Conduct Books and the History of the Ideal Woman, by Dr Tabitha Kenlon

Pop quiz! The passages below are from conduct manuals. Can you guess which century each quotation belongs to – the fourteenth, eighteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first?

  1. “Men want to feel like they are dating a model or celebrity, so look like one!”
  2. “But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding.”
  3. “Like so many women she was completely underestimating her worth and wishing she could do something which is quite unnecessary and uncalled for. A woman who can listen [to her husband] intelligently is worth her weight in gold and she should extend her intelligence to appreciating this and not hanker after unnecessary extras.”
  4. “[I]n any situation, under any terms, in any place or season, you must perform without objecting all [your husband’s] orders whatever they may be.”


The earliest quotation (D) is from Le Ménagier de Paris, a fourteenth-century guide to appropriate women’s behavior, and the most recent (A) appears in 2013’s Not Your Mother’s Rules: The New Secrets for Dating, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. B is a passage from A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters (1774) by John Gregory. C is taken from The Businessman’s Wife (1972) by Mary Bosticco. All these books are conduct manuals – books that tell people how to behave. I first encountered conduct manuals like A Father’s Legacy in 2013, when I was researching my dissertation as a fellow at Chawton House, a repository for writing by and about women. I had intended to write a chapter about female education in the eighteenth century, but my search results led me to conduct manual after conduct manual. Reading them, I laughed at first. They seemed so quaint and old-fashioned, telling women not to let men know the extent of their feelings, not to be funny, not to talk too much, not to let anyone know how smart they were… And then I stopped laughing, because it was all surprisingly familiar. How much, I wondered, has advice for women changed over the centuries?

My new monograph, Conduct Books and the History of the Ideal Woman, is an attempt to answer that question. More accurately, it tries to explain and contextualize the rather obvious short answer: “not much.” While women undeniably have more opportunities now than they did six centuries ago, the basic tenets of gendered behavioral expectations have altered little. (I should note here that my book focuses on materials addressing British and American white middle- and upper-class women; conduct manuals typically perpetuate the marginalization of women from diverse backgrounds.)

The genre of conduct manual is not a static one. Most early such books were written for men, but as the print culture proliferated and literacy increased, anyone with writing implements and a desire to tell women what to do could make their advice public. By the mid-nineteenth century, traditional conduct books almost disappeared and were to some extent replaced by etiquette books. Significantly, however, conduct manuals almost always focus on women in private – be a good daughter, wife, and mother, be chaste, modest, and cheerful. and do not seek attention – and etiquette books are outward-facing – how to behave in public spaces that were becoming increasingly accessible to women, such as trains, hotels, restaurants, and even offices. Although counter-arguments have been made throughout the years, the last few decades of conduct and advice literature is a particular confusion of assertions of women’s rights countered by exhortations to return to “traditional values” and “be a lady.”

But as my transhistorical analysis demonstrates, these centuries of conduct manuals only serve as reminders of the oppression of “tradition” and how constructed the idea of what it means to be a woman is (or a lady – they are not the same thing). Authors make almost desperate pronouncements about what women are suited for; the rationale changes through the years from God to Nature to Science, but the end result is inevitable: according to most conduct books, women were created to look after the home, raise children, and tend to men’s wants. Passivity is often presented as empowerment – Fein and Schneider encourage readers not to talk too much or try to fill up conversational lulls, pointing out, “sometimes when there’s a silence, it’s because he’s thinking how pretty you are when your bangs fall into your eyes” (94) and Bosticco praises women’s ability to listen, while scoffing at any desire a wife might have to actually say something. These relatively recent authors echo the eighteenth-century advice of Gregory, who confidently declares that women possess a natural modesty that will “dispose [then] to be rather silent in company […] One may take a share in conversation without uttering a syllable” (28), which is a reiteration of Juan Luis Vives’s assertion in 1523 that “the most eloquent woman for me is the one who, when required to speak to men, will become flushed in her whole countenance, perturbed in spirit, and at a loss for words” (133). Conduct manuals preserve in print a tradition established millennia before: the ideal woman is one who has nothing to say.

My book argues that conduct manuals were influenced by their predecessors and in turn shaped their descendants. Building on critical conversations about literature’s efforts to define and construct gender roles, I examine conduct manuals’ contributions to the female ideal prevalent when they were published, as well as the persistence or alteration of that ideal in subsequent eras. The purpose of Conduct Books and the History of the Ideal Woman is to help readers understand the longest war in history: the battle over how women should behave.

Dr. Tabitha Kenlon’s research examines the intersections of genre, performativity, and social constraints to elucidate the history of gendered expectations and their influence on our present thinking about women’s roles and abilities. Her work concentrates on representations of women and the manipulation of genre in fiction, nonfiction, and drama, with a focus on eighteenth-century Britain. She has published articles analyzing the connections between Shakespeare and eighteenth-century playwright Hannah Cowley, and the links between fiction, theatre, and conduct manuals. Current projects consider the relationship of Gothic novels, travel writing, and conduct manuals, and the portrayal of single women in conduct manuals.


Bosticco, Mary. The Businessman’s Wife (London: Mercury House Books Ltd, 1972).

Fein, Ellen and Sherrie Schneider, Not Your Mother’s Rules: The New Secrets for Dating (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013). Kindle.

The Good Wife’s Guide (Le Ménagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book, trans. Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012). Kindle.

Gregory, John, A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters, 2nd ed. (London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1774). Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

Vives, Juan Luis. The Education of a Christian Woman, trans. and ed. Charles Fantazzi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

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