The Labour of Bourgeois Sexuality in the Age of Revolutions

Tom Cutterham (University of Birmingham)
7 March 2017

Elite women in the eighteenth-century were trained in what many conduct-writers called "the art of pleasing." First and foremost, that meant they were taught to be submissive, mild, and deferential towards men. Another eighteenth-century figure, the coquette, temporarily transgressed the injunction to submit. Yet her resistance was part of a ritual of courtship that still ultimately served the pleasure of men. When they participated in the art of pleasing and the culture of coquetry, women were performing varieties of emotional and sexual labour. They performed this labour as the price of participation in genteel society, the price of seeking love and marriage, and indeed simply as a duty inculcated in them by the world in which they lived. This recognition leaves historians with two troubling, unanswered questions—what value was extracted from such labour, and by whom?

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