Sunday, 11 April 2010

Women in the 19th century

It is instructive to take a look at how women were treated before their remarkable self-emancipation.

There is a glaring contrast between the belief in progress characteristic of the Victorian era and its treatment of women. As we have already mentioned, the roots of this were not biological or psychological but material: the male control of society’s resources.

In the 19th century the first duty of a woman was to submit to male authority. When she married, she swore to obey her husband, who became the owner of her property and income and commanded custody of their children. A woman could not vote, nor could she conclude a contract without her husband’s agreement. Although she might receive a certain education, she was not considered intellectually suited to study at the highest level: not only was she barred from entering university, but any pretensions to achievements in physics and other sciences were roundly scorned by her male contemporaries. For what reason would a woman go to university, when her role in life was to be the attractive and obedient ornament of a male? A woman’s place was in the home, diligently anxious for the comfort of her family.

This was the era when the sexes were seen as properly belonging to two spheres: the woman to home and hearth, the man to business, politics and wider society. The epitomy of this was the royal couple. With her many children and committed husband, Victoria was an icon of female domesticity and marital stability. For the Victorian male, the home was seen as a comfortable retreat from the grubbiness and noise of the world of work and politics. Countless publications (most famously Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management of 1861) gave women instructions on how to be a good housewife and fulfil their duty of creating a warm haven for their husbands and children.

In this stifled world, motherhood was not just a biological function, but a symbolic destiny for womankind. Vast clouds of sanctimony attempted to equate the capacity for giving birth with the sole responsibility for child-raising, and tried to persuade women that their main emotional fulfilment could be found in supporting their families. Marriage and motherhood were to be a woman’s highest achievement.

Of course, there were huge double standards everywhere. Maintaining a home involved a huge amount of work, and even middle-class women did not usually have enough servants to exempt them from the labour involved: fetching water, washing and ironing clothes by hand, preparing food, mending clothes and bed-linen and so on and on. The ideal of motherhood was betrayed by the dreadful conditions in which most children were actually raised, amidst poor sanitation and overcrowding. Perhaps worst of all, while women were supposedly put on a pedestal and seen as ‘pure’, childlike beings — it was not appropriate for them to enjoy sex — in reality they were often forced into prostitution to make ends meet, the logical extension of a society in which women were dependent upon male incomes.

In short, women were to be treated as saints, but saints whose legal rights were little better than children’s.1


1 One small point of progress however was that it was not legal, as in some cultures, for a husband to kill his wife!

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