- Consuming Subjects: Women, Shopping, and Business in the Eighteenth Century
Within the past fifteen years studies by Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, J. H. Plumb, Ann Bermingham, Roy Porter, and others have defined and examined the “culture of consumption” that evolved together with mercantile capitalism and colonial expansion in eighteenth-century England. In Consuming Subjects: Women, Shopping, and Business in the Eighteenth Century Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace builds on these historical studies and others about material culture, commerce, labor, and manufacturing in Britain to analyze the ideological construction of female subjectivity in relation to the emergence of consumer culture and to explore the connections between femininity and patriarchy. She deconstructs the discourses of women as consumers and providers of commodities and as commodified objects in a selection of English texts that includes novels, poems, manuals, periodicals, essays, treatises, and prints, in order to demonstrate how “shopping,” a verb first coined in the eighteenth century, became gendered as feminine, and the conduct of business as masculine. She exposes the contradictions within a society in which women were presumed to desire whatever was fashionable and exotic—especially foreign luxury goods such as tea, sugar, and china—yet were disenfranchised economically. Moreover, she contends, even as women’s passions for such products were indulged when they contributed to British economic growth, the female appetite was denigrated as voracious, unruly, disruptive, and a threat to the patriarchal order.
Kowaleski-Wallace employs a range of feminist, linguistic, and New Historicist strategies to consider issues of race and class as well as gender. The text is divided into three separate but related sections in which the author examines The Tea Table, Shopping, and Business. For each topic and subtopic she provides a social and historical overview followed by interpretations of texts chosen to illustrate her points. She begins with an examination of the tea table as a gendered site. She argues, among other things, that the artfulness of the tea-pouring ritual disciplined ladies’ bodies for the delectation of the male gaze, while working class women who drank tea were chastised for neglecting work and family duties. She discusses women’s role in the antislavery boycott of Caribbean sugar, citing diverse sources such as Quaker Mary Birkett’s poem [End Page 363] on the African slave trade and Wedgwood’s popular “slave medallion.” The last part of this section, on china and porcelain, originally appeared in Eighteenth-Century Studies (1995/1996) 29: 153–67. It offers an examination of the trope of chinaware as a metaphor for women against the background of china imports, its manufacture in England, and female appreciation for fine commodities.
In the second section she describes how the enclosed spaces of eighteenth-century shops, in contrast to outdoor marketplaces, changed the dynamic of retail trade. These became places of “seduction” in which women might be consumed by the male gaze even as they were seduced by the luxurious products for sale. Although both men and women were sellers and buyers, she argues that the role of vendor in the discourse of shopping was masculinized and the purchaser, or browser, was feminized. She expands on this through interpretation of the language of trade manuals and literary excerpts from Richardson’s Clarissa and Fanny Burney’s Camilla of scenes that take place in shops. The other half of this section addresses pornography, for Kowaleski-Wallace contends that the simultaneous emergence of modern shopping and modern pornography may be more than coincidental. Both discourses, she asserts, “offer cultural fictions about how women might be ‘commodious’ in relation to male need” (100). Her focus on female sexuality continues in the final section on business, which she presents in two parts: “Businesswomen” and “Prostitutes.” Women’s exclusion from legitimate business possibilities and trades, she claims, made prostitution, the “business of the body,” (142), the one way women could carry on business as both the agent and object of consumption. The simply titled “Conclusion” reveals the author’s ultimate purpose, which is no less than a feminist critique of contemporary business...