Women in the Era of Absolutism

The Reformation had confirmed the traditional role of the woman as spouse, housewife and mother. Women were regarded as too emotional, too easily seducted, and therefore not capable of making decisions on their own. Until she was married, her father would make decisions for her - including the one to give her to her future husband in marriage. Then that authority to make decisions on her behalf, to dispose over her property, passed on to her husband. If the woman was widowed, then she finally was in a position to make her own decisions. In many countries, the law regulating inheritance discriminated against women; institutions of higher learning (high schools, universities) were closed to women. The guilds barred women from becoming members.
There were few occupations open to women - nurse, wetnurse, governess; in case of the latter it was expected that she was not married. Women were expected to be modest and reserved, to accept the superiority of men, of the church etc. Women who did not fit that model were, at times, accused of being witches, tried and executed.

The end of the Wars of Religion brought a decline in the authority of the churches; witch hunts declined in number in the late 17th century, and in most countries ruled absolute, were discontinued; they continued in territories where older forms of government lived on.
While neither the Absolutism a la Louis XIV. nor Enlightened Absolutism removed legislation discriminating against women, while the existing institutions of higher learning (with few exceptions) remained closed to women, a few institutions of higher learning for girls were founded. Many girls from better-off families received private instruction, some acquired knowledge on their own.
With the extravagant lifestyle Louis XIV. introduced at Versailles, another career opportunity for women emerged - that of the COURTISANE. The word originally means 'woman at court'; while it implies extramarital love, a courtisane would have to be noble, well-mannered and educated. But monarchs at times went out of their way to have a young, beautiful common girl ennobled - often by having her, formally, marry a penniless nobleman, whose title she thereby acquired.
Madame Pompadour was perhaps the most famous courtisane; she gained the love and, even more, the confidence of King Louis XV., who created, for her, the position of maitresse-en-titre (official mistress), practically a female prime minister. Whoever wanted to have an audience with the king, had to convince Madame Pompadour, that his matter was worthy of royal attention.
Well-mannered and -educated women, either wealthy on their own account or through marriage, could gain recognition as hostesses of salons - a function reserved for women.
Marie Louise Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun, in 1778, became court painter of Queen Marie Antoinette; in 1783 she was elected a member of the Royal Academy, a professional artist.

The 18th century saw a large number of women ruling in their own right - Maria Theresia in Austria 1740-1780, Catherine I. (1725-1730), Anne (1730-1741), Elizabeth (1741-1762) and Catherine the Great (1762-1796) in Russia, Anne in England (1702-1714).

Rousseau believed that women needed a sedentary life and idealized her role as a housewife. Voltaire, by contrast, stated that women were as intellectually capable as men were. As enlightenment philosophers and writers attended the salons hosted by educated women, and regularly corresponded with them, any judhment to the contrary would be surprising.

The period of absolutism provided more free room for women outside of the household, although most of these opportunities were limited to a small group of women.

Biography of Marie Louise Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun, from Web Galleries of Art

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on September 24th 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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