A Legacy of ‘Difficult Women’: from 18th century Britain to classic Hollywood


This weekend I had the privilege of attending the ‘Difficult Women: 1680-1830’ Conference hosted by the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York. This was a two-day interdisciplinary event which included presentations from the fields of literature, history, history of art, costuming/history of fashion, theatre history, and women’s studies.

IMG_20151127_130449In examining the prominent women of the long 18th century, and unpacking what it was that made them both difficult in their own age and difficult for us to study, I soon realised that the forces that labelled certain women ‘difficult’ did not exist solely within the bounds of the era. Rather, women continued to challenge traditional gender roles both in the public and private spheres, and often by the very act of transgressing the boundaries of those spheres, in every generation following the Enlightenment era.

After the British abolitionist movement started winning victories, many of the women who had been disenfranchised from that cause regrouped themselves to form women suffrage societies, much in the same way women of the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s became disenchanted by their marginalized roles and organized themselves into the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s.

Although women of the Victorian era are generally seen to have been relegated to a more traditional role in the home, those involved in the suffrage movement made it their mission to be ‘difficult’ for the patriarchy. The American progressive reform women of the early 20th century caused all kinds of trouble in support of many moral/social causes like prohibition, social hygiene, ending human trafficking, higher education for women, and birth control.

In the 1920s, women were attending university in greater numbers than ever before, feeling the freedom of their new-found equality at colleges like Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, and Bryn Mawr. By the 1930s, difficult women had become an integral part of the social landscape. Although women like Amelia Earhart and Babe Didrikson Zaharias were still seen as exceptions for challenging the gendered status quo, they were highly lauded for their achievements.

The Hollywood starlet of the 1930s and 40s therefore had many generations of glorious ‘difficult’ women after whom she could model herself. The theatre world had long boasted a tradition of non-traditional women, and this inverted status quo continued to offer freedom to a new breed of female celebrity: the feminist star persona. Women like Bette Davis, Mae West, Ginger Rogers, Greta Garbo, Marlene Deitrich, Rosalind Russell, Myrna Loy, Katharine Hepburn, and many others could present a stronger definition of womanhood than had ever before reached the general public.

HISTORY OF FASHION IN FILM 1920s-1970s collage edit (1)

Image via @GlamAmor “History of Fashion in Film”: http://www.glamamor.com/2016/02/1920s-History-of-Fashion-in-Film.html

As the movement for women’s equality continues to gain new ground, we can look to history to recognize the progress made in every era by women who refused to conform to a gendered normalcy but rather chose to be ‘difficult’ as an individual rather than an anonymous member of the idealised female sex. As I discovered this weekend, we are still battling many of the same prejudices thrust upon the women of the 18th century. Many of the same themes run along the timeline of women’s history – most notably that the patriarchy has a very specific place for a very non-specific 50% of the human race.

These expectations cause problems. These expectations are ‘difficult’ to navigate.

What I learned about ‘difficult’ women of the 18th century:

Please see works cited at end of post and refer to the Difficult Women Conference programme for more information.

  • The greatest sin a woman could commit was to participate in any sort of public life, be it theatre, politics, or social causes – this made her immediately ‘difficult’
  • While a woman’s visibility in public gave her a sense of individuality, this individuality made the public decidedly uncomfortable because she could not be placed in any of the idealised feminine stereotypes – muse, mother, virgin, etc. (West)


  • Actresses were public women who were able to cultivate a form of agency, though their profession tended to burden them with a reputation on par with prostitution (Turner)
  • An actress, more than any other woman in the eyes of the public, could assert her personality because she could accumulate wealth. This wealth could then be used to her advantage, often by way of commissioning paintings to support her public image and/or gaining access to the upper echelons of society (Reed, Senkiw, Cortese, Dunne)
  • Women could use fashion as a mode of self-expression. Because women often made their own clothes, they were able to incorporate their political views and social campaigns in their mode of dress. Because their garments and accessories were portable, these messages, either hidden or overt, were able to traverse the private and public environment, thus making the body a stage from which to launch socio-political commentary (Waine)
garter and reticule

Jacobite garter and abolitionist reticule

  • As in other eras of history, women could use the stage as an arena for proposing change, both for the social and political causes in which they were involved and for their own fight for equality. Wit, humour, and comedy gave women playwrights and actresses the ability to actualise, albeit temporarily, their commentaries and criticisms of patriarchal society (Reed, Senkiw, Cortese, Dunne)
  • Women of the upper classes were more able to participate in public life due to their wealth and social status. Many of the women who took advantage of this privilege saw themselves as exceptions due to their rank and they seldom advocated for a general change in societal gender roles
  • There were socially acceptable ways for women to participate in the public sphere. Women were not in fact legally disenfranchised until the Reform Act of 1832. Women were expected to support their male family members’ political activities (Sargeant)
  • The abolition movement disenfranchised the women very early on when William Wilberforce expressed his disapproval of their involvement. Consequently, women formed their own abolitionist societies and worked independently of the men, in some cases even disagreeing with their policies (Shuttleworth)

My favourite difficult’ women of the 18th century:

1787-duchess-of-devonshire-5Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Georgiana’s name surfaced several times throughout the conference. I am sorry to say that my knowledge of her beforehand came from the film THE DUCHESS (2008) starring Keira Knightly, but at least I had heard of her. Unfortunately, the film chose to dwell on the duchess’s personal life rather than highlighting her involvement in public life. Georgiana drew scandal to herself by actively canvassing for Charleses Fox and Grey. Ever the fashion plate, the duchess is a great example of one who incorporated political motifs into her dress as a form of supporting the campaign. She used her popularity and her purse to garner votes for the party, though she also garnered ill-favour when suggestions that she was also using her person (nudge nudge, wink wink) reached the public. She was also condemned by for crossing class barriers and going into the streets and pubs to discuss politics with the public – a big no-no for a woman of her rank. (Sargeant, West, Waine)

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough

I like to think of Sarah Churchill as the Margo Leadbetter of the 18th century upper class. She was one of the wealthiest women in Europe and held impressive influence in the royal court of Queen Anne. This weekend I learned about her architectural ambitions as patroness of a number of building projects around England, including Holywell House, Windsor Lodge, Blenheim Palace, Marlborough House, the Old Manor of Woodstock, and Wimbledon House. Sarah was known for her exacting budgeting requirements, her volatile temper, and her tempestuous working relationships with such famous architects as Sir John Vanbrugh and Sir Christopher Wren. Sarah’s ideal building style was plain and serviceable, and since she held the purse strings, much of her energy was spent in trying to reign in the extravagances of those she employed. She made a habit of examining all the workers’ contracts herself, and she soon found that she got things done quicker and cheaper when she worked with a master builder rather than an architect. (Boyington)


‘Please just do what I tell you…’

I can’t help thinking that Sarah Churchill would never have been labelled ‘difficult’ by those she worked with had she been a man. Interestingly, women today are still trying to wriggle out from the ‘bossy’ label when they simply assert themselves and try to get things done. In honour of Sarah Churchill, show your support for the #BanBossy campaign on social media.

1779_queen_charlotte_by_ben (1)Queen Charlotte

Poor Queen Charlotte was the wife of King George III. We in America know him as the king we beat in the American Revolution. In England he is more known as the king who lost his marbles. Either way, I imagine he was a very ‘difficult’ man to be married to. Charlotte and George had about 100 children, and Charlotte was queen for 25 years before her image was sullied by scandal. Charlotte did her very best not to be difficult, choosing instead to have herself portrayed as a loyal wife and mother, completely unconcerned with politics and public life beyond the call of her duties as queen. Unfortunately, Charlotte’s apolitical stance still left her vulnerable to public ridicule, as the press chose to associate her with a number of public scandals with which she in fact had very little involvement. As Heather Carroll pointed out in her talk, when it came to Charlotte’s public persona, ‘she was damned if she did [get involved], damned if she didn’t.’ Poor Charlotte. (Carroll)

Sarah Siddons

Siddons was one of the first grande dames of the theatre, making her mark most notably as a dramatic actress. She was responsible for creating one of the most memorable portrayals of Lady MacBeth, a role unrivalled until the performances of Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, and our own Judi Dench.

*NB: Lady MacB is often described as the most difficult of difficult women. Shakespeare’s women generally tend to be more terrible because they are more credible and intelligible. (West) She my article A Feminist Perspective on Shakespeare’s MACBETH.

Unlike many of the other actresses of her day, who courted notoriety à la Kardashian, Siddons used her fame on the stage to curry favour with the upper classes, thus placing herself ‘above reproach’ and out of reach of the scandal-mongers. She distanced herself from other female actresses, choosing instead to socialise with women of the aristocracy. She was also very tactful when it came to her relationships with notable ‘difficult’ women like Mary Wollstonecraft, choosing instead to keep their friendships at an arm’s length (Guest).

BD Sarah Siddons TWITTER

(Left) Bette Davis in the pose of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ “Mrs. Siddons as the Muse of Tragedy” (1784) (right) and the fictional Sarah Siddons Award from ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) (centre)

Mary Wells

AN00268996_001_lMary Wells is one of the lesser actresses Siddons chose not to associate with. Wells was a firecracker, flirting first with comedy, then tragedy, and finally settling on comic mimicry. She was a big fan of fame, as speaker Anna Senkiw put it. Not only did she mimic other actresses acting style, but she also copied their modes of celebrification. As portraiture was a major way actresses could brand their image, Wells commissioned portraits of herself in the style of her greater contemporaries, like Siddons.

Senkiw likened Mary Wells to Eve Harrington in ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), in that she was not above trying to destroy other actresses’ success to achieve her own. If you’ll remember, the award given to both Margo and Eve in the film is the fictional Sarah Siddons Award. This comparison (both between Wells/Eve and Siddons/Margo/Davis) is even more striking when we consider the image above of Bette Davis posing as Siddons for the 1957 tableau in the Pageant of Masters. Like Wells and Siddons, Davis was notorious for her diva duel with Joan Crawford. Staged rivalries among actresses can always be mutually beneficial – bringing the drama off-stage/off-camera gives a women an identity beyond that of the characters she portrays.

I look forward to reading Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater (University of PA, 2010) for more insight into the public and private lives of these actresses.

Peg Woffington

ccf16072010_00001Another firecracker of a difficult woman, Woffington was an actress and a wit, a veritable Dorothy Parker of her circle. Woffington was Irish, though she considered herself politically English. She used this double nationality to her advantage, using the experience she gained in England to garner respect back home in Dublin. Woffington was noted for performing in male dress. She always negotiated her own salary and was able to accumulate enough wealth to commission her own portraits, shape her own image, maintain masterly control over her sexuality and independence, and to project her female influence in the public sphere.

In 1750, Woffington was made honorary president of the Beefsteak Club at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. The club, not unlike Parker’s Algonquin Round Table, operated as a centre for social/political discussion. Peg would have been valued simultaneously ‘as one of the boys,’ as a mascot, and as a wit. Although her social status as an actress prevented her from socialising with women of the upper classes, the ambiguity of her role in male society offered her this freedom of participating in public life in an arena hitherto forbidden to women. (Reed)

Susanna Centlivre

220px-William_Hogarth_-_Benefit_ticket_(Mr._Milward);_A_Bold_Stroke_for_a_WifeLike Woffington, Susanna Centlivre was known for her wit, both as an actress and as the most notable female playwright of her time. She was also famous for playing male roles on the stage, and there was even a rumour she had masqueraded as a man in order to attend Cambridge University. In her talk about Centlivre, Beth Cortese highlighted the ways in which Centlivre used comedy to endow her female characters with agency, thus politicising the stage in favour of women’s dominance.

Cortese pointed out that female wit was seen as distinct from male wit in that it functioned in Centlivre’s plays as an active response to difficult situations, being employed best, and to strongest comedic effect, when under pressure and out of necessity. Female characters gain liberty via wit, in essence. Centlivre was also able to transform the household from a place of female imprisonment into a place of pleasure in which women hold the upper hand. (Cortese)

Olympe de Gouges

I wanted to end this post with a real bra-burning feminist. Olympe de Gouges was the Mary Wollstonecraft of France. She vocally advocated equal rights for women in her ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen’ (1791). In this document, she insists on using the familiar ‘tu’ form of address when referring to men, thus putting the female voice on equal footing with the male for the first time in history. As a playwright, de Gouges was able to show the lack of freedom in marriage, among many other social injustices endured by the average woman of her day. She was also an avid abolitionist, often twinning racial and gender causes in her plays. Many of her 19 plays were banned for fear of insurrection, both at home and in the colonies, in response to her plays.

As you can imagine, de Gouges was very active in the French Revolution, but as was so common among anybody who vocalized their views in those ‘difficult’ times, she was condemned for her views and guillotined. There is evidence to suggest, however, that she was proud to that last for being the only woman of letters to meet such an end. (Dunne)quote-woman-is-born-free-and-lives-equal-to-man-in-her-rights-social-distinctions-can-be-based-olympe-de-gouges-65-95-10

Works Cited

Boyington, Amy. “Sarah Churchill: Overcoming Prejudice to Pursue her Architectural Ambitions” (University of Cambridge)

Carroll, Heather. “Damning the Queen: Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the fallen ‘Queen of Hearts’” (University of Edinburgh)

Cortese, Beth. “‘Let the tyrant man make what laws he will, if there’s a woman under the government, I warrant she finds a way to break ‘em’: Susanna Centlivre’s Subversive Wit” (Lancaster University)

Dunne, Emma. “A Most Difficult Femme Rebelle: Campaigns against Inequality in the Theatrical Works of Olympe de Gouges” (Université Paris-Sorbonne)

Guest, Harriet. “The Celebrated Mrs. Robinson” (independent scholar)

Reed, Harriet. “Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington: Intellectual, Actress, Muse, Whore” (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Sargeant, Emily. “‘Women of the People’: Representations of political women during the late eighteenth century” (University of Oxford)

Senkiw, Anna. “Mary Wells: A Difficult Woman” (University of Oxford)

Shuttleworth, Rebecca. “‘Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition’: Elizabeth Heyrick, Susanna Watts and the Voice of Women in Abolitionist Discourse, 1800-1833” (University of Leicester)

Turner, Rachael. “Painting the Painted Lady: Joshua Reynolds and the Difficult Woman” (independent scholar)

Waine, Roseanne. “Objects of Discourse: Women’s Textile Activism and Political Dress in the Long Eighteenth Century” (Bath Spa University)

West, Shearer. “What Did Difficult Women Look Like?” (University of Sheffield)

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