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A Woman's Place in  C19th Victorian History

A Woman's Place in  C19th Victorian History

By Pauline Weston Thomas for


A Woman's Place in 19th Century Victorian History


A Woman's Place is in The Home

The Victorian era seems like another world to us. Yet the late Victorians were very familiar with many of the things we use everyday. The one thing that was different was the place of women in society. There were of course perceptive women of independent original thought, but for the huge majority life was easier if they accepted that a woman's place was in the home. To lump all women of the Victorian era as one body would be wrong. The era spanned 64 years and changes in attitudes were gradually shifting as the century closed. 

Above in the heading we see a picture of the young Queen Victoria at 18.  If you look at her in the top page of the Victorian Era you will see how she changed with the years.  

Whether or not you agree with the facts today, the attitude of men toward women in the Victorian age was highlighted by Tennyson who wrote of women staying by the hearth with their needles whilst men wielded their swords.

A Woman's Qualities

The accepted reasoning was that the career for women was marriage.  Costume history picture of ladies taking tea wearing full crinolines.  Fashion history.To get ready for courtship and marriage a girl was groomed like a racehorse.  In addition to being able to sing, play an instrument and speak a little French or Italian, the qualities a young Victorian gentlewoman needed, were to be innocent, virtuous, biddable, dutiful and be ignorant of intellectual opinion. 

Right - Taking tea wearing lavish Victorian gowns in 1854.  Fashion history images we see today are usually of beautifully gowned women, yet many working women as opposed to ladies such as these wore rags.

The dresses show typical excessive style elements such as V waists,  layering of trims, bell sleeves and engageantes.Picture of cover of Mrs. Beeton's book of Household Management.

Whether married or single all Victorian women were expected to be weak and helpless, a fragile delicate flower incapable of making decisions beyond selecting the menu and ensuring her many children were taught moral values.  A gentlewoman ensured that the home was a place of comfort for her husband and family from the stresses of Industrial Britain. 

Right Beeton's Book of Household Management edited by Mrs. Isabella Beeton.

A woman's prime use was to bear a large family and maintain a smooth family atmosphere where a man need not bother himself about domestic matters.  He assumed his house would run smoothly so he could get on with making money.

In his book The Cut of his Coat published in 2006 Brent Shannon argues that middle-class men also participated vigorously in fashion and you can read the book review of The Cut of His Coat here.

Mistresses for Men

Even in high places Victorian men kept mistresses, but they still expected their wives or mistresses to be faithful whatever their own misdemeanours.  If a women took a lover it was not made public. If it did become public knowledge she would be cut by society.  But men could amble along to one of their gentleman's clubs and always find a warm welcome. 

Married Woman's Property Act 1887

It was a hypocritical period when relationships were quite artificial. Until late in the century in 1887 a married woman could own no property.  Then in 1887 the Married Woman's Property Act gave women rights to own her own property.  Previously her property, frequently inherited from her family, belonged to her husband on marriage.  She became the chattel of the man.  During this era if a wife separated from her husband she had no rights of access to see her children.  A divorced woman had no chance of acceptance in society again. 

Social Differences Between Classes of Women


A wealthy wife was supposed to spend her time reading, sewing, receiving guests, going visiting, letter writing, seeing to the servants and dressing for the part as her husband's social representative. 

For the very poor of Britain things were quite different.  Fifth hand clothes were usual. Servants ate the pickings left over in a rich household.  The average poor mill worker could only afford the very inferior stuff, for example rancid bacon, tired vegetables, green potatoes, tough old stringy meat, tainted bread, porridge, cheese, herrings or kippers. 

By the end of the Queen Victoria's reign there were great differences between members of society, but the most instantly apparent difference was through the garments worn. 

The Victorian head of household dressed his women to show off family wealth.  As the 19th century progressed dress became more and more lavish until clothing dripped with lace and beading as the new century dawned. 

A wealthy woman's day was governed by etiquette rules that encumbered her with up to six wardrobe changes a day and the needs varied over three seasons a year.  A lady changed through a wide range of clothing as occasion dictated. 

 Fashion history. Picture of ladies out for a drive wearing full crinolines. Costume history.Fashion history and photographic records clearly illustrate there was morning and mourning dress, walking dress, town dress, visiting dress, receiving visitors dress, travelling dress, shooting dress, golf dress, seaside dress, races dress, concert dress, opera dress, dinner and ball dress. 

Left - Fashion plate of wealthy women in an open  carriage which enabled them to display their clothes and elevated position in society.

Fashion plates were hugely successful in this era giving ladies supposed to women visual clues on how to dress for their new found status.

Yet change was happening everywhere.  Many women adopted the tailor made garment that showed their more serious concern to be recognised as thinking beings with much to offer society beyond being a social asset for a husband.Picture of lady sewing in a full crinoline.  Fashion history.

By 1900 the railway, the typewriter, telephones, the post, the camera, the sewing machine, artificial rayon fibres and the bicycle became normal for many.  For some gas, water, electricity and even the motor car were already in use.  New inventions and how to use them led to new thinking and women of all classes felt the dynamic atmosphere of change as much as men.

Right -A Victorian woman using a Singer sewing machine C1850.

Reform was in the air as intellectual female thinkers began to state their case.  Many joined the Fabian Society, a group of non revolutionary thinking socialists.  Others sought reform for more practical dress, better education, the right to take up paid work if they wished and  better employment prospects if they were poorly paid women.  Most importantly brave women  campaigned for votes for women and birth control information even though many never lived to see the changes they fought for.  

You can read how to find out more about some very informed material about occupations of ordinary women on my book review page of Helena Wojtczak's publication called WOMEN OF VICTORIAN SUSSEX - Their Status, Occupations and Dealings with the Law, 1830 ~ 1870.  Helena Wojtczak's latest publication.  I also have some information on women seamstresses in my Edwardian section.



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