“When is a Woman…?” Exploring Cultural Expectations of Women Advocated in Historical Newspapers

Montage of snippets from newspapers considering "when is a woman...?"

by Lotta Vuorio, Gale Ambassador at the University of Helsinki

When I was preparing to deliver my first presentation as a Gale Ambassador, I ran into an interesting article called “When Woman is Not Graceful” in Gale’s Nineteenth Century Collections Online. The article was published in a newspaper called The Christian Recorder in 1895, and it portrays some of the “conditions under which she (a woman) manages to look absurd” – at least in the opinion of the anonymous writer. The article appears as an opinion piece by Graphic London and it expresses outspokenly all the descriptions connected to the stereotype of women who move clumsily. It says, “Few women can enter a carriage, mount the steps of a coach or hurry into a hansom gracefully, while the spectacle of a woman getting into a boat is far from pleasing”.  The vast petticoats common in the nineteenth century and their effects on the ability of women to move are mentioned and criticised, and the writer finishes his piece by indicating the true form of grace: “A woman is only really graceful when she is at rest, lolling in a carriage or sitting in a drawing room or else dancing, when she has the genius for it.” I wanted to find this article again and began searching the Gale Primary Sources database. In doing so I came across many more newspaper articles with a heading that begins “When is a Woman…”. As I browsed through them I became intrigued, curious about the way articles in different newspapers described what was acceptable and admired in the appearance and behaviour of women. Below are some of the most fascinating examples I found.

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Leading Ladies: The actresses who fought for women’s suffrage

By Karen Harker, Gale Ambassador at the University of Birmingham
Karen is a Gale Student Ambassador and PhD student at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute. Her work focuses on digitally reconstructing and reconsidering the role of incidental music used in nineteenth-century Shakespeare productions, a project which is rooted in archival research and utilises many of Gale’s digital resources. Other research interests include operatic adaptations of Shakespeare, digital humanities, tableaux vivant, and Shakespeare performances during times of war. Karen also enjoys hiking, yoga, singing, and spending time with her cat, Monkey.

“There was a young Lady called Vera
As a Speaker all crowded to hear her
She caused a sensation
Throughout the whole Nation
Such as never was seen in our ERA.”

So begins an anonymous limerick written about Vera “Jack” Holme – Edwardian actress, political activist, and militant suffragette. Found in the Archives of Sexuality & Gender, a collection within Gale Primary Sources, this poem is one of thousands of papers, manuscripts, photos and news articles related to the eccentric, multifaceted life of one of Britain’s most devoted advocates for women’s voting rights. Also a part of the Women’s Volunteer Reserve during WWI and Britain’s first female chauffeur, Holme broke the patriarchal boundaries that had surrounded women for centuries through her constant vigilance and dedication to the causes of women’s suffrage and equality.

Read moreLeading Ladies: The actresses who fought for women’s suffrage