Women as Cultural Emissaries

Consider Diplomats’ Wives


Women who traveled to other lands with appointed diplomats had opportunities to affect influential interactions with women in their host country. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 - 1786) was one who did. A fearless traveler, she wrote wonderfully descriptive letters, and other accounts, of the impressions of her journeys.

As wife of a British ambassador, Lady Montagu accompanied her husband to Ottoman Turkey, where upper class women were kept away from the eyes of men outside their families. In visiting the luxurious baths for women, and their separate quarters at home, Lady Montague gained access to their lives in a way denied to men. Her writings describing womens’ manners, appearance, and clothing, as well as their incredulous reactions to her own stiff, unyielding attire, reveal enlightened views of Turkish women, which she compares to the unfair reports about them by the “extreme stupidity” of other writers.

Lady Montagu in Turkish Dress

In 1717, in a letter to her sister, Lady Montagu states her admiration for the liberty women had when going into the streets discreetly covered. “You may guess how effectually this disguises them, that there is not distinguishing the great lady from her slave, and ‘tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch or follow a woman in the street. The perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery.” Lady Montagu also noted the effectiveness of the Turkish methods to contain small pox by inoculation. Having had the illness once herself, she had her own two children inoculated, then introduced the procedure to the British upon her return.


Leo Hamalian, editor, Ladies on the Loose: Women Travelers of the 18th and 19th Centuries, 1981. Selections from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu letters, 1716 - 1718.


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