During the late Victorian era, many women aspired to be what society deemed the "ideal woman." The ideal women of the late 19th century was a wife and homemaker, seen as pure by those around her. Unfortunately, life for a woman of the Victorian era was often met with difficulties as many did not have the means to live up to this social "norm."
Social Behavior and Society
Social norms during the late Victorian era were quite different than they are today. Gender roles were clear and generally followed. A woman was expected to marry at a young age and portray herself as a delicate individual, weak and helpless. Her opinion was not to be expressed publicly, at least not in the presence of men. While many women were internally conflicted about the sexist treatment, most went along and behaved innocently and dutifully.
Women typically spent their days working around the home, raising their children, visiting others, sewing and generally keeping to themselves. Wives acted as their husband's "representative" or "secretary" in most circumstances.
The Victorian era was a time of high fashion for wealthy women. Dresses were often very elaborate with V-waists, layers upon layers of fine fabrics and elegant bell sleeves. Garments continued to become more elaborate with each passing year, when lace and beading became common among the elite. Wealthy women were often known to change garments up to six times in one day according to the event or time (i.e., visiting friends, opera, travelling, eating dinner, cleaning, etc.).
Although photographic records show women of the Victorian era wearing lavish gowns, this was not the case among poor women of the times. Poor Victorian women often wore rags and it was not uncommon for them to wear garments that had been passed down to numerous women. The most apparent difference between social status during this era was the way a woman dressed.
Careers and Work
Ideally in the Victorian society, a woman was to marry early and work in the home, raising children and organising the household for her husband. However, for the middle-class and working-class, some women had no choice but to search for jobs as their husband's wages were low, or they were single. The most common job for women was as a servant. These women typically lived with their master and pay was relatively poor. Other jobs included working at a cotton mill, trading and nursing. Some illiterate and poor women chose prostitution as a means of work during the Victorian era. As the new century approached, more women became teachers. When the telephone was invented in 1876, women were trained to operate switchboards as a means of work.
For women in the Victorian era, marriage was a big deal. Young women were "trained" for marriage. They were taught to sing and dance, and sometimes to play an instrument or speak foreign languages, all for the purpose of marriage. When women were married, they were required to be dutiful wives and have multiple children. While her husband was away at work, the typical Victorian woman was to clean the home, teach her children and have dinner ready on her husband's arrival. She was required to obey his commands. If a woman and her husband were to divorce -- which was rare, but certainly not unheard of -- she lost all rights to her children and share of property. Before 1887, a woman's property became her husband's in the instance of marriage. After the Married Woman's Property Act in 1887, she was granted the right to her property.
Prostitution was a fairly common means of survival during the Victorian era. At first, it was accepted and women who became prostitutes were often looked upon with compassion. However, as more and more women became prostitutes and demand increased, a growing hatred replaced sympathy, as many women refused reformation. Dr. William Sanger was one of the first individuals during the Victorian era to study why women became prostitutes. Through his research, he concluded that most of the women were illiterate, impoverished or had been thrown out of their homes or shunned by society for one or more reasons.