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The Victorian Woman and Feminism

The image most of us have of the Victorian woman is home loving and devoted to family; one dressed in the finest fabrics encumbered under half a dozen crinolines and laced tightly in a corset. She is sympathetic, unselfish and sacrifices herself daily to be her husband's best friend and companion, never his "competitor", mindful and striving for the same goals as her husband. It is her job to take care of the children and run the household maintaining it as a tranquil refuge for when her husband returns home from work. Her innocence and purity are her virtues.

Yet for a countless number of families, the above scenario was not the case as many wives and unmarried daughters also had to go out to work daily in order to provide for the family. These are the women of the working class and those who lived in poverty who are very often overlooked when talking about the Victorian age.

Women's roles and their position in 19th century society was as much the result of the church's teachings as it was the biological differences between men and women. Not only were women given the job of being the bearers/teachers of religious moral values in the family, a role which empowered them, they were also restricted by it as it related to the context of the family.

Early in the period, women were associated with domestic responsibility, however, they sometimes also played a role in the family's economy often working along side their husband in their homes to help support their family. As new technology developed and the nation began to industrialize, the economy began moving away from agriculture and the home to industry (factories), workhouses and sometimes, the streets surrounding the cities from which developed a clearer separation of work and home.

This shift in labor, however, did not come without its controversies. The division between the "domestic" female and the "public" male was not the reality for many and practicing it, was deemed burdensome. The women who would go on to fight for women's rights believed that manipulating its principles would prove more successful than a total rejection of the ideology. The argument of women's moral superiority (if their purity allowed them to be the teachers of moral values, then their effect on public life could only be uplifting) became the leading edge for the women's rights movement during the period. Women's demands for participation in public life presented the challenge of separating the "sphere ideology".

As early as the 1850s, the Langham Place circle of feminists developed campaigning committees, the first feminist periodical as well as a library reading room for women in London's West End. Debating groups and social clubs exclusively for women came shortly thereafter. These activities also encompassed the social element where diaries and letters told of teas, soirees and at-homes held by women most of whom came from well-to-do middle-class backgrounds. Many also had experience in philanthropic work among the poor and acknowledged the needs of the working class women rather than fear them.

This section will discuss the area of education, politics, employment and marriage and their influence on the feminism of the Victorian woman.

Pearl Button Link to Victorian Women and Education Education Pearl Button Link to Victorian Woman and Politics Politics and Government Pearl Button Link to Employment and the Middle Class Woman Employment and the Middle Class Woman
  Pearl Button Link to Employment and the Working Class WomanEmployment and the Working Class Woman  

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