In March 2006, I gave a talk, one of my first long, plenary talks on literary forms of feminine instruction. Prof. Adrian Wisnicki (formerly of Southern New Hampshire University, now of Indiana University of Pennsylvania) invited me out for the occasion. I’ve never found a place to put this essay and now it’s completely out of date. But, this is one of those things that will remain invisible (unless you were there or would like to see the hour long video of it) unless it’s posted here or published somewhere. I seem to excel at the talk genre because it’s much more personable and dynamic (and I like to be funny). This was my first foray into that world.  Slides are posted below and somewhat indicated in the text of the talk.

From Conduct Books to Idiot’s Guides: Literary Forms of “Feminine” Instruction

Distinguished Speaker Reading Series, Southern New Hampshire University, March 27, 2006.

I want to thank Southern New Hampshire University for inviting me to speak during Women’s History Month – and specifically

  • Eleanor Dunfey-Friburger, Papoutsy Distinguished Chair in Ethics
  •  Jane Yerrington, Professor Dunfey-Freiburger’s assistant
  • Dean Ernest Holm, School of Liberal Arts
  • Adrian Wisnicki and the Department of English

When Dr. Wisnicki first invited me, I thought I’d talk about my latest research on British 19th  century literature and definitions of femininity. But, as I read through the poetry and prose within these texts, I realized that some of these definitions were familiar to me – not because I had come across them in my research, but because I recognized them from our modern literary and popular culture.  The conduct manuals of late 18th century England offer a “Rules” of sorts that address fashion, coquettish behavior and education.  The conduct manuals of the early 21st century also offer advice on these same issues, but it’s under the guise of self-help books, in other words, Idiot’s Guides.  I began to wonder how “femininity” had been defined and re-defined between these two particular points.  Is there a definitive feminine voice?  as authors? as readers? in the texts themselves?  What follows is perhaps less answers to these questions than more questions piled on top of it all – especially in our age of $400 high heeled shoes made popular by “Sex and the City” stars who act more masculine than they do feminine.

During the late eighteenth-century, conduct books competed with the novel for a “proper” young lady’s attention.  One conduct manual encouraged women “to conceal any blemishes and set off your beauties” using dress, dancing, music and drawing (1778 A Father’s Legacy to His Daughter).  The other supposedly corrupted its female readers by displaying, and thereby encouraging them to commit, wild acts of unrestrained passion – certainly the opposite intent of any conduct manual!  The 19th century audience accepted the passionate form and clamored for more women’s voices.  As a result, literary annuals and women’s magazines overwhelmingly captured the fancy of 19th century middle class women in England and America.  But how far did any of these literary forms stray from the original conduct manual?  Even in its appearance, the literary annual represented a delicate femininity clothed in a silk dress; magazines entertained women with recipes and the latest fashions. Though these literary forms all attempt to define “femininity,” and some even to revolutionize it, we still seem to be struggling with this issue.

Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 advice in Sex and the Single Girl is a very early precursor to our own group of gals from “Sex and the City.”  Both the 1962 book and the HBO series advocate women adopting a masculine demeanor about finance, business and relationships, while remaining very stylish.  Our contemporary instructive manuals appear as the Idiot’s guides (and others),  addressing women’s desires to “perform” masculinity.  Our twenty-first -century version of “femininity” seems to encourage both the passion promoted by reading novels and the propriety suggested in conduct manuals.

In this talk, I will address the feminine identity offered by each of these literary forms and question just how far we’ve moved away from the feminine ideal offered by late 18th century definitions of femininity.


Virtue, sexuality and motherhood – the holy trinity of “good girls” at the end of the 18th century.  Virtue was fragile and irrecoverable;  sexuality could be exposed with a blush; and motherhood became not just essential to propagating the race, but also fashionable.  Many of these feminine traits are apparent in recently incarnated genre called “chick lit” – to be distinguished from “chick films” where crying and sentimental hugs constantly invade the screen.  Hailed as the new woman’s novel, the previously pejorative “chick” of this literature is recuperated, empowering its female characters to become sexual predators or stay-at-home moms: (slide) Bridget Jones’ Diary, The Nanny Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada, anything by Candace Bushnell or in Oprah’s Book Club. The genre offers a range of female protagonists and are usually written by women for women – different from the bodice-busting romance novels that include 1980s Italian heart-throb, Fabio, (slide) and his glistening chest, on its cover.  Austen’s 1813 Pride and Prejudice is hailed as the original chick-lit masterpiece and was recently made into a movie in which Elizabeth and Darcy don’t leave sexuality to the imagination – completely in violation of Austen’s original intent.  Somewhat formulaic, much like the 1790-1830 moralistic novels of sensibility, chick-lit novels have become big business – signaled by the first “how-to” by Cathy Yardley: Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel.  (slide)

Late 18th century conduct manuals are not the openly cabalistic and erotic prose of our romance and chick lit novels.  Instead, with the help of teachers, parents, preachers and novels, the conduct book represented one of the most prominent aids to proper education.  They focused on making “young women desirable to men of a good social position” and “represented a specific configuration of sexual features as those of the only appropriate woman for men at levels of society to want as a wife,” as Nancy Armstrong points out in Desire and Domestic Fiction (59).  Their titles proselytized for this restraint, promising an education in “female” manners:

Lectures of Female Education and Manners (John Burton, 1793)
The Excellent Female (Amos Chase, 1791)
Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (Hester Chapone, 1802)
Letters on the Intellectual and Moral Character of Women (William Duff, 1807)
Self-Control: A Novel (Mary Brunton, 1811) and
John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters (1778)

In the revolutionary and polemical 1792 Vindications of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft politicizes female manners and conduct.  (slide) The 1792 treatise points out that because men wrote most conduct books, patriarchal hegemony dictated female conduct and created a totally unrealistic ideal of femininity:

One cause of this barren blooming [of vacuous female manners] I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers. . . (Wollstonecraft 112)

A few women, Wollstonecraft included, wrote not conduct manuals but alternative literary anthologies or redemptive tracts:  Lady Sarah Pennington (slide) was accused of acting “coquettishly” and forced into a legal separation by her husband.  She wrote these pamphlets as advice to her daughters cautioning them against “inward instruction and approval of their own consciences” (Before Victoria online).  In other words, women were not to trust themselves – this seems a precursor to our own therapy-age where we second guess ourselves in voice-over like indecision.

Before we go any further, let’s define masculinity and femininity as defined in conduct books of the late 18th century .  (Slide) Nancy Armstrong suggests that conduct manuals focused on producing a woman who was educated enough to perform her duties:

This writing assumed that an education ideally made a woman desire to be what a prosperous man desires, which is above all else a female.  (click) She therefore had to lack the competitive desires and worldly ambitions that consequently belonged – as if by some natural principle – to the male. (click)  For such a man, her desirability hinged upon an education in frugal domestic practices.  (click) She was supposed to complement his role as an earner and producer (click) with hers as a wise spender (click) and tasteful consumer.(click)  (59)

Inherent to being all things “female” is the sequestered body of the young woman.  Prior to marriage (for an upper class woman), she entices a young man with a blush, her wit, humor, fashionable dress and an appropriate amount of humility.  After marriage, she would continue to maintain her honor and reveal her blush only to her husband.  We see the results of an indiscriminate smiler and blusher in Robert Browning’s 1849 parodic poem, “My Last Duchess,” in which the Duke hints that he has murdered his last wife because she indiscriminately gave away smiles and blushes.  It is this type of trading on feminine beauty and ignorance to which Wollstonecraft objects.  However, women continuously are portrayed as objects of desire and beauty as well as virtuous mothers in many 19th century images (see several images & explain some).  Even an exposed breast is not eroticized when it’s associated with maternity.  (Slide)

Wollstonecraft takes exception with this definition of femininity and refuses to posit women as victims.  Instead, in the Vindications Wollstonecraft admonishes women for their heresies of “false delicacy” – in which over-refinement supposedly rendered them “weak, artificial beings trapped in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone” (qtd in Belinda, nt 43).  She writes the Vindications directly to them:

My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood . . . [¶] Dismissing then those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften our slavish dependence, and despising that weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet docility of manners, supposed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel, . . . I wish to shew that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex; and that secondary views should be brought to this simple touchstone.  (Women 8)

Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary words are not without cause:  John Gregory’s Legacy manual was written in the guise of a dying father who wants to bequeath the only thing that his they could inherit – advice on love, friendship, money, intellect and fashion, among other things. Women were bound by coverture, laws which prohibited married women from owning property, voting and earning money.  She existed only as an extension of her husband.  Marriage then became a game of flirtation and bargaining.  Gregory’s conduct manual was more lamentable because the girls would apparently be without their mother (because she was dead – a popular, if not disturbing rhetorical device).  He felt that his specter would live in his published words. Jacqueline Pearson, in reviewing the Gregory’s manual, finds that marriage is necessary to control femininity: “femininity is ‛natural’ and innate, yet a constant struggle is needed to maintain it” (Women’s 47). Offering to haunt their lives ever-after, Gregory’s soon-to-be deceased self gives some of the following advice: (slide)


  1. ONE of the chief beauties in a female character is that modest reserve, that retiring delicacy, which avoids the public eye, and is disconcerted even at the gaze of admiration. – I do not wish you to be insensible to applause. If you were, you must become, if not worse, at least less amiable women. But you may be dazzled by that admiration, which yet rejoices your hearts.
  2. Converse with men even of the first rank with that dignified modesty, which may prevent the approach of the most distant familiarity, and consequently prevent them from feeling themselves your superiors.


  1. When a girl ceases to blush, she has lost the most powerful charm of beauty. That extreme sensibility which it indicates, may be a weakness and incumbrance in our sex, as I have too often felt ; but in yours it is peculiarly engaging. Pedants, who think themselves philosophers, ask why a woman should blush when she is conscious of no crime. It is a sufficient answer, that Nature has made you to blush when you are guilty of no fault, and has forced us to love you because you do so.–Blushing is so far from being necessarily an attendant on guilt, that it is the usual companion of innocence. (26-27)
  2. Dress is an important article in female life. The love of dress is natural to you, and therefore it is proper and reasonable. Good sense will regulate your expence in it, and good taste will direct you to dress in such a way as to conceal any blemishes, and set off your beauties, if you have any, to the greatest advantage. But much delicacy and judgment are required in the application of this rule. A fine woman shews her charms to most advantage, when she seems most to conceal them. The finest bosom in nature is not so fine as what imagination forms. The most perfect elegance of dress appears always the most easy, and the least studied. (55-56)


  1. Wit is the most dangerous talent you can possess. It must be guarded with great discretion and good-nature, otherwise it will create you many enemies. Wit is perfectly consistent with softness and delicacy; yet they are seldom found united. Wit is so flattering to vanity, that they who possess it become intoxicated, and lose all self-command. (29-30)
  2. Humour is a different quality. It will make your company much solicited ; but be cautious how you indulge it.–It is often a great enemy to delicacy, and a still greater one to dignity of character. It may sometimes gain you applause, but will never procure you respect. (31)
  3. The intention of your being taught needle-work, knitting, and such like, is not on account of the intrinsic value of all you can do with your hands, which is trifling, but to enable you to judge more perfectly of that kind of work, and to direct the execution of it in others. Another principal end is to enable you to fill up, in a tolerably agreeable way, some of the many solitary hours you must necessarily pass at home.–It is a great article in the happiness of life, to have your pleasures as independent of others as possible. By continually gadding abroad in search of amusement, you lose the respect of all your acquaintances, whom you oppress with those visits, which, by a more discreet management, might have been courted. (51-52)


  1. Virgin purity is of that delicate nature, that it cannot hear certain things without contamination. It is always in your power to avoid these. (35)

All of these “recommendations” cite public performance and caution the young women from exercising too much of any attribute.  Each “legacy” instructs the daughters on propriety, appearances and “getting a man” – not too far off from some of the marriage rules popularized today, one specifically:  The Rules: Time Testing Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, by Ellen Fein & Sherrie Schneider (1996) – you can read some of them up here (slide).  Many women rolled their eyes and then rushed to buy this book – it was published in 27 languages!  The authors now offer email consultations, schools and online advice.  They’ve even progressed with technology and published The Rules for Online Dating in 2002 (slide).  Some of these seem very similar to those legacies written by John Gregory in 1778.  Barbara De Angelis countered with The Real Rules in 1997 with chapters on “How to Stop Sabotaging your love life with the Old Rules.”  Her rules include:

  1. Treat men the way you want them to treat you
  2.  Remember that men need as much love and reassurance as you do
  3. Stay away from men who don’t like the real rules
  4. Don’t play games
  5. Be yourself
  6. If you like someone let him know

This courtship manual proposes a separate kind of femininity – one that proposes men and women as equals instead of game players.

Of course, in between conduct manuals and The Rules, women had won the right to own property, vote and control their bodies.  French and American feminism came in the form of first, second, third and post-waves.  And, of course, women began defining their own of femininity.

Long before the bra-burning began, though, women authors had begun to gain a voice in literary media, though they were still not welcomed by the time Mary Wollstonecraft died in 1797 as is evidence by Richard Polwhele’s vitriolic critique of women authors in “The Unsex’d Females” published 1798.  (slide) In an adaptation of “The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain,” Johnson’s Ladies New and Polite Pocket Memorandum for 1778 publishes an engraving which pasted the faces of “scribbling women” onto the muses’ bodies.   Though this engraving is intended to celebrate women authorship, it instead casts Anna Barbauld, Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More, Catherine Macaulay and others in the traditional role of the muse – female, passive, inspirational but voiceless.  You’ll notice that only two of these women are writing.  The others engage in a gathering which looks like gossiping or  painting or playing music.  Typically, women authors were equated with licentious rabble-rousers (including Mary Wollstonecraft).  (slide)  This 1815 hand-colored etching parodies a typical meeting of the Bluestockings – a set of authors (both men and women) who met regularly for a “salon” or session to discuss their writing, politics and other “masculine” topics.  In this wrestling melee, women’s undergarments are exposed, they’re faces are flushed, violence is being committed everywhere – as if the attempt to venture into masculine territory causes them to erupt against each other –  parallelling what it was to be a woman writer – exposed, improper and almost violent! (slide)

Like our “chick lit,” women wrote for women.  However, it was not always clear where women authors held their loyalties, offering divisive and confusing representations of femininity.

Before publishing her Vindication, Wollstonecraft assumed a masculine pseudonym (Mr. Creswick) to publish a literary conduct manual, The Female Reader: or Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose and Verse: Selected from the Best Writers, and Disposed under Proper Heads: for the Improvement of Young Women. By Mr. Creswick. Pub. London: Joseph Johnson (WF 52).  As Mr. Creswick, Wollstonecraft identifies the “improvement of her [a young lady’s] mind and heart” as

the business of her whole life; she must not mistake and call blossoms fruit, for the summer often proves the hopes of spring fallacious; and it must ripen the most promising to give it real value.  The plenty of autumn only rewards the industrious, and industry is never irksome when it becomes habitual. (Preface to The Female Reader)

The title obviously indicates that the volume contains materials to teach women propriety. But it’s ambiguity also refers to women who read, as if Wollstonecraft were going to discuss how a woman should read or describe the woman reader.

Wollstonecraft donned a masculine pseudonym for this publication, certain that advice from a woman author would not be considered authoritative for moral instruction of her own sex.  Armstrong points out that conduct books meant to reinforce “domestic ideology and [articulate] a specific understanding of the relationship between reading, sexuality, and social control”(qtd. in Pearson Women’s 46).  These manuals are teaching tools to enact an idealized femininity and do not invoke a leisure-reading experience.  (slide) Anna Barbauld’s poem, “On a Lady’s Writing” which was included in The Female Reader, seems to reinforce this:

HER even lines her steady temper show ;
Neat as her dress, and polish’d as her brow ;
Strong as her judgment, easy as her air ;
Correct though free, and regular though fair :
And the same graces o’er her pen preside
That form her manners and her footsteps guide.

The woman writer is here represented not as an imaginative self, but as a diligent and studious practitioner of copying. Though Barbauld did not wholly agree with Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary arguments, she still understood the binds that were placed on women, especially authors.  This is where I take exception with Armstrong’s argument.  With Barbauld’s poem in this collection, it does not seem that The Female Reader offers the typical message of a conduct manual.  Barbauld’s poem, though seemingly compliant with an idealized femininity, is much too rigid in its control and presents a transparent view of the rigidity of feminine constraints.  Lisa Vargo refers to the poem as “the construction of the bourgeois woman in the eighteenth century through the related socio-cultural practices of penmanship, letter writing, and the conduct book.”  The strict rhyme scheme and meter dictate the representation of a woman held to an unnatural and forced standard.  If you look at the images of women writing (click), you’ll see that they were required to write in private, not necessarily as journalists or out in the open.  (click) Femininity and domesticity did not include publically exposing their thoughts.  In addition, Wollstonecraft is still fighting to prove that women have a soul and are natural creatures.  With Barbauld’s sardonic poem, there’s none of that Romantic idealized sublime imagination here.  It’s copy work – meant to strengthen her ability to produce text (like a Medieval scribe).

However, women novelists were the aberration to this formula.  The Gothic novel of the 1770s was incredibly popular and encourage women to write in a very formulaic script of landscape, hero worship and psychological trauma.  Most novels made it to the circulating library, which was one of the few places that women could go unaccompanied.  By the time Sir Walter Scott commanded huge sums for his novels, women novelists had over-run the profession, but without much respect from professional authors.  However, they were writing to and for each other:  (slide)

Elizabeth Inchbald concludes her seemingly moralistic 1791 novel, A Simple Story, by declaring that every daughter needs “A PROPER EDUCATION.”  However, Miss Milner, our protagonist is a willful, uneducated but socially sophisticated young woman who plays the coquette only after the object of her desire snubs her.  By playing the flirt, she gains her man and marries him.  She subsequently embarrasses her husband with an indiscretion, and he abandons her and their daughter.  The daughter is the exact opposite of the mother:  she receives a proper education for a lady and is the most dull and insipid character in the entire novel.  When she finally gains the attentions of her long-lost father again, he praises her education as something her mother lacked.  However, the novel’s moral is parodic at best.  The daughter is completely controlled by others and has no voice.  Miss Milner, however, had a distinct voice and was powerfully in charge of her own destiny despite her improprieties.

Maternal instincts were also fodder for parodies:  In her 1802 novel, Belinda, Maria Edgeworth pokes at this image of monied maternity – very similar to our own images of nannies and Park Avenue from The Nanny Diaries.  Lady Delacour relates to Belinda her 3 attempts at motherhood: a stillborn, a sickly child and a healthy child.  The 3rd child survived infancy not because Lady Delacour nursed, cared for and educated the girl, but instead because she had nothing to do with her.  The 2nd child was nursed, as was all the rage.  However, when she stopped after 3 months because it was too much trouble, the child died.  (slide)  Here’s an image of a fashionable lady waiting to go some place decadent contrasted against the ideal maternal image of the working woman in the painting behind her.  Lady Delacour was this type of woman.  With the living child, she sent her away to nurse and be educated even though it meant losing face in her incredibly judgmental social circles.

With the conduct manual as one of its guiding principles, the literary annual of the 1820s and 1830s presents itself as a fragmented physical and mental conflation of both masculine and feminine qualities.

Literary annuals are early 19th century British texts published yearly from 1822 to 1856 and primarily intended for a middle-class audience. The decoratively bound volumes – filled with steel plate engravings of nationally recognized artwork and sentimental poetry and prose – exuded a feminine delicacy that attracted a primarily female readership.  They were published in November and sold for the following year, which made the genre an ideal Christmas gift, lover’s present or token of friendship. Generally, 80 to 100 entries of prose and poetry were compiled for an annual, with over 50 different authors included in any one volume.  Ackermann’s original Forget Me Not stood at only 3” x 5”.  Richard Altick argues that these proportions were directly related to the size of ladies’ skirt pockets to allow freedom and portability.

The annual’s appearance attracted the interest of those who collected “beauty” and fashion.  Frederick Mansel Reynolds and Charles Heath allegedly stumbled onto a warehouse of red watered silk, bought 4000 yards at 3 shillings a yard and covered the boards of the 1828 (slide) Keepsake with it – thereby producing a textual object constructed from material normally used for a woman’s skirt.  By 1829, The Gem, The Bijou, and the Literary Souvenir all came to the debutante ball clothed in similar crimson silk.  By 1832, Ackermann had changed his paper pasteboards to the crimson silk in solidarity with the other “ladies.”

These crimson-covered annuals market a representation of the private female body:  a skirt not only creates a boundary between a woman’s body and the public, but it also shields them from the improper touch of a profligate public.  And, a silk skirt indicates a certain amount of wealth and class standing.  The long skirt, made of heavy silk and rustling about her legs, restricts her physically and reminds a woman of the moral boundaries of proper behavior — for lifting up her skirt is not only an act of defiance but also one of revelation to those around her.  Access to a woman’s skirt is similar to access to her dressing room, a view that Jonathan Swift inventories in filthy reality in his 1732 “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The space, both under her skirt and within her room, even in the early 19th century, are still confidential and private.  The silk material used by Heath invokes that private space but titillates at the same time because a reader may open the skirted volume and venture inside.

This fashionable beauty is squarely couched in a supposedly less taxing literary model – a quality that is indicative of the fantasy of social control over femininity.  An article in The Monthly Review for November 1831 applauds the duality of a literary annual volume:

If the poetry be not in every instance of the best description, it is good enough for common purposes.  We have seldom detected anything either in the poetry or the prose that was calculated to misguide the taste, or vitiate the morals . . .  (371, emphasis added)

In applauding the annual, the reviewer also assigns it to the whitewashed polite literature meant to mildly and delicately educate (or train) female readers.  With this type of femininity commodified for public consumption, the publishers and editors of annuals, then, are part of this fantasy of social control previously championed by the conduct manuals.  However, during the 1830s, women will begin to edit and contribute substantially to the literary annuals, thereby once again converting, adopting, subverting and accepting variant forms of femininity – but at the same time empowering themselves by writing their identities into existence.  They became “masculine” in order to be feminine (slide) – many of these masculine qualities were exhibited in both the literary annual writings as well as the women authors and editors themselves.

Finally, by 1847, we see some clear progress in the definitions of femininity, especially marriage:  (slide)  Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, published more than 50 years later, ends with that famous line:  “and reader, I married him.”  After Jane spends years as a nanny, teacher and philanthropist, she is now ready to marry the fallen and physically deformed Rochester.  The novel ends with the main character speaking directly to the reader – a rhetorical move that indicates autonomy and self-awareness.  It was Rochester in the end who had to repent and learn humility and propriety, not Jane.  (However, she refused to marry him and live in a polygamist situation.  It would have been much more progressive of her to accept Bertha, the madwoman in the attic, and live in a happy commune of Rochester women.)  Bertha represents the complete absence of propriety and modesty and Jane is her foil, her opposite supposedly – two types of femininity, one unrestrained, the other educated and proper.  (slide)

Victorian England sees some backlash against this re-defined femininity.  Coventry Patmore publishes his 1854 poem, “The Angel in the House,” which details the perfect, demure wife who is completely submissive to her husband’s wishes.  It is this same angel that Virginia Woolf murdered in a lecture she gave to the Professional Women’s League in 1931 – just shortly before she declared that women should have a room of their own.

Now, women not only have a room of their own, they have multiple sets of books completely dedicated to education:  Contemporary versions of “how to” for women are couched more as suggestions in the form of Idiot’s and Dummies guides – and not just for women.  For instance, Menopause for Dummies is clearly intended for women (unless modern science has done something that we haven’t read about yet).  But it can be read by anyone:  men can read it to inform themselves about women in their lives who are “suffering” through this phase.  This is a difference from the conduct manuals.  Our contemporary guidance isn’t exclusive to gender. Taboo subjects of the 18th & 19th centuries are no longer off limits.  There are more books, though, that suggest how to be yourself & be a woman:

  • Sex & the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown (1962) – advocating women to stay & enjoy being single – one of the first!
  • The Go-Girl Guide: Surviving your 20s with Savvy, Soul & Style
  • The Bad Girl’s Guide to Getting What You Want
  • Three Black Skirts: All You Need to Survive
  • A Guide to Elegance
  • A Well-Kept Home
  • The Modern Girl’s Guide to Life
  • The Handbag Book of Girly Emergencies
  • Cash in the City: Affording Manolo’s, Martinis and Manicures on a Working Girl’s Salary

When Helen Gurley Brown liberated single women’s sexuality in 1962, the reception was quite icy.  But, then, other areas opened up to women – not just birth control and the sexual revolution.  Authors began the how-to self-help genre which emphasized women’s needs, including business and finance: (slide)

  • A Woman’s Guide to Successful Negotiating (keep clicking)
  • Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office
  • Nice Girls Don’t Get Rich
  • How to Say It for Women
  • Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman
  • Smart Women Finish Rich
  • Own a Successful Woman Owned Business!
  • Why the Best Man for a Job is a Woman
  • The Hip Girl’s Handbook: for Home, Car & Money Stuff
  • How to Pee Standing Up:  Tips for Hip Chicks

Women are no longer confined by this ideal of femininity. “how to” books are about entering the masculine world.  But, confusing definitions of femininity still make their way into our modern conduct manuals. Smart Women Finish Rich by David Bach (2002) targeted women as his audience so he could teach them how to use their heads & hearts in making financial decisions.  He’s allowing for the emotional, sentimental side of women – that dominion over the breast that Anna Barbauld insists on.  Bach writes:

“Most women don’t receive a basic education in finance until it’s too late” (4)
“I wanted to help…. I laid out a simple but effective pathway that any woman could follow to achieve financial security and freedom” (4).
Women are better investors because they “commit” to an investment plan and then stick with it as opposed to men who traditionally suffer from “fear of commitment” (6)

Playing on stereotypes not unlike those implemented in conduct books (and those implicit to being male or masculine), Bach attempts to use women’s attributes to earn them power and financial security without the help of a male partner.  We also have Suze Orman cautioning everyone against making financial decisions based on their emotions – and she does this with both male and female callers.  What are her ethics of finance and her assumptions about masculinity and femininity?  There’s also the pseudo “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger who doles out harsh criticism of dead-beat dads and irresponsible mothers.  Motherhood and faith are two virtues not to be excused in anyone.  However, she most decidedly ridicules feminism and accuses feminists of denigrating motherhood:

So whereas in the past I might have thought Germaine Greer had earned her desolation [for waiting too long to have a child], that it served her right for the critical damage feminists did to all the women with their negative brainwashing about the value of motherhood, I mostly now pity her.  All that anger for so long has robbed her and so many others of he most incredible beauty that they as women could experience.  (slide)

Even the “Sex and the City” women are caught between being feminine – wearing 4” heels to walk 70 blocks in Manhattan – and masculine – prowling about for the next relationship or sexual conquest.

Jane Eyre, in the end, marries but is financially independent.  Is she really fully in charge of her destiny  by this time?  Maybe she could have used an Idiot’s Guide to relationships? or a Smart Women Finish Rich book?