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Virtually every aspect of English life between and was influenced by gender, and this includes behaviour documented in the Old Bailey Proceedings. Long-held views about the particular strengths, weaknesses, and appropriate responsibilities of each sex shaped everyday lives, patterns of crime, and responses to crime.
This page provides an introduction to gender roles in this period; a discussion of how they affected crime, justice, and punishment; and advice on how to analyse the Proceedings for information about gender. In the twenty-first century western world, the idea that women and men naturally possess distinct characteristics is often treated sceptically, but this was an almost universally held view in the eighteenth century.
Ideas about gender difference were derived from classical thought, Christian ideology, and contemporary science and medicine. Men and women were thought to inhabit bodies with different physical make-ups and to possess fundamentally different qualities and virtues. Men, as the stronger sex, were thought to be intelligent, courageous, and determined.
Women, on the other hand, were more governed by their emotions, and their virtues were expected to be chastity, modesty, compassion, and piety. Men were thought to be more aggressive; women more passive. These differences were echoed in the faults to which each sex was thought to be prone. Men were prone to violence, obstinacy, and selfishness, while women's sins were viewed as the result of their tendency to be ruled by their bodies and their emotions, notably lust, excessive passion, shrewishness, and laziness.
Expectations of male and female conduct derived from these perceived virtues and weaknesses. In marriage, men were expected to rule over their wives, and all property except in some cases property acquired by the woman before marriage belonged to the husband. Men were the primary wage earners, while women were expected to be primarily responsible for housework and childcare, though both sexes participated in all these activities.