(written upon the release of the paperback of The Beauty of Her Age: A Tale of Sex, Scandal and Money in Victorian England)
Women were second-class citizens in the Victorian era, subordinate to men at all times. Their only sphere of influence was domestic: shopping, cooking, housework, and looking after the children. They were unable to earn their own living and gifted women had little chance of using their talents. The Brontë sisters had to write under male pseudonyms in order to be taken seriously.
Women’s marriageability faded as they reached their late 20s or early 30s. Women beyond this age remained living with their parents and, after their deaths, with other relatives – whether they were welcome house guests or not. An alternative for middle-class women was to become a governess, an unattractive prospect. Because Victorian society was obsessed with class, governesses were considered too lowly to mix with their employer’s family and too high-born to associate with the servants. It was a lonely life.
Although a single woman could inherit property in her own name, it legally passed to her husband on marriage. Not until the Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1882 were married women entitled to own money or property. No wonder men were so keen to marry heiresses! Property could pass to a married woman ‘in trust’, but although she became the beneficiary of such property, legal ownership was vested in the – male – trustees.
Married women encountered other problems. Even in a happy marriage, many felt stifled by domesticity, which was the only option available to them. And there was little alternative to remaining in an unhappy marriage. Divorce became easier after the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act was passed in 1857, but all cases were heard in public in the High Court in London and inevitably led to scandal. The scales were weighted in favour of the husband in all cases of divorce or separation, and he was almost always granted custody of the children.
Then there were the dangers of childbirth. A significant percentage of women died during or after childbirth, often as a result of infection introduced by doctors and midwives. Those who survived tended to have a large number of children. Numbers in the teens were frequent; some even gave birth to 20 or more. A woman’s entire fertile life could be taken up with pregnancies or breast-feeding. The ‘safe period’ was not fully understood and, although contraception existed (in fairly unpleasant forms by today’s standards), not many men were prepared to use it.
Victorian women were also restricted by their clothing. Corsets were worn at all times and they were often laced so tight that they deformed the skeleton and displaced the internal organs. Women who were particularly proud of their tiny waists risked a painful death from continually over-tightening their laces. Skirts were voluminous and worn even when playing sports or climbing mountains. And if women wanted to bathe in the sea, they had to change into swimming attire while hidden from view in a bathing-machine, a contraption which was hauled into the water by horses.
Women were unable to take any part in political life. They were not considered wise or intelligent enough to think for themselves, particularly on matters outside the home, and were unable to vote. As we know from this year’s important anniversary, they were only included in the suffrage after the First World War. But although the Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave the vote to all men aged over 21, it only gave the vote to women aged over 30 who also owned property. It was not until 1928 that all women were included in the franchise.