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Being a Woman in the Victorian Era

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The status of women in the Victorian era is often seen as an illustration of the striking discrepancy between the United Kingdom’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, women did not have suffrage (voting) rights, the right to sue, or the right to own property. At the same time, women participated in the paid workforce in increasing numbers following the Industrial Revolution. Feminist ideas spread among the educated female middle classes, discriminatory laws were repealed, and the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum in the last years of the Victorian Era.

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In the Victorian Era women were seen, by the middle classes at least, as belonging to the domestic sphere, and this stereotype required them to provide their husbands with a clean home, food on the table and to raise their children. Women’s rights were extremely limited in this era, losing ownership of their wages, all of their physical property, excluding land property, and all other cash they generated once married. When a Victorian man and woman married, the rights of the woman were legally given over to her spouse. Under the law the married couple became one entity where the husband would represent this entity, placing him in control of all property, earnings and money. In addition to losing money and material goods to their husbands, Victorian wives became property to their husbands, giving them rights to what their bodies produced; children, sex and domestic labour.

Rights and privileges of Victorian women were limited, and both single and married women had hardships and disadvantages they had to live with. Victorian women had disadvantages both financially and sexually, enduring inequalities within their marriages and social statuses, distinct differences in men and women’s rights took place during this Era. Men were provided with more stability, financial status and power over their homes and women. Marriages for Victorian women became contracts, one which was extremely difficult if not impossible to get out of during the Victorian era. Women’s rights groups fought for equality and over time made strides to change rights and privileges, however, many Victorian women endured their husbands control, cruelty targeted against their wives; including sexual violence, verbal abuse and economic deprivation and were given no way out. While husbands participated in affairs with other women wives endured infidelity as they had no rights to divorce on these grounds and their divorce was considered to be a social taboo.

By the Victorian era, the concept of “pater familias”, meaning the husband as head of the household and moral leader of his family, was firmly entrenched in British culture. A wife’s proper role was to love, honour and obey her husband, as her marriage vows stated. A wife’s place in the family hierarchy was secondary to her husband, but far from being considered unimportant, a wife’s duties to tend to her husband and properly raise her children were considered crucial cornerstones of social stability by the Victorians. Women seen as falling short of society’s expectations were believed to be deserving of harsh criticism.

Representations of ideal wives were abundant in Victorian culture, providing women with their role models. The Victorian ideal of the tirelessly patient, sacrificing wife is depicted in The Angel in the House, a popular poem by Coventry Patmore, published in 1854.

The poem became such a touchstone of British culture that in a lecture to the Women’s Service League in 1942, Virginia Woolf said “killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.”

Working-class employment

Working-class women often had occupations to make ends meet, and to ensure family income in the event that a husband became sick, injured, or died. There was no workers’ compensation until late in the Victorian era, and a husband too ill or injured to work often meant an inability to pay the rent and a stay at the dreaded Victorian workhouse.

Throughout the Victorian era, some women were employed in heavy industry such as coal mines and the steel industry. Although they were employed in fewer numbers as the Victorian era continued and employment laws changed, they could still be found in certain roles. Before the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, women (and children) worked underground as “hurriers” who carted tubs of coal up through the narrow mine shafts. Women also traditionally did “all the chief tasks in agriculture” in all counties of England, as a government inquiry found in 1843. By the late 1860s, agricultural work was not paying well, and women turned to industrial employment.

In areas with industrial factories, women could find employment on assembly lines for items ranging from locks to canned food. Industrial laundry services employed many women. Women were also commonly employed in the textile mills that sprang up during the industrial revolution in such cities as Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham. Working for a wage was often done from the home in London, although many women worked as “hawkers” or street vendors, who sold such things as watercress, lavender, flowers or herbs that they would collect at the fruit and vegetable market. Many working-class women worked as washerwomen, taking in laundry for a fee. Spinning and winding wool, silk, and other types of piecework were a common way of earning income by working from home, but wages were very low, and hours were long; often 14 hours per day were needed to earn enough to survive. Furniture-assembling and -finishing were common piecework jobs in working-class households in London that paid relatively well. The lowest-paying jobs available to working-class London women were matchbox-making, and sorting rags in a rag factory, where flea- and lice-ridden rags were sorted to be pulped for manufacturing paper. Needlework was the single largest paid occupation for women working from home, but the work paid little, and women often had to rent sewing machines that they could not afford to buy.

Women could not expect to be paid the same wage as a man for the same work, despite the fact that women were as likely as men to be married and supporting children. Child-minding was another necessary expense for many women working in factories. Pregnant women worked up until the day they gave birth and returned to work as soon as they were physically able. In 1891, a law was passed requiring women to take four weeks away from factory work after giving birth, but many women could not afford this unpaid leave, and the law was unenforceable.

Middle-class employment

As education for girls spread literacy to the working-classes during the mid- and late-Victorian era, some ambitious young women were able to find salaried jobs in new fields, such as salesgirls, cashiers, typists and secretaries. Work as a domestic, such as a maid or cook, was common, but there was great competition for employment in the more respectable, and higher-paying, households. Private registries were established to control the employment of the better-qualified domestic servants.

Throughout the Victorian era, respectable employment for women from solidly middle-class families was largely restricted to work as a school teacher or governess. Once telephone use became widespread, work as a telephone operator became a respectable job for middle-class women needing employment.

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 only 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 modernising the nursing profession, promoting training for women and teaching them courage, confidence and self-assertion.

Literature in Victorian Era

While in the preceding Romantic period poetry had been the dominant genre, it was the novel that was most important in theVictorian period. Charles Dickens (1812–1870) dominated the first part of Victoria’s reign: his first novel, Pickwick Papers, was published in 1836, and his last Our Mutual Friend between 1864–5. William Thackeray’s (1811–1863) most famous work Vanity Fair appeared in 1848, and the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte (1816–55), Emily (1818–48) and Anne (1820–49), also published significant works in the 1840s. A major later novel was George Eliot’s (1819–80) Middlemarch (1872), while the major novelist of the later part of Queen Victoria’s reign was Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), whose first novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, appeared in 1872 and his last, Jude the Obscure, in 1895.

Robert Browning (1812–89) and Alfred Tennyson (1809–92) were Victorian England’s most famous poets, though more recent taste has tended to prefer the poetry of Thomas Hardy, who, though he wrote poetry throughout his life, did not publish a collection until 1898, as well as that of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89), whose poetry was published posthumously in 1918.Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) is also considered an important literary figure of the period, especially his poems and critical writings. Early poetry of W. B. Yeats was also published in Victoria’s reign.

With regard to the theatre it was not until the last decades of the nineteenth century that any significant works were produced. This began with Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, from the 1870s, various plays of George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) in the 1890s, and Oscar Wilde’s (1854–1900) The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895.

Novel

Victorian novels tend to be idealised portraits of difficult lives in which hard work, perseverance, love and luck win out in the end; virtue would be rewarded and wrongdoers are suitably punished. They tended to be of an improving nature with a central moral lesson at heart. While this formula was the basis for much of earlier Victorian fiction, the situation became more complex as the century progressed. There was a struggle to conquer the flaws of human beings with great virtues. It was a principle that those who struggle to attain morality would most probably achieve positive results in the end if not tortured by natural circumstances or evil vices.

During this era, scientific and industrial developments increased, but the problems get worse. The class division was still continuing and the middle class and its values were rising. Unlike the optimistic view in the early Victorian period in which people believed that the bad effects of industrialism would be solved; in the late Victorian period, people became to realize that it was the common people who endured the aftermath of the industrial revolution, while the upper-class enjoyed the financial rewards. The novels portrayed the life among the poor and helped to develop the social consciousness of the middle-class readers. People realized that men, women and children, who worked in mines and factories, were the victims of the system. The writers were not satisfied with their times and they had a critical view towards the society. Among the issues they represented in their fiction were: the industrial revolution, technological improvements, class conflict, the debate between religion and science, and the woman question.

Charles Dickens is the most famous Victorian novelist. Extraordinarily popular in his day with his characters taking on a life of their own beyond the page, Dickens is still one of the most popular and read authors of that time period. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836), written when he was twenty-five, was an overnight success, and all his subsequent works sold extremely well. The comedy of his first novel has a satirical edge and this pervades his writing. Dickens worked diligently and prolifically to produce the entertaining writing that the public wanted, but also to offer commentary on social problems and the plight of the poor and oppressed. His most important works include Oliver Twist (1837–1838), Dombey and Son (1846–1848), Bleak House (1852–1853), Great Expectations (1860–1861), Little Dorrit (1855–1857), Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865) The Old Curiosity Shop, and A Christmas Carol (1843). There is a gradual trend in his fiction towards darker themes which mirrors a tendency in much of the writing of the 19th century.

For example, the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities reflects the dilemma and the conflict of the Victorian period in terms of different social classes:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”

While for some this period was a symbol of wealth and richness for some (the working class) it was the exact opposite.

William Thackeray was Dickens’ great rival in the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign. With a similar style but a slightly more detached, acerbic and barbed satirical view of his characters, he also tended to depict a more middle class society than Dickens did. He is best known for his novel Vanity Fair (1848), subtitled A Novel without a Hero, which is an example of a form popular in Victorian literature: an historical novel in which recent history is depicted.

Brontë Sisters Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë produced notable works of the period, although these were not immediately appreciated by Victorian critics. Wuthering Heights (1847), Emily’s only work, is an example of Gothic Romanticism from a woman’s point of view, which examines class, myth, and gender. Jane Eyre (1847), by her sister Charlotte, is another major nineteenth century novel that has gothic themes. Anne’s second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), written in realistic rather than romantic style, is mainly considered to be the first sustained feminist novel.

Later in this period George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), published The Mill on the Floss in 1860, and in 1872 her most famous work Middlemarch. Like the Brontës she published under a masculine pseudonym.

Science, philosophy and discovery

The Victorian era was an important time for the development of science and the Victorians had a mission to describe and classify the entire natural world. Much of this writing does not rise to the level of being regarded as literature but one book in particular, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, remains famous. The theory of evolution contained within the work shook many of the ideas the Victorians had about themselves and their place in the world. Although it took a long time to be widely accepted, it would dramatically change subsequent thought and literature.

Other important non-fiction works of the time are the philosophical writings of John Stuart Mill covering logic, economics, liberty and utilitarianism, and the large and influential histories of Thomas Carlyle: The French Revolution, A History permeating political thought at the time with Friedrich Engels writing his Condition of the Working Classes in England and William Morris writing the early socialist utopian novel News from Nowhere. One other important and monumental work begun in this era was the Oxford English Dictionary which would eventually become the most important historical dictionary of the English language.

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