Introduction | Education | Sensibility & Virtue  | The Female Body | Marriage | Women Writers

The Female Body

Fashion PlateThis nineteenth-century fashion plate illustrates the emphasis on dress and decorum which limited women’s bodies. Women were encouraged to focus on their appearance and engage in activities with limited movement. Romantic feminists argued that, instead, women should develop strong, healthy bodies and attend to their character rather than their image.
During the Romantic Era, female bodies were subject to both biological assumptions and social expectations. Ideas about what women were capable of doing and what they were encouraged to do manifested in the way their bodies were presented in life and literature. Since men were widely believed to be physically superior, women’s physical inferiority became idealized. Physical exertion was regarded as “unfeminine,” and this opinion came to be regarded as a natural truth. In turn, passivity was incorporated into the definition of female virtue. For instance in Emile, Rousseau argued that lack of physicality is essential to women’s natures and asserted that young girls are naturally drawn to the nurturing play of dolls, but Mary Wollstonecraft countered that a young girl “whose spirits have not yet been damped by inactivity, or innocence tainted by false shame, will always be a romp, and the doll will never excite attention unless confinement offers her no alternative” (110). Truly, women were only inactive out of a sense of propriety. Recall in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) how Lizzie Bennett disregarded decorum by walking for miles to visit her sister, Jane, scandalizing Caroline Bingley with the flushed cheeks of her exertion. Though Romantic feminists strove to correct disempowering notions about female nature and feminine virtue, shame and inactivity were already written into the curriculum of social education.

Besides perfecting traditional feminine accomplishments such as painting and music, proper feminine education mandated that women engage in needlework. Wollstonecraft believed that this type of confining work not only weakened the body but also made women introverted and overly concerned with dress and ornamentation. She claimed, “The thoughts of women ever hover round their persons, and is it surprising that their persons are reckoned most valuable?” (148). Since most of women’s education was aimed at attracting a husband, her primary tool to this end was the arrangement of her appearance. According to Wollstonecraft and other Romantic feminists, women were too preoccupied with beauty and fashion, making a “gilt cage” of their bodies (112).

To counter these negative effects, Romantic feminists promoted an active body for women by making robust health a virtue. Feminists argued that, while physical meekness will attract a man in marriage, such submissiveness could not have the strength to maintain marriage as an enduring state of union. On the other hand, an active and healthy female body would promote a strong mind, and together those qualities would make women much more effectual “helpmeets” for their husbands and strengthen the bonds of marriage. Additionally, feminists suggested that a strong female body would allow women to be better mothers, ensuring that their children were hearty and healthy. Wollstonecraft suggests that addressing this problem would require an intervention during childhood. Young girls should be encouraged to play actively and freely, and then these habits should be continued throughout life. If young girls become hearty and healthy young women, then they will not be overly dependent on men but actually more helpful as a marriage partner.

Kat Powell

Select Bibliography

Craciun, Adriana. Fatal Women of Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Favret, Mary A. and Nicola J. Watson, Eds. At the Limits of Romanticism: Essays in Cultural, Feminist, and
     Materialist Criticism
. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1994. Print.

“FebruarLaMode.” 1837. Fashion Plate. Wikipedia. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. .