History rarely moves in straight lines. The worlds of commerce, finance, politics, and capital in nineteenth-century Britain and the USA were dominated, and almost exclusively inhabited, by men. But that was not the case in the eighteenth century. As private property and public power increasingly intermingled in a century of accelerating economic transition, so the gendered segregation of social spaces shifted. Within the emerging bourgeoisie—that is, the class of people who were neither labourers nor aristocrats, but relied for their income on the ownership of capital—women were not confined to a domestic sphere. They were right up amongst it all. For women like Angelica Church (1756-1814), that world created opportunities just as it posed new challenges. And the ambivalent, ambiguous power of sexuality was central to both.
From the outset, men made it clear what they wanted from women in the eighteenth century’s new mixed-sex spaces. In published works like Thomas Marriott’s Female Conduct (1759), John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (1777), and John Bennett’s Letters to a Young Lady (1789), men harped on the critical importance of deference, submissiveness, and amiability. At the same time, they hated the idea that women might perform these roles simply to manipulate men. Women must cultivate “a real desire of pleasing,” as Bennett put it. The best woman, he wrote, was one who “charms every person because she is always amiable and obliging, without studying to charm.” Like the 1960s air-hostesses in Arlie Hochschild’s pioneering study of emotional labour, proper young ladies in the eighteenth century had to smile as if they really meant it.
“The Art of Pleasing,” as Thomas Marriott had labelled it, was central to bourgeois women’s assigned social role. But of course, it was far from the only way they took part in the hetero-social milieu. Just as relevant was the contradictory art of teasing—embodied, in the literature and conversation of the period, in the figure of the coquette. “Teazing and Tormenting is the sustenance, the breath, the very life, of most young women who are sure of the affections of their lovers,” wrote one anonymous wit in 1757. On the threshold between adulthood and marriage, women exercised perhaps more choice, more freedom, than at any other point in their lives. The coquette was one who revelled in this freedom and sought to extend it, simultaneously working to attract potential matches, and resist the closure of marriage or sex.
Angelica Church, a young New Yorker who lived in London during the French Revolution, was skilled in both the arts of pleasing and teasing. She was eternally being called “amiable” by friends, family, and acquaintances—as one friend of the family put it, “She charms in all companies.” Yet she was also more than capable of playing the flirt, both in letters and in life. “Me voila mon tres cher bien en mer et le pauvre coeur bien effligé de vous avoir quitté,” she wrote to her brother-in-law Alexander Hamilton after one visit was over: here I am, my dear, all at sea, and my poor heart very moved by having left you. After the same trip, an older man, Baron von Steuben, wrote her a jesting, flirtatious letter which began, “If your husband is in the least jealous, do not show him this letter.”
As the literary historian Theresa Braunschneider has written, the figure of the coquette underwent a downward trajectory across the century. If she began as an expression of new possibilities opened up for women by increasing hetero-sociability, she ended the century as a warning to anyone who resisted patriarchal norms and power. Works like Hannah Foster’s 1795 American novel The Coquette made her a tragic figure—and presaged the “revolutionary backlash” that returned women to an idealised domestic sphere. Such representations helped bring an end to the eighteenth century’s hetero-social moment. But they were also, sometimes, acts of analysis that saw through the sexual and emotional exploitation at its heart. Critics like Mary Wollstonecraft saw the coquette as a figure not of female empowerment, but male domination.
I do not intend to be sarcastically paradoxical when I say, that women of fashion take husbands that they may have it in their power to coquet, the grand business of genteel life, with a number of admirers, and thus flutter the spring of life away, without laying up any store for the winter of age, or being of any use to society… and we express surprise that adulteries are so common! A woman never forgets to adorn herself to make an impression on the senses of the other sex, and to extort the homage it is gallant to pay, and yet we wonder that they have such confined understandings.
In this passage from A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), Wollstonecraft argued that for bourgeois women, coquetry did not end with marriage—as indeed it had not for Angelica. Its patterns of behaviour, the arts of pleasing and teasing, instead came to determine a woman’s whole life. She extended the analysis in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792):
The woman who has only been taught to please will soon find that her charms are oblique sunbeams, and that they cannot have much effect on her husband’s heart when they are seen every day… Is it not more rational to expect that she will try to please other men; and, in the emotions raised by the expectation of new conquests, endeavour to forget the mortification her love or pride has received?
Because coquetry taught women that their greatest power lay in their ability to please and attract men, it fatally undermined both their individual ambitions and their romantic partnerships. Instead of developing their emotions and understandings, Wollstonecraft claimed, eighteenth-century society reduced them to an endless cycle of repetitive emotional labour, with diminishing personal returns. Rather than extending their freedom beyond the mere choice of a marriage partner, bourgeois women in the mixed-sex environment had been enmeshed in a set of power relations that was novel, yes, but no less subject to an underlying patriarchy.
Reading the literature of pleasing and teasing through the filter of Wollstonecraft’s critique offers the basis for a speculative reassessment of the era’s transformations—not only in gender and sexuality, but social, political, and economic. The bourgeois women whose type is portrayed here (and who were, in a sense, embodied in a figure like Angelica Church) were integral to the larger processes of state-building and class-formation that characterised the late-century Age of Revolutions. Among their important functions was the production of affective ties which served to knit together networks of capital and information. By the nineteenth century, such networks were institutionalised in banks, stock-exchanges, and other quintessentially masculine organisations. But while bourgeois power was still in the early stages of formation, could it be that women’s emotional labour was the critical ingredient? The nexus between capital and sex, we might conclude, was there from the beginning.
I do not put this thesis forward as proven. But as I write Angelica’s biography, I’ve been struck by the connections that her life suggests between events and processes that marked her times. She lived (I’d like to say she operated) at the intersection of two revolutions, in a world of dangerous financial speculation, intense political intrigue, and the play of passions between men and women across boundaries of all kinds. Understanding her role in those larger stories will entail a theory about how they interacted with the categories of gender and sexuality. Before the project is complete, it may be that the story of a single life will force me to rethink all that I’ve written here.
Tom Cutterham is a Lecturer in United States History at the University of Birmingham. His book, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic, is out this summer with Princeton University Press. His work on Angelica Church has been kindly supported by the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. He tweets from @tomcutterham
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