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WOMEN'S STATUS IN MID 19TH-CENTURY ENGLAND

A BRIEF OVERVIEW

by Helena Wojtczak


It takes a considerable leap of the imagination for a woman of the 21st century to realise what her life would have been like had she been born 150 years ago. We take for granted nowadays that almost any woman can have a career if she applies herself. We take for granted that women can choose whether or not to marry, and whether or not to have children, and how many.

Women of the mid-19th century had no such choices. Most lived in a state little better than slavery. They had to obey men, because in most cases men held all the resources and women had no independent means of subsistence. A wealthy widow or spinster was a lucky exception. A woman who remained single would attract social disapproval and pity. She could not have children or cohabit with a man: the social penalites were simply too high. Nor could she follow a profession, since they were all closed to women.

Girls received less education than boys, were barred from universities, and could obtain only low-paid jobs. Women's sole purpose was to marry and reproduce. At mid-century women outnumbered men by 360,000 (9.14m and 8.78m) and thirty percent of women over 20 were unmarried. In the colonies men were in the majority, and spinsters were encouraged to emigrate.

Most women had little choice but to marry and upon doing so everything they owned, inherited and earned automatically belonged to their husband. This meant that if an offence or felony was committed against her, only her husband could prosecute. Furthermore, rights to the woman personally - that is, access to her body - were his. Not only was this assured by law, but the woman herself agreed to it verbally: written into the marriage ceremony was a vow to obey her husband, which every woman had to swear before God as well as earthly witnesses. Not until the late 20th century did women obtain the right to omit that promise from their wedding vows.

In 1890, Florence Fenwick Miller (1854-1935), a midwife turned journalist, described woman's position succinctly:

Under exclusively man-made laws women have been reduced to the most abject condition of legal slavery in which it is possible for human beings to be held...under the arbitrary domination of another's will, and dependent for decent treatment exclusively on the goodness of heart of the individual master. (From a speech to the National Liberal Club)

Every man had the right to force his wife into sex and childbirth. He could take her children without reason and send them to be raised elsewhere. He could spend his wife's inheritance on a mistress or on prostitutes. Sometime, somewhere, all these things - and a great many more - happened. To give but one example, Susannah Palmer escaped from her adulterous husband in 1869 after suffering many years of brutal beatings, and made a new life. She worked, saved, and created a new home for her children. Her husband found her, stripped her of all her possessions and left her destitute, with the blessing of the law. In a fury she stabbed him, and was immediately prosecuted.

If a woman was unhappy with her situation there was, almost without exception, nothing she could do about it. Except in extremely rare cases, a woman could not obtain a divorce and, until 1891, if she ran away from an intolerable marriage the police could capture and return her, and her husband could imprison her. All this was sanctioned by church, law, custom, history, and approved of by society in general. Nor was it the result of ancient, outdated laws: the new (1857) divorce act restated the moral inequality. Mere adultery was not grounds for a woman to divorce a man; however, it was sufficient grounds for a man to divorce his wife.

Signs of rebellion were swiftly crushed by fathers, husbands, even brothers. Judge William Blackstone had announced that husbands could administer "moderate correction" to disobedient wives, and there were other means: as late as 1895, Edith Lanchester's father had her kidnapped and committed to a lunatic asylum for cohabiting with a man.

As a Marxist and feminist, she was morally and politically opposed to marriage.

Among the rich, family wealth automatically passed down the male line; if a daughter got anything it was a small percentage. Only if she had no brothers, came from a very wealthy family, and remained unmarried, could a woman become independent. A very wealthy woman might make a premarital agreement for her wealth to be held in a trust fund, but in the majority of cases marriage stripped a woman of all her assets and handed them to her husband.

Fitting in rather uncomfortably, even hypocritically, with this state of affairs was the concept of woman as a goddess placed on a pedestal and worshipped. This contradiction has been described admirably by R.J. Cruikshank.

"The Victorians, who tackled many big problems successfully, made a fearful hash of the problem of woman. Their moral dualism, their besetting weakness of dreaming of one thing and doing another, might be amusing in architecture or painting, but it involved endless cruelty towards flesh and blood. Woman in the abstract was as radiant as an angel, as dainty as a fairy - she was a picture on the wall, a statue in a temple, a being whose physical processes were an inscrutable mystery. She was wrapped by the Victorians in folds on folds, and layers on layers of clothes, as though she were a Hindu idol. She was hidden in the mysteries of petticoats; her natural lines were hidden behind a barricade of hoops and stays; her dress throughout the century emphasised her divorce from reality. She was a daughter of the gods divinely fair and most divinely tall; she was queen rose of the rose-bud garden of girls; she was Helen, Beatrice, the Blessed Damozel, the Lady of Shalott. A romanticism as feverish as that could only bring unhappiness to its objects."

From reading Victorian novels and watching television costume dramas it is easy to forget that the vast majority of women were working class. Born without a penny, they began work between the ages of about 8 to 12 and continued until marriage. A woman's fate thereafter depended on her husband. If he earned enough to support her she would usually cease work, otherwise she worked all her life, taking short breaks to give birth. Anything she earned belonged to him.

Barred from all well-paid work women were forced into a very small range of occupations. Half were in domestic service and most of the rest were unskilled factory hands or agricultural labourers. Almost the only skilled work for women was in the bespoke clothing trade, but even that was ill-paid and low-status. Seamstresses became a cause célèbre in the 1840s.

Prostitution was rife in Victorian England, the majority being "casual", resorted to only when there was no alternative. Without the safety-net of a welfare system and with all wealth in the hands of men, it was to individual men that women were forced to turn and to sell themselves when desperate for subsistence.

Women's clothing symbolised their constricted lives. Tight lacing into corsets and cumbersome multiple layers of skirts which dragged on the ground impeded women's freedom of movement. Between 1856 and 1878, among the wealthy, the cage crinoline was popular as it replaced the many layers of petticoats, but it was cumbersome and humiliating. Sitting down, the cage rode up embarrassingly at the front. The skirts were so wide that many women died engulfed in flames after the material caught fire from an open grate or candle.

In 1851 Elizabeth Miller designed a rational costume in the U.S. which was publicized by Amelia Bloomer. It consisted of a jacket and knee-length skirt worn over Turkish-style trousers. It was regarded as immodest and unfeminine and was greeted with horror and disdain, despite its obvious utility. A presentation was given in Hastings, with the speaker Miss Atkins dressed in one of the "Bloomer" outfits.

Women were indoctrinated from birth to accept their lowly status and yet many did rebel, and some analysed, criticised, and published books on women's situation. An excellent review of these can be found in Dale Spender's Women of Ideas (Pandora 1982).

During the early to mid-nineteenth century the social order was being challenged and a new philosophy was emerging, imbued with ideals of liberty, personal freedom, and legal reform. Black slavery was being criticised and challenged, and was abolished, and working class men demanded that the right to vote be given to them and not just to a few thousand landed gentry. It was in this climate that women like Barbara Leigh Smith began to think that women, too, deserved to be emancipated from their enslaved status.


Illustrations
Top -  A typical woman of 1857
Second -  1850s costume
Third - Bride and bridesmaid c.1850
Bottom -  Ladies needed servants' help to wear a crinoline
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