Conduct Books in the 18th Century

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Conduct Books in the 18th Century

Throughout history, conduct books have played an integral part in defining what cultures believed were acceptable and desirable behaviors, as well as representing the ideal person. In the introduction to The Ideology of Conduct, Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse attempt to show how literature and conduct books have been important in relaying these messages and shaping a history of sexuality through the ages. They also point out the interesting fact that these books of conduct have been aimed more at women and far "surpassed in quantity and variety" (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 4) similar types of literature for men. Some of the examples they list of types of conduct literature include pamphlets on marriage, books on manners and morality, and devotional manuals designated for women of the aristocracy.

Even in our culture today this type of literature exists in the forms of advertisements, fashion magazines, and exercise books. Again, much of this type of literature is directed at women more than men, which these editors explain as an attempt to specify "what a woman should desire to be if she wishes to attract a socially approved male and keep him happy" (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 5). This makes sense because even today our society is patriarchal, constructed so that women many times have to count on financial support from a man. However, the introduction points out the irony of this, since not only is the desirable woman being defined, but also what a man should find desirable in a woman is defined. also note that this is not necessarily a contradiction, since "the gendered world of information we inhabit today reproduces and maintains the dominant view (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 5).


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...n," women learn how to be more desirable for men in terms of today's standards. The focus seems to be on independence as well as sexual attractiveness, and although these qualities are quite different from those of the eighteenth century, they are still just as offensive. Just a few of the headings and articles give a clear idea of the messages being sent to women today: "Are you going too far to snag a man?" or "Bikini Body Bummers: Stretch Marks, Bikini Stubble, Flab, Back Acne--You name it, we help you banish it" and even "Cosmo's 10 Commandments" which include, among other things, "ditch the bitchy mood, fall for a nice guy, send thank you notes, keep underwear under cover, and never lose your cool." Even today conduct books remain an integral part of a culture's beliefs and ideals, documenting "a history of sexuality" (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 19) through time.