Bawdy Bodies: Satires of Unruly Women


This exhibition presents a sampling of the numerous satiric prints depicting women that were created in the late eighteenth century. The works on display focus in particular on images that ridicule the highly accomplished and creative women who dared to transgress or test the boundaries of propriety that circumscribed their gender. While late eighteenth-century commentators often celebrated the florescence of graphic caricature and satire that openly lampooned political figures—including the royal family—many of the satires exhibited here expressed trenchantly conservative views concerning social roles and manners. Loath to celebrate new-found intellectual, social, and political freedoms and empowerment for women, graphic satirists instead harshly ridiculed female liberties and accomplishments to the delight of largely male audiences.  

Characterized by comically grotesque figures performing lewd and vulgar actions, bawdy humor provided an especially poignant vehicle to target and regulate female behavior. Female bodies were overwhelmingly caricatured with bawdy innuendos of explicit sexual content, or conversely of sexual deficiency, and blatant scatology. This rude humor evokes the negative image of the “bawd,” most commonly imagined as a woman, in the service of demeaning and condemning ridicule. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) defined a bawd as a procurer or procuress engaged in “the promotion of debauchery.” “Bawdy,” applied first to language, accordingly is “obscene and unchaste.” The satires in this exhibition became highly effective outward expressions directed against compromised character and deviant moral values that slandered a wide constituency of women. The exhibition presents a range of subject categories including the royal family, aging members of fashionable society, political activists, artists, performers and intellectuals, disparaged mothers, gamblers, and medical wonders.

Co-Curated by Dr. Hope Saska, Chief Curator and Director of Academic Engagement, University of Colorado Art Museum and Dr. Cynthia Roman, Curator of Prints, Drawings and Paintings, The Lewis Walpole Library

This exhibition was produced in Omeka by Kristen McDonald, Public Services, The Lewis Walpole Library.

For questions/comments about the exhibit, please contact the Lewis Walpole Library: