Women in the Victorian era
|Preceded by||Regency era|
|Followed by||Edwardian era|
|Part of a series on|
|Women in society|
The status of women in the Victorian era was often seen as an illustration of the striking discrepancy between the United Kingdom's national power and wealth and what many, then and now, consider its appalling social conditions. During the era symbolized by the reign of British monarch Queen Victoria, women did not have the right to vote, sue, or own property. At the same time, women participated in the paid workforce in increasing numbers following the Industrial Revolution. Feminist ideas spread among the educated middle classes, discriminatory laws were repealed, and the women's suffrage movement gained momentum in the last years of the Victorian era.
In the Victorian era women were seen, by the middle classes at least, as belonging to the domestic sphere, and this stereotype required them to provide their husbands with a clean home, food on the table and to raise their children. Women's rights were extremely limited in this era, losing ownership of their wages, all of their physical property, excluding land property, and all other cash they generated once married. When a Victorian man and woman married, the rights of the woman were legally given over to her spouse. Under the law the married couple became one entity represented by the husband, placing him in control of all property, earnings and money. In addition to losing money and material goods to their husbands, Victorian wives became property to their husbands, giving them rights to what their bodies produced: children, sex and domestic labor. Marriage abrogated a woman's right to consent to sexual intercourse with her husband, giving him "ownership" over her body. Their mutual matrimonial consent therefore became a contract to give herself to her husband as he desired.
Rights and privileges of Victorian women were limited, and both single and married women had to live with hardships and disadvantages. Victorian women were disadvantaged both financially and sexually, enduring inequalities within their marriages and society. There were sharp distinctions between men's and women's rights during this era; men were allotted more stability, financial status and power over their homes and women. Marriages for Victorian women became contracts which were extremely difficult if not impossible to get out of during the Victorian era. Women's rights groups fought for equality and over time made strides in attaining rights and privileges; however, many Victorian women endured their husband's control and even cruelty, including sexual violence, verbal abuse and economic deprivation, with no way out. While husbands participated in affairs with other women, wives endured infidelity, as they had no rights to divorce on these grounds and divorce was considered to be a social taboo.
- 1 "The Angel in the House"
- 2 "The Household General"
- 3 Working-class domestic life
- 4 Divorce and legal discrimination
- 5 Sexuality
- 6 Education
- 7 Women in the workforce
- 8 Leisure activities
- 9 Women subjects of the British Empire
- 10 See also
- 11 Further reading
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
"The Angel in the House"
By the Victorian era, the concept of "pater familias", meaning the husband as head of the household and moral leader of his family, was firmly entrenched in British culture. A wife's proper role was to love, honour and obey her husband, as her marriage vows stated. A wife's place in the family hierarchy was secondary to her husband, but far from being considered unimportant, a wife's duties to tend to her husband and properly raise her children were considered crucial cornerstones of social stability by the Victorians.
Representations of ideal wives were abundant in Victorian culture, providing women with their role models. The Victorian ideal of the tirelessly patient, sacrificing wife is depicted in The Angel in the House, a popular poem by Coventry Patmore, published in 1854:
Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself ...
She loves with love that cannot tire;
And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
As grass grows taller round a stone.
Virginia Woolf described the angel as:
immensely sympathetic, immensely charming, utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily ... in short, she was so constituted that she never had a mind but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all ... she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty.
There are many publications from the Victorian era that give explicit direction for the man's role in the home and his marriage. Advice such as "The burden, or, rather the privilege, of making home happy is not the wife's alone. There is something demanded of the lord and master and if he fails in his part, domestic misery must follow" (published in 1883 in Our Manners and Social Customs by Daphne Dale) was common in many publications of the time.
Literary critics of the time suggested that superior feminine qualities of delicacy, sensitivity, sympathy, and sharp observation gave women novelists a superior insight into stories about home family and love. This made their work highly attractive to the middle-class women who bought the novels and the serialized versions that appeared in many magazines. However, a few early feminists called for aspirations beyond the home. By the end of the century, the "New Woman" was riding a bicycle, wearing bloomers, signing petitions, supporting worldwide mission activities, and talking about the vote. Feminists of the 20th century reacted in hostile fashion to the "Angel of the House" theme since they felt the norm was still holding back their aspirations. Virginia Woolf was adamant. In a lecture to the Women's Service League in 1941, she said "killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer."
"The Household General"
'The Household General' is a term coined in 1851 by Isabella Beeton in her influential manual Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. Here she explained that the mistress of a household is comparable to the commander of an army or the leader of an enterprise. To run a respectable household and secure the happiness, comfort and well-being of her family she must perform her duties intelligently and thoroughly. For example, she had to organize, delegate and instruct her servants, which was not an easy task as many of them were not reliable. Isabella Beeton's upper-middle-class readers may also have had a large complement of "domestics", a staff requiring supervision by the mistress of the house. Beeton advises her readers to maintain a "housekeeping account book" to track spending. She recommends daily entries and checking the balance monthly. In addition to tracking servants' wages, the mistress of the house was responsible for tracking payments to tradesmen such as butchers and bakers. If a household had the means to hire a housekeeper, whose duties included keeping the household accounts, Beeton goes so far as to advise readers to check the accounts of housekeepers regularly to ensure nothing was amiss.
Beeton provided a table of domestic servant roles and their appropriate weekly pay scale ("found in livery" meant that the employer provided meals and a work uniform). The sheer number of Victorian servants and their duties makes it clear why expertise in logistical matters would benefit the mistress of the house. Beeton indicates that the full list of servants in this table would be expected in the household of a "wealthy nobleman"; her readers are instructed to adjust staff size and pay according to the household's available budget, and other factors such as a servant's level of experience:
|When not found in livery||When found in livery|
|Page or Footboy||₤8–₤18||₤6–₤14|
|When no extra
allowance is made for
tea, sugar and beer
|When an extra|
allowance is made for
tea, sugar and beer
|Under Housemaid||₤8–₤12||₤6 10s.–₤10|
"The Household General" was expected to organise parties and dinners to bring prestige to her husband, also making it possible for them to network. Beeton gives extensively detailed instructions on how to supervise servants in preparation for hosting dinners and balls. The etiquette to be observed in sending and receiving formal invitations is given, as well as the etiquette to be observed at the events themselves. The mistress of the house also had an important role in supervising the education of the youngest children. Beeton makes it clear that a woman's place is in the home, and her domestic duties come first. Social activities as an individual were less important than household management and socialising as her husband's companion. They were to be strictly limited:
After luncheon, morning calls and visits may be made and received.... Visits of ceremony, or courtesy ... are uniformly required after dining at a friend's house, or after a ball, picnic, or any other party. These visits should be short, a stay of from fifteen to twenty minutes being quite sufficient. A lady paying a visit may remove her boa or neckerchief; but neither shawl nor bonnet....
Advice books on housekeeping and the duties of an ideal wife were plentiful during the Victorian era, and sold well among the middle class. In addition to Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, there were Infant Nursing and the Management of Young Children (1866) and Practical Housekeeping; or, the duties of a home-wife (1867) by Mrs. Frederick Pedley, and From Kitchen to Garret by Jane Ellen Panton, which went through 11 editions in a decade. Shirley Forster Murphy a doctor and medical writer, wrote the influential Our Homes, and How to Make them Healthy (1883), before he served as London's chief medical officer in the 1890s.
Working-class domestic life
Domestic life for a working-class family was far less comfortable. Legal standards for minimum housing conditions were a new concept during the Victorian era, and a working-class wife was responsible for keeping her family as clean, warm, and dry as possible in housing stock that was often literally rotting around them. In London, overcrowding was endemic in the slums inhabited by the working classes. (See Life and Labour of the People in London.) Families living in single rooms were not unusual. The worst areas had examples such as 90 people crammed into a 10-room house, or 12 people living in a single room (7 feet 3 inches by 14 feet). Rents were exorbitant; 85 percent of working-class households in London spent at least one-fifth of their income on rent, with 50 percent paying one-quarter to one-half of their income on rent. The poorer the neighbourhood, the higher the rents. Rents in the Old Nichol area near Hackney, per cubic foot, were five to eleven times higher than rents in the fine streets and squares of the West End of London. The owners of the slum housing included peers, churchmen, and investment trusts for estates of long-deceased members of the upper classes.
Domestic chores for women without servants meant a great deal of washing and cleaning. Coal-dust from stoves (and factories) was the bane of the Victorian woman's housekeeping existence. Carried by wind and fog, it coated windows, clothing, furniture and rugs. Washing clothing and linens would usually be done one day a week, scrubbed by hand in a large zinc or copper tub. Some water would be heated and added to the wash tub, and perhaps a handful of soda to soften the water. Curtains were taken down and washed every fortnight; they were often so blackened by coal smoke that they had to be soaked in salted water before being washed. Scrubbing the front wooden doorstep of the home every morning was also an important chore to maintain respectability.
Divorce and legal discrimination
Domestic violence and abuse
The law regarded men as persons, and legal recognition of women's rights as autonomous persons would be a slow process, and would not be fully accomplished until well into the 20th century (in Canada, women achieved legal recognition through the "Persons Case", Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General) in 1929). Women lost the rights to the property they brought into the marriage, even following divorce; a husband had complete legal control over any income earned by his wife; women were not allowed to open banking accounts; and married women were not able to conclude a contract without her husband's legal approval. These property restrictions made it difficult or impossible for a woman to leave a failed marriage, or to exert any control over her finances if her husband was incapable or unwilling to do so on her behalf.
Domestic violence towards wives was given increasing attention by social and legal reformers as the 19th century continued. The first animal-cruelty legislation in Sudan was passed in 1824, however, legal protection from domestic violence was not granted to women until 1853 with the Act for the Better Prevention and Punishment of Aggravated Assaults upon Women and Children. Even this law did not outright ban violence by a man against his wife and children; it imposed legal limits on the amount of force that was permitted.
Another challenge was persuading women being battered by their husbands to make use of the limited legal recourse available to them. In 1843, an organisation founded by animal-rights and pro-temperance activists was established to help this social cause. The organisation that became known as the Associate Institute for Improving and Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women and Children hired inspectors who brought prosecutions of the worst cases. It focused its efforts on work-class women, since Victorian practise was to deny that middle-class or aristocratic families were in need of such intervention. There were sometimes cracks in the facade of propriety. In 1860, Mr. J. Walter, MP for Berkshire, stated in the House of Commons that if members "looked to the revelations in the Divorce Court they might well fear that if the secrets of all households were known, these brutal assaults upon women were by no means confined to the lower classes". A strong deterrent to middle-class or aristocratic wives seeking legal recourse, or divorce, was the social stigma and shunning that would follow such revelations in a public trial.
Divorce and separation
Great change in the situation of women took place in the 19th century, especially concerning marriage laws and the legal rights of women to divorce and/or gain custody of children. The situation that fathers always received custody of their children, leaving the mother without any rights, slowly started to change. The Custody of Infants Act in 1839 gave mothers of unblemished character access to their children in the event of separation or divorce, and the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857 gave women limited access to divorce. But while the husband only had to prove his wife's adultery, a woman had to prove her husband had not only committed adultery but also incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion. In 1873 the Custody of Infants Act extended access to children to all women in the event of separation or divorce. In 1878, after an amendment to the Matrimonial Causes Act, women could secure a separation on the grounds of cruelty and claim custody of their children. Magistrates even authorised protection orders to wives whose husbands have been convicted of aggravated assault. An important change was caused by an amendment to the Married Women's Property Act 1884. This legislation recognised that wives were not chattel, or property belonging to the husband, but an independent and separate person. Through the Guardianship of Infants Act in 1886, women could be made the sole guardian of their children if their husband died. Women slowly had their rights changed so that they could eventually leave their husbands for good. Some notable dates include:
- 1857: violence recognized as grounds for divorce
- 1870: women could keep money they earned
- 1878: entitlement to spousal and child support recognized
Cultural taboos surrounding the female body
The ideal Victorian woman was pure, chaste, refined, and modest. This ideal was supported by etiquette and manners. The etiquette extended to the pretension of never acknowledging the use of undergarments (in fact, they were sometimes generically referred to as "unmentionables"). The discussion of such a topic, it was feared, would gravitate towards unhealthy attention on anatomical details. As one Victorian lady expressed it: "[those] are not things, my dear, that we speak of; indeed, we try not even to think of them". The pretense of avoiding acknowledgement of anatomical realities met with embarrassing failure on occasion. In 1859, the Hon. Eleanor Stanley wrote about an incident where the Duchess of Manchester moved too quickly while manoeuvring over a stile, tripping over her large hoop skirt:
[the Duchess] caught a hoop of her cage in it and went regularly head over heels lighting on her feet with her cage and whole petticoats above, above her head. They say there was never such a thing seen – and the other ladies hardly knew whether to be thankful or not that a part of her undergarments consisted in a pair of scarlet tartan knickerbockers (the things Charlie shoots in) which were revealed to the view of all the world in general and the Duc de Malakoff in particular".
However, despite the fact that Victorians considered the mention of women's undergarments in mixed company unacceptable, men's entertainment made great comedic material out of the topic of ladies' bloomers, including men's magazines and music hall skits.
Equestrian riding was an exerting pastime that became popular as a leisure activity among the growing middle classes. Many etiquette manuals for riding were published for this new market. For women, preserving modesty while riding was crucial. Breeches and riding trousers for women were introduced, for the practical reason of preventing chafing, yet these were worn under the dress. Riding clothes for women were made at the same tailors that made men's riding apparel, rather than at a dressmaker, so female assistants were hired to help with fittings.
The advent of colonialism and world travel presented new obstacles for women. Travel on horseback (or on donkeys, or even camels) was often impossible to do sidesaddle because the animal had not been "broken" (trained) for sidesaddle riding. Riding costumes for women were introduced that used breeches or zouave trousers beneath long coats in some countries, while jodhpurs breeches used by men in India were adopted by women. These concessions were made so that women could ride astride a horse when necessary, but they were still exceptions to the rule of riding sidesaddle until after World War I. Travel writer Isabella Bird (1831–1904) was instrumental in challenging this taboo. At age 42, she travelled abroad on a doctor's recommendation. In Hawaii, she determined that seeing the islands riding sidesaddle was impractical, and switched to riding astride. She was an ambitious traveller, going to the American West, the Rocky Mountains, Japan, China, Baghdad, Tehran, and the Black Sea. Her written accounts sold briskly.
Women's physical activity was a cause of concern at the highest levels of academic research during the Victorian era. In Canada, physicians debated the appropriateness of women using bicycles:
A series of letters published in the Dominion Medical Monthly and Ontario Medical Journal in 1896, expressed concern that women seated on bicycle seats could have orgasms.  Fearful of unleashing and creating a nation of 'over-sexed' females, some physicians urged colleagues to encourage women to eschew 'modern dangers' and continue to pursue traditional leisure pursuits. However, not all medical colleagues were convinced of the link between cycling and orgasm, and this debate on women's leisure activities continued well into the 20th century.
Victorian morality and sexuality
Women were expected to have sex with only one man, their husband. However, it was acceptable for men to have multiple partners in their life; some husbands had lengthy affairs with other women while their wives stayed with their husbands because divorce was not an option. If a woman had sexual contact with another man, she was seen as "ruined" or "fallen". Victorian literature and art was full of examples of women paying dearly for straying from moral expectations. Adulteresses met tragic ends in novels, including the ones by great writers such as Tolstoy, Flaubert or Thomas Hardy. While some writers and artists showed sympathy towards women's subjugation to this double standard, some works were didactic and reinforced the cultural norm. In the Victorian era, sex was not discussed openly and honestly; public discussion of sexual encounters and matters were met with ignorance, embarrassment and fear. One public opinion of women's sexual desires was that they were not very troubled by sexual urges. Even if women's desires were lurking, sexual experiences came with consequences for women and families. Limiting family sizes resulted in resisting sexual desires, except when a husband had desires which as a wife women were "contracted" to fulfill. Many people in the Victorian era were "factually uninformed and emotionally frigid about sexual matters". To discourage premarital sexual relations the New Poor Law provided that "women bear financial responsibilities for out-of-wedlock pregnancies". In 1834 women were made legally and financially supportive of their illegitimate children. Sexual relations for women could not just be about desire and feelings: this was a luxury reserved for men; the consequences of sexual interactions for women took away the physical desires that women could possess.
Portsmouth Dockyard by James Tissot, 1877. This work is Tissot's revision to his earlier work, The Thames. According to the Tate gallery, it "shocked audiences when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1876 because of the questionable sexual morals of its characters. This painting was exhibited as a corrective".
Contagious Diseases Prevention Acts
The situation of women perceived as unclean was worsened through the Contagious Diseases Acts, the first of which became law in 1864. Women suspected of being unclean were subjected to an involuntary genital examination. Refusal was punishable by imprisonment; diagnosis with an illness was punishable by involuntary confinement to hospital until perceived as cured.
The disease prevention law was only applied to women, which became the primary rallying point for activists who argued that the law was both ineffective and inherently unfair to women. Women could be picked up off the streets, suspected of prostitution on little or no evidence, and subjected to an examination. These were inexpertly performed by male police officers, making the exams painful as well as humiliating. After two extensions of the law in 1866 and 1869 the acts were finally repealed in 1896. Josephine Butler was a women's rights crusader who fought to repeal the Acts.
Women were generally expected to marry and perform household and motherly duties rather than seek formal education. Even women who were not successful in finding husbands were generally expected to remain uneducated, and to take a position in childcare (as a governess or as a supporter to other members of her family). The outlook for education-seeking women improved when Queen's College in Harley Street, London was founded in 1848 – the goal of this college was to provide governesses with a marketable education. Later, the Cheltenham Ladies' College and other girls' public schools were founded, increasing educational opportunities for women's education and leading eventually to the development of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in 1897.
Women in the workforce
Working-class women often had occupations to make ends meet, and to ensure family income in the event that a husband became sick, injured, or died. There was no workers' compensation until late in the Victorian era, and a husband too ill or injured to work often meant an inability to pay the rent and a stay at the dreaded Victorian workhouse.
Throughout the Victorian era, some women were employed in heavy industry such as coal mines and the steel industry. Although they were employed in fewer numbers as the Victorian era continued and employment laws changed, they could still be found in certain roles. Before the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, women (and children) worked underground as "hurriers" who carted tubs of coal up through the narrow mine shafts. In Wolverhampton, the law did not have much of an impact on women's mining employment, because they mainly worked above-ground at the coal mines, sorting coal, loading canal boats, and other surface tasks. Women also traditionally did "all the chief tasks in agriculture" in all counties of England, as a government inquiry found in 1843. By the late 1860s, agricultural work was not paying well, and women turned to industrial employment.
In areas with industrial factories, women could find employment on assembly lines for items ranging from locks to canned food. Industrial laundry services employed many women (including inmates of Magdalene asylums who did not receive wages for their work). Women were also commonly employed in the textile mills that sprang up during the industrial revolution in such cities as Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham. Working for a wage was often done from the home in London, although many women worked as "hawkers" or street vendors, who sold such things as watercress, lavender, flowers or herbs that they would collect at the Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market. Many working-class women worked as washerwomen, taking in laundry for a fee. Animal-breeding in slum flats was common, such as dogs, geese, rabbits and birds, to be sold at animal and bird markets. Housing inspectors often found livestock in slum cellars, including cows and donkeys. Spinning and winding wool, silk, and other types of piecework were a common way of earning income by working from home, but wages were very low, and hours were long; often 14 hours per day were needed to earn enough to survive. Furniture-assembling and -finishing were common piecework jobs in working-class households in London that paid relatively well. Women in particular were known as skillful "French polishers" who completed the finish on furniture. The lowest-paying jobs available to working-class London women were matchbox-making, and sorting rags in a rag factory, where flea- and lice-ridden rags were sorted to be pulped for manufacturing paper. Needlework was the single largest paid occupation for women working from home, but the work paid little, and women often had to rent sewing machines that they could not afford to buy. These home manufacturing industries became known as "sweated industries". The Select Committee of the House of Commons defined sweated industries in 1890 as "work carried on for inadequate wages and for excessive hours in unsanitary conditions". By 1906, such workers earned about a penny an hour.
Women could not expect to be paid the same wage as a man for the same work, despite the fact that women were as likely as men to be married and supporting children. In 1906, the government found that the average weekly factory wage for a woman ranged from 11s 3d to 18s 8d, whereas a man's average weekly wage was around 25s 9d.Women were also preferred by many factory owners because they could be "more easily induced to undergo severe bodily fatigue than men". Childminding was another necessary expense for many women working in factories. Pregnant women worked up until the day they gave birth and returned to work as soon as they were physically able. In 1891, a law was passed requiring women to take four weeks away from factory work after giving birth, but many women could not afford this unpaid leave, and the law was unenforceable.
As education for girls spread literacy to the working-classes during the mid- and late-Victorian era, some ambitious young women were able to find salaried jobs in new fields, such as salesgirls, cashiers, typists and secretaries. Work as a domestic, such as a maid or cook, was common, but there was great competition for employment in the more respectable, and higher-paying, households. Private registries were established to control the employment of the better-qualified domestic servants.
Throughout the Victorian era, respectable employment for women from solidly middle-class families was largely restricted to work as a school teacher or governess. Once telephone use became widespread, work as a telephone operator became a respectable job for middle-class women needing employment.
Three medical professions were opened to women in the 19th century: nursing, midwifery, and doctoring. However, it was only in nursing, the one most subject to the supervision and authority of male doctors, that women were widely accepted. Victorians thought the doctor's profession characteristically belonged only to the male sex and a woman should not intrude upon this area but stay with the conventions the will of God has assigned to her. In conclusion, Englishmen would not have woman surgeons or physicians; they confined them to their role as nurses. Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) was an important figure in renewing the traditional image of the nurse as the self-sacrificing, ministering angel—the 'Lady with the lamp', spreading comfort as she passed among the wounded. She succeeded in modernising the nursing profession, promoting training for women and teaching them courage, confidence and self-assertion.
Middle-class women's leisure activities included in large part traditional pastimes such as reading, embroidery, music, and traditional handicrafts. More modern pursuits were introduced to women's lives during the 19th century, however. Opportunities for leisure activities increased dramatically as real wages continued to grow and hours of work continued to decline. In urban areas, the nine-hour workday became increasingly the norm; the 1874 Factory Act limited the workweek to 56.5 hours, encouraging the movement toward an eventual eight-hour workday. Helped by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871, which created a number of fixed holidays, a system of routine annual vacations came into play, starting with white-collar workers and moving into the working-class. Some 200 seaside resorts emerged thanks to cheap hotels and inexpensive railway fares, widespread banking holidays and the fading of many religious prohibitions against secular activities on Sundays. Middle-class Victorians used the train services to visit the seaside, Large numbers travelling to quiet fishing villages such as Worthing, Morecambe and Scarborough began turning them into major tourist centres, and entrepreneurs led by Thomas Cook saw tourism and overseas travel as viable business models.
By the late Victorian era, the leisure industry had emerged in all cities with many women in attendance. It provided scheduled entertainment of suitable length at convenient locales at inexpensive prices. These included sporting events, music halls, and popular theater. Women were now allowed in some sports, such as archery, tennis, badminton and gymnastics.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, it was believed that physical activity was dangerous and inappropriate for women. Girls were taught to reserve their delicate health for the express purpose of birthing healthy children. Furthermore, the physiological difference between the sexes helped to reinforce the societal inequality. An anonymous female writer was able to contend that women were not intended to fill male roles, because "women are, as a rule, physically smaller and weaker than men; their brain is much lighter; and they are in every way unfitted for the same amount of bodily or mental labour that men are able to undertake." Yet by the end of the century, medical understanding of the benefits of exercise created a significant expansion in physical culture for girls. Thus by 1902, The Girl's Empire magazine was able to run a series of articles on "How to Be Strong", proclaiming, "The old-fashioned fallacies regarding health, diet, exercise, dress, &c., have nearly all been exploded, and to-day women are discarding the old ideas and methods, and entering into the new régime with a zest and vigour which bodes well for the future."
Girl's magazines, such as The Girl's Own Paper and The Girl's Empire frequently featured articles encouraging girls to take up daily exercises or learn how to play a sport. Popular sports for girls included hockey, golf, cycling, tennis, fencing, and swimming. Of course, many of these sports were limited to the middle and upper classes who could afford the necessary materials and free time needed to play. Nonetheless, the inclusion of girls in physical culture created a new space for girls to be visible outside of the home and to partake in activities previously only open to boys. Sports became central to the lives of many middle-class girls, to the point where social commentators worried it would overshadow other cultural concerns. For example, a 1902 Girl's Own Paper article on "Athletics for Girls" bewailed, "To hear some modern schoolgirls, and even modern mothers, talk, one would suppose that hockey was the chief end of all education! The tone of the school—the intellectual training—these come in the second place. Tennis, cricket, but above all, hockey!"
Nevertheless, older cultural conventions connecting girls to maternity and domesticity continued to influence girls' development. Thus, while girls had more freedom than ever before, much of the physical culture for girls was simultaneously justified in terms of motherhood: athletic, healthy girls would have healthier children, better able to improve the British race. For instance, an early article advising girls to exercise stresses the future role of girls as mothers to vindicate her argument: "If, then, the importance of duly training the body in conjunction with the mind is thus recognised in the cause of our boys, surely the future wives and mothers of England—for such is our girls' destiny—may lay claim to a no less share of attention in this respect."
The Fair Toxophilites by William Powell Frith (1872). Archery, or toxophily, became a popular leisure activity for upper class women in Britain.
An illustration from the book Horsemanship for Women by Theodore Hoe Mead (1887). Women equestrians rode "side saddle", succeeding at challenging manoeuvres despite this sport handicap.
A Rally by Sir John Lavery. Badminton and tennis were popular occasions for parties, with women playing "mixed doubles" alongside male players.
Victorian women's fashion
Victorian women's clothing followed trends that emphasised elaborate dresses, skirts with wide volume created by the use of layered material such as crinolines, hoop skirt frames, and heavy fabrics. Because of the impracticality and health impact of the era's fashions, a reform movement began among women.
The ideal silhouette of the time demanded a narrow waist, which was accomplished by constricting the abdomen with a laced corset. While the silhouette was striking, and the dresses themselves were often exquisitely detailed creations, the fashions were cumbersome. At best, they restricted women's movements and at worst, they had a harmful effect on women's health. Physicians turned their attention to the use of corsets and determined that they caused several medical problems: compression of the thorax, restricted breathing, organ displacement, poor circulation, and prolapsed uterus.
Articles advocating the reform of women's clothing by the British National Health Society, the Ladies' Dress Association, and the Rational Dress Society were reprinted in The Canada Lancet, Canada's medical journal. In 1884, Dr. J. Algernon Temple of Toronto even voiced concern that the fashions were having a negative impact on the health of young women from the working classes. He pointed out that a young working class woman was likely to spend a large part of her earnings on fine hats and shawls, while "her feet are improperly protected, and she wears no flannel petticoat or woollen stockings".
Florence Pomeroy, Lady Haberton, was president of the Rational Dress movement in Britain. At a National Health Society exhibition held in 1882, Viscountess Haliburton presented her invention of a "divided skirt", which was a long skirt that cleared the ground, with separate halves at the bottom made with material attached to the bottom of the skirt. She hoped that her invention would become popular by supporting women's freedom of physical movement, but the British public was not impressed by the invention, perhaps because of the negative "unwomanly" association of the style with the American Bloomers movement. Amelia Jenks Bloomer had encouraged the wearing of visible bloomers by feminists to assert their right to wear comfortable and practical clothing, but it was no more than a passing fashion itself among radical feminists. The movement to reform women's dress would persist and have longterm success, however; by the 1920s, Coco Chanel was enormously successful at selling a progressive, far less restrictive silhouette that abandoned the corset and raised hemlines. The new silhouette symbolised modernism for trendy young women and became the 20th century standard. Other Paris designers continued reintroducing pants for women and the trend was gradually adopted over the next century.
Fashion trends, in one sense, travelled "full circle" over the course of the Victorian era. The popular women's styles during the Georgian era, and at the very beginning of Victoria's reign, emphasised a simple style influenced by flowing gowns worn by women in Ancient Greece and Rome. The Empire waist silhouette was replaced by a trend towards ornate styles and an artificial silhouette, with the restrictiveness of women's clothing reaching its low point during the mid-century passion for narrow corseted waists and hoop skirts. The iconic wide-brimmed women's hats of the later Victorian era also followed the trend towards ostentatious display. Hats began the Victorian era as simple bonnets. By the 1880s, milliners were tested by the competition among women to top their outfits with the most creative (and extravagant) hats, designed with expensive materials such as silk flowers and exotic plumes such as ostrich and peacock. As the Victorian era drew to a close, however, fashions were showing indications of a popular backlash against excessive styles. Model, actress and socialite Lillie Langtry took London by storm in the 1870s, attracting notice for wearing simple black dresses to social events. Combined with her natural beauty, the style appeared dramatic. Fashions followed her example (as well as Queen Victoria's wearing of mourning black later in her reign). According to Harold Koda, the former Curator-in-chief of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, "The predominantly black palette of mourning dramatizes the evolution of period silhouettes and the increasing absorption of fashion ideals into this most codified of etiquettes," said Koda, "The veiled widow could elicit sympathy as well as predatory male advances. As a woman of sexual experience without marital constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order."
Evolution of Victorian women's fashion
Mrs. Lillie Langtry by George Frederic Watts (1880).
Fashionable women in Queensland, Australia around 1900.
Women subjects of the British Empire
Queen Victoria reigned as the monarch of Britain's colonies and as Empress of India. The influence of British imperialism and British culture was powerful throughout the Victorian era. Women's roles in the colonial countries were determined by the expectations associated with loyalty to the Crown and the cultural standards that it symbolised.
The upper classes of Canada were almost without exception of British origin during the Victorian era. At the beginning of the Victorian era, British North America included several separate colonies that joined together as a Confederation in 1867 to create Canada. Military and government officials and their families came to British North America from England or Scotland, and less often were of Protestant Irish origin. Most business interests were controlled by Canadians who were of British stock. English-speaking minorities who immigrated to Canada struggled for economic and government influence, including large numbers of Roman Catholic Irish and later Ukrainians, Poles, and other European immigrants. French-Canadians remained largely culturally isolated from English-speaking Canadians (a situation later described in Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan). Visible minority groups, such as indigenous First Nations and Chinese labourers, were marginalised and suffered profound discrimination. Women's status was thus heavily dependent upon their ethnic identity as well as their place within the dominant British class structure.
English-speaking Canadian writers became popular, especially Catharine Parr Traill and her sister Susanna Moodie, middle-class English settlers who published memoirs of their demanding lives as pioneers. Traill published The Backwoods of Canada (1836) and Canadian Crusoes (1852), and Moodie published Roughing it in the Bush (1852) and Life in the Clearings (1853). Their memoirs recount the harshness of life as women settlers, but were nonetheless popular.
Upper-class Canadian women emulated British culture and imported as much of it as possible across the Atlantic. Books, magazines, popular music, and theatre productions were all imported to meet women's consumer demand.
Upper-class women supported philanthropic causes similar to the educational and nursing charities championed by upper-class women in England. The Victorian Order of Nurses, still in existence, was founded in 1897 as a gift to Queen Victoria to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee. The Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, founded in 1900, supports educational bursaries and book awards to promote Canadian patriotism, but also to support knowledge of the British Empire. Both organisations had Queen Victoria as their official patron. One of the patrons of Halifax's Victoria School of Art and Design (founded in 1887 and later named the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) was Anna Leonowens. Women began making headway in their struggle to gain access to higher education: in 1875, the first woman university graduate in Canada was Grace Annie Lockhart (Mount Allison University). In 1880, Emily Stowe became the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Canada.
Women's legal rights made slow progress throughout the 19th century. In 1859, Upper Canada passed a law allowing married women to own property. In 1885, Alberta passed a law allowing unmarried women who owned property gained the right to vote and hold office in school matters.
Women's suffrage would not be achieved until the World War I period. Suffrage activism began during the later decades of the Victorian era. In 1883, the Toronto Women's Literary and Social Progress Club met and established the Canadian Women's Suffrage Association.
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