Lately there has been a recent widespread awareness and resurgence concerning feminism, “the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” (thank you, Emma Watson). In order to truly comprehend the positive affects that feminism has produced for contemporary men and women, and to see how far we’ve come in terms of woman’s autonomy, it’s imperative to look back on the standards imposed on women throughout history. During the Victorian period of 1837-1901, the standards for women were primarily related to domesticity. In this post, I’d like to briefly explore and (harshly and biasedly) critique the standards for middle-class Victorian women as I interpret them from my research on the subject and from an excerpt of a text that was produced during the Victorian period.
The essential function of the middle-class Victorian woman was managing the household, nurturing and instructing her children, and serving the needs of her husband. The picture this list evokes is one not too unfamiliar for us because these duties are akin to that of many modern day women who have families. Based on this description, the illustration of the Victorian woman simply sounds like a loving homemaker who selflessly tends to her family. However, the idea of this function was a bit more extreme than it appears. During the Victorian period, this train of thought was actually a dominant value system termed the “Cult of Domesticity” or “Cult of True Womanhood.” According to the system, femininity and “true” womanhood strictly resided in four virtues:
1) Domesticity – A woman’s original habitat was the home—and the kitchen. Apart from taking care of the kids and the husband and making sandwiches, women were expected to undertake “feminine” activities such as sewing, cookery, making neat little beds, and gardening.
2) Submission – Because men are superior to women by divine appointment, a woman could assert her true womanhood by being submissive to men. Take that!
3) Purity – Unfortunately for Madonna, “like a virgin,” would not cut it in Victorian times. A woman was expected to retain her virginity until her wedding night.
4) Piety – Religious beliefs were convenient because a woman could practice them in her original habitat and, according to the man’s interpretation, they encouraged the two values of submission and purity.
(As for physical attributes, “true” women were
small, fragile, and weak—constricting corsets
were a big hit for achieving this beauty standard.)
In addition to the term “true” woman, Victorian women who embodied these values were often referred to as an “angel in the house,” a phrase extracted from a popular Victorian poem by English poet Coventry Patmore.
In Patmore’s narrative poem, The Angel in the House, which was first published in 1854 and developed until 1862, Patmore describes his idea of the ideal marriage based on his relationship with his first wife whom he considered to be the “perfect woman.” Book I, Canto IX, begins with the prelude titled “The Wife’s Tragedy,” which reads as follows:
1 Man must be pleased; but him to please
2 Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
3 Of his condoled necessities
4 She casts her best, she flings herself.
5 How often flings for nought, and yokes
6 Her heart to an icicle or whim,
7 Whose each impatient word provokes
9 While she, too gentle even to force
10 His penitence by kind replies,
11 Waits by, expecting his remorse,
12 With pardon in her pitying eyes;
13 And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
14 A comfortable word confers,
15 She leans and weeps against his breast,
16 And seems to think the sin was hers;
17 And whilst his love has any life,
18 Or any eye to see her charms,
19 At any time, she’s still his wife,
20 Dearly devoted to his arms;
21 She loves with love that cannot tire;
22 And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
23 Through passionate duty love springs higher,
24 As grass grows taller round a stone.
This section of Patmore’s poem reveals the alarmingly submissive role that Victorian women played for their husbands, a role that the standard Victorian man and woman idealized. The first two lines of this poem states that woman’s happiness resides in her supplementation of her husband’s happiness. “Man must be pleased,” and it is the “woman’s pleasure” to please him. Since man’s happiness is presented as a circular cause and consequence of woman’s happiness, this statement begs the question of how a woman could find happiness without a man to please; the answer implies that the Victorian woman is reliant on man for her own pleasure. In lines 9-10, the woman is described as “gentle,” withholding “kind replies” to the man’s “impatient words” because she knows they might make him feel guilty. Instead of speaking, she remains silent and let’s her “pitying,” pardoning eyes do that talking (What they specifically say, I’m unsure. I think it’s probably something along the lines of, “Treat me however you want! If you’re happy, I’m happy!”). Despite the man’s impatience, the woman waits, expecting “remorse”—always expecting the best of her lover (11). When the man expresses shame for his wrongdoing, the woman is so deeply affected that she cries into his breast and feels guilty herself (13-16).
This is the description of the ideal relationship between Victorian men and women written by a Victorian man himself. Evaluating this excerpt from a contemporary perspective, I’d describe the relationship portrayed not as a partnership, but a one-sided relationship where the woman is expected to make sacrifices that are not reciprocated. The focus of the poem is on the ideal Victorian woman, so it specifically elaborates on her continual choices to ease the pain of the man, but it never mentions the man having to do anything to receive such precious treatment. The man’s worth is portrayed as innate—he did not do anything to receive such treatment other than be born a man, which is the only thing we know about him from this excerpt. His worth is inherently recognized and supported by the woman, while the woman only seems to extract her worth from him and his pleasure. In this work, Patmore implicitly expresses the ingrained belief contemporary to the Victorian period that the ultimate purpose of women is to serve men, selflessly, and expecting nothing in return. I think it’s important to note that these standards were not solely imposed on women by men; most Victorian women imposed these standards on themselves (which is depicted in the woman’s submission in the poem). With the help of men and women who actually supported women’s rights and challenged the standards society subjected them to, the standards for women eventually began to change and they are continuing to progress today.
I hope I have provided a solid idea of the general standards that women were held to during the Victorian period. Contrasted with the beliefs, interactions, and opportunities of today, we have excelled measures in terms of equality and the establishment that women are of worth regardless of a man’s validation. With contemporary relationships between men and women being viewed as partnerships rather than domination-ships (like they were in the Victorian period), both men and women can experience an honest connection rather than one that’s strained as a result of the pressure to be a “true” woman.
Boydston, Jeanne. PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. <http://www.pbs.org/stantonanthony/resources/index.html?body=culthood.html>.
Patmore, Coventry. "The Wife's Tragedy." The Angel in the House Book I.--The Betrothal. Book II.--The Espousals. London: J.W. Parker and Son, 1858. N. pag. Print.
Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860." American Quarterly. N.p.: John Hopkins UP, 1966. 152-74. Print.