Study Guide

Moll Flanders Women and Femininity

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Women and Femininity

However it was, this they all agree in, that my mother pleaded her belly, and being found quick with child, she was respited for about seven months. (6)

Apparently, a female criminal can actually take advantage of her gender and avoid the ultimate punishment (death) by pretending to be pregnant, or "plead[ing the] belly." While in most other aspects of this society being a woman is a disadvantage, imprisoned women can use the anticipation of motherhood to put off their executions. Of course if they're lying, it become obvious in a matter of weeks.

I thought it was fine to be a gentlewoman indeed, for I had quite other notions of a gentlewoman now than I had before; and as I thought, I say, that it was fine to be a gentlewoman, so I loved to be among gentlewomen, and therefore I longed to be there again. (49)

Moll starts out thinking that being a "gentlewoman" is just being higher class than she is. So all you have to do is be nice and clean and ladylike, right?<em> Wrong</em>. What she doesn't realize is that a gentlewoman is actually a member of an entirely different class. And while you can make efforts to be clean and ladylike, in England in those days, you absolutely couldn't change your class, especially if you were a woman. But don't worry. Moll will have that rude awakening soon enough.

But my new generous mistress, for she exceeded the good woman I was with before, in everything, as well as in the matter of estate; I say, in everything except honesty; and for that, though this was a lady most exactly just, yet I must not forget to say on all occasions, that the first, though poor, was as uprightly honest as it was possible for any one to be. (54)

Despite the fact that Moll's mother is long gone, she's not without good female role models. Her nurse is kind and loving, and her new mistress "exceed[s] the good woman." So why then, with all these honest, moral ladies around, does Moll lower her moral standards so quickly?

I had with all these the common vanity of my sex, viz. that being really taken for very handsome, or, if you please, for a great beauty, I very well knew it, and had as good an opinion of myself as anybody else could have of me; and particularly I loved to hear anybody speak of it, which could not but happen to me sometimes, and was a great satisfaction to me. (58)

Hmm. Moll, you sure are sounding sexist here. She seems to be asserting here that all women share a "common vanity" and a willingness to believe in their own beauty. Now that's a doozy of a stereotype. Of course for our girl, it's totally true. It seems that no one could think her as beautiful as she herself does.

Thus I convinced her, that if the men made their advantage of our sex in the affair of marriage, upon the supposition of there being such choice to be had, and of the women being so easy, it was only owing to this, that the women wanted courage to maintain their ground and to play their part […]. (268)

According to Moll, men have it easier, especially when it comes to marriage. But the situation isn't without hope, because if women get a bit braver, they might be able to take that "advantage" back from men and gain a more equal footing. But how can women express this courage? What options do they really have in the world of <em>Moll Flanders</em>?

I found by experience, that to be friendless is the worst condition, next to being in want that a woman can be reduced to: I say a woman, because 'tis evident men can be their own advisers, and their own directors, and know how to work themselves out of difficulties and into business better than women; but if a woman has no friend to communicate her affairs to, and to advise and assist her, 'tis ten to one but she is undone […]. (480)

You know what's really ironic about this passage? Moll is complaining about how hard women have it, while men have all the control. But of all the characters in the book, Moll wields the most control, hands down, don't you think? So even while she's working within the confines of a male-dominated society, she's still finding ways to change her own destiny.

[…] you may see how necessary it is for all women who expect anything in the world, to preserve the character of their virtue, even when perhaps they may have sacrificed the thing itself. (533)

For a woman of this time period, the image of her "virtue" matters way more than whether or not she actually has it. In other words, acting and appearing like a virgin is more important than actually being one, so maybe there's some hope for Moll. She is, after all, skilled in making people believe she is something she's not.

Two other indictments being brought against them, and the facts being proved upon them, they were both condemned to die. They both pleaded their bellies, and were both voted quick with child; though my tutoress was no more with child than I was. (786)

As in the earlier example, women can use their gender to get a stay of execution, just by claiming they're pregnant. This can work even when the women aren't actually pregnant, as Moll points out that her "tutoress" definitely does <em>not</em> have a bun in the oven. Unfortunately, for those women, once it's been discovered that they're not pregnant their time runs out and its back to the drawing board or out to the gallows.

I was tall and personable, but a little too smooth-faced for a man; however, I seldom went abroad but in the night, it did well enough; but it was a long time before I could behave in my new clothes – I mean, as to my craft. It was impossible to be so nimble, so ready, so dexterous at these things in a dress so contrary to nature […] (823)

After all her talk about women's rights and more equal relations between genders, Moll wastes no time in talking about how dressing up like a man makes her kind of uncomfortable. You'd think she might get a kick out of wearing the pants, maybe a rush of power, but instead she says that it's "a dress so contrary to nature." So while she wants the sexes to be more equal, she wants them to be absolutely separate.

I used the utmost of my endeavour to persuade him, and joined that known woman's rhetoric to it – I mean, that of tears. (1109)

Tears are a woman's rhetoric? Talk about sexist. But then again, Moll knows that the world she lives in is just that – sexist. And it probably won't do her any good to pretend otherwise. So maybe she figures she might as well make the best of it and use whatever tools she can to get what she wants and needs.

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