1 Feminism during the Victorian Era Makenna Brandt English II May 13, 2014 2 The genesis of the concept of feminism arguably arose during the Industrial Revolution, specifically during the Victorian era: a time when women’s roles dramatically shifted and evolved to mold the perceptions and ideals of society. As women were pushed aside in order to make room for “the increasing ideal of male success and industrialization”1 groups of well-educated women began to speak against the political and economic inferiority of women in society. These women raised their voices to be heard through a number of mediums, including writing, such as that seen in the Victorian novel. To what extent did women’s roles change during the Industrial Revolution, and how did these changes stimulate early ideas of feminism in society and literature? The Industrial Revolution brought about a shift for women from the labor force to the domestic sphere. This shift stimulated women to advocate for their individuality and emancipation politically, socially, and economically. Victorian literature provided a significant opportunity for women to voice their ideas and protests. Throughout the Industrial Revolution, especially during the Victorian era, women’s concentration shifted from the work force to the domestic sphere. The division between men and women grew, based on the separation of women into a domain that could easily be controlled: the home.2 Women were perceived as idle and not suited to the demanding requirements of the workforce, but once they were pushed out, they were reprimanded for their lack of contribution and productivity. This sense of idleness Tuchman, Gaye, and Nina Fortin. “Edging Women Out: Some Suggestions about the Structure of Opportunities and the Victorian Novel.” Signs 6, no.2 (Winter, 1980): 308325. 2 Rendall, Jane. The Origins of Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France and the United States, 17801860. New York: Schocken Books, 1984, 3. 1 3 established a societal association of women with poverty, although society failed to understand that it was the public’s actions which forced women out of the labor force in the first place.3 Men were instructed to earn money for the family, while women stayed home in order to complete domestic tasks. Victorian gender ideology claimed that women were simply meant to be wives and mothers, nothing more, which was justified by the idea of God’s will, something that, during the Victorian era, was absolute.4 According to the law, women had as much worth as a domestic slave; they were considered property of any prominent male figures in their lives, such as husbands, brothers, or fathers. Furthermore, they had no legal custody of their children, property, or finances.5 In an economic view, there was a “separation of public and domestic spheres, which effectively assigned women to nonproductive roles… a cornerstone of liberal economic theory of the nineteenth century.”6 Since women were occupied with caring for young children, they did not have the ability to earn an income, and if they did, the income was too small to support a family alone. In total, women’s roles no longer constituted income or wage, but rather encompassed domestic tasks, which confined women to the home. For the women who managed to maintain their position in the labor force, their roles were significantly limited. Perceived as not suited to the demanding requirements of the workforce, women possessed minimal positions, and their wages even more so.7 3 Valenze, Deborah. The First Industrial Woman. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1995, 130. 4 YILDIRIM, Askin Haluk.”The Woman Question and the Victorian Literature on Gender.”Ekev Academic Review 16, no. 52.(June 2012). 5 Ibid. 6 Valenze, Deborah. The First Industrial Woman, 130. 7 Ibid, 115. 4 Wages were set differently for men and women such that women’s wages were established as low as the “labor pool” would allow.8 Similarly, employer records disfigured the numbers of female workers and their productivity in order to omit certain payment requirements. These imbalanced positions in the workforce hinged on the fact that an industrious nation now discarded the idea of female productivity.9 Occupational fields that were not socially valued heavily consisted of minorities such as women. Unfortunately, women tended to make the prestige of the field grow, in which case men would edge these minorities out.10 On the other hand, legislation restricted women from many seemingly “low-brow” jobs disguised by concern for their physical and moral well-being.11 Therefore, only a minute fraction of the total labor force was actually accessible to women, confined by discriminatory legislation and male superiority. The overarching perception of women in society was altered during the Victorian era. Education was used solely as a tool to prepare young girls for maternal roles, or, at best, to be future governesses.12 Women were excluded from the independent intellectual evolution.13 The position of women in society was largely unimportant in comparison to the behavior and appearance of women, such that “the question of what to do about laboring women, excluded from... productive activities and repeatedly thrust into poverty , became subsumed under the larger project of creating a civilized female 8 9 Ibid, 115. Ibid, 138. Tuchman, Gaye, and Nina Fortin. “Edging Women Out.” Roberts, M.J.D. “Feminism and the State in late Victorian England.” The Historical Journal 38, no. 1 (March 1995): 85100. 12 Rendall, Jane. The Origins of Modern Feminism, 114. 13 Dutta, Sangeeta. “Charlotte Bronte and the Woman Question.” Economic and Political Weekly 26, no. 40 (October 5, 1991). 10 11 5 sex.”14 A “civilized sex,” unfortunately, created an emphasis on refinement, restraint, and sexual purity. Furthermore, women were at the complete mercy of male figures, who established the Victorian ideology that women were intellectually inferior to men, creating an atmosphere which emphasized the functions of women as they benefited men. In the eyes of the state, women only reached adulthood when their female functions could be viewed as “useful to the other sex.”15 This is evident in acts such as The Infant Life Protection Bill, which placed sole responsibility on women for circumstances that weren’t always in their control, such as abandonment by the father of a child. The perception of women during the Victorian era was mutilated by the importance of social reclusiveness and fragility, sustained by the stratification of the male and female sexes. The dramatically altering position of women in industrialized society fueled early feminist movements. Feminist thinking increased during the early 19th century when women began to take political interest and the public status of women as citizens and individuals started to become a permanent fixture in the Victorian social agenda.16 Identified as “The Woman Question,” a debate arose about the role of women in Victorian society. The idea of the female gender completely without the vote, and subjected to male law-making and enforcing acted as fuel for feminists. Early feminists discussed the equality of women in regards to property rights, higher education, and the elusive vote. 17 14 Historians will use the term “modern feminism” in order to describe how women came Valenze, Deborah. The First Industrial Woman, 140. Roberts, M.J.D. “Feminism and the State.” 16 Ibid. 17 Ibid. 15 6 together so that they could assert their “common interest in women.” Also, besides the already startling anomaly of the feminist movement that formed during the male dominated Industrial Revolution, what seemed to distinguish “the feminist view was that the task should be undertaken by women freely, rationally, with independence, as their contribution to the new and transformed world of the republic.”18 Feminists during the Victorian era advocated the social, economic, and political promotion of women. Initially a small group of educated women were advocating the natural rights of women in regards to political and personal life, but a series of major changes induced by the Industrial Revolution, women gained a louder, more resonating voice. Feminists advocated an idea of gender-conscious individual liberty and the claim of adult women as individual and civic beings. The ideology of feminism at the time consisted of the highest form of citizenship as self-control at one’s own discretion, something that women were consistently denied. On a more detailed level, feminists were against child-prostitution which arose from the extremely low legal age of consent for females and a trend of abduction.19 In regards to the domestic sphere, feminists challenged ideals that belonged solely to male heads of households such as the concept of a male “breadwinner.” Feminists wanted to widen the labor opportunities for women in contrast to the poor labor conditions of females during the nineteenth century.20 The summarizing “hallmarks of feminist theory and practice” during the Victorian era were “the demand for female autonomy and the necessity for association.”21 18 Rendall, Jane. The Origins of Modern Feminism, 34. Roberts, M.J.D. “Feminism and the State.” 20 Rendall, Jane. The Origins of Modern Feminism, 323. 21 Ibid, 324. 19 7 The altercations of feminists stimulated an array of harsh and beneficial reactions. Just as any new ideas that are introduced which contradict societal norms, feminists were met with extreme aversion.22 They were often ridiculed for criticizing legislation and ideals that benefited the male gender. The conflict between men and women “both in domestic and political spheres was perceived as a threat by Victorian men whose supremacy was challenged by women’s emancipation.”23 However, when the voices of feminists were rarely heard, this was seen as a victory, no matter how miniscule the changes that arose. Of course, these promotions did not amount to the total vision that feminists had for the female gender during the Victorian era. Feminists had to continue to strive for the equality they seeked and “if women were to survive the phase of indifference or worse… they would have to shout louder and more often to be heard while working to gain acceptance for their claims to political equality.”24 Literature during the Victorian era was used as a powerful tool to promote feminist ideals. The best known feminist writers emerged during the 19th century, aided by the fact that writing provided a beneficial opportunity to question women’s rights such as divorce, politics, and property rights.25 In the mid-1800s, female novelists were beginning to be accepted as a legitimate profession, thus the female literary community encompassed the questioning of women’s roles and relationships in society that had begun to arise. The novel was considered one of the best suited forms of 22 Ibid, 323. YILDIRIM, Askin Haluk.”The Woman Question.” 24 Roberts, M.J.D. “Feminism and the State.” 25 Dutta, Sangeeta. “Charlotte Bronte.” 23 8 expression during the Victorian era. Writers utilized the novel in order to “demonstrate woman’s proper sphere and remake woman’s image in the face of dominant ideology.”26 Writers insisted that women had the right to define their own life in their own terms, which included their occupation in society. Literature in general was used as a powerful tool to publicize social issues and was viewed as one of the most important factors in expression of gender matters during the Victorian era.27 The creation of women's magazines in the 1800s also aided in the battle for women’s rights. As young women began to refuse, or at least post-pone marriage proposals, Victorian press had to provide for a growing number of female readers who were interested in work and education more so than family and home matters.28 These magazines, sometimes edited by women, helped to draw debates about working women away from hostility and towards admiration of new opportunities available to them. An example of a women's magazine from the time period is Young Woman, which addressed independent women with careers as well as traditional women of the domestic sphere so as to outlive purely radical magazines such as Woman’s Signal. Young Woman highlighted women’s achievements in higher education, politics, and other professions, as well as defended the “modern woman.” The “modern woman” was viewed as a female that denied the traditional roles of women and pursued a career and an independent life over marriage and family.29 Some of these magazines, which rapidly gained popularity among female readers, advocated the lifestyle of a single woman by detailing not only the 26 Ibid. YILDIRIM, Askin Haluk.”The Woman Question.” 28 Liggins, Emma. “‘The Life of a Bachelor Girl in the Big City’:Selling the Single Lifestyle to Readers of Woman and the Young Woman in the 1890s.” Victorian Periodicals Review, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 216238. 29 Ibid. 27 9 benefits, but also the practical difficulties in order to appropriately inform women considering such a conduct of living. In their own form of defiance against traditional female roles, women’s magazines helped enumerate a number of careers available to women and explained practical methods for infiltrating them. Prominent literary figures utilized their writing to advocate gender equality and the liberation of women in society. A very well known example of a feminist writer is Charlotte Bronte. In Bronte’s work, women are viewed “as agents of change and their persisting power.”30 Bronte personifies social, moral, and psychological principles through independent female protagonists. The main focus of many of her novels is “the vision of an oppressed… female figure trapped in the structures of a patriarchal society.” 31 Jane Eyre serves as a prime example of Bronte’s feminist writing. The voice of the novel acts as a strong voice against the Victorian ideal of denial against women’s passion and sexuality. Characters throughout Jane Eyre represent oppressive factors against women in Victorian society, such as Brocklehurst symbolizing female inferiority as God’s will.32 Additionally, when Jane decides her own destiny, this presents a hope for Victorian women who also wished to abandon their traditional roles. Another model of a feminist writer is Thomas Hardy and his novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Tess’ ideas about marriage contradict those of the Victorian ideology. Aspects of the novel represent the moral blindness of social values such as hypocrisy of the gender traditions, injustice of social law, and the sustenance of male dominance33 . The female protagonist is “arrested 30 Dutta, Sangeeta. “Charlotte Bronte.” Ibid. 32 YILDIRIM, Askin Haluk.”The Woman Question.” 33 Ibid. 31 10 and executed by the system whose laws are no less discriminatory than its individuals.” 34 Furthermore, poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Florence Nightingale challenged gender ranks and the placement of women on a religious pedestal which disguises their oppression by the will of God. These authors’ arguments promoted awareness of the Victorian gender conflict and “contributed to the status of women… by bringing up the social ills… through their works and iconic characters, most of which have become the symbols of women’s struggles for equal rights and opportunities.”35 Although the social and political lives of women dramatically altered during the Industrial Revolution, the female gender greatly adapted to these changes and complemented the oppression with an uprising of feminist thought. The shift from the work force to the domestic sphere was met with defiance, exhibited in women’s magazines and the Victorian novel. Writing was established as an immensely beneficial tool utilized by feminist writers such as Bronte, Hardy, and Browning who wished to promote the social and political status of women. Negative perceptions of females were challenged and protested against by feminist language. Women, although submitted to a male dominant society and forced to adopt social values that demeaned and oppressed the female gender, rose up in defiance and consolidated intellectual thinking to form history’s initial glimpse of feminist activity. 34 35 Ibid. Ibid. 11 Bibliography Dutta, Sangeeta. “Charlotte Bronte and the Woman Question.” Economic and Political Weekly 26, no. 40 (October 5, 1991). Liggins, Emma. “‘The Life of a Bachelor Girl in the Big City’:Selling the Single Lifestyle to Readers of Woman and the Young Woman in the 1890s.” Victorian Periodicals Review, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 216-238. Rendall, Jane. The Origins of Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France and the United States, 1780-1860. New York: Schocken Books, 1984. Roberts, M.J.D. “Feminism and the State in late Victorian England.” The Historical Journal 38, no. 1 (March 1995): 85-100. Tuchman, Gaye, and Nina Fortin. “Edging Women Out: Some Suggestions about the Structure of Opportunities and the Victorian Novel.” Signs 6, no.2 (Winter, 1980): 308-325. Valenze, Deborah. The First Industrial Woman. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1995. YILDIRIM, Askin Haluk.”The Woman Question and the Victorian Literature on Gender.”Ekev Academic Review 16, no. 52. (June 2012).
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