Downton Abbey’s Lessons for Ladies

sistersby Roxanna Bennett

-Spoiler Alert to end of Season 3-

The third season of Downton Abbey is over. We feminist fans shed some tears when Lady Sybil died, cheered when under-butler Thomas Barrow informed Mr. Carson his lifestyle is “not revolting” and learned a lot more about what it means to be a Lady.

We learned that it’s difficult but not impossible to challenge the social norms (Mrs. Crawley helps Edith move from sex work to domestic employment), that older women may be romantically pursued but it’s sometimes a relief to turn down a suitor (Mrs. Patmore is wooed by a player who wants a captive cook, Mrs. Crawley deftly shuts down Dr. Clarkson). We discovered that slut-shaming is an old tradition (Lady Mary, Lady Rose, Edith, pretty much every unmarried woman in Downton gets a taste of this at some point or another) and that sometimes challenging class and station in life works out for the best (Sybil and Tom), huzzah!

Below are 10 Georgian-era life lessons about femininity and ladyhood we learned from the women of Downton Abbey.

  1. Appearance is everything

It’s imperative that, as a Lady, you spend several hours a day being dressed and undressed for various meals and events and that you sit still as you are groomed, brushed, petted and scolded in front of a mirror that will highlight your every fault and charm. Eating dinner with your family is the high point of your otherwise meaningless existence and heaven help the Lady who is not suitably attired.

  1. Always a doctor’s wife, never a doctor

Yes, you spent years a trained nurse and were married to a doctor and competently treated patients and understood as much as your late husband about medical procedures. That’s all well and fine, but you’re a widow and a Lady and therefore, shut up and stop with the whining about saving the lives of dying patients with your fancy, think-you-know-better than the Man Doctor ideas.

  1. patmoreKnow your place!

A chauffeur should never sleep with a Lady, but if he does convince her to marry him, he’ll be reluctantly received as one of the family with all the money and comfort that entails. If a woman, however, sleeps above her station, such as a housemaid sleeping with an enlisted officer who happens to be convalescing in the home of her employer, look forward to a life of shame, hunger and misery. It’s alright for a man to marry up but not for a woman. If you are a Lady you are expected to find a consort within your class, and not make merry with farmhands or – far worse – editors and publishers, who are so gauche as to be inconceivable as marriage material.

  1. Being a sex worker is contagious

A sex worker is the lowest form of life. Serving her in your shop is to invite shame upon yourself, your business and your family. Associating with a sex worker means that you, too, are also a sex worker because prostitution is contagious. Employing a sex worker as anything other than a sex worker is to allow your home or business to become defiled with her dirty ways. Never mind the reasons that she became a sex worker, (because you fired her for sleeping above her station [see #8, Know Your Place] and then she got pregnant and had no way to feed her bairn because you FIRED HER) now she is worse than trash and anyone seen speaking to her is assumed to also be frolicking in the muck of unwed intercourse. Read more

Posted on by Roxanna Bennett in Feminism, Pop Culture 1 Comment

Women's History Month

History of Birth ControlWell Women’s History Month is almost over but I thought I’d post some interesting articles because women’s history doesn’t exist in a vaccum and should really be talked about all year round.

But one thing that is special about this October is that it’s the 80th anniversary of the Persons Case, when on October 18, 1929 Canadian women became officially “persons.” It’s a big milestone but something we can’t take for granted. I reminded myself today that my 92-year-old grandmother, who’s alive today, spent over a decade of her life not being considered a person!

Eighty years wasn’t so long ago. And status isn’t something we can take for granted today. Sexism and other forms of discrimination still exist and gender rights can’t be separated from other social stratifications such as class, race, and sexual orientation. There are still issues to talk about and work to do on a number of fronts.

For example, the Shriver report on women in America has been widely talked about in news and the American blogosphere. Maria Shriver points out the female-to-male ratio in the workforce as evidence of workplace equality. But many feminists like the lovely writers at Feminists for Choice point out how much inequality still exists. My “What Gender is Your Recession” article in the Vancouver Observer also touches on the misleading coverage of the “he-cession”-caused false equality.

But learning women’s history and the history of equality struggles and sexual rebels can help us contextualize what we see around us on a day to day basis. And a lot of it is fun and interesting too.

  • To start, Newsweek has a great little slideshow about the evolution of birth control, where you’ll learn things about birth control from the time of Aristotle to today. Of course there’s much left out but it’s still a pretty neat resource with some interesting graphics like the one above.
  • For more on the herstory of the Person’s Case, Victoria Telecommunity Network has a neat site laying out the who, what, where, and how.
  • If you have more time for research, the Women’s History Network of British Columbia has tons of great resources on their site.
  • Stay tuned for an article I’m doing for the Observer talking about fabulous UBC Sociology and Women’s Studies prof Becki Ross’ new book on the history of burlesque and striptease in post-war Vancouver.
  • And I’ll leave you with one of my favourite women’s history sites: the online Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health. Unfortunately it’s difficult to navigate and not well designed. But it’s worth pushing through some of that to get their entertaining and informative take on menstruation through history. For example they have a very thorough collection of words and expressions for menstruation. And they have a great collection of booklets, videos, art, and ads from the history of menstrual products, like this 1948 ad for Lysol douching:


So take some time to check out some women’s history resources. And remember, you don’t have to stop when November comes along.

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Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism 2 Comments