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Gender Ideology & Separate Spheres in the 19th Century

Francis Xavier Winterhalter, 'The Royal Family'

Francis Xavier Winterhalter, 'The Royal Family', after 1846. Museum no. E.3081-1990. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The gender history of 19th-century Britain can be read in two ways: as an overarching patriarchal model which reserved power and privilege for men; or as a process of determined but gradual female challenge to their exclusion. With the hindsight of a whole century, the latter view is perhaps more persuasive, for the situation in 2001 can be seen to have its beginnings in the Victorian era. But actual changes in gender dispositions during the queen's long reign should not over-estimated.

While the period witnessed a distinctive shift in ideas respecting gender relations at the level of social philosophy, away from a traditional idea of 'natural' male supremacy towards a 'modern' notion of gender equity, the process was vigorously contested and by no means achieved. Important legal, educational, professional and personal changes took place, but by 1901 full, unarguable gender equality remained almost as utopian as in 1800. If some notions of inequality were giving way to the idea that the sexes were 'equal but different', with some shared rights and responsibilities, law and custom still enforced female dependency. As women gained autonomy and opportunities, male power was inevitably curtailed; significantly, however, men did not lose the legal obligation to provide financially, nor their right to domestic services within the family. Moreover, the key symbol of democratic equality, the parliamentary franchise, was expressly and repeatedly withheld from women.

In relation to health, the Victorian age saw major changes in knowledge and practice relating to public sanitation, largely in response to population growth and rapid urbanisation, with the gradual provision of piped water, sewerage and improved housing. In medicine, micro-bacterial understanding led to better control of infectious disease, avoidance of cross-contamination in surgery and prevention of specific diseases through vaccination. Traditional treatments and nursing practices evolved to improve recovery rates, but there were few effective drug remedies and overall morbidity and mortality remained high. Hospital-based medicine catered largely for the poor, many of whom ended their days in the local workhouse infirmary; middle- and upper-class patients were attended in their own homes. In mental health, patients were steadily concentrated in large, highly regulated lunatic asylums outside the urban areas.

A major change, towards the end of the century, lay in falling birth-rates and smaller families. Couples like Victoria and Albert, married in 1840, who had nine children in seventeen years, were from the 1870s steadily replaced, in nearly all sections of society, by those choosing to limit family size.

Most developments in public sanitation and medical practice were gender-neutral in their theoretical bases and actual effects. Ideas relating to reproductive health were the obvious exception, generally both 'read back' into gendered theories of individual health, and also deployed in prescriptive notions of sexuality and sexual behaviour. In the early Victorian period, sexual codes were governed by religious and social moralism. In later years science began to challenge religion as the dominant epistemology, but in support of similar ideas. While the end of the era saw some demand for 'free' partnerships without the sanction of marriage, and an increase in same-sex relationships, both were generally deemed deviant.

The mid-century was notable for its moral panic over prostitution, which developed - despite a 'permissive' interval in the 1860s - into demands for male continence outside marriage. At the end of the era, a socially shocking topic was that of the virginal bride (and her innocent offspring) infected with syphilis by a sexually experienced husband. Bringing together political and personal demands for equality, the slogan: 'Votes for Women, Chastity for Men' was coined.

Gender and Power

'The Queen is most anxious to enlist every one who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of "Woman's Rights", with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety... It is a subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself. God created men and women different - then let them remain each in their own position.' (Queen Victoria, letter 29 May 1870)

In terms of gender ideology, the accession of Victoria was something of a paradox. Traditionally, women were defined physically and intellectually as the 'weaker' sex, in all ways subordinate to male authority. In private life women were subject to fathers, husbands, brothers even adult sons. Publicly, men dominated all decision-making in political, legal and economic affairs. But as monarch, Victoria - who in 1837 was only 18 years old - was socially and symbolically superior to every other citizen in Britain, all men being constitutionally considered her subjects.

Changing patterns of patriarchal authority fell within a wider scenario of expanding rights and diminishing subservience for many people, including employees and young people. In some ways resistance to change in gender relations thus represented a symbolically concentrated reaction against general democratisation. Early Victorian gender prescriptions featured men as industrious breadwinners and women as their loyal helpmeets. Reinforced by social philosophers like Auguste Comte, Arthur Schopenhauer, Herbert Spencer, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and John Ruskin, this developed into a mid-century doctrine of 'separate spheres', whereby men were figured as competitors in the amoral, economic realm while women were positioned as either decorative trophies or spiritual guardians of men's immortal souls. From the 1860s, to this social construct the Darwinian theory of 'survival of the fittest' added a pseudo-scientific dimension which placed men higher on the evolutionary ladder.

'The man's power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation, and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest... But the woman's power is for rule, not for battle - and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision... She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise -wise, not for self-development, but for self-renunciation: wise, not that she may set herself above her husband, but that she many never fail from his side.' (John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, 1865, part II)

The Victorian era is almost synonymous with the ideology of 'great men' - outstanding male individuals, whose features and life stories fill the National Portrait Gallery (founded 1856) and the Dictionary of National Biography (launched 1882) while their exploits were hymned in key texts like Thomas Carlyle's Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) and Samuel Smiles's Self-Help (1859). Throughout the era, 'masculine' values of courage and endeavour supported military campaigns and commercial expansion. Women were allotted a subsidiary role, with patience and self-sacrifice the prime feminine virtues. Motherhood was idealised, alongside virginal innocence, but women were subject to pervasive denigration. To the end of the century, strident misogyny was still strong in both popular and intellectual writing - but as loudly as female inferiority was declared immutable, women everywhere were demonstrating otherwise.

From infancy onwards, gender inequity permeated all aspects of British life. 'Think what it is to be a boy, to grow up to manhood in the belief that without any merit or exertion of his own... by the mere fact of being born a male he is by right the superior of all and every one of an entire half of the human race,' wrote John Stuart Mill in his 1867 polemic against 'The Subjection of Women', continuing:

'How early the youth thinks himself superior to his mother, owing her forbearance perhaps but no real respect; and how sublime and sultan-like a sense of superiority he feels, above all, over the woman whom he honours by admitting her to a partnership of his life. Is it imagined that all this does not pervert the whole manner of existence of the man, both as an individual and as a social being?'

Whereas in 1800 the majority of Britons had a predominantly practical education, acquired at home and at work, by 1901 formal learning at primary level was universal, with higher instruction available to the better-off. It is worth noting that girls were beginning to move on to university study by the 1860s. This was gradually provided, in segregated colleges at Cambridge and Oxford, somewhat more liberally at the Scottish universities and from 1878 at London University and elsewhere. Subjects studied acquired gender aspects, English literature and geography being for example regarded as appropriate for women, with Latin and geology for men. Overall, however, boys progressed to higher levels, producing an imbalance in qualifications that persisted until recently. One exceptional example was the classicist Jane Harrison (1850-1928), who trenchantly observed how scholarship was dominated by 'that most dire and deadly of all tyrannies, an oligarchy of old men'. But it remained the case that the great Victorian adult education movement included predominantly male institutions such as the Mechanics' Institutes and Working Men's College. Later, however, the university extension movement also attracted many under-educated women.

Throughout the Victorian period, employment patterns evolved in response to industrial and urban factors, but occupational structures remained gendered and indeed in some ways became more distinct. Thus, whereas in the 1830s wives often assisted husbands in a small business or professional practice, by the 1890s work and home were commonly separated; exceptions included shopkeeping and upland farming. Nationally (which in this period included the whole of Ireland as well as Scotland, England and Wales), male employment shifted from agriculture to heavy industry, manufacturing and transport, with an accompanying increase in clerical and professional occupations. Men also left domestic service, which remained the largest category of female employment throughout the period (employing 10 percent of the female population in 1851, for example, and over 11 percent in 1891). Women also worked in textile mills, potteries, agriculture and garment-making, as well as in seasonal or unrecorded employment, especially laundering.

Compared to the 20th century, there was indeed some contraction in the work open to women, as protective legislation barred their employment underground or overnight. In the Lancashire coalfields, the 'pit-brow lasses' struggled to retain their jobs. Generally, male workers strove to secure wages that enabled wives to be full-time mothers - an aspiration in tune with bourgeois notions of orderly domestic bliss. The organised labour movement was overwhelmingly male, with a few trade union activists such as bookbinder Emma Paterson (1848-86), leader of the Women's Protection and Provident League, who in 1875 persuaded the Trades Union Congress to accept female delegates and successfully campaigned for female factory inspectors.

It is calculated that while most men worked, only one-third of all women were in employment at any time in the 19th century (as against two-thirds in 1978, for comparison.) There were only men in the army and navy, in shipbuilding, construction, printing, railways - to list some major occupations - and only male scientists, engineers, priests, City financiers and Members of Parliament.

From the mid-century, educated women began to prise open certain professional and clerical occupations, partly in response to the powerful Victorian 'gospel of work' that castigated idleness, partly to provide for the perceived 'surplus' of single women, and partly for the sake of self-fulfilment. As a result of these struggles, by 1901 here were 212 female physicians, 140 dentists, 6 architects and 3 vets. Over a quarter of professional painters (total 14,000) and over a half of musicians (total 43,230) and actors (12,500) were female.

In the aristocracy, neither men nor women normally worked for wages. But men managed their estates and took part in government, while 'society women' supported these activities through household management and political entertaining. At the top of the tree, so to speak, lords and ladies attended court for a variety of official functions.

A scene from Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare, Lyceum Theatre, London, 1895. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A scene from Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare, Lyceum Theatre, London, 1895. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

However, the majority of upper- and middle-class women never worked outside the home. Nevertheless, although leisure time undoubtedly increased for many, the notion of idle, unoccupied Victorian ladies is something of a myth. Women ran the house, undertaking domestic work and child care themselves, as well as supervising the servants employed to cook, clean, carry coal and run errands. Moreover, almost from time immemorial, with a 'work-basket' to denote her tasks, each girl and woman was a needleworker, responsible for making and mending clothes and household linen. One major change in the period was the invention in the 1850s of the domestic sewing machine, which greatly assisted both private and commercial dressmaking. By 1900 ready-made garments were increasingly available in shops.

Traditionally, too, women cared for the sick and elderly. In a large Victorian household, at any time at least one member - child, great-aunt or servant - might require nursing, often for prolonged periods. 'All women are likely, at some period of their lives, to be called on to perform the duties of a sick-nurse, and should prepare themselves for the occasion when they may be required,' noted Mrs Beeton. Professional nurses might be hired, but in many homes 'the ladies of the family would oppose such an arrangement as a failure of duty on their part'.

Jan Marsh

Jan Marsh is the author of The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (1985) and biographies of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti. She has written widely on gender and society in the 19th century. She is currently a visiting professor at the Humanities Research Centre of the University of Sussex and is working on Victorian representations of ethnicity.

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