Conduct-of-life books, domestic arts manuals, and etiquette guides are all examples of prescriptive literature. Their authors range from conservative religious leaders to radical feminists, promoting visions of “ideal womanhood” that are often diametrically opposed. The titles variously uphold or reject traditional gender roles, and may have little relationship to the reality of women’s lives across variations of class, age, race, or region.
Taken as a whole, the genre of prescriptive literature highlights the social and cultural forces that shape women’s everyday lives. Works in the Bingham Center’s collection illustrate the physical demands of maintaining a home, the strictures placed on marriageable young women, and the struggles of motherhood. Later works include themes of burgeoning sexual and political freedom. The collection also includes a significant subset of prescriptive titles for children, intended to mold girls into “ideal” women through storytelling, poetry, and moral instruction.
This guide includes selected titles from the Rubenstein Library across the centuries back to 1630, and suggests search terms for finding additional materials in the library catalog. These lists are not intended to be comprehensive, but rather serve as a starting point for exploring this topic and genre.