Victorian Perceptions Of The Ideal Woman

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The Victorian era took place between the dates of 1873 and 1901, it was called such because this is when Queen Victoria herself was in power. So, it seems rather fitting to think about the perceptions of the ideal woman during this time, when a woman herself was the one at the head of the monarchy. To be a woman in Victorian Britain, how were they supposed to act, think, dress? Well, there were ideals of such, how society wished women to behave, what ‘jobs’ they were supposed to do which were supposedly very different to men. Even though there was a Queen, it was men that were all in power within the government and thus largely in charge of the rules and regulations of general society. Governing how a woman was supposed to be through their rights and regulations within the law of which the Queen seemed largely ok with. Not only this, but many books and articles within newspapers portrayed the ideal woman so people within the media and the more general public also gave their input as to what the ideal woman of the Victorian era was. Although, as could be imagined there were going to be some contradictions of what this was as the perception of one can vary to the next, some ‘rebels’ to certain aspects or ideas and others who may just go along with society. What must be considered is that ‘the ideal woman’ may vary slightly anyway due to the different classes within Victorian society as what one class is expected to do may differ to the next.

Was there an ideal woman within society that others could aspire to be like based of the norms of what was wanted at the time. It can be thought that Queen Victoria herself was something of that, she was a mother to nine children by her husband Albert. Through this she portrayed the ideas of domestic morality and solidarity of marriage as she focused more on being a mother, a wife, and supporting her family. This is amplified even more so as in 1861 when prince Albert died, instead of continuing to partake in her civic duties as Queen she put wife and motherhood first by staying in her home with her children in mourning.[footnoteRef:1] It could be said that this ‘event’ was one that effected Queen Victoria most in her lifetime of reigning as in a letter to the king of Prussia she wrote “For me, life came to an end on14 December. My life was dependent on his, I had no thoughts except him; my whole striving was to please him, to be less unworthy of him!”[footnoteRef:2], if this is not a devoted wife, I do not know what is. Based on religious teachings at the time, one of the main goals to be achieved was procreation which needed to happen in wedlock. Victoria did this many times and became a symbol of ideal womanliness, which as the Queen, others should follow in her footsteps even more so. To be a mother was one of the ideals of the Victorian woman, which the Queen demonstrated well, but this did not stop to that of her own children, she became known as ‘the mother of the nation’. She also used her position to act to keep other women in their place as “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.”[footnoteRef:3] She wished to keep women in at their post as God made man and women different and they should stay that way in their own positions, it made her quite mad.[footnoteRef:4] How the Queen is acting could further emphasise of how other women ideally should be inferior and allowing men to make the important decisions and they should encourage other women to be this way also. Although, Victoria becoming Queen, as a woman and at the age of 18 in 1873 was quite abnormal. Yes, there had been Queens before but compared to kings it was still in the minority and still strange. Why? A queen, the head of the monarchy, the one in charge of all her subjects would be superior to all, these subjects included men. When traditionally women were inferior to men in every way, women were the weaker sex. So maybe, Victoria at least not in every aspect, could not be the idea woman based off perception at the time, but in many ways she was. [1: H. Rappaport, Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the Monarchy (London, 2011), pp. 9-10] [2: Queen Victoria, Letter to King of Prussia, 4 February 1862.] [3: Queen Victoria, Letter to Theodore Martin, 29 May 1870.] [4: D, Gange, The Victorians: A Beginners Guide (London, 2016), p. 169.]

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One prominent idea of what was ideal in a woman, was knowing her place as leading on from the last paragraph, especially in that of comparison to a man. Men like John Ruskin, Herbert Spencer and others, social academics of the time and before pushed the ideas forward that women were generally to stay at home and deal with any and every aspect that occurred in the home the domestic sphere which was enough to fulfil their needs whereas men were the working force who bought income into the family household from the perilous public sphere.[footnoteRef:5] Just before this time period in the 1960’s Darwin put forward his theory of ‘survival of the fittest’, which evidently also put men above women in terms of evolution as well. This helped with creating the idea of separate spheres, where woman would spend her time in the private home sphere and men in the public working sphere, the latter most definitely being the harder of the two. Which is why they were separated so because women’s bodies were too fragile to perform such tasks in the public sphere. In John Stuart Mill’s book he mentions how it is reasonable to think in this way as difference in physical strength between the sexes hugely favours the men even if the women may have better character because of the physical difference men must be superior.[footnoteRef:6] Seemingly, society was like this to protect women, the men were doing the hard work to keep them safe, when women were being oppressed and controlled, Victorian writers largely agreed how a man was to be a woman’s protector because of his strength, however he was also to control her for the same reason.[footnoteRef:7] Although the domestic sphere may not have been as dangerous there was still plenty of hard work to be done for their ‘fragile’ bodies to endure. For how men and women are so different it would only seem right for them to be in separate spheres, Ruskin wrote “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, wherever war is just, wherever conquest necessary. 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 sees the qualities of things, their claims, and their places. Her great function is Praise...”[footnoteRef:8] They are two very different beings, who work in very different ways and thus should partake in different aspects of life. The man does all the hard work and the women is there to look after and praise him at the end of a hard day’s work. So, the ideal woman was to graciously accept her inferiority to man having little to no rights and to make his home life easier within the domestic sphere as seen in the ‘Woman’s Rights’ ephemera card.[footnoteRef:9] [5: L, Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine: The Women's Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing (New York, 1992), pp. 12-14.] [6: J. Mill, The Subjection of Women, Volume 1 (London, 1869), p. 156.] [7: K. Millet ‘The Debate Over Women: Ruskin vs. Mill’ in M. Vicinus (ed.), Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age (London, 1972), pp. 121-139.] [8: J. Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies (London, 1865), p. 77.] [9: MCMR, ephemera of ‘Woman’s Rights’ held by the British Library n.d. ]

Thinking of the domestic sphere, which was the home this is what gave women their purpose. The ideal woman should be proud of their moral duty which contributed towards society not only their families as a husband with a happy home life would most likely thrive in the public sphere of society. This was considered the ideal woman’s ‘job’ to server her family and husband within the household.[footnoteRef:10] A good example of would be Mrs. Francis Goodby, wife of Reverend J. Goodby when he wrote her obituary it said “... her ardent and unceasing flow of spirits, extreme activity and diligence, her punctuality, uprightness and remarkable frugality, combined with a firm reliance on God ... carried her through the severest times of pressure, both with credit and respectability ...”[footnoteRef:11] She seemed to be quite the ideal woman, but it is not known what she thought of her life herself. Lynn Abrams also said “it was said at her death that she carried out her duties as a mistress of a small family with ‘piety, patience, frugality and industry’”[footnoteRef:12] It also shows her as a strong woman in terms of morality who was able and busy as she had to do all kinds of strenuous tasks about the household, unlike the thoughts that women were weak. Even with a lesser income than those in the class above she was an example for all showing devotion to her husband and to God, from the descriptions she seemingly and willingly accepted her position in society which others within all classes should as well. Many did so, but of course there were those who did not, and could not accept a life like this. Florence Nightingale herself was one, writing so in an unpublished piece of work yet she did many great things herself changing history which may have not been the ideal woman in Victorians eyes but surely helped greatly.[footnoteRef:13] Isabella Beeton wrote that women at some point would need to care for the sick for a period of time within their household, whether it be children, elderly or the help and thus should know how to do so beforehand, even with the possibility of hiring a nurse they would oppose as they felt it was their moral duty within this domestic sphere.[footnoteRef:14] Although technically in the wrong place being outside of the home, Florence did plenty of caring for the sick going above and beyond. So, another idea of the Victorian woman was that to have enough knowledge to care for those within her house. [10: N. Kurtz, ‘Lauran Lyons: Hounded by Victorian Ideals’ in R. Haile and T. Bower, Villains, Victims and Violence (Irvine, 2019), pp. 13-18.] [11: J. Goodby, The General Baptist Repository and Missionary Observer, 1840] [12: L. Abrams, Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain (Scotland, 2001), pp. 1-2.] [13: L. McDonald (ed.), Collected Works of Florence Nightingale: Women vol. 8 (Canada, 2005), pp. 34-35.] [14: I. Beeton, Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (London, 1907), pp. 121-130.]

As well as being a general domestic goddess within the house it was also up to the ideal to manage the household, combined if done well the woman may become known as ‘the angel in the house’. This phrase came from a poem written by Coventry Patmore which was about his perfect wife, Emily he wrote this poem based off what he knew as the perfect husband-wife partnership.[footnoteRef:15]Originally the phrase was related solely with middle-class women but thanks to Queen Victoria the ‘mother of the nation’ and an exemplary example of a loving and moral wife the phrase became the ideal for all classes of women.[footnoteRef:16] Women were meant to have no power for herself and exist solely for helping and pleasing others as a domesticated wife and mother, this was normal and good. Described as “an angel, submerging herself in family, existing only as mother, daughter and wife”.[footnoteRef:17] Another ideal about women that is gained from this notion is that to truly achieve she must be married, which goes hand in hand with the religious teachings at the time, thus was the norm.[footnoteRef:18] It could also be thought of as a way of keeping the woman within the domestic sphere, where she ideally should be; being patient, modest and self-sacrificing.[footnoteRef:19] Describing the ideal woman was also in magazines such as Family Visitor, “She is the architect of home, and it depends on her skill, her foresight, her soft arranging touches”[footnoteRef:20] Isabella Beeton’s book also detailed how women were to be good household managers, to provide the best interiors within their domestic spheres for the comfort of the man, as well as good wives, the fact this book remained a bestseller for over half a century after its publication emphasised the importance people placed on it as what a woman was to be like. The tasks they needed to be able to do included physical labour such as fetching water, washing and ironing bedsheets and clothes, repairing and making clothes and hemming thus needing to be good with a needle. Or, if they had a bit of money the recent invention was that of the sewing machine which was a great help. Also, near the end of the century readymade clothes became available to buy, however they still needed to make the underclothes. The notion that Victorian women were idle was a myth, as for the most part there was plenty to do within the household and in preparing herself fashion wise. [15: C. Patmore, The Angel in the House (London, 1858)] [16: L. Abrams, The Making of Modern Women: Europe 1789-1918 (New York, 2002), p. 102.] [17: N. Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (London, 1982), p. 4.] [18: Abrams, The Making of Modern Women, pp. 88-89.] [19: ibid p. 40] [20: S. Barczewski at al. Britain since 1688: A Nation in the World (London, 2014), pp. 135-136.]

Gender differences provided the roles in which women and men were to have. Thus, this so called ‘ideal woman’ of the Victorian period was heavily influenced by what she could and could not do, such as the need to stay within the domestic sphere, to look after those within the home and the home itself.[footnoteRef:21] Not to venture out into the public sphere as for the most part this was off limits, it was a man’s world, and if she did so then was, she not failing as ‘the ideal woman’.[footnoteRef:22] To be the ideal Victorian women she must know her place as being inferior to men, have high morality, a dedicated mother and wife who’s family was everything, valued more than herself, an ‘angel in the house’ thus pure. Once again emphasising the need to stay in the house and many other ‘ideals’ for the woman. Although the Victorians are somewhat contradicting themselves as an ‘angel’ is perfect and what sort of human can achieve such a status? Not one, but maybe this was the point in the male dominated governance of Victorian Britain to keep women oppressed and beneath them as they could not even fulfil their own roles properly. The idea of such perfect femininity is almost completely unreachable and maybe the ‘ideal woman’ is just something women can hope to work towards but never in fact achieve. [21: L. Loeb, Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women (New York, 1994), pp. 201.] [22: Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth, p. 9.]

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