5 Unexpected Ways 18th Century Women Paved The Way For Modern Women

In the 1700s, most women were deprived of an education and forbidden from working outside the home. But some pioneering women found a way to challenge convention and carve out a financially independent existence anyway. We’ve partnered with Hulu’s New Original Series Harlots (now streaming) to celebrate how 18th century women changed the equation by relying on their savvy (and their bodies) to earn a living so they could take care of themselves in a male-dominated world.

1. They understood that money equals power.

 In a capitalist society, money definitely matters. Especially to those who are born with very few rights, like the women of the 1700s, obtaining money is the key to decision making power. The entrepreneurial females who worked as harlots in the 18th century understood this core principle. Faced with very few alternatives, they chose sex work because it translated into dollars, which translated into a degree of freedom they never would have enjoyed otherwise.


2. They knew their own worth.

 18th century prostitutes were savvy enough to know that the services they provided had a lot of value. They weren’t afraid to negotiate higher prices, or to let men grovel all over them. Some women even held silent bidding auctions when they were ready to lose their virginity, understanding that would fetch a premium price. The harlots of the 18th century were, at heart, impressively shrewd businesswomen.


3. They didn’t view sex as a purely physical act.

 The most accomplished female prostitutes of the 1700s weren’t just skilled at sex. They viewed themselves as a package and worked hard to refine their talents outside the bedroom so they could offer clients more than physical pleasure. They were master conversationalists and expert musicians, capable of discussing current events and engaging in witty banter. They molded themselves into exceptional entertainers, recognizing that they had to be good company—not just good in bed—if they wanted to win repeat customers.


4. They were in on the self-promotion game.

 The 18th century’s most successful harlots were fiercely competitive. They stayed abreast of what their peers were up to—how they dressed, where they worked, and what they charged—and they marketed themselves aggressively. If reviews were released evaluating their desirability, they paid close attention, understanding that good ratings would translate into more customers, more work, and ultimately higher wages.


5. They were crazy ambitious.

 Sex workers of the 1700s often did what they did with the intent of elevating their status in life. They saw prostitution as a means of obtaining the money they needed to lead a better, more comfortable life. These were women who had no other possible career paths to pursue—no other means of climbing society’s proverbial ladder, which was controlled at every rung by men. So they chose to sell their bodies to get ahead in the world. Perhaps it wasn’t ideal, but they did what they had to, like any true hard working hustler would. Thought Catalog Logo Mark


Watch Hulu’s New Original Series Harlots, Now Streaming on Hulu.


I adore the following, in no particular order: knee-high tube socks, acrostic poetry, and my little brother. Click here to learn more!

Keep up with Mélanie on Instagram, Twitter and melanieberliet.com