The Victorian Era spanned from 1837-1901 and reflects the 63-year reign of Queen Victoria I. Naturally, you’d expect that a woman being on the throne would lead to a better standard of life for all women, right? Riiiiiiight? Wrong. In short, being a woman in the Victorian Era sucked. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Feminism for One
The idea of feminism began to grow slowly during the Victorian Era, but it didn’t completely catch on. It didn’t help that Queen Victoria described herself as an emotional creature and blamed all of her shortcomings as monarch on the fact that she was a woman. While some gave lectures on many different pro-feminist issues (example: The Rational Dress Society), Victoria made it clear that she did not advocate for empire-wide feminism. Victoria was seen as the “mother of the nation” and the nation wanted to do what mummy said. (Link 1.)
2. Separate Spheres
Since women were considered to be inferior to men, they were thought to occupy a “separate sphere” from their male counterparts. The women and men of a household would only come together at meal times and would spend the rest of their days doing their gender-approved duties. As the “physically weaker” sex, women were given the domestic tasks (that would be done by servants if they could afford them). It was their duty to educate their children (unless they could hire a governess to do it) and cook the meals (unless they had a kitchen maid). Girls were allowed to get a basic education, but their education mostly consisted of “accomplishments” such as drawing or dancing rather than intellectual pursuits. And women in higher education was completely unheard of because certain scientists maintained that too much learning could dry up a woman’s ovaries. These beliefs and practices were the main argument against letting women vote. (Link 2.)
3. If I Were a Rich Girl
If you were a girl from nobility, you weren’t expected to work. But then again, you weren’t expected to really do anything at all. Many women of nobility were confined to their homes. These ladies had a household staff to do the cleaning work for them and even if they wanted to do something, their skirts were too big to get anything done. With all the time on their hands, noble women got very crafty and would take on different projects such as embroidery or painting. Victorian houses were decorated from wall to wall to display the level of wealth of the family, so it was up to the women to provide some décor. Women would embroider pillowcases, lampshades, tablecloths, and more. When the walls inevitably ran out of empty space, women could make gifts for their husbands like slippers or a Persian smoking cap. (Link 3.)
4. If I Weren’t a Rich Girl
In the working class, 30-40% of women contributed to the household income in the mid-Victorian years. The Industrial Revolution really took off during the Victorian Era, leading to a population boom in the major cities like London, Manchester, and Liverpool. Entire families were packed into small apartments, and the women often went to work in factories or upper-class houses while the grandparents stayed at home with the children. Common jobs for women in the Victorian Era included domestic service, textiles, clothing, pottery, etc. Even though women were major contributors to the workforce, they were paid pitifully compared to the men. (Link 4.)
5. Somewhere in the Middle
As for the ladies in the middle class, it could go either way for working or not working. If a woman in the middle class needed to work, she would often seek a position as a governess for a wealthy household. Most of us know what a governess is because of classics like Jane Eyre, but for those who skipped out on high school English, a governess was a woman employed in a private household to educate the children (usually girls) in a range of “accomplishments” from reading to drawing. The unfortunate reality of being a governess was that the women were usually extremely lonely because they ranked above the servants but below the family and had no one their age to socialize with in the house. (Link 5.)
6. Feeling Hysterical
Scientists believed that women were prone to a condition called “hysteria” and the only way to alleviate it was for a married woman to have intimate relations with her husband. If a woman was unmarried, her hysteria could be relieved by going to the doctor for a “pelvic massage.” This is a fancy way of saying the doctor would stimulate the woman until she orgasmed and shook away her hysterics. (You can imagine that an unmarried woman’s hysteria would bother her to the point of needing a doctor constantly.) But fun fact, the vibrator was created to give doctors’ hands a break. It should also be noted that if an unmarried man was suffering from hysteria, it was better for him to see a prostitute than to masturbate. Even though doctors would help the women, they weren’t too keen on giving the men a hand. (Link 3.)
7. Staying Alive
This also applies to men, but it was reeeeeeeeeaallyyyyy easy to die in the Victorian Era. Because of overcrowding in the large cities, diseases spread quickly through shared water or food sources. Typhus, typhoid, and cholera were the most popular diseases of the time; but measles, mumps, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and rubella were also common. Soap had a luxury tax on it until 1853 and it took a while to convince people that washing their hands and bodies with soap was an easy way to stop the spread of disease. Out of the many jobs women did take on, they were lucky to be spared from employment as a rat catcher—an actual job done by men to prevent the spreading of diseases through vermin. We can still say that staying alive was harder for women because they were expected to have a lot of children and subsequently ran the risk of dying in childbirth like women in previous generations. (Link 3.)
8. Blushing Brides
Queen Victoria promoted the ideal of home and family life and many know how attached she was to her husband, Prince Albert. But other than the Queen and some very rare cases, women could not own property until the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act (Link 6). But the caveat here was that you had to be married. If you’ve read the hit Regency romance novel Pride and Prejudice, you know that if you were a woman born to a family of middle or upper class standing that you did not get to inherit your father’s property. The only way to ensure you weren’t turned out to the street was to get married before you became an old maid at 25. Before the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act, a woman could only inherit property if she was made a widow. As a widow, she was allowed to have a portion of her husband’s income but was not allowed to be the guardian of her children (Link 7). It became increasingly popular to marry for love in the Victorian Era, but upper- and middle-class lovers still needed family or guardian consent to marry who they chose. (This is the cause of much of the drama in the Victorian satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.)
9. Kissing Cousins
If they needed to get married for security, it was common for women to be romantically paired with their first or second cousins. This sounds abhorrent to us in the modern world, but the Victorians didn’t understand genetic science like we do. Plus, well known people like Queen Victoria and Charles Darwin married their cousins (Link 8). While this sucks for them in hindsight, many women didn’t bat their eyes at the idea of marrying their cousins—particularly if they were attracted to them. What really sucked for them was being forced to marry their cousin because they were running out of options and it was an easy way to keep wealth in the family (Link 9). Thankfully, cousin marriage is now illegal in America and not practiced as commonly as it used to be even though it is not outlawed in many parts of Europe (Link 8).
10. What to Wear?
Fashion changed quickly in the Victorian era, and women with the ability to do so had to completely reinvent their closet every half decade. The common threads of Victorian fashion were modesty and corsets. Other than that, trends came and went without warning. In the 1830’s to mid 1860’s, it was fashionable to have a ten-yard-wide crinoline hoop skirt. (How these women were able to sit is beyond me.) In the late 1860’s the bulk of fabric moved from a full circle around the body to the posterior to give the impression of a large backside. The early 1870’s featured large round bustles that slowly got smaller through the late 1870’s. The bustles began to grow again in the early 1880’s but this time were more squared off in shape to give the illusion of a shelf butt. By the end of the 1880’s, the bustles shrank again until they were almost gone in the 1890’s. The 1890’s brought the inflation of the sleeves—big sleeves and circular skirts were all the rage through the last decade of the century. The sleeves deflated in the turn of the century for a streamlined style as women moved towards modern fashion. No matter what the current fashion was for the women in Victorian society, I think it’s safe to say the women were uncomfortable most of the time. And seriously, how on earth were they able to sit?! (Link 10.)
Of course, things didn’t suck for ALL 19th Century women and life wasn’t a picnic for all 19th Century men. But I think we can all agree that despite modern shortcomings, women’s lives are much improved with the times. And hey—at least we don’t have to dump the contents of our chamber pots in the streets anymore!
Link 3: Clayton, Matt. The Victorian Era. Captivating History, 2019. https://www.amazon.com/Victorian-Era-Captivating-Victoria-Hierarchy-Based-ebook/dp/B07T2RMWCR/ref=sr_1_4?dchild=1&keywords=captivating+history+victorian+era&qid=1605905669&sr=8-4
Link 10: Wellman, Rita. Victoria Royal: The Flowering of a Style. Charles Scribner's Sons, Ltd., 1939. https://www.amazon.com/Victoria-royal-flowering-Rita-Wellman/dp/B0006AOQHW/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Victoria+royal+the+flowering+of+a+style&qid=1605906590&sr=8-1