong, and very soon able to shift for itself; while the puny insect, the heir and hope of a rich family, lies languishing under a load of finery that overpowers his limbs, abhorring and rejecting the dainties he is crammed with, till he dies a victim to the mistaken care and tenderness of his fond Mother.[3]

Really?! Now contrast this with David Davies’ description of ‘simple country woman’ in 1796.

In visiting the labouring families in my parish as my duty led me, I could not but observe with concern their mean and distressed condition. I found them in general but indifferently fed; badly clothed; some children without shoes and stockings; very few put to school; and most families in debt to little shopkeepers. In short, there was scarcely any appearance of comfort about their dwellings, except that the children looked tolerably healthy….[4]

‘Simple country woman’ was not a common figure in eighteenth-century England, yet she was commonly invoked by (sorry to get all gendered about this) mainly male writers.  She was young, curvaceous, innocent, yet also sexually active.  Paintings of her usually have something of the voyeur about them.  She represented an increasingly dominating ideal of passive eighteenth-century femininity which led, inexorably, to the Victorian ‘Angel of the Hearth’.

[1] Aminatta Forna, Mother of all Myths: How Society Moulds and Constrains Mothers, (London, Harper Collins: 1999).

[2] William Moss, An essay on the management and nursing of children in the earlier periods of infancy: and on the treatment and rule of conduct requisite for the mother during pregnancy, and in lying-in., (London: 1781), p.281.

[3] William Cadogan, An essay upon nursing and the management of children, from their birth to three years of age, By W Cadogan, Fellow of the College of Physicians, late Physician to the Foundling Hospital, 10th Ed. (1772).

[4] David Davies, The case of labourers in husbandry stated and considered, in three parts. Part I. A view of their distressed condition. Part II. The principal causes of their growing distress and number, and of the consequent increase of the poor-rate. Part III. Means of relief proposed. With an appendix; containing a collection of accounts, shewing the earnings and expences of labouring families, in different parts of the kingdom. By David Davies, rector of Barkham, Berks. (P Byrne, Dublin, 1796)


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