Etiquette for Ladies: “The most attractive quality, you say?… Well don’t sound too learned, it’ll only make him jealous!”

To a large extent, 19th century society the binary options for gender were either masculinity or femininity. The advent of industrialisation and its promise to move people up the social ladder meant that more people were interested in refining their language use and changing their behaviour and mannerisms in order to achieve upward social mobility. Enter the ‘19th century advice books’ and you have a perfect business for exploiting people all in the name of ‘proper’ and ‘perfect’ speech.

In particular, the toxic advice given out to women on their language use will make you wish you had swallowed your own vomit than to have to carry on reading.  WARNING: PLEASE KEEP A SICK BAG ON HAND!

The following explicit content has been taken from a range of sources:


Other than making your blood boil, these pieces of advice do provide an insight into 19th century attitudes to women’s language use. It is not hard to decipher from this that women were regarded as less intelligent and much less likely to be engaged in thoughtful and technical conversations. Yet, if these views were expressed in present day Britain, there is a very high chance you would be mauled in the street by a very large group of feminists. So why were such attitudes tolerated in the 19th century? An explanation of this rests partly on the attitudes to gender roles at that time. For instance, women were indoctrinated to live their lives either securing a profitable marriage or to upholding and maintaining the values of that relationship within the familial domain. In order to reach these goals more importance was placed on being ‘feminine’, ‘soft’, ‘fragile’ and to conduct oneself in a ‘graceful’ manner. Essentially, these feminine qualities took precedence over erudition and intellectual superiority. This only helped to reinforce the idea that women should speak ‘softly’ and in a ‘feminine manner’ so that they don’t overstep their boundaries.

Interestingly, women themselves contributed to the consolidation of such attitudes by taking on these domestic responsibilities they fixed their position in the social hierarchy. Furthermore, it was rather easy for men to ostracise women from specialist conversations because their lack of education amounted to complete ignorance and insufficient knowledge of topics. Additionally, the last thing a 19th century women wanted to do was to chase away any potential suitors by daring to sound ‘well learned’. In fact, this was considered off-putting and would leave women vulnerable to being tagged as a ‘blue-stocking’ or which I would dub in present day lingo as “RUN FOR YO FU*CKING LIVES – HER BRAINS ARE BIGGER THAN HER BOOBS!”.

Nevertheless, it is quite clear from these attitudes why women were told to speak in a more feminine and gentile manner and to restrict their speech to topics which lacked intellectual depth. I would go as far as to argue that Lea and Blanchard (1840) thought it against a women’s nature to use language to convey facts. Their advice makes me wonder whether they thought small talk and gossip was meant to be hardwired into a women’s intellect.


‘The Laws of Etiquette: or, short rules and reflections for conduct in society’ by Carey, Lea &   Blanchard, 1836.

‘Etiqueette for Ladies: With Hints on the Preservation, Improvement, and Display of Female Beauty’ by Lea and Blanchard, 1840.

‘Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquetter and Guide to True Politeness’ by Martine, 1866



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