Women in the Victorian era  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The status of Women in the Victorian Era is often seen as an illustration of the striking discrepancy between England's national power and wealth and what many, then and now, consider its appalling social conditions. During the Era symbolized by the reign of British monarch Queen Victoria, difficulties escalated for women because of the vision of the "ideal women" shared by most in the society. The legal rights of married women were similar to those of children. They could not vote, sue, or own property. Also, they were seen as pure and clean. Because of this view, their bodies were seen as temples that should not be adorned with makeup nor used for such pleasurable things as sex. The role of women was to have children and tend the house. They could not hold a job unless it was that of a teacher, nor were they allowed to have their own checking accounts or savings accounts. In the end, they were to be treated as saints, but saints that had no legal rights.


Archetypical Women

Limited rights of married women

Legally, married women had rights similar to the rights of children. The law regarded a married couple as one person. The husband was responsible for his wife and bound by law to protect her. She was supposed to obey him. The personal property the wife brought into the marriage was then owned by the husband, even in case of a divorce. The income of the wife belonged completely to her husband and the custody of children belonged to the father as well. He was able to refuse any contact between the mother and her children. The wife was not able to conclude a contract on her own. She needed her husband's agreement. In addition, the married woman could not be punished for certain offences, such as theft or burglary if she acted under the command of her husband. It was impossible to charge the wife for concealing her husband and for stealing from her husband as they were one person in law. Women had no legal say in how many children they would have nor would they get custody of children if the marriage ended in divorce. However, claims that wives were legally "property" of their husbands are bluntly exaggerated. Murder of a wife by her husband was punishable by death just like murder of any other person, while destroying his own property was legal. Murder of somebody else's wife was also punishable by death, while destroying his property (i.e. breaking his windows) was much lesser crime. Beating somebody else's wife was a serious crime, much more serious than damaging a property. In case of disaster or other danger, women (including married women) were supposed to be saved before men, which is also inconsistent with their proposed "property" status.

Women as Generals of Households

'The Household General' is a term coined in 1861 by Isabella Beeton in her manual Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. Here she explained that the mistress of a household is comparable to the Commander of an Army or the leader of an enterprise. To run a respectable household and secure the happiness, comfort and well-being of her family she must perform her duties intelligently and thoroughly. For example, she has to organize, delegate and instruct her servants, which is not an easy task as many of them are not reliable. She is expected to organize parties and dinners to bring prestige to her husband, also making it possible for them to meet new people and establish economically important relationships. At the same time she must make sure she devotes enough time to her children and towards improving her own abilities and cultural knowledge. Another duty described by Beeton is that of being the "sick-nurse" who takes care of ill family members. This requires a good temper, compassion for suffering and sympathy with sufferers, neat-handedness, quiet manners, love of order and cleanliness; all qualities a woman worthy of the name should possess in the 19th century. A woman in Victorian times was also obliged to take care of her parents in case of illness, even if this stretched over months and years and often implied a great sacrifice of self-interest on her side. A very special connection existed between women and their brothers. Sisters had to treat their brothers as they would treat their future husbands. They were dependent on their male family members as the brother's affection might secure their future in case their husband treated them badly or they did not get married at all. Also, it was very easy to lose one's reputation, but was difficult to establish a reputation. For example, if one person in a family did some thing horrible, the whole family would have to suffer the consequences.

Women's Bodies as Pure

The body of the woman was seen as pure and clean except when she was experiencing menstruation. A woman was not encouraged to wear any kind of cosmetics or any other adornments, or wear clothing that showed her skin, or even stockings or any other undergarment. Some believe this was because a woman's body was considered to be the property of her husband. As a result, women were not to advertise their bodies to other men. However, men also were discouraged from wearing cosmetics, or clothing that showed skin or undergarments—this part of the Victorian morals affected both males and females. Other restrictions included discouragement of using the word "leg" in the presence of opposite gender, or obligatory usage of bathing machines. These restrictions also affected both genders equally.

Women and sex

Prostitution in the Victorian era was usually seen as a woman "losing her way" in terms of her soul becoming unclean by violating one of the rules that has been enunciated so far. Preachers often argued that prostitution could happen to any woman who violated the wishes of her husband. The logic here was that men who found out that their wife had been unclean in some way would kick their wives out of the house. In fact, being unclean was considered a generally acceptable reason for a man to divorce his wife. Then the wife would end up on the streets selling herself. This view continued into the 20th century. However, in more or less the same way as masters would sleep with their slaves, whom they considered unequal, it was considered acceptable for a man to sleep with a prostitute, especially in the western United States. It was a vicious cycle. Women could not have sex with other men without being considered unclean. However, men didn't have this restriction. In fact, it was often considered natural that a man might need the body of another woman. Because women had no rights, this behavior could not be punished through divorce. A woman cannot refuse forced sex by her husband and can be beaten by him if she refuses. Thus, women simply had to accept this behavior.

Women as Educational Inequals

The attitude towards women and education was that education of women needn't be of the same extended, classical and commercial character as that of men. Women were supposed to know the things necessary to bring up their children and to keep house. That's why subjects as history, geography and general literature were of extreme importance, whereas Latin and Greek were of little importance. Women who wanted to study such subjects as law, physics, engineering, science or art were satirized and dismissed. People thought it unnecessary for women to attend university. It was even said that studying was against their nature and could make them ill. They were to stay more or less an "ornament of society" and be subordinate to their husbands. Obedience was all that was required of them.

Attempts at reform

Reforming Divorce Laws

Great changes in the situation of women took place in the 19th century, especially concerning marriage laws and the legal status of women. The situation that fathers always received custody of their children, leaving the mother completely without any rights, slowly started to change. The Custody of Infants Act in 1839 gave mothers of unblemished character access to their children in the event of separation or divorce, and the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857 gave women limited access to divorce. But while the husband only had to prove his wife's adultery, a woman had to prove her husband had not only committed adultery but also incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion. In 1873 the Custody of Infants Act extended access to children to all women in the event of separation or divorce. In 1878, after an amendment to the Matrimonial Causes Act, women could secure a separation on the grounds of cruelty and claim custody of their children. Magistrates even authorized protection orders to wives whose husbands have been convicted of aggravated assault. An important change was caused by an amendment to the Married Women's Property Act in 1884 that made a woman no longer a 'chattel' but an independent and separate person. Through the Guardianship of Infants Act in 1886 women could be made the sole guardian of their children if their husband died. Women slowly had their rights changed so that they could eventually leave their husbands for good. The dates went as so:
1842: law passed banning women from working down mines and having such long hours.
1857: if men were violent wives could divorce.
1870: women could keep money they earned.
1878: if a woman split with her husband, she was allowed to claim money for her and her children.
1891: wives were no longer forced to stay with their husband as they had been.

Reform of Prostitution Laws

Prostitution in the Victorian era

The situation of prostitutes—and as was later demonstrated women in general—was actually worsened through the 'First Contagious Diseases Prevention Act' in 1864. In towns with a large military population women suspected of being a prostitute had to subject themselves to an involuntary periodic genital examination. If they refused they were imprisoned immediately; if they were diagnosed with an illness they were confined to hospitals until they were cured. This law applied to women only since military doctors believed that these shameful examinations would destroy a man's self-respect, another indication of the double standard of Victorian society. Because the decision about who was a prostitute was left to the judgement of police officers, far more women than those who were really prostitutes were examined. After two extensions of the law in 1866 and 1869 the unjust acts were finally repealed in 1886. A crusader in this matter was Josephine Butler who helped to form a society who worked to repeal these acts.

Reform of Jobs Available to Women

Three medical professions were opened to women in the 19th century: nursing, midwifery, and doctoring. However, it was only in nursing, the one most subject to the supervision and authority of male doctors, that women were widely accepted. Victorians thought the doctor's profession characteristically belonged to the male sex and a woman should not intrude upon this area but stay with the conventions the will of God has assigned to her. In conclusion, Englishmen would not have woman surgeons or physicians; they confined them to their role as nurses. Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) was an important figure in renewing the traditional image of the nurse as the self-sacrificing, ministering angel—the 'Lady with the lamp', spreading comfort as she passed among the wounded. She succeeded in modernizing the nursing profession, promoting training for women and teaching them courage, confidence and self-assertion. Outside of medicine, there were only a handful of legitimate paying occupations for an upper class woman: writer or governess.

See also

  1. She: A History of Adventure (links)
  2. Index of feminism articles

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