Challenges of Victorian Women

Written by shannon reynolds
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Challenges of Victorian Women
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The Victorian Era of modern history spanned most of the 19th century, from around 1835 to 1900, and was named for its correlation to the long reign of one of the United Kingdom's most famous rulers, Queen Victoria. During the Victorian Era, the power and influence of the British Empire was at its zenith and spanned every continent, and it ruled over a quarter of the world's population. As a result, Victoria's social conservatism, which included conservative cultural and legal restrictions upon women, became the cultural standard across the English-speaking and Western worlds. Despite that conservatism, however, the political and social strength of women increased throughout the era.

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Queen Victoria and Victorianism

Queen Victoria set the standard for the role of women in the Western world by way she lived her own life. Despite the fact that, as the ruler of the largest, wealthiest and most powerful empire in the world's history, Victoria had the means to enjoy any extravagance she desired, she displayed a mildness and conservative deportment -- staying out of politics, taking care of her husband and children -- that established the era's female ideal. According to a BBC article on women in the Victorian Era, Queen Victoria "came to represent a kind of femininity which was centred on the family, motherhood, and respectability . . . Victoria became an icon of late-19th-century middle-class femininity and domesticity."

Forced Back Into the Home

During the early Victorian Era, women were expected to follow the example of Queen Victoria and stay out of public affairs. According to the BBC, "the ideal woman" of the time period was one "whose life revolved around the domestic sphere of the home and family." This was a step back from the previous century, when the Industrial Revolution began and women were sent out from the home by their fathers and husbands to find work in the new factories. Although economic necessity meant that many women were forced to find work outside of the house -- as either servants in wealthier households or in factories -- their household duties were expected to take prominence. As the BBC writes, "it was through their duties within the home that women were offered a moral duty, towards their families, especially their husbands, and towards society as a whole."

Trapped in Their Marriages

During the first century of the Industrial Revolution, working women had established some, albeit limited, rights for themselves in Western society: they could bargain for better hours, better wages, and to some extent, express control over how those wages would be spent. During the Victorian Era, however, what limited gains women had made during the 18th century were nullified or reversed for most of the 19th, especially in England, where men who could man the empire's far-flung outposts were few and far between and women were expected to do their part in bearing children who could join the ranks. According to Hastings Press, a website devoted to the Victorian history of women in England, "most women had little choice but to marry and upon doing so everything they owned, inherited and earned automatically belonged to their husband ... every man had the right to force his wife into sex and childbirth." Women could not protest their treatment in any respect, a condition that led some to compare the plight of Victorian women to slavery, such as Florence Fenwick Miller, who is quoted in the Hastings Press page on the history of Victorian women as having said "under exclusively man-made laws, women have been reduced to the most abject condition of legal slavery."

Objectification

During the Victorian Period, women came to be regarded as little more than the window dressings of their husbands. Although in previous centuries women had been demeaned as second-class citizens, exchanged as property between fathers and husbands, and forced into factories to earn money for the family, the Victorian Era saw the objectification of women reach a new height. The cultural conservatism that drove women back into their homes and made them slaves to their husbands and fathers also saw woman transformed -- in the minds of the men of the time period -- into an idealised being that would serve only as the object of male fantasies: demure, sweet, completely obedient to her male masters, and incapable of any human vices. When a real, physical specimen of a woman failed to live up to any of the lofty preconceptions that men held towards women, she was brutally punished. Hastings Press quotes from R.J. Cruikshank, an historian who wrote about Victorian society, who says that men in the Victorian Era "made a fear mess of the problem of woman . . . woman in the abstract was as radiant as an angel, as dainty as a fairy -- she was a picture on the wall, a statue in a temple . . . she was Helen, Beatrice, the Blessed Damozel, the Lady of Shalott. A romanticism as feverish as that could only bring unhappiness to its objects."

Trapped in Their Clothing

Part and parcel with the objectification they suffered at the hands of the time period, Victorian women found themselves clad in the most confining of garbs, designed to keep at an arm's length the dirty world, men (other than their husbands) and anything that might sully the image of them as pure, radiant beings incapable of vice or sin. Hastings Press states that women of the period were forced into "tight lacing into corsets and cumbersome layers of skirts which dragged on the ground [and] impeded women's freedom of movement." The clothes wrapped up a woman so tightly and sealed her so completely away from the world that she was supposed to be incapable of any moral improprieties, and the dress code only helped to increase the objectification of women in the eyes of men. Women of the period, so wrapped and tied and laced and sealed away, were presented to the imagination of men as wonderful presents for the unwrapping.

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