“She had the real soul of a man in her breast.”

The Female Soldier; Or, The Surprising Life and
Adventures of Hannah Snell, 1750

In the eighteenth century roles were more distinct for men and women, yet there were those who rebelled against societal constraints. In this online exhibition, you will discover little-known tales of those extraordinary women who stepped – sometimes literally – into a man’s world.

Explore the different male-dominated spheres that these women entered by clicking on the sidebar. There you will discover accounts ranging from female soldiers, pirates and duellists who did not conform to the presumed virtues of their sex. Instead, they donned male attire and fought violently, risking physical injury whilst endeavouring to hide their identity.

“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation.”

Letter from Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë, 12 March 1837

Not all the women who challenged the acceptable norms of female behaviour did so by masquerading as men to commit acts of bravery or violence. Some used their talents and influence to enter those male-dominated spaces thought not to be “the business of a woman’s life.”

Discover Elizabeth Knight in Landowning, mistress of Chawton House for over 30 years. She is reminiscent of Jane Austen’s great land-owning female characters like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and particularly, Lady Denham in Sanditon. Explore Ballooning in the company of Letitia Ann Sage, the first Englishwoman to fly. Her landmark voyage had more twists than a Georgian farce.

And what of women writers? Some women wrote anonymously, whilst George Sands and the Brontë sisters concealed their gender by adopting androgynous nom de plumes. There were women who published under their own name, although the experience of Mary Wollstonecraft’s showed the perils of revealing the author to be a woman, especially when the subject was politics.

If you want to get a behind-the-scenes insight, then click on the podcast tab to hear an interview with the Man Up! curator, Clio O’Sullivan.

Don’t forget to browse our shop and find our Man Up! merchandise.

Finally, explore our activities page. What would have become of you in you joined the navy during the Revolutionary Wars? Roll the dice to decide your fate. Discover your own nom de plume, just like the Brontë sisters.