English women through the ages. A comparative study of the feminine during the Elizabethan and Victorian eras
Term Paper 2009 20 Pages
2. Women under Queen Elizabeth I – Ideal vs. reality
2.1 The Queen herself
2.2 Elizabeth’s marriage conflict
3. Women under Queen Victoria
3.1 A domestic angel – The Victorian ideal
3.2 Queen Victoria – a woman of her time
Throughout the ages one particular cultural topic has occupied the minds of scholars, authors and politicians, the question of a woman’s position in society. Up until the 20th century, when feminist activists finally reached achievements with their actions, the most important being the female right to vote, which was granted to women in Great Britain in 1918 only, the woman’s inferior position to the man was seen as a given. Many works, fictional as well as academic and advisory were written throughout the ages that deal with the relations between men and women, not only by female authors, but also by male. Rooting in the basic dogmata of patriarchal society, the oppression of the “weaker” sex and the regard of women as the “weaker vessel” was justified with the Bible, anatomical facts and biological beliefs. Usually a woman was expected to be subject to her husband, father or other male superior, her job was to stay at home and take care of children and household. Great Britain was no exception to this rule. Nonetheless it is a curious fact that the great country has existed many years under a female monarch, and this not only once. Two of the world’s most popular monarchs, who both reigned over 40 years, were the British queens Elizabeth I and Victoria. The first ruled over the country in the sixteenth, the second in the nineteenth century, but both were cause for many debates and gossip in English society of their respecting times. Each of the two women was an extraordinary woman and an important monarch, who achieved a lot for her country, and yet in their being women, both royals were typical for the women of their time. Despite their many similarities, Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria could not have been more different, since they lived and ruled in different times and regarded their roles as women and rulers differently. This paper will deal with exactly these problems. I will look at the problem of women’s role in Elizabethan and in Victorian society, regarding their position according to their social, financial and marital status. Furthermore the paper will inspect the idea of the ideal woman and her position next to the man. At last I will assay the phenomena of the female ruler and analyse the figures of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria and explore their situation as women on the throne.
2. Women under Queen Elizabeth I – Ideal vs. reality
The sixteenth century is often called the Elizabethan era, after the monarch that ruled for 45 years (1558-1603). It is often called the Golden Age, which it certainly was, but not for it’s women. Although it is a time of glorious cultural and political achievements, like the defeat of the Spanish Armada 1588, or the famous works of poets like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, most of those achievements are credited to the men of that time. The women mostly blend into the background as their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters.
Elizabethan women were regarded as subservient to men, weak, feeble and dependant on their male relatives. They were less educated than the men were, and expected to take care of the household and children and not engage in any “male” domains such as politics. Despite a woman’s desirability, chastity was her greatest asset, since it was the only thing she owned herself. Only men had the right to own property and a woman’s worth was her worth on the marriage market, which was determined, besides her social position, by the degree of chaste behaviour.
Many argue that the age of Renaissance was an age of humanism. Science, freedom and dignity of the people were highly discussed topics. However all these humanist ideals only applied to male members of society. Such a thing as a woman’s right to express herself was not even considered, but although the vast majority of writers were men, they still engaged in discussions on the place of women. Many tractates and advisory books were written on the proper behaviour and appearance of women, for example the famous Homilie on the state of Matrimonie which was an essential part in the Book of Common Prayer, which was widely used by the Anglican Church. The proper and natural position of women was even regarded as necessary for the economic and political prosperity and growth of the whole country. For instance in his book De Republica Anglorum. The Maner of Government or Policie of the Realme of England, which he published in 1583, Sir Thomas Smith states that the power of the commonwealth originates solely in “man and wife forming the naturalest and first conjunction […] after a diverse sorte each having care of the familie: the man to get, to travaile abroad, to defende; the wife to save that which is gotten, to tarrie at home to distribute that which cometh of the husbandes labor for the nurtriture of the children and family of them both, and to keepe all at home neat and clean.” (Walker, p.3)
Keeping a woman at home was what it was all about. Women, especially respectable gentlewomen of a high social status, were not supposed to be seen in theatres, since the public display of their female attributes posed a serious threat to a woman’s chastity. In order to confine the woman to her family and home and keep her out of the public, even an aristocratic woman’s education included far less than the man’s. The primary point of education was “seen as an education in virtue and in good huswifery, best conducted by their mothers or by matrons of good repute.” (Walker, p.5) To the ideal qualities belonged chastity, obedience and good household and mothering skills. Even if, as in some cases, especially in the royal families, a woman happened to be highly educated, she still was inferior to the man and excluded from the public. Mostly even the aristocratic woman’s education included only subjects such as drawing, music, dancing, languages and literature. Politics and economics were out of the question for a woman’s education.
With the abolishment of the Catholic Church, and the new faith that was finally established under Elizabeth I, it was more important than ever to stress the inferiority of women in order to keep up the patriarchal society. Otherwise the new Church might have been regarded as “soft”, if somehow reminded of matriarchality, which was typical for ancient pagan beliefs. The Anglican Church still took its dogmata from the Bible, and saw the man as God’s representation on earth, which meant that woman was subject to him. “All the […] Reformed Churches stressed the subordination of wives to husbands.” (Stone, p.111). The preservation of the patriarchal family also meant the preservation of the patriarchal society. Ideally “weak, submissive, charitable, virtuous and modest” (Stone, p. 138), the female image was reinforced by tractates such as the Homilies of the Church of England and the story of Eve’s fall. Akin to Eve, a woman was vain and had a great sexual desire, which had to be controlled by a man, in order to keep her body chaste and her reputation flawless. John Knox was a great defender of male superiority. Among other things he wrote:
“First, I say, that a woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him […]. A man was not created for the cause of woman, but the woman for the cause of man […]. So, I say, that in her greatest perfection woman was created to be subject to man.” (Hansen, p.5).
The stereotype of the perfect woman can, along with advisory texts, be found in the characters of plays written by great authors of the time, such as Shakespeare. His Ophelia in the much discussed tragedy Hamlet is such a conventional, obedient girl. She listens to what her male kin is telling her and lets her father use her for political purposes. She is a perfect example for the ideal woman: chaste, subjective and as “the most dutiful of daughters is used for political gain; [as] the most chaste of maidens she is labelled a potential whore.” (Hansen, p.69 ) Interestingly, this is the peculiar thing about the view on femininity of the time. Despite the perfect image of a chaste and obedient wife and mother, the common viewpoint of an Elizabethan gentleman was that a woman is still to be distrusted. This attitude results from a very long anti-feminist tradition, which says that following the example of Eve, no matter how good a woman is, her downfall is certain. Great sexual desire is in her nature, which leads her into her vain and deceiving ways. “Frailty, thy name is woman!” Hamlet exclaims in one of his most famous monologues and thus expresses the opinion of a whole society. It is in the nature of women not to live up to the ideal image, unless she is strictly guided by her male kin. Lacking that guidance a woman is destined to fall. In another famous Shakespeare tragedy, Othello, the fact that “Desdemona fails, or what is more appears to fail this perfect image, is to cause her downfall.” (Hansen, p.30).
Looking at this evidence, it is safe to say that the reality not always matched the ideal. In order to avoid the problem of disobedient daughters and later wives, families had to keep their female members on a “short leash”.
As said above a woman’s education was scarce. The reality is such that most women were not only hindered by their gender, but also by class and social status, which means, that the majority of female English citizens in the sixteenth century was illiterate. Knowledge was not a much appreciated virtue in women in the sixteenth century. For a family it was most important to marry off their daughters, since with the Reformation, the option of putting them away to nunneries dwindled and a daughter presented itself a financial burden. There was no use of her if not married off wisely. The importance of marriage by no means lay in love and affection. The formation of families served only three purposes: the continuing of the family line, the preservation of inherited property, the acquisition of property and political alliances. For this a woman was just a tool. In the lower classes, of course, the pressure to find the right match was not as high as in higher social positions, and the girl had more personal freedom although they were still confined by their class. Social class borders were all but impossible to cross. But even if middle class for instance, a woman was in no respect entitled to own property. Before marriage she was completely under the rule of her father, brother or uncle, and “by marriage, the husband and wife became one person in law – and that person was the husband.” (Stone, p.136) Legally, a woman was completely impotent, and at the mercy of her male kin. Summing up, the ideal woman was pretty, chaste, silent, a perfect housewife or mother, but in order to achieve that had to be strictly confined and obedient to her male superior.
2.1 The Queen herself
Seeing the common view of the inferiority of women, that was the same throughout Europe, England was one of very few countries in the world that allowed a female heir to the throne, in case there was no male successor. In 1558, after her sister Mary’s death this throne was taken by Elizabeth I, daughter of King Henry III and his second wife Anne Boleyn. Born in1533, Elizabeth Tudor was raised as a protestant and therefore, once she was on the throne, once and for all settled the English Reformation in the so called Elizabethan Religious Settlement, which evolved into today’s stable Church of England. Besides the religious reformation Elizabeth laid a cornerstone for England’s sea power with the defeat of the Spanish Armada 1588, under her military lead. Sea travel flourished under her reign, since she supported Sir Francis Drake in his attempts to sail the world, as well as drama and poetry did. The Elizabethan era brought forth great and famous authors such as Shakespeare and Marlowe, whose works are still read and discussed today. Of course such an important persona as the Queen, was the model for many characters, and what is more important, the sovereign of the country being a woman, the topic of diverse discussions.
Even though a female ruler was made possible by English succession rules, if there was no male heir to the throne, and Elizabeth’s claim to it was completely legitimate, her being a woman and hence a female ruling the country presented a complex problem. It was often argued that “the female ruler undid a political and sexual hierarchy at a single blow.” (Berry, p.68) However, what is interesting, although one might assume it, Elizabeth did not attempt to undermine the male superiority of her culture, but accepted it. Being an absolutist sovereign, she still surrounded herself with a group of male advisors, the Privy Council. Also as she could not be the head of a patriarchal church and the ruler of England was supposed to be head of state and church, she did not take on the traditional title of “Supreme Head”, but was called the “Supreme Governor” of England. She did not change patriarchal society, even though she was on the throne for 45 years. Philippa Berry elaborates on this subject in her book Of Chastity and Power, where she writes that
“Elizabeth’s reign has been perceived through the distorting lens of patriarchal attitudes, which characterize history as composed of the actions and experiences of men, and which, when they consider women at all, define them in relationship to men.” (Berry, p.61)
 A Homily is defined in the OED as ”a speech or piece of writing giving advice on the correct way to behave, etc.”
 John Knox was a Scottish clergyman, who had a great deal of influence on the Reformation. He had a lot of input in the creation of the Book of Common Prayers that became the preaching foundation of the Anglican Church. He was one of the greatest opponents of Elizabeth I, a woman, being on the throne of England.
 Knox refers here to the fact, that according to the Bible (Genesis) Eve was created out of Adam’s rib.
 In Othello, the protagonist gets convinced, that his beloved Desdemona was unfaithful to him, and in order to restore his honour, kills her. Before, Desdemona disobeyed her father, in order to be with Othello. Hence her row of disobediences to her male superiors leads to her death.