The Roles of Women during the 18th Century and How They Were Portrayed in Literature

Oct 25, 2017 | 0 comments

Oct 25, 2017 | Miscellaneous | 0 comments

The Roles of Women during the 18th Century and How They Were Portrayed in  Literature



During the eighteenth century, women’s roles in society were categorized as domestic. The roles of women were strictly defined in areas such as “work, family, and society according to ideas of what is appropriate for the sex” (Easton 389).  These roles gave women fewer career choices, loveless marriages with few rights and many, many domestic duties (Hawthorne et al. 34). Many women writers, who lived during the 18th century, wrote about the experiences that women were faced with during that time.  Chief among those voices was Aphra Behn, who attempted to come to grips with the role of women during this period in society. One of Behn’s most famous plays, “The Rover”, depicted her views on how women were portrayed in society during the 18th century.  This paper will present the roles women were forced to carry out during the 19th century. This paper will relate the roles of the women characters in the play “The Rover” to the roles of women during the 18th century.  This novel will be used like a reference to depict how Aphra Behn used her artistic and literary skills to express her feelings about the gender roles of women during the 18th century.




Aphra Behn, a controversial and female author, is one of the notable literary critics throughout the centuries (Canfield et al, 221). The literary plays she documented during the period of restoration were very popular on the stage. Similarly, her poetry and fiction were successful. Gallagher (97) asserted “the feminine interest now giving importance to Behn as a pioneer in professionalism, in women, began to emerge.” Moreover, she used her literary work to address politics, social commentary, money, sex, power, relationships, ideal and virtue. However, her major writing focus was on gender roles.

The essay will examine the of gender roles through the through the work of Behn of “the rover”. According to Hutner (198), the play of “the rover” criticized the arranged marriages through the inclusion of societal criticism. To understand the play of “The Rover” better, it is of great importance to understand the relationship of her life to her writing, her society she lived and perception of the women’s roles. The rover provides an oral criticism of the expectations of the society, denounces ideas of forced marriages and lastly the accompanying authority of the parents.

The rover is about of sisters’ Florinda, and Hellena who are making an attempt  of an escape from the fates of their male members of their family have decided for them, in addition to a band of, English cavaliers in Naples who are burnished at the carnival time. Link (109) observed that men are promiscuous and gay; there is the loyal Belvile, Wilmore, the rover, blunt and the negative Fredrick, the low comedian squire of the country. Belvile met and rescued the Florinda from being attacked by Naples previously, and eventually fell in love with her. Forinda, on the other hand, is destined for a pre arranged marriage. However, Hellena is destined for a convent. The escape of the sisters to the carnival is where they meet the cavaliers. Furthermore, Florinda loves Belivele and Hellena and Wilmore fall in love. However, Angelina Bance, the gorgeous courtesan complicates things. She is also in love with Wilmore although she has Pedro, the brother to Hellena and Florinda and Antonio, one of the potential future husbands of Florinda fighting to get her attention.

The plot of the play has complicated series masking, intrigues, and overall character confusion. There is love, rape, sex, anger, betrayal, jealousy, despair and joy. The play finally ends with marriages of Wilmore and Hellena and Belvile and Wilmore.

According to Markley (68), the main conflict in the play of the rover originates from the arranged marriage idea. This is attributed to the own experience of Behn and her marriage which was arranged and unhappy. Despite the fact that Behn was successful in the contemporary literature realm, her life clearly shows struggles which the women of the restoration faced in forging their identities in a large society dominated by the control of patriarchs. Even as Aphra Behn created new grounds for women by writing and publishing her literary plays in the public stage, the society she went against and raged bound her both by social ideals and financial dependence (Canfield and Sneidern, 109).

“The Rover” shows how Behn challenged the patriarchy hegemony as she applied male play writers texts, Thomas Killinger and later manipulated it  propose subtle social commentary on the women’s roles. Moreover, Behn, like other women in the restoration period applied tools such as improvisation, wit, madness, disguise and sexuality as ways in their endeavor to strive for theatre equality. The culture of restoration Behn confronted was a typical in which women held very little respect or independence (Gallagher, 61).

According to Hutner (395), rape was considered to be culture endemic by many people as the authority of men over women was total and supreme. Hutner (395) further pointed out that the crime of rape in 17th and 18th centuries was not prosecuted the same way it is done today. It was not even considered a crime, but it was a man exhibiting and expressing his power and sexuality over a woman. The violence of rape which was heinous did not transcend the social classes or even advertised; rather it reinforced the variation between the non privileged and the privileged. Behn, one of the feminist writers, disagreed with this rape representation and she later incorporated these wrongs into her work.

Similarly, the restoration society did not see the difference between the realms of dueling and courtship. This reflects the inherent violence in the female-male relations. Behn allowed her audience to see through the Rovers lens the representation of the courting and dueling. This is intrinsically the similar scenario in which there is a struggle by men to possess women as objects. Women according to Quinsey (284) are belittled to the commodity status, and airs of love just becomes the marketable transactions.

The representation of Angelica Bianca shows the real illustration of an empowered woman by her sex and matter to its consequences as exchange object. She is courtesan and thereby sells her sex and body to a man. Todd (117) observed that not only did men physically possess her, but also possess her as power or status symbol. While Angelica is portrayed as able to control her situation, the rejection by Wilmore of her love shows that she is in mercy of the patronage of men. Women according to Woodcock (42), had to negotiate between their sex, physical power, their intellect and mental capacity, which men believed, they did not have. On the theatre stage, they were able to use their wit and body sexuality together with one another to subvert the power of male.

According to Canfield (97), the female legibility was heavy and pressing concern and Behn bring out this through Angelica the hypocrisy of denouncing the poetess for subverting the sex of female. Even the women who were most contentious were bound socially and financially to men, their livelihoods and hearts resting in the men’s whims.

The play of “The Rover” of the 17th century portrays the problematic nature of the independence of female. Despite the fact that Behn has become an icon for equality among the feminine, she was snared by patriarchy dependence that she opposed. Explicit sexuality as asserted by Behn makes an ideal power that contrasts the dangerous vulnerability reality for women (Behn, 34-97).

The role of women is expressed in the three characters, in the play of “The Rover”; Angelica Biance, Hellena and Florinda. The stage was one of the only arenas and spaces where social experimentation could be done. Therefore, it served the purpose of questioning the gender roles and even the feminism precursors. In reality women had little power but the stage was one of places to subvert the reality.

The roles of women brought out from the play of “The Rover” were diverse. There were expectations from the society on women and the society defined their roles. Behn, who was a female writer does not encourage complete overthrow of the expectations of the society on women despite being distain. Even when Hellena and Florinda rebelled against the wishes of their father, they firmly keep themselves within the confines of their gender roles. Similarly, Hellena escapes a convent so as to play the traditional women role by becoming the wife of the philandering libertine who targets her fortune (Behn, 61).

According to Gallagher (72), in the play of “The Rover,” two types of women are seen. The first woman is the one which represent the societal woman which had no roles to express her desire, and the second woman which depicts the real life of Behn. This is a woman who becomes the desiring subject by adopting positions of power, distance and coldness.

According to Hutner (240), the society placed the value on women by virtue of possessing particular features. Florinda also applies these traits to make a judgment of her own self worth. She tells her sister “I understand better what is due to my fortune, birth and beauty, and more to my soul, than to obey those commands which are unjust” (Behn, 26-28). Similarly, she goes on to argue against her brother and make her point: “let him consider my fortune, beauty and youth” (Behn, 93-95). This brings out the social issues women underwent that time and also explains the reason of Florinda’s rebellion. The same traits she believes should give her freedom to choose her own husband are the very same traits the male members of the family exploit to sell her off to the wealthiest bidder. The women are valued like property to be sold off, and this was one of the social issues.

Another social issue in the play of “The Rover” is the exploitation experienced in the forced marriages. “The Rover” is a perfect example of a discussion that Behn was not a revolutionary, by making an attempt to overthrow the gender roles that were prevailing. For instance, the disdainful idea of forced marriages which Behn seems, to oppose not just the way it applies to women but to men too. The forced marriages are characterized by exploitation and unhappiness. The play acknowledges the expectations of the arranged marriages that were harmful to the forced women and men who did not have a say on them (Quinsey, 183)

In the play, it is evident that there were many major ways the men in the society nurtured and maintained their gender roles. Todd (112) pointed out that one of them was rape, and this was a major social issue of the time. Rape was used for many different reasons. For Blunt, rape was a means in which men exerted revenge on women in general just for the action of one particular woman. However, for Wilmore, rape was like a seduction or a diversion. The reason the heroes of Behn violate the conservative standards of sexual morality in the play of “The Rover” is to legitimize aristocratic worth and birth notions (Woodcock, 53).

Behn’s view of marriage seems to be consistent with the view of Wilmore in the play. When Hellena first suggest about marriage, his first response is “Hold Hold…no no, we will have vows now but not love, child, nor witnesses but the lover…marriage is a kind of a nuisance to love, as lending money is same as to friendship”(Behn, 124)

According to Canfield and Sneidern (319), Hellena is characterized by emotional strength and masculine wit and appears to have huge success for a woman in the play. He has both charm and wit to seduce her lover, in addition to self interest to, persuade him for marriage. Gallagher (102) pointed out that Hellena fits the image of a new heroine genre. Hellena suggested that, through a women’s wit, they has the manipulative power to the social hierarchy and gain equal footing with the male counterparts. She mirrors the real image of Behn, who through the writing creates a degree of sexual and financial independence. Similar to the way Hellena manipulates and uses sex to get her honor, Hutner (119) suggested that the play writing of Behn shoulders her vulnerability and broaden her sexual power.


Surrounded by social reprimand, Behn fought to have equal footing in the stage. Using the space of the public as a platform to air her thoughts, she challenged the society by her authorship and the content of her plays. Behn did not consider or believed herself to be an exception of the rules but a spokesperson on behalf of her gender. The play of the rover exposes double blind feminism and frustrations of the restoration women. The social issues and the role of women in the restoration period have been elaborated. Women were defined.






Work Cited

Behn, Aphra. The Rover. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967. Print.

Canfield, J D, and Sneidern M.-L. Von. The Broadview Anthology of Restoration & Early Eighteenth-Century English Drama. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press, 2001. Print.

Gallagher, Catherine. Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Internet resource.

Hutner, Heidi. Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Print.

Quinsey, Katherine M. Broken Boundaries: Women & Feminism in Restoration Drama. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996. Print.

Todd, Janet M. Aphra Behn. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Print.

Woodcock, George. Aphra Behn: The English Sappho. Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1989. Print.