Introduction to Gender & Sexuality in Victorian England

Commemorative Suffragette scarf reading 'Votes For Women', woven silk, English, about 1910. Museum no. T.20-1946

Commemorative Suffragette scarf reading 'Votes For Women', woven silk, English, about 1910. Museum no. T.20-1946

The Victorian period saw the beginnings of a shift in social philosophy regarding legal and customary gender relations. This shift was marked by a move away from the patriarchal pattern of male supremacy/female dependency - justified at the time by the notion of public and private 'separate spheres' - towards modern concepts of gender equality in legal, professional and personal affairs. Slow and contested, the movement is symbolised by the long campaign for female suffrage or 'Votes for Women', which was not achieved in Victoria's reign.

The intense debate over gender ideology took place alongside developments in public sanitation, epidemiology, surgery and understanding of disease transmission, which with the professionalisation of health care shaped a more interventionist role for medicine. This in turn accompanied the medicalisation of reproduction, sexuality and social policy, where masturbation, venereal disease, prostitution, illegitimacy and same-sex relationships were increasingly stigmatised - one perceived solution to such social problems being the demand 'Chastity for Men'.

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