“Keep within compass”

You may be somewhat perplexed by the above print which often appeared as a model for women during the eighteenth century. It utilizes a compass, a Masonic symbol, an emblem of virtue representing restraint and self-control, to illustrate a lesson in conduct. The ideal woman of that time was supposed to stay within the bounds circumscribed by the compass and “Enter not into the way of the wicked and go not in the path of evil men.” At the corners of the print are behaviors of “fallen” women. In the upper left a mother is not caring for her child properly; the infant appears to be slipping from her lap. In the top right a woman is shown working in a tavern. In the lower left a woman is standing in a street selling things to make money. In the lower right we see a prostitute soliciting some men. All of these activities are, it is suggested, inappropriate and demeaning for a woman. The reward for behaving “properly” is written around the circle: “Keep within compass and you shall be sure to avoid many troubles that others endure.” In addition to proscribing certain behaviors on the part of women the illustration describes the appropriate relationship between husband and wife: in a marriage the woman should tend to the family and depend on the man to work and provide for them; her role is to be the “Virtuous Woman” and “a Crown to her Husband.”

For teachers among this blog’s readers, this print could be the basis for an interesting lesson on the role of women in the eighteenth century.

The illustration is a contemporary English print published between 1785 and 1805, engraved by Robert Dighton, and published by Carington Bowles. It is at the Winterthur Museum.

posted April 24th, 2014 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Daily life, Marriage


2 comments
  1. I thought even the virtuous woman went out and made a living. Are you suggesting women not be businesswomen?

    Comment by Cynthia — June 16, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

  2. Not at all. There were many women who, of necessity or preference, engaged in business even though society in general frowned upon it.

    Comment by Janet — August 3, 2016 @ 1:39 pm

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