THE WOMEN'S EMANCIPATION MOVEMENT 1830-1930


WHAT WAS THE POSITION OF WOMEN IN 1850?
by David Taylor

'Mastering Economic and Social History', Macmillan 1988.


In Mid-Victorian society beliefs about the role of women were firmly fixed. A woman was considered to be very much inferior to the male and was looked upon as his 'property'. The husband was the head of the household and had the final word.

(a) In a middle-class household the wife was seen as a child-bearer and was allowed to have no career. She spent her day in genteel pursuits, for example, embroidery and knitting - household chores would be done by servants. Furthermore she had hardly any legal rights. Any property or money she had owned when single, automatically became the possession of her husband on marriage. In law the children of the family were also the property of the husband. Middle-class girls received a basic education, usually given at home by a 'governess'. The governess was untrained and taught the 3Rs (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) with some History and a foreign language. Being a governess was one of the few 'jobs' to which a middle-class girl could aspire. A governess, however, would com-mand a very meagre salary: anything above 30 a year would have been respectable and even then this was about half the amount which could be earned in a cotton mill.

(b) Life in a working-class family was desperately hard for the wife. She was expected to bear children, bring them up and go out to work. Families of seven or eight were commonplace. The working-class wife also had to endure the same lack of rights as her middle-class counterpart. The working-class female would be most likely to enter domestic service, work as a factory-operative, or be an agricultural labourer.

(c) Finally, women were unable to enter the professions (for example, medicine or law) at this time and they were excluded from public life and voting in any form of election. The role of the Victorian woman was neatly summed up by the Saturday Review which claimed that 'married life is a woman's profession'.

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