Queen Victoria

Victorian Era

Victorian literature
Victorian architecture

Victorian decorative arts

Victorian Posters
Victorian fashion

Victorian morality
Women in the Victorian era
Victorian Era

Queen Victoria, c. 1890
Victorian morality
Victorian morality is a distillation of the moral views of people living at the time of Queen Victoria's reign (1837–1901) and of the moral climate of the United Kingdom of the 19th century in general, which contrasted greatly with the morality of the previous Georgian period. Many of these values spread throughout the British Empire. Today, the term "Victorian morality" can describe any set of values that espouse sexual restraint, low tolerance of crime and a strict social code of conduct.

The term "Victorian" was first used during the Great Exhibition in London (1851), where Victorian inventions and morals were shown to the world. Victorian values were developed in all facets of Victorian living. The morality and values of the period can be classed to Religion, Morality, Elitism, Industrialism and Improvement. These values take root in Victorian morality, creating an overall change in the British Empire.

Historians now regard the Victorian era as a time of many contradictions, such as the widespread cultivation of an outward appearance of dignity and restraint together with the prevalence of social phenomena such as prostitution and child labour. A plethora of social movements arose from attempts to improve the prevailing harsh living conditions for many under a rigid class system.

Historical background

The term Victorianum has acquired a range of connotations, including that of a particularly strict set of moral standards, often hypocritically applied. This stems from the image of Queen Victoria—and her husband, Prince Albert.

Two hundred years earlier the Puritan movement, which led to the installment of Oliver Cromwell, had temporarily overthrown the British monarchy. Cromwell imposed a strict moral code on the people (such as abolishing Christmas as too indulgent of the sensual pleasures).

When the monarchy was restored, a period of loose living and debauchery inspired too by the rise of French court cultural influence all over Europe, appeared to be a reaction to the earlier religious based forms of repression. (See: Charles II of England) The two social forces of Puritanism and libertinism continued to motivate the collective psyche of Great Britain from the Restoration onward. This was particularly significant in the public perceptions of the later Hanoverian monarchs who immediately preceded Queen Victoria. For instance, her uncle George IV was commonly perceived as a pleasure-seeking playboy, whose conduct in office was the cause of much scandal.

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Prince Consort


Victorian prudery sometimes went so far as to deem it improper to say "leg" in formal company; instead, the preferred euphemism “limb” was used. Those going for a swim in the sea at the beach would use a bathing machine. However, historians Peter Gay and Michael Mason both point out that modern society often confuses Victorian etiquette for a lack of knowledge. For example, despite the use of the bathing machine, it was still possible to see people bathing nude. Another example of the gap between common preconceptions of Victorian sexuality and historical record is that, contrary to what might be expected, Queen Victoria liked to draw and collect male nude figure drawings and even gave one to her husband as a present. Typical middle-class brides likely knew nothing about sex and learned about their husbands' expectations for it on their wedding night; the experience was often traumatic. Contrary to popular conception, however, Victorian society recognized that both men and women enjoyed copulation.

Verbal or written communication of emotion or sexual feelings was also often proscribed so people instead used the language of flowers. However they also wrote explicit erotica, perhaps the most famous being the racy tell-all My Secret Life by the pseudonym Walter (allegedly Henry Spencer Ashbee), and the magazine The Pearl, which was published for several years and reprinted as a paperback book in the 1960s. Victorian erotica also survives in private letters archived in museums and even in a study of women's orgasms. Some current historians now believe that the myth of Victorian repression can be traced back to early twentieth-century views, such as those of Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, who wrote Eminent Victorians.

Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, only four years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. The anti-slavery movement had campaigned for years to achieve the ban, succeeding with a partial abolition in 1807 and the full ban on slave trade, but not slave ownership, in 1833. It took so long because the anti-slavery morality was pitted against powerful economic interests which claimed their businesses would be destroyed if they were not permitted to exploit slave labor. Eventually, plantation owners in the Caribbean received £20 million in compensation.

In Victoria's time, the Royal Navy patrolled the Atlantic Ocean, stopping any ships that it suspected of trading African slaves to the Americas and freeing any slaves found. The British had set up a Crown Colony in West Africa—Sierra Leone—and transported freed slaves there. Freed slaves from Nova Scotia founded and named the capital of Sierra Leone "Freetown". Many people living at that time argued that the living conditions of workers in English factories seemed worse than those endured by some slaves.

Throughout the Victorian Era, homosexuality held a vexed position in the culture. Homosexual acts were a capital offence until 1861. Michel Foucault has argued that homosexual and heterosexual identities didn't emerge until the 19th century; before that time terms described practices and not identity. Foucault cites "Westphal's famous article of 1870 on 'contrary sexual sensations'" as the "date of birth" of the categorization of the homosexual (Foucault 1976). The first known use of homosexual in English is not until Charles Gilbert Chaddock's 1895 translation of Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, a study on sexual practices.

In the same way, throughout the Victorian Era, movements for justice, freedom, and other strong moral values opposed greed, exploitation, and cynicism. The writings of Charles Dickens, in particular, observed and recorded these conditions. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels carried out much of their analysis of capitalism in and as a reaction to Victorian Britain.

Religious morality
Religious morality changed drastically during the Victorian Era. When Victoria took the throne the Anglican Church was very powerful—running schools and universities, and with high ranking churchmen holding offices in the House of Lords. The Church's power continued to rule in rural areas throughout the Victorian Era; however that was not the case in industrialized cities. In the cities those against the Church were many and dissent was rampant. However, dissent has been running its pressure since the onset of Puritanism in politics even before the Oliver Cromwell days. The dissenting sects were against what the Anglican church was using its power for. The Church demanded obedience to God, submissiveness and resignation with the goal of making people more malleable to the will of the Church. The Church aimed to appease the will of the elite and cared little if at all about the needs and wants of the lower, peasant class. Thus emerged Methodism, Congregationalism, The Society of Friends (Quakers) and Presbyterianism. The Methodists and Presbyterians in particular stressed personal salvation through direct individual faith in Jesus Christ's sacrificial death and resurrection on the behalf of sinners, as taught in the New Testament Gospels and the writings of the Apostles Peter, James and Paul. This stress on individualism is seen throughout the Victorian Era and becomes even more developed in Middle Class life.

The "Crisis of Faith" would hit religion and the citizens' faith like a brick. The Crisis of Faith was brought about in 1859 with Charles Darwin's work On the Origin of Species; his theory was (in the basic form) that the Natural World had become what it was through gradual change over eons. He stated that natural selection and survival of the fittest were the reasons man had survived so long. His theory of evolution based on empirical evidence would call into question Christian beliefs and Victorian values. People whose lives became totally uprooted felt the need to find a new system on which to base their values and morality. Unable to completely lose faith, they combined both their religious beliefs with individual duty—duty to one's God, fellow man, social class, neighbour, the poor and the ill.

The elite and middle class values
At the start of the Victorian era, the elite was in total control of society and its politics. The elite was made up of about 300 families which were firmly established as the traditional ruling class. However, new values, such as individualism, were developing throughout the Victorian era. For example, the idea of the self-made man became a dominant aspiration in the middle class. Similar to the American Dream, the idea is that, if they work hard enough, all men can become wealthy.

Upper class values
The upper class (the elite) valued history, heritage, lineage and the continuity of their family line. They believed that they were born to rule through divine right and they wanted this right to continue. They had a paternalistic view of society, seeing themselves as the father in the family of society. Noblesse oblige was their belief that it was the elite's duty to take care of society. The elite hoped to continue tradition and the status quo, through institutions such as the law of primogeniture (first-born son inherits everything). The elite intended to stay on top and wealthy. However, when a financial crisis threatened their position, they adapted and opened up their ranks to the wealthiest of the middle class, allowing them to buy a place within the ranks of the elite. The elite were landed gentry and so they did not have to work, and instead enjoyed a life of luxury and leisure. While the elite maintained their traditional values, Victorian values and attitudes changed and the elite began to recognize and promote the middle class.

Women in the Victorian era
The status of women in the Victorian era is 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 suffrage rights, the right to sue, or the right to 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 female 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 where the husband would represent this entity, 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 labour. 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 hardships and disadvantages they had to live with. Victorian women had disadvantages both financially and sexually, enduring inequalities within their marriages and social statuses, distinct differences in men and women’s rights took place during this Era. Providing men with more stability, financial status and power over their homes and women. Marriages for Victorian women became contracts, one which was 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 to change rights and privileges, however, many Victorian women endured their husbands control, cruelty targeted against their wives; including sexual violence, verbal abuse and economic deprivation  and were given 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 their divorce was considered to be a social taboo.

"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. Women seen as falling short of society's expectations were believed to be deserving of harsh criticism.

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 her breast [...]

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.

The poem became such a touchstone of British culture that in a lecture to the Women's Service League in 1942, Virginia Woolf said "killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer":

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.


"The Household General"
'The Household General' is a term coined in 1861 by Isabella Beeton in her 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 organise, 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 trades 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" was the expression referring to the employer providing a domestic employee with meals and a work uniform). The sheer number of Victorian servants and their expected duties makes it clear why expertise in logistical matters would benefit the mistress of the house.

"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. 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 four to ten times higher than rents in the fine streets and squares of West End 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 during the Victorian era. Coal-dust from stoves (and factories) was the bane of the Victorian woman's housekeeping existence. It coated windows (carried by wind and fog), clothing, and furniture and rugs inside the home. 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.

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.[19] 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

Camels were imported to Australia during the Victorian era; even then, women were expected to ride sidesaddle (Queensland, 1880).

Sexuality and birth control
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.; husbands participated in lengthy affairs with other women while women stayed with their husbands on the grounds that divorce was not an option. If women did have sexual contact with another man, they were 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 such as Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, Madame Bovary by Flaubert, while in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy depicts a heroine punished by her community for losing her virginity before marriage (the novel is deliberately ambiguous as to whether the encounter was consensual or a rape). 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 something that was not discussed openly and honestly, public discussion of sexual encounters and matters were met with ignorance, embarrassment and fear. A 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 within the Victorian Era were “factually uninformed and emotionally frigid about sexual matters”. To discourage pre-marital sexual relations the New Poor Law argued 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 like men had the luxury of, the consequences that were associated with sexual interactions for women took away the physical desires that women could possess.

The Outcast by Richard Redgrave (1851). A patriarch forces his daughter and her illegitimate baby out of the family's home. Victorian women had few legal rights to protect them, including child support or secure employment.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853), shows the moment when a "fallen" woman, living with a man out of wedlock, suddenly sees the error of her ways and resolves to redeem her virtue.

"Past and Present, No. 1" by Augustus Egg (1858) contains symbols attesting to a wife's adultery, and her husband's discovery of her betrayal.

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".[29]

Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts, c.1850, depicts a woman's body washed up beneath the arch of Waterloo Bridge, drowned after throwing herself in the river to escape the shame of being a "fallen woman"

Contagious Diseases Prevention Acts

The situation of women perceived as unclean was worsened through the 'First Contagious Diseases Prevention Act' 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. The exams were inexpertly performed by male police, women could be suspected based on little to no evidence, and the exams were painful and humiliating. After two extensions of the law in 1866 and 1869 the unjust acts were finally repealed in 1886. Josephine Butler was a women's rights crusader who fought to repeal the Acts.


Women were not freely offered the opportunity to study subjects of an extended, classical, and commercial nature. This made it difficult for a woman to break free from the societal constraints to achieve independent economical status. Education was specialised by gender. Women were provided with the opportunity to study refined subjects such as history, geography and general literature which would provide them with interesting but noncontroversial topics for discussion. Despite the restrictions and stigmatisation, some women did excel in "male" subjects such as law, physics, engineering, science and art. These women pioneered the path for the much improved gender equality in modern education in the UK. Women were rarely given the opportunity to attend university. It was even said that studying was against their nature and could make them ill. They were to stay more or less an "ornament of society."


Women in the workforce
Working-class employment

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.

Middle-class employment
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.[39] 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.

Women's leisure activities
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.

Physical activity
In the early part of the nineteenth century, it was believed that physical activity was dangerous and inappropriate for girls. 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."

Croquet by James Tissot. Croquet was a popular lawn game in Britain beginning in the 1860s.

Pot Pourri by Herbert James Draper (1895). A traditional pastime was making pot pourri by dipping dried flowers in perfumed water.

The Fair Toxophilites by William Powell Frith (1872). Archery, or toxophily, became a popular leisure activity for upper class women in Britain.

On the Shores of Bognor Regis by Alexander Rossi (artist). Seaside picnics near resort villages in England became accessible to the middle classes later in the Victorian era.

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, Curator of the MET 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

Princess Victoria and Dash by George Hayter (1833). Victoria before she became Queen, in an Empire silhouette gown.

Ladies' December Fashions (1844).
Hand-coloured steel engraving from a women's magazine.

The Gallery of HMS Calcutta by James Tissot (1876). Bustles were fashionable in the 1870s and 1880s.

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 Britains 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 (novel) 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 women were pioneers in the early Victorian years. Canada's best-known English authors of the pre-Confederation era were perhaps 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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