The Victorian era refers to a period in Great Britain under the rule of Queen Victoria. This period was between 1837 and 1901. There are endless debates regarding the place of women in this society (Broadview Press 96; Thomas 1-3). These debates not only outline the origin of discussions about gender equality in modern society, but also highlight what Victorian men and women talked about regarding the nature of marriage, the structure of the family and the characteristics of feminism during their time (Beeton 1-10). Indeed, in a nation ruled by a queen who openly advocated for the education of women, but not women’s suffrage, gender roles were ambiguous and the blurred lines between masculinity and feminism often overlapped (Demir 2146). This paper attempts to bring more clarity to this debate by demonstrating that the role of women in the Victorian age was mostly limited to their sexuality, domestic life, and education.
Women in the Victorian society had no legal rights to property or personal wealth. Their fathers and husbands exercised these rights on their behalf. Married women relinquished these rights to their husbands despite earning an income during the industrial period. Consequently, the society viewed them as their husbands’ property. Stated differently, men owned all the “benefits” that came from women’s bodies, including sex, children, and labor (Beeton 1-10). Servitude to men was a key hallmark of the gender roles of the Victorian woman. She was a homemaker and a devotee of the family life. Besides being sympathetic and unselfish, the Victorian woman also sacrificed herself to be her husband’s best friend.
Particularly, the society did not allow her to compete with her husband, or even strive for the same goals as her husband would; instead, she was supposed to be submissive and help her spouse fulfill his goals (Malheiro 1). Therefore, the woman’s primary responsibility was to take care of the children and run the household in a way that would provide the husband with tranquility when he came home. Her innocence and purity were her main trading values for this kind of relationship to be meaningful to herself and to her husband (Beeton 1-10). Some of these roles stemmed from religious teachings surrounding how men and women should relate. Based on the same religious principles, the society considered women the bearers of the society’s moral and religious teachings (Njoh 88-90). Although these principles partly empowered them, they also restricted them in the context of what they could do, or not do.
The Victorian society also held the belief that a woman was legally incompetent and irresponsible to enter into any legally binding contract. In this regard, women were not entitled to any legal recourse in any matter that pertained to their legal standing in the society (Njoh 88). The exception to this rule was in relation to legal matters entered to by a woman, but with her husband’s consent. Based on this understanding, many historians agree that wives were mainly the chattels of their husbands (Broadview Press 96-100; Thomas 1-3). Nonetheless, it is important to point out that, during the Victorian period, a husband’s main duty was to protect his woman from an infringement of the same rights that she did not have. In turn, the women were supposed to obey and respect their men. In this society, women shared the same rights as their children.
This was the entire premise of their rights and privilege in society because everything that they would ordinarily own in today’s society was owned by their fathers and later by their husbands. Still, based on the same principle of relinquishing their rights to their husbands, the Victorian society excused women from punishment, or crimes, committed by them, but approved by their husbands (Njoh 88). Nonetheless, men were still superior to their women, as was demonstrated by the absence of legal protection of women from domestic abuse. Indeed, women only enjoyed this right in 1853 when Britain repealed its laws on punishing women and children (Demir 2146). Still, this law did not comprehensively protect women from violence imposed on them by their spouses; instead, it only imposed legal limits on the same.
When it came to dissolving marriages, Victorian women never enjoyed the same rights as women today do. In the first place, divorce was a taboo topic. However, when it happened, they had no rights to property and children (Broadview Press 96-100). In other words, their husbands became the sole custodians of property and children. Since women sought their identity through marriage, when divorce happened, they were often required to go back to their fathers. Sometimes, their fathers never accepted them back. The possibility of this outcome, including the social condemnation directed towards divorced women, made it difficult for them to divorce their husbands in the first place, regardless of how bad they were (Broadview Press 96-100). Nonetheless, there were efforts made to address this problem (towards the end of the Victorian age) through changes made to the 1839 Custody of Infants Act, the 1886 Guardianship of Infants Act, and the 1884 Married Women’s Property Act (Njoh 88-89; Thomas 1-3).
During the Victorian era, people perceived the role of the woman in the society through the idea of gender roles. Stated differently, the life of the Victorian woman mostly revolved around the private spheres of the home, the family, and motherhood (Demir 2146; Benthin 2). Comparatively, the role of the man superseded these spheres and traversed across public and private spaces. Sexuality was a critical part of the woman’s identity. Using this framework of analysis to understand women’s sexuality, we find that the role of women and their relationship with their men benefitted the man because unwritten, and often unspoken social norms, gave men a superior sexual position to their women (Radek 1-3). For example, men were in control of their women’s bodies and sexuality, whichever way they wanted.
Therefore, whenever a woman agreed to be married, she gave up her right to sexual consent – her body belonged to her husband (Demir 2146; Benthin 2). Similarly, sex outside marriage was a sin and the society was harsher to the woman for sleeping with anybody outside of her marriage, compared to the man. The consensus was that women were generally maternal and destined to have monogamous marriages, while men were not. In this regard, many historians agree with the fact that Victorian women were mostly homemakers (Beeton 1-10; Broadview Press 96). In fact, most of them argue that this was their primary responsibility. For example, Beeton (1-10) argues that the role of a woman in the Victorian home was akin to the role of a commander in a war. The success of women in providing a fortress for their husbands and children was dependent on their willingness to perform their gender roles intelligently and thoroughly.
Furthermore, the society expected women to be weak and helpless, regardless of their marital status (Thomas 2-4). Many historians have described them as “fragile” and “delicate flowers” (Broadview Press 96-100; Thomas 1-3). In this regard, the society perceived them as incapable of making decisions. Relative to this assertion, Thomas says,
“A woman’s prime use was to bear a large family and maintain a smooth family atmosphere where a man need not bother himself about domestic matters. He assumed his house would run smoothly so he could get on with making money” (2).
Comprehensively, women’s sexuality was for primarily for the benefit of the man.
Already, we have pointed out that many women in the Victorian society sought their identity through their private interactions with men. Consequently, marriage became the ultimate goal for most of them. In this regard, few women were willing to stay single because this status meant that they would attract disapproval from members of the society (Demir 2146). At a tender age, older women socialized most young girls to believe that their ultimate role in the society was getting married and having children (Broadview Press 96-100; Thomas 1-3). Their education also helped to fulfill these roles. For example, sewing was a strong part of a woman’s education system because it prepared her to be a homemaker. Such orientations prepared her for marriage. Consequently, employment was more or less impossible (Broadview Press 96-100; Thomas 1-3). This meant that marriage and raising children was one of the few options available to women to pursue a respectable and dignified life. Relative to this assertion, Benthin says,
“Until the Foundation of the National Union for Improving the Education of Women in 1971, the only chance for unmarried women was a position as governess or teacher, which however was utterly underpaid as society disapproved of women in the workforce” (3).
Based on the above assertion, being successful in marriage became an important goal for most women. Legal changes in 1887 saw the society accept men and women as one entity after marriage (Benthin 3). This change was contained in the Married Women’s Property Act, but it still worked in favor of the man’s interests. John Stuart Mill (cited in Njoh 88-89), a world renowned anthropologist, acknowledged this fact.
Some historical accounts outline class differences in the way Victorian women received their education and served their men. For example, Demir (2146), said upper class women received a better education than their lower class counterparts did. Consequently, they were more knowledgeable than other women in the society were. However, their improved knowledge was to benefit husbands who wanted to share their interests with their wives (Demir 2146). Therefore, while the upper class women seemed relatively well educated than their lower class counterparts, their education was to serve their husbands and fathers. Nonetheless, some women within the upper echelons of society excelled in their academic work; particularly regarding their studies of male-oriented subjects, such as law and physics. This record of excellence paved the way for gender equality progress that followed the Victorian era (Radek 1-3).
The Victorian woman was also an “ornament” in the society because of her status as a symbol of moral authority (especially if her purity allowed it). However, this role was mostly limited to upper class and middle class women. Therefore, while lower class women were required to study needlework, laundry, and home management (among other subjects), those of the middle and upper classes were allowed to study more refined subjects, such as history, geography and general literature (Broadview Press 96-100). The aim of doing so was to provide the women with interesting topics to converse with their men. However, there was a deliberate effort to make sure that the topics they studied were not controversial (Radek 1-3). By studying some of these refined subjects, the society expected them to know how to keep correspondence, dance, play the piano, and possibly hold intellectual conversations with their husbands. Comparatively, in the lower classes, the role of women was strictly restricted to motherhood and wifely duties.
Although the views expressed in this article present a general description of the roles of women in the Victorian age, it is pertinent to point out that there still were independent women who did not subscribe to the same values and principles outlined in this paper. However, they were the minority because most women accepted, or even embraced, the fact that their place was in the home. In this regard, they readily sacrificed their lives for the betterment of their homes and even assumed an inferior status to their male counterparts. The prisms of education, sexuality, and domestic roles defined their servitude to men because they outline the frameworks through which the society defined women’s roles.
Beeton, Isabella. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Benthin, Anja. Redefining Gender Roles: The Image of Women in Virginia Woolf’s ‘to the Lighthouse, New York, NY: GRIN Verlag, 2009. Print.
Broadview Press. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Era, London, UK: Broadview Press, 2015. Print.
Demir, Çağlar. “The Role of Women in Education in Victorian England.” Journal of Educational and Instructional Studies in the World 15.2 (2015): 2146-7463. Print.
Malheiro, Benedita. The Victorian Woman and Feminism. 2014. Web.
Njoh, Ambe. Tradition, Culture and Development in Africa: Historical Lessons for Modern Development Planning, New York, NY: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006. Print.
Radek, Kimberly. Women in the Nineteenth Century. 2008. Web.
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