Changes and Social Attitudes to Women’s Roles in the Victorian
Victorian era was a period filled with changes which was to be expected considering that it succeeded the enlightenment period. The enlightenment period presented an opening for free thinkers to emerge and individuality to surface. Which thus provided a platform for women who wanted to break free from the conventional role they were expected to fulfil. The conventional role one that we, as readers, are all too familiar with, the maternal passive female, who places her husband’s needs before her own. This presentation of women is evident in many literary texts throughout time, however within the Victorian era many rebellious and unconventional women began to surface. Some of these fictional characters making big waves through society and causing women to follow suit.
Rebellious protagonists resulting in rebellious women?
Fictional protagonists could be said to have inspired women to be stronger and even stand up to be heard. Though it is clear that these protagonists were purely fiction, these heroine protagonists effectively had an effect on women in society. Resulting in great disputes and people discussing the outcomes of these protagonists, which caused many to question what a woman’s place in society really was. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), is just one of the many texts that convey this rebellious character, who goes as far as abandoning her husband and children. This alone would have caused the contemporary audience to be greatly shocked at her actions as that alone would be a reason to send her to an asylum. As a woman was not expected to be able to walk away from her children, or her husband, this would have been seen as an act of madness. As a woman's identity was based on motherhood, to be caring and the nurturer for the family rather than following her own desires. The iconic slamming of the door, is one that caused a great outrage forcing Ibsen to create an alternate ending. This only presents how a woman’s identity and her role was one that was of great concern to the society. Many women in the late 1800’s began to rebel against the conventional expectations of a woman, and began to present characteristics of the ‘New Woman’.
The New Woman.
It was the New Woman that fuelled the fire of female emancipation from the restrictions placed upon them by society. The Victorian fin de siècle was the height of change, during this period the image of the New Woman had emerged. Many texts began to convey the taboo subject of female sexual desires, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) presents a couple – Jude and Sue, who cohabit and evidently have sex out of marriage. The stigma against a woman who spoke of female emancipation, or even a woman who did not fulfil the conventions expected of her was still evident within society. It is clear that image was a very big part of the Victorian era, and that social norms were to be followed and respected or you would essentially shut out from the community.
However, not all men were against women’s rights or the equality of the sexes and not all women were for the cause. Beatrice Webb, for instance signed the Ladies’ Appeal against the Women’s Suffrage. It was her husband Sidney Webb, who was a strong supporter and ‘always claimed the credit for making Beatrice change her mind’ (Caine, 168). Only conveying that not all women embraced the concept of the New Woman. This could perhaps be due to women being raised with concepts on what is expected and what is morally right as a woman.
Good girls make great wives.
Women were raised to be great wives, from a young age taught how to take care of a household. Many texts for young girls showing how a young girl should behave and what she should essentially know. Parents usually bought texts such as Maria Edgeworth’s well known short story “The Purple Jar”(1918) as it had a set moral, a lesson the child would learn from. “The Purple Jar” in particular was a text that conveyed to young girls how careful they have to be when they essentially govern a household of their own. As the narrative is from a young girl, Rosamund, making it easier for the young girl to relate to the short story. In the text Edgeworth presents a direct consequence of Rosamund’s actions by not examining the content of the jar with great detail and essentially making the wrong decision. It is apparent that Rosamund learns her lesson, one that will help her and many young girls in the future with taking care of a household.
Women as property.
By Charles Green. (1891)
Women were often viewed as possessions, first a possession to the father and then passed along to a husband who was then in charge of you as his wife. Using Ibsen’s, A Doll’s House as an example Torvald, Nora’s husband, ‘No one would believe how much it costs a man to keep such a little bird as you.’ (Act 1, page 6). The comparison between Nora and a bird only conveying this notion of Nora stuck in a cage, restricted by the social expectations and her husband’s restrains. Ibsen also presents the use of demeaning language through the nicknames Torvald has for Nora, ‘little bird’ which was also very common through literature.
To conclude, it is evident that throughout the Victorian Era many women struggled with their identities and restrictions placed upon them from a very young age. Evident from the types of literature read to young girls, texts that teach them lessons that will aid further in household management. Furthermore, women were constantly being reminded of their place in society, the print of texts like Isabella Beeton’s The Book on Household Management(1861). Beeton’s book full on how to successfully manage your household, just from the first page it is evident that Beeton perceived the management of a household to be of great importance. As she compares a mistress’s management of her household to a commander with his army. However, it is still clear that the expectation from society was for a woman to be an obedient daughter and then a great wife for her husband. On the other hand, it is evident that a woman’s role was constantly changing within the era thus resulting in the New Woman image that many adopted.
Figure 1: <http://www.victoriana.com/history/images/women-2.jpg>
Firgure 2: Charles Dana Gibson. "Their First Quarrel". 1914. <https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f9/Their_First_Quarrel,_Gibson.jpg>
Figure 3: Charles Green. "Among Those Who Danced Most Continually Were the Two Engaged Couples" (1891)
Work Cited/ Used.
Beeton, Isabella. The Book of Household Management. Ex-classic projects. 2009. Web. 8th March 2016.
Buzwell, Greg. “Daughters of decadence: the New Woman in the Victorian fin de siècle”. British Library. Web. 10 March 2016.
Caine, Barbara. Destined to be wives The Sisters of Beatrice Webb. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1989. Print.
Edgeworth, Maria. Rosamond: A Series of Tales. “The Purple Jar”. London: George Routledge and Sons Ltd. 1918.
Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. The Project Guttenburg. August 1994. Web.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Trans William Archer. Web. 6 March 2016.
Parker, Julia. Women and Welfare: ten Victorian women in public social service. London: The Macmillan Press LTD. 1989. Print.
Picard, Liza. “The Victorian middle classes”. British Library. Web. 10 March 2016. <http://www.bl.uk/victorian-britain/articles/the-victorian-middle-classes>
Rowbotham, Judith. Good girls make good wives: Guidance for girls in Victorian fiction. London: Blackwell publishing. 1989. Print.
Vicinus, Martha. A Widening Sphere: Changing roles of Victorian women. USA: Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1980. Print.