The 18th century brought with it the beginnings of a new era for women as some of the more progressive nations in Europe began to regard women as more than property. However, progress was slow, and even though some new ideas regarding a woman's rights as an individual came into play, it took another two-hundred years before women in western society were considered equal citizens with men in most western nations.
Modern society has a tendency to romanticize life in the 18th century, especially for women, but for most women it was far from the happy ending that is found in the typical Jane Austen novel. All girls were the property of their fathers until they married, when they became the property of their husbands. If a father died leaving unmarried daughters, then they were most generally at the mercy of another male relative, or sometimes a male friend who became their ward. Rarely was a woman emancipated, and if she was, she was most generally looked down upon by society as a woman of questionable moral character. If a girl married, it was usually between the age of 16 and 19. If she entered her twenties unmarried, her prospects for marriage were considered slim. If she reached the age of 25 and was still unmarried, she was considered a spinster, and her prospects for marriage were nearly impossible. Keeping in mind that the mortality rate for women in childbirth only increased as a woman aged, marriage became impractical and dangerous at a certain point. She became more valuable to her father, who by that time, was often a widower and needed her companionship and services as a homemaker and often as a surrogate mother to her younger siblings.
Here is a link to an interesting, interactive website entitled Make Your Way As A Woman In Eighteenth-Century England. It begins with the following scenario:
You are a woman in 18th -century England. This is a tumultuous time in history. The population is rising and urbanization is changing the way that people live and work. But this is part of your environment. You are a white, 21-year old woman who hails from modest, middle-class parents. You live in a small village outside of London, but you have never traveled there. You work hard with your parents in keeping the household running.
You hear a knock at the front door. You recognize the voice of Mr. Snodgrass Bumfrey talking to your father. Mr. Bumfrey is a merchant who will soon inherit a shop in this village from his ailing father.
Do you remain and allow your father to present Mr. Bumfrey to you as your future husband or take your meager savings and slip out the back door to make a new start in London?