Women in Eighteenth-Century Europe

By Margaret R Hunt
Published by Longman
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Book Review | Cornucopia 46

Surprising Freedom

By Maureen Freely


When Montesquieu published Persian Letters in 1721, he had not yet visited a Muslim country. This did not stop him from pronouncing women in Christian societies to be much better off than Muslim women, for Islam condoned polygamy, allowing men not just to imprison their wives but to use them as sex slaves, while Christians practiced monogamy, allowing larger social spheres for wives and giving them more freedom of movement.

Three centuries later, we can still hear his views echoed, not just by French and German politicians but also by feminists, and by historians of Europe, who have long been reluctant to engage with the complexities of a multi- confessional but officially Muslim empire that extended well into Europe for many centuries.

This book is the corrective they should all find waiting for them under the Christmas tree. It draws on a growing body of work by a new generation of social historians who have vastly extended their scope of enquiry, often through the examination of court records, to describe the lives of women of all races, religions and classes, not just in Western Europe but also in Eastern Europe, Russia and the lands of the Ottoman Empire.

And it turns out that Ottoman women of the 18th century had significant advantages over their sisters in Western Europe. In England, a wife’s moveable property (including her wages during marriage) went “permanently and irrevocably” to her husband.

But under Sharia law, married as well as unmarried women (and even slaves) had the right to own property. Though a daughter would inherit only half as much as her brother, her inheritance remained hers and hers alone in marriage, as did the mehr, the sum her husband was required to provide as part of the marriage settlement.

Though polygamy was allowed, it was not often practised, partly because it was a luxury only the rich could afford, but also because many women stipulated in their marriage contracts that the marriage be terminated the moment her husband took on another wife.

In any event, Sharia law required a polygamous husband to provide for all wives equally. If he failed to do so, he was swiftly and vigorously prosecuted. If a marriage ended in divorce, he was under legal obligation to return any part of the mehr he may have borrowed, to support his former wife for several months, to cede custody of sons up to the age of 7 and daughters until puberty, and to provide for their upkeep. If, having decided that divorce was too expensive an option, he found solace with a concubine, he would be aware that she was aware that any child resulting from the union would share inheritance rights with his legitimate children, should he acknowledge them as his own.

The Empire’s Sharia courts were so well known for taking the woman’s side in questions of money and property that Christian and Jewish women often used Sharia courts, too, in the hope of a better deal.

Margaret R Hunt makes it clear that much of this came as a surprise to her, and she expresses her debt to the Ottomanists who set her straight. And she is elegant (if also tactful) in the way she parts company with earlier historians of women, who were often so eager to find signs of female heroism or solidarity in early modern Europe that they overlooked women who used their power at the expense of others (often girls and women) more vulnerable than they were.

On this broad canvas, heroines share the stage with victims and villainesses, and (with the exception of fishwives, universally outspoken) they beat off any generalisation one might try to apply to them. Politics was off limits to women in most places, but in Poland noblewomen spoke often in the nobles’ assembly, also serving as diplomats and engaging in political intrigue, while in the Ottoman court, the mother of a sultan was traditionally one of his main advisors, even though she would have once been a slave.

Almost all women worked – in the fields and in the home, as street vendors, wet-nurses, weavers, servants, musicians, gardeners, foragers, healers, prostitutes and, of course, mothers.

However they earned their keep, they were almost always at a disadvantage in the world of men. But one of the richest people in all of Europe was a Dutchwoman, a mother of eight, who took over her husband’s bank after he passed away. There were hundreds of woman printers all across Europe, and the Ottoman Empire, too.

A few overarching themes survive. The century sees a rise of militarism. There is the aftermath of the Reformation and the dawn of the Enlightenment. There are the revolutions, and there are the conservative backlashes that will lead to greater constraints on women in the next century. But whenever a grand narrative threatens, a real woman sails in to grab whatever is on offer and make the most of it.

I leave you with Princess Esma Sultan, sister of Mustafa III, who gave a palace garden party at which, in addition to entertaining her guests with troupes of women musicians and dancers, she presented them with a dozen female jousters, as well as boatwomen disguised as men to row them around her artificial lake.

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