Victorian Women

History tells a variety of stories about women who lived in the Victorian Age, spanning 1837 to 1901. Some of the women were portrayed as low-paid workers while others were known as great writers, philanthropists and campaigners for women's rights. The Victorian Age gets its name from Queen Victoria (1919-1901), who inherited the throne of Great Britain when she was 18 following the death of her uncle William IV in 1837. She married Albert (1819-1861), Prince of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, in 1840. Following her husband's death in 1861 Victoria spent a period of 10 years in mourning. Afterwards Victoria lived at Windsor or Balmoral, going abroad once a year. She was crowned Empress of India in 1876 but her popularity tumbled to its lowest level around 1870, due to the high costs of supporting the monarchy.

One of the major challenges facing women during the Victorian Age related to industrialization and its demographic, economic and social effects. Industrialization transformed agriculture and manufacturing in England, resulting in the concentration of large labor forces and capital in the cities. The Victorian working class comprised at least 80 percent of the population. Combined with the fact that most men did not receive earnings sufficient to support their families, there is no doubt as to why a large number of Victorian women joined the workforce.

Official data from 1851 reveals that 2.8 million women and girls over 10 years of age were in employment and accounted for 30.2 percent of the entire labor force. This figure fell slightly by 1901 to 29.1 percent. Most of the women took jobs as factory workers, domestic servants, milliners, seamstresses or washerwomen. Joining the workforce raised the problem of balancing family duties and earning a wage. Another challenge women faced was the intrusion of regulation into most spheres of life. The state implemented laws that made education compulsory, criminalized abortion, enforced the control of city populations and regularized industry and labor. The drive for regulation invaded personal lives, with special instructions issued for women on how to become perfect mothers and wives. The roles of men and women were rigidly designated, with all theories including social, biological and evolutionary, agreeing that men were superior.

Victorian women found ways to oppose the oppression. Some simply refused to raise their children using the social stereotypes preached, while others found a way through literature to support their cause. Thus, Charlotte Bronte's (1816-1855) Jane Eyre, when refusing to be Rochester's mistress, insists that she cares for herself. The protests against the status-quo were also made at an institutional level. Activists like Anne Knight (1786-1862) and Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-1858) lobbied for the right to vote for women. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891) also defended women's rights but her focus was on the legislation that regulated women's status within marriage. The law stated that when a woman married, everything she possessed, earned or inherited belonged solely to her husband. Bodichon set up a committee to reform the law and to give married women the right to their own property. Within a year, the small committee had grown into a nationwide campaign group. Bodichon drafted a petition to Parliament which was published in 1856. Another influential woman was Jeanie Senior (1828-1877), who became the first woman in Whitehall.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) first promoted the idea that nursing should be a vocation for women. Nightingale not only provided vital medical help during the Crimean War (1853-56) but also informed Queen Victoria and Prince Albert about the state of the military hospital system. Nightingale opened the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses at St. Thomas's Hospital; was involved in the establishment of the East London Nursing Society (1868); supported the Workhouse Nursing Association and National Society for providing Trained Nurses for the Poor (1874); and also backed the Queen's Jubilee Nursing Institute (1890).

According to Lynn Abrahams in Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain (2009), the perfect woman was epitomised by Frances Goodby, the wife of the Reverend J Goodby of Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire. Abrahams states: "Mrs Goodby exemplified the good and virtuous woman whose life revolved around the domestic sphere of the home and family. She was pious, respectable and busy - no life of leisure for her. Her diligence and evident constant devotion to her husband, as well as to God, identifies Frances Goodby as an example to other women."

Victorian Women: Selected full-text books and articles

Victorian Feminists By Barbara Caine Oxford University Press, 1993
The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal, 1837-1873 By Patricia Thomson Oxford University Press, 1956
Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women By Lori Anne Loeb Oxford University Press, 1994
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