Victorian notions about femininity in 19th century Britain

An analysis of the Predominant Victorian Notions about Femininity in 19th Century Britain

Essay 2009 6 Pages

History Europe - Other Countries - Modern Times, Absolutism, Industrialization



Women were perceived as unequal to men throughout the 19th Century. Before 1850, women’s rights were limited. A system existed which was entirely patriarchal (governed by men). Britain was run by common law; a law which dictated that once a woman married she ended up with no rights to anything. For example, the house she lived in and the money she earned, as well as her clothes, all belonged to her husband. If she divorced, even her children were taken away from her.

‘The liberation of women in the Victorian era only ever partially emerged and it stayed this way, partially submerged, until 1975 when The Sex Discrimination Act was introduced. There was a psychological principle that women should have no right to any legal, economic or professional equality to men. Historians have reflected upon society’s values and realized how reform was necessary because women were seen as being abused which did not make good reading. There were traces of an ancestry line which had been left behind by past generations of how women were treated’ (Butler, Hill, & Nightingale et al, 1982).

‘Changes were chronicled by social historians over the position of women,’ for example, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, “The Vindication of the Rights of Women.” She argued that ‘women should be treated equal to men but also depicted how women were being de-humanised.’ Social historians also viewed the position of women through political campaigners such as the Suffragists and the Suffragettes. However, argued Nancy Boyd, 1984, ‘little attention was given to three great pioneers namely Josephine Butler, Octavia Hill, and Florence Nightingale who managed to create change through campaigns for 19th Century social reform.’

The Victorian notion of the role women portrayed in society prevented them from voting, gaining decent employment or existing once they were married. Four central and main theories circulated in society about women in the Victorian era which were typified in John Stewart Mills first essay of 1867 entitled “The Subjection of Women.” Mills was a philosopher and pro-active in favour of women’s rights but argued against the criteria which women has having to fulfil.

Women were viewed as being physically weaker than men which was justifiable because, argued the Victorians, it was important. Ms Oliphant, created an example, by arguing against Mill’s book in 1870, stating “the difference in bodily strength between the sexes throws the balance so overwhelmingly in favour of men, making women’s superiority of character and intellect impossible to counteract because of men’s physical strength.”

Other predominant Victorian writers expressed similar opinions in regard to equality between men and women. According to M Brown ‘a man’s strength gave him the duty to be women’s protector but it was his duty also to have the right to control her.’ Thus, because women were viewed as physically weaker than men they were labelled as secondary to them.

Men were perceived as being more intelligent than women and they were prevented from entering university until 1890. Women were viewed as less intelligent than men and that if they had obtained an idea then they had stolen it from a man. Some writers were quite critical about a women’s mental capacity, for example, Anne Mosley wrote how “The power of seizing upon another’s thoughts almost in the act and moment of them being made and making them her own, is a right which has never been denied her. (She is viewed as an intellectual parasite who has stolen a man’s best lines).”

Victorians viewed a women’s biology and physiology as very different to a man’s which meant that her biological role of staying at home was vital. Men found women revolting because they could give birth and were horrified by the mechanics of a women’s body. For example, a women having periods or having something growing inside her. A women’s mental energy was seen as deficient in comparison to a man’s because she was able to have something growing inside her. The biological differences between men and women meant they should work in separate spheres.

- Women should be at home as wives and mothers.
- Men should go to work and be in the outside world.

Women were viewed as manipulators of men and were wise and not to be trusted. They were viewed as morally superior and the keepers of correct moral behaviour, (which included girls not being told about sex until their wedding day). This theory augmented and reinforced why they should have separate spheres. Carlos White argued that ‘women were less prone to temptation and under better influences than men. However, when placed in the path of evil powers they reduced themselves to the lowest levels of degradation and wickedness. Women risked being contaminated through contact with the world and losing their purity as well as their moral superiority.’ The worst scenario in society was a woman who had been classified as a ‘fallen women.’

T Fisher, 1997, argued ‘ how in the 1830s, political, social unrest and change was brewing in Britain through The Industrial Revolution which brought about social groups who were trying to exert themselves politically and culturally. Middle-classes successfully gained the vote in 1832, whereas the working-class remained non-franchised and turned to Chartism for support.’

It could be argued that this bought about moral laxity; political and social unrest amongst women, and not just men, who turned to prostitution to give them a sense of purpose and help them financially. It became a lucrative way for working-class women to make easy money in comparison to factory work which was long hours. Married men gained satisfaction from visiting prostitutes because middle-class women were prudish in their outlook to sex and existed merely for procreation or breeding purposes.



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Title: Victorian notions about femininity in 19th century Britain