Women's Issues in the Victorian Period

Written by simon fuller
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Women's Issues in the Victorian Period
Women's role in the family and home was open to much debate. (Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

Britain's Victorian period, which was ruled by Queen Victoria, who lived from 1837 until 1901, may have seen only one monarch on the throne, but it was full of changes and argument elsewhere. Women began the era with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and with much denied to them that men enjoyed, in the world of work, for instance. As the period wore on, women campaigned on these issues and things began to shift.


Women in the Victorian period were very limited in the kind of professions they could enter; the vast majority of women in Britain at the time were housewives, charged with bringing up children while their husbands went to work, or else domestic servants. The result of this situation was that few women had job skills, and thus couldn't find paid employment when necessary. However, some women did find jobs as teachers or nurses, while others campaigned for the ability to study to enter professions traditionally reserved for men. Elizabeth Garrett challenged the norms of the workplace by becoming a doctor, but faced much adversity along the way.


During the Victorian era, women were disfranchised, that is to say, they lacked the ability to vote in the general elections that decided who would sit in the British Parliament. Many men --- and women too --- saw nothing wrong with this, and some thought that women were ill fit to make decisions as to who should rule Britain. Others declared that women should stay in the home, the domestic sphere, while some even claimed that women were too unstable to vote. Towards the end of the Victorian era, the Women's Suffrage movement, which aimed to get women the vote, began. It was initially led by personalities such as Millicent Fawcett. British women didn't get the vote until 1918.

In Marriage

Many Victorians felt that a woman's place was at her husband's side, giving birth and then caring for their children. This meant that at the beginning of the Victorian period, the laws of Britain gave women little freedom and few rights when it came to marriage and divorce. Successful campaigns by women changed some of these restrictions by the era's end, however. For example, the Divorce Bill was amended so that women could keep their property if they divorced, rather than the man taking it all. Eventually, women gained the right to fully own property in marriage, with the advent of the Married Women's Property Act in 1882.


Sex was a taboo subject in the Victorian era, but the issue of prostitution was certainly a prevalent one, with women who sold sex looked down on by respectable society, though little was done to prevent men buying sex. The topic of prostitution, and in particular sexually transmitted infections, was addressed in a series Parliamentary laws during the 1860s, which subjected women suspected of being prostitutes to physical examinations. Josephine Butler successfully campaigned against these unfair laws, and they were abolished in 1886.

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