A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine in town for the summer showed me an antique book he had found on the shelves of the apartment he was house-sitting: Letters to a Debutante, an advice book for young ladies, published in 1905. The conceit of the book is that the author, “Lady Jephson,” is coaching her young charge, “Violet,” in the ways of proper lady-hood.
Even more surprising than the book’s pristine condition–some of the pages hadn’t even been cut!–was the advice inside. I expected to read ridiculously and/or charmingly outdated comments about how tightly to lace your corset or how to clean your white kid gloves. I figured the book a curiosity of the bad old days that would show me that we’ve come a long way, baby.
What I read was alarmingly familiar. As I paged though chapters on appropriate dress, housekeeping, cooking, “country house visiting” (okay, that’s a bit different), and so forth, I saw the same sort of crap you might find today in The Rules or a ladymag:
–women and men cannot be friends, because the threat of sex looms! Women must be on guard!
–women should not read trashy romantic fiction, but stick to classics (AKA DudeLit) like Gulliver’s Travels
–women must endeavor to achieve a (completely unnatural) “natural beauty,” but not so strenuously that it distracts from their other duties or makes them vain
–women will secure their husbands’ love and fidelity through culinary skill; his wandering eye/stomach/wang is the fault of your poor cooking
–women’s primary job, and the key to happiness, is to be “charming”–that is, kind, patient, and accommodating …but not “smart.”
Yep, it really said that. By “smart,” it seemed to mean smart-mouthed or critical, rather than intelligent or educated, but that’s hardly a defense. I took solace in the fact that this advice was deemed necessary, as it indicated that there were–as there have always been–uppity broads cracking their gum and skewering anti-feminist crap like this, but in general, my heart quailed a bit to think how little standards have changed in the last 100 years.
And then I had a drink in public, paid for it with my own money, and went home with my unmarried partner. Suck it, “Lady” Jephson.