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The Changing World of the Victorian Woman
Much has been written about the subordinate role of women in Victorian society. Actually, women's roles were a matter of continuous debate in the latter part of the Victorian period. This period saw women moving into the arenas of education and the workplace, to the dismay of some and the delight of others. Many writers pointed out that women could no longer rely upon the support of male relatives -- either through marriage or inheritance -- and that women had no choice but to learn self-sufficiency. It wasn't only women who approved of women's expanding roles, and it wasn't only men who criticized them. Articles in this section are arranged chronologically to show women's changing roles, and society's changing views about those roles.
"We begin by saying that we are no advocate for 'Woman's Rights,' as commonly understood in our day...for equality of position, whether in professional or political life, we are no advocates. We do not wish to see women becoming solicitors, surgeons, engineers, and members of Parliament, or in any other form of public life heretofore held by men."
"We should be doing at once very foolishly and very wrong if we did not educate our girls in such a manner that they may be able, if needful, to lead single lives, contentedly, bravely, and for the good of others, and their heavenly Master's glory.... We mean the resolute crusade which all of us... should make against the notion and the feeling that to remain single is, in the remotest degree, a disgrace to a woman."
"The 'good old days' are fortunately growing more and more distant, when it was thought a waste of time for a girl who had 'finished her education' to have a book in her hand, and the cheap and vacant occupation of needlework formed the staple of all feminine existence."
"As so very large a proportion of women are destined to remain single...it is well to regard marriage as a mere possibility rather than as a certainty... Banish the impression that a single woman need be a despised, aimless, joyless being, regarded as 'superfluous' in society." Nevertheless, the author notes, it seems to be the "supreme end in life" of the majority of women to be married, and the article goes on to provide a host of tips for the would-be wife and mother.
Though this article begins as an ode to domesticity, it concludes by pointing out that every girl should learn a handicraft, for "You can never tell how soon you may want it. How do you know that your father is not spending his capital--has not speculated, and will not leave you all penniless? Half the women in the United Kingdom have to support themselves somehow, and not a few of them, I blush to own it, support the men."
Based on Swift's comment that "the reason why so few marriages are happy, is because young women spend their time in making nets, not in making cages" -- and how to make a happy, comfortable "cage" for one's husband.
Interesting piece on the trade-offs of a woman's life. "Nevertheless, young women who avoid responsibility shun work, and are loath to take any extra trouble, or exert themselves unnecessarily on any occasion; who faint or go into hysterics at any painful or alarming criticism, and make it their object to slip through life as comfortably and easily as possible, often feel aggrieved that their sister or friend is a power in the family, a personage in the parish, and meets everywhere with more consideration and respect than themselves."
"Business or domestic routine may fill a woman's time, but it need not satisfy her intellectual aspirations, or blunt the keen edge of her ambition. It is the all round girls whose resources are the readiest, whose self-possession is the most ample, whose capacity for work is most elastic, and who in fine, make the world's wheels to go most smoothly."
"In the light of the high ideal of womanhood which pure-minded men possess, it is pleasant to read the responsive declaration made by the late Mrs. S.C. Hall: 'I am quite sure...that the leading, guiding, and controlling impulse of women is to render themselves agreeable and helpful to men, whether by beauty, gentleness, forethought, energy, intelligence, domestic cares, home-virtues, toil...it is so, and ever will be so, in spite of the "strong-minded" who consider and describe as humiliation that which is woman's glory...'"
"The ideal which the wife and mother makes for herself, the manner in which she understands duty and life, contain the fate of the community. Woman is the salvation or destruction of the family. She carries its destinies in the folds of her mantle."
"Girls and women are fond of speculating what profession they would have entered if they had belonged to the other sex.... Well, young ladies, you cannot directly fill these positions, but you can do so indirectly, in a way that is quite as honourable and not less influential. You may marry, and have in your hands the moulding of the careers of men who are clergymen, lawyers, doctors, officers, and such like."
"...we may observe the increase of improvident marriages and those of the physically unsuitable, the many failures of financial enterprises, the deterioration of the value of land... Thus the daughters of the very elite of the untitled aristocracy are driven from home...to become the bread-earners for themselves and their families... an article like this demands such an introduction as showing the origin of the needs-be for women's clubs."
An overview of the 1882 act that ensured that women could retain rights to their own property, and earn a separate income, even when married. (The act had pros and cons; no longer was a husband responsible for whatever debts his wife incurred, and a wife could become responsible for her husband's debts!)
"Even amongst those whose social position is good...a deplorable degree of roughness, and puerile imitation of the off-hand manners of young men with their fellows, is grievously common, and has been the growth of the last half-century."
Despite advantages in the educational opportunities for women, "When one thinks of the cramped, home-bound life of many women, one is not surprised at the early stagnation of their minds, at their narrow views, poverty of ideas, and lack of interest in all things not purely domestic... Undoubtedly, many women pursue the higher walks of literature with enthusiasm and success, but they are chiefly those who use their brains to obtain a livelihood."
An interesting piece on the dangers of being the sort of girl who simply waits to get married, without taking charge of her life, concluding: "Determine to make your own opportunities instead of waiting for them; to mould your own life instead of drifting with circumstances..."
"Few social questions in the present day are more frequently asked than, What shall women do with their lives? What are they fitted to be? In what is the tradition of the past at fault? And all this stir and unrest cannot but powerfully affect the mental condition of the growing womanhood of our time."
"Alas! Women are frequently so capricious, so exacting, so tactless in their treatment of the man they have married that they drive him into ways and habits which, although in themselves wrong, are in reality the outcome of the wife's conduct."
Though overall a fairly routine treatment of "how to be a good girl," this article also recognizes that marriage is no longer a sure outcome in life. "Let me protest against the idea that a girl's aim in life is to be 'matrimony at all risks.' A miserable marriage is the most miserable of all things, while many unmarried women are thoroughly happy and contented."
Again, a fairly routine article with surprises, such as "She will not sink her own individuality because of her love. Her judgment must be founded on reason. She will be ready to be convinced by argument, but the sincerity of her character will not permit her to pretend to be convinced, merely for the sake of peace. It is very hard to be obliged to differ from those we love, but at times it is our duty. A wife who dare not state her firm conviction is not doing her duty to her husband."
"'The modern girl' or 'the society girl' or... 'the girl of the period' are still safe-drawing titles for slashing, pessimistic, adjectival articles. In the teeth of the critics, however, we are bold enough to think that our young lady...has improved physically, mentally, and even morally and spiritually."
After allowing us to wonder whether this all-important mission is leadership, or matrimony, or motherhood, we are told at last (in italics!): "It is the knowledge and practice of personal and domestic hygiene, or the 'science of prevention.'"
A somewhat confusing little piece that seems to be suggesting that young ladies should certainly be allowed to seek employment and test their wings -- but also should not enter into employment as "dabblers" and take jobs away from those who genuinely need them.
"...what we have noted is a sort of compassion for us that we should have been born into the world at all, and that our being here is a cruelty to our brothers and fathers; for if we are stupid, they must keep us, and if we are clever, we rob them of their situations, and must keep them... We are convinced that work is good for us; we are better for it physically, mentally and spiritually. We are altogether happier for it, and we object to being compassionated for doing that which our talents fit us for."
"Girls' lives are their own now, and they have to make something worth having out of them. Why do they value liberty? Not because it enables them to do as they like--that would be mere licence--but because it enables them to become what they might be, and they can only do that by effort, by self-discipline, by self-denial."
"Husbands need more art to bring up than mothers, children, brothers, sisters, and lovers put together; and it is important for every young woman, directly she becomes engaged, to set herself to master that art."
The "good wife... commandeth... by obeying," ensures that her husband does not make a fool of himself, orders her household smoothly, makes sure that her daughters are capable of earning a living, and generally keeps her husband "in shape by pruning."
CFM = Cassell's Family Magazine • GOP = Girl's Own Paper • ILA = Illustrated London Almanack • S = The Strand
AM = Atlantic Monthly • C = Century Magazine • D = Demorest's Monthly Magazine • G = Godey's Lady's Book • H = Harper's Monthly Find out more about the magazines used on this site!
PDF files on this site are best viewed with Adobe Reader 9.0 or later. Download Acrobat Reader free.