Breaking out of a domestic sphere

The Making of Modern Woman. First edition
February 27, 2004

Organised both chronologically and thematically, this highly readable book surveys the history of European women in the 19th century.

Aimed at history undergraduates, it offers a skilful synthesis of a range of fragmented literature, while exploring women's changing sense of self from the French revolution to the end of the first world war.

During the 19th century, an influential domestic ideology with its related notion of separate spheres for the sexes exercised a powerful sway, so that men were associated with the world of work and politics and women with home and children.

Everywhere across the European continent girls learnt to be dutiful wives and mothers. But once married with families of their own, women often faced conflicts between desire for their own personal fulfilment and the ideals of self-sacrifice and service into which they had been socialised.

Motherhood, of course, was regarded as the pinnacle of a woman's life. Although women had access to birth-control measures such as douches and sponges, as well as the more common coitus interruptus, many had to resort to horrendous means for terminating unwanted pregnancies.

Unsurprisingly, control of their own fertility became a key concern for some "new women" of the late 1890s, while others entered that bastion of male privilege, higher education. But the number of women graduate employees was too small to challenge the established sexual division of labour; by 1914, women were still mainly concentrated in low-paid, low-status jobs.

For most of the 19th century, European women did not possess citizenship rights. But feminists then began to challenge their subordinate position, so that by 1918 a number of European states had granted women full or partial suffrage. The first world war, however, had not overturned the separate-spheres ideology that had been the guiding principle for gender relations since the French revolution. Nevertheless, life was not the same since women had developed a new sense of a "modern" self that demanded a place in the body politic.

This text is set to become the classic survey in its field.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, University of Portsmouth.


The Making of Modern Woman. First edition

Author - Lynn Abrams
Publisher - Longman
Pages - 382
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 582 41410 5

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