Women’s power in anonymity

Netflix show Bridgerton shows another side to the agency and influence of women in heavily patriarchal societies, writes Rachel Boddy.

Three female Bridgerton characters relax underneath a gazebo by a lake

If you’re one of the roughly 82 million households worldwide who have watched Bridgerton on Netflix, you no doubt noticed women are key. Although the point of the show is not historical accuracy, one of the things it has nailed is the way it portrays women and their agency.

Often portrayals of the past focus on the idea women had little power, few choices, and were under the control of men. Although European history is massively patriarchal, assuming women of the past were passive and helpless does them a massive disservice. Even back then, women had both agency and power. Sure, it was often limited, but that didn’t mean they sat silently at home, doing nothing.

In Bridgerton, we see women making choices to make the best lives for themselves. Some, like Daphne, work within the rules of society to ensure a happy marriage. Others, like her sister Eloise, long for a life outside of what society deems acceptable, such as that enjoyed by the independent Lady Whistledown. Bridgerton even shows married women could exert a significant amount of influence.

Women in the Georgian era knew they lived in a man’s world. Both Eloise and Daphne lament that the men around them do not understand what it’s like to be a woman. Eloise complains to their brother Benedict that, although he also might feel trapped by the life he leads, he has the option to make changes. Daphne similarly complains to another brother, Anthony, that he’ll never understand what it’s like to have your future decided by a single moment. Daphne’s referring to her presentation before the Queen, who could make her the most popular girl in society or the least sought after, thus affecting her choices for marriage and the future.

To cement her popularity, Daphne makes a deal with the Duke of Hastings. She later points out to him that the deal they have constructed has much higher stakes for her. He merely wants to avoid the over-eager mothers of other debutantes, while she’s trying to find a marriage that will affect the rest of her life. Discovery of their deal would also have bigger repercussions for Daphne. The Duke might suffer some teasing from acquaintances, while Daphne risks total ruin. Women understood their options were affected by others.

When it came to marriage, a woman’s main choice was the right of acceptance or refusal. Her choice of husband often determined the path of her future. A cruel or reckless husband could cause great unhappiness. Yet choosing a husband, let alone the right husband, could be difficult. Codes of behaviour meant unmarried women of the upper class were not left alone with men, and conversations were often controlled by etiquette. A lady could subtly flirt at society occasions, but her best opportunity to get to know a man was while dancing, where they might be together for half an hour or longer. During all this manoeuvring, a lady couldn’t be too familiar with him or risk being ‘ruined’—as Daphne finds out when she is seen in the gardens. All this made it tricky for a woman to find a man she felt she could marry.

Although marriages based on affection and love became increasingly common in this era, economic, social and political factors were still important. Parents or guardians often had significant influence in their children’s choice of a spouse. As head of the family, Anthony scares away Daphne’s first, hopeful suitors, claiming he knows they have bad habits he doesn’t think appropriate for his sister’s future husband. Although he goes about it poorly, he’s trying to ensure Daphne’s husband won’t embarrass or hurt her, has enough money to support her and will make her happy.

Anthony believes he is a better judge of men because he has access to information Daphne does not through attending places such as gentlemen’s clubs. These were spaces for drinking, gambling and male sociability, but also where significant information was casually exchanged. However, these sources of information had gaps.

Just as men had exclusive spaces, women had their own versions of socially acceptable networks, visiting each other’s homes to drink tea and gently gossip about their shared acquaintances. Both afternoon tea and gossip were occasionally belittled as idle ways for women to take up the day, but tea and gossip also functioned as a way to exchange key social information and influence events in ways Anthony proves unable.

There are numerous other instances where women exercise agency and exhibit power. Lady Bridgerton, Lady Danbury and even Queen Charlotte have influence over both their relatives and wider society. Although Georgian society was inherently patriarchal, high society was often controlled by prominent married women. They set the standard of dress and behaviour, and their words were often treated as law when it came to etiquette and decorum.

In Bridgerton, the Queen’s words influence the attitudes of all high society, particularly towards debutantes. Both Lady Bridgerton and Lady Danbury exhibit the power to influence wealthy and titled men. When Lady Danbury cautions the Duke of Hastings not to throw away love, he hears her out, however much he may wish to leave. Similarly, when Lady Bridgerton tells her eldest son it’s time to stop shirking his responsibilities, he does so, albeit regretfully. Even the three Bridgerton boys, with all their power, charm and wealth, snap to their best behaviour when Lady Danbury calls them in the ballroom.

Georgian balls required significant financial output and almost military planning. Hundreds of guests needed to be fed, entertained and wowed by the splendour. Although upper-class women were sometimes accused of extravagance, most were shrewd buyers and organisers, finding the line between enough splendour to ensure their social status, without breaking the bank. In addition to society events, the female head of the household would likely take charge of its day-to-day running—including purchasing, decorating and any staff matters. The running of a Georgian household required careful attention and accounting.

Status and wealth were not the only forms of social power. Lady Whistledown is the most influential woman in Bridgerton, and her social power largely relies on her anonymity. Through her scandal sheet, she drops scandalous society gossip, playing the members of London society like puppets. The scandal sheet is unique in printing the full names of its subjects. Most real Georgian scandal sheets obscured the names somewhat to protect themselves from libel cases.

Although the reading audience might guess immediately who L-y D-v-e was, the author and paper were still legally protected. By printing full names, Lady Whistledown could face both legal challenges and the anger of English high society. Her anonymity saves her and allows high society to speculate endlessly. Her anonymity also allows her to live a life Eloise dreams of—she is wealthy, independent, and has a successful career. Lady Whistledown shows us there is power in anonymity for women.

Although produced for entertainment rather than historical accuracy, Bridgerton nails the tricky line women walked in Georgian London. Their options were limited by society, but they had choices, made decisions and took control of their futures. After all, it might be a man’s world, but it would be nothing without women.

Rachel Boddy is a PhD candidate in the History programme at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, focusing on women in Georgian England.

Read the original article on Newsroom.