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Fables for the Female Sex

An Unfortunate Mother's Advice to Her Absent Daughters
An Unfortunate
Mother's Advice
to Her Absent

NYPL, Pforzheimer
Is Not She a Spunky One—
or The Princess and the Bishop
Is Not She a Spunky
One—or The
Princess and the

NYPL, Pforzheimer

The Fashionable Mamma,—or—The Convenience of Modern Dress
The Fashionable
The Convenience
of Modern Dress

NYPL, Print Collection
During the Romantic era, women and girls were constantly told: Be good! This meant being a virgin at marriage and a faithful wife afterward, with marriage the only socially approved goal. There was nothing new in this. What was new in Romantic-era Britain were gradual changes in the meanings of virtue, sexuality, and motherhood. Under multiple pressures—conservative panic at the French Revolution; long wars that aroused both patriotism and anger; a growing population; and, not least, the industrial revolution, which made power differences more brutal, even as it created a new world for consumers—the age-old association of women with purity and goodness became more firmly entrenched.

"Virtue" came to imply that even the appearance of impropriety was unacceptable—an innocent walk alone with a young man was a dangerous undertaking. Conduct books, prints, novels, preachers, parents, and teachers enforced the idea that virtue was fragile and irrecoverable if even slightly damaged. And virtue became politicized: while Mary Wollstonecraft saw the French Revolution as liberating for women, many more heard in it a call to discipline. Ideas about motherhood also changed: although birth control was almost unobtainable, conduct books promoted a new sense that motherhood was a calling, not just biological destiny. Breast-feeding became fashionable, then widespread. Women were expected to instruct their young children in reading, writing, arithmetic, and—especially—Christian virtues. But real life was more difficult, more painful, and more forgiving than conduct books would have it.

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