A Woman's Place in 19th Century Victorian History
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.
The accepted reasoning
was that the career for women was marriage.
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
needed, were to be innocent, virtuous, biddable, dutiful and be ignorant of
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
history and photographic records clearly illustrate there was morning and
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
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.
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
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
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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For more information about the Victorian Era
1837-1901 click on the title links below:-
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