II. Women in Training

“Observe a little girl spending the day around her doll, constantly changing its clothes…. She awaits the moment when she will be her own doll.”

—Rousseau, Émile, Book V (1762)

As scientists, moralists, and philosophers worked to define the mental and moral characteristics of ‘woman,’ they also defined distinct stages of her life. And, for the first time, they focused attention on childhood and adolescence as discrete moments, which consequently gained a clearer definition.

No longer treated as small adults, children were seen now to have needs specific to them in everything from education, to dress and diet. Those needs differed according to gender and class, but as a rule, girls were taught to be quiet, obedient, and virtuous, and to exercise self-restraint. Regardless of social class, girls were schooled to think of themselves first and foremost as future wives and mothers, made to please men. Thus, their education and cultural formation were directed towards the goal of matrimony.

Aspiring young ladies from well-to-do families acquired social graces and the arts of pleasing, attended to fashion, flirted with likely suitors, and cultivated accomplishments (etiquette, music, dance, and conversational skills). A girl of lowlier estate, especially in an urban area, might have been in training to work in family-run ateliers. But she would also learn necessary housekeeping skills, and often tended to younger family members so that mothers and older sisters could continue their duties in the family studio or workshop.

More than one girl, of course, set her sights higher than becoming her own doll, to become her own woman.

 

Image: Antoine Vestier. French, 1740–1824. Allegory of the Arts, 1788. Oil on canvas.