Sunday, October 23, 2011

Victorian Studies: Politics & Society:Why do early to mid-nineteenth century feminists concentrate on law, education and work rather than political rights?

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It can be seen that early to mid-nineteenth century feminists tended to concentrate on issues of law, education and work rather than political rights for women because of the restrictions imposed by the dominant British domestic ideology of separate spheres for men and women. Rather than opposing the ideals of society, most feminists tended to manipulate them to their own advantage, in order to gain access to the public sphere and to influence society in alternative ways.


What the term ‘feminist’ means when applied to the Victorian period is debatable. As Caine comments, the word was not coined until the end of the nineteenth century and because of this it can be viewed as problematic when applied to the Victorians, because it is not a word that they would have used to describe themselves. Some historians use it to describe Victorians who were active within the women’s movement, whilst others also apply it to a wide range of female activists and writers who had little to do with the women’s movement (Caine, 1, p. 4). Levine also expresses the view that for this reason it is important to use the term with caution ‘we need, therefore, to consider the possible range of meanings that words such as feminism take on in specific historical contexts’. It is important that we do not attribute current understandings of feminism onto the Victorians or use historical figures to make sense of current issues (Levine, 14, p. 11). Olive Banks, among others, has come to the conclusion that a close definition is not possible and that feminism is best described as ‘any groups that have tried to change the position of women, or ideas about women’ (Caine, 1, p. 5).


Historian’s understanding and interpretation of Victorian feminism has developed and changed over the years. Where once it was understood as a belief in the need for equal rights between men and women, Caine comments ‘there is now a widespread recognition of the importance Victorian feminists attached to establishing and maintaining sexual differences between men and women’ (Caine, 1, p. ). This enabled females to assert their merits and virtues rather than inadequacies (Caine, 1, p. ). Only the most radical of feminists believed the doctrine of the women’s sphere to be incorrect, viewing it as ‘a coercive social construct which must be entirely set aside’ (Helisinger, 1, p.0). For the most part, rather than a total rejection of these values, those who sought to improve women’s rights worked with them. Levine comments that ‘for many women committed to the fight for women’s rights, the most effective weapon was not the total rejection of that ideology but a manipulation of its fundamental values’ (Levine, 14, p. 1).


Ethical values in early Victorian Britain can be seen to have stemmed directly from the teaching of the church, through which the notion of women’s submission to men had become religious law (Levine, 14, p. 11). The religious revival of the early years of the nineteenth century meant that women’s role as the ‘bearers of religious and moral values was clarified and strengthened’ (Levine, 14, p. 1). This was both empowering and restrictive for women. This role placed women in the position of moral guardians within the British domestic ideology of separate spheres, thus idealising a situation that had been created by industrial capitalism. The ideology of the separate spheres, the private and the public, was not actually obtainable for many families; in particular for the working classes who could not afford the luxury of women remaining at home. However it still had a great influence over people’s values.


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Feminists in the early to mid-nineteenth century tended to focus on issues of law, education and work rather than on their political rights in accordance with the values of separate spheres. This more gradual infiltration into the masculine public sphere finally allowed women to gain more legal and political rights later in the century once they had fought and won a number of battles which made them more equal to men in other ways - e.g. through development of women’s education. The prominent ideology of women as moral guardians gave women the ideal argument for entering the public sphere - ‘After all, if women’s purity made them natural custodians of religious teachings and values, then their effect in public life could only be uplifting’. (Levine, 14, p.1). This sentiment of moral superiority became the leading force of many women’s campaigns in this period (Levine, 14, p. 1). Tyrell comments on the developing perception of women as a group with moral authority - for a group or league to have the support of ‘womanhood’ carried positive connotations of the symbolic values of Victorian society. There were definitely benefits for a pressure group that was identified as a lady’s cause. (Tyrell, 188, p. 15).


Women’s politics cannot be assessed in the same way as male political campaigning, as because as they were denied access to existing channels of political influence women sought involvement in politics in alternative ways (Levine, 14, p. 17). Women’s type of involvement in political issues often varied according to their class. Many middle class women became involved in and supported a number of causes by joining ladies committees during the first half of the nineteenth century, such as the anti-Corn Law League, the Anti-slavery League, and temperance societies and so on. Perkin comments that religious belief gave many middle class women the courage to tackle social evils, and through this they gained wide experience and leadership skills. Some women spent their entire lives promoting social reform under the guise of philanthropy (Perkin, 18, p. 05). Levine comments that the majority of nineteenth century feminists came from well-assured middle class backgrounds, this was probably because they had more time to spare for causes than working class women who were often more distanced because of the constant worry of economic uncertainty. This class divide has caused many historians to separate Victorian feminism into two strands, bourgeois feminism and social feminism (Levine, 14, p.16).


Many working class women were however involved in a number of political movements, such as the Peterloo Massacre, debates over the New Poor Law 184, and also the Chartist’s movement during the 180s and 1840s. They were also able to exercise consumer power by refusing to patronise shops that did not support the Chartist movement (Rendall, 15 p. 8). Many working class women also agitated on behalf of their male relations supporting their fight for the vote, for example, the Blackburn Female Reform Society, founded in 181, had this aim (Rendall, 185, pp. 5-6). It was notable however that working women’s level of political involvement declined after the 1840s. Landed and upper middle class women had more direct political power - they sometimes canvassed for members of their family standing for election, and could also exercise a certain amount of political rights by virtue of their situation and family connections (Rendall, 185, p. ). Perkin comments on upper class women’s involvement in politics ‘Although women did not sit in parliament, they expected to exert influence over their friends who did, and gain patronage for their relatives, friends and proteges’ (Perkin, 1, p. 0).


However, as Harman comments, despite women’s involvement with political and moral issues, there were many barriers against women physically attending public meetings, which created further problems with their involvement in public issues. Harman gives the World Anti-slavery Convention, (London 1840) as an example. Women visiting from America were made to sit in a separate gallery at this event, and were excluded from the proceedings, demonstrating the high-level of opposition to women’s presence at such events. Socially there were all sorts of problems with women physically appearing in public spaces, especially if it would mean that they would be mixing with men. There were fears that a woman would become tainted if she was to enter the public sphere ‘Female participation in public life, and the female public appearance itself would compromise a women’s virtue’ (Harman, 18 p. 6). This was not only a subject of male concern, the writings of women such as Sarah Stickney Ellis and Sarah Lewis during the middle of the century echoed these worries.


These issues of women’s involvement in the public sphere were reflected in the literature of the period. For example, the Bronte sister’s novels often portrayed women as present, yet screened off from significant public experiences (Harman, 18, p.). Novelists such as Gaskell dealt with the subject of the public sphere in a more positive way than Ellis and Lewis. As Harman demonstrates, in her novel North and South (1854), Gaskell portrays her character Margaret Hale’s active involvement in local politics, and demonstrates how because of this her character becomes vulnerable to misconstruction and misunderstanding. However, ultimately Gaskell portrays her loss of purity as a positive experience, suggesting an alternative to the women’s mission advocated by Lewis (Harman, 18, p. 17).


The education of females was a subject that aroused much attention and debate during the nineteenth century. Rendall comments that at the beginning of the century the role of the mother as educator of children was increasingly emphasised as important (Rendall, 185, p. 10). This naturally led to debates over whether enough attention was devoted to the education of the mother in order that she was able to educate her children properly. Rendall observes that the issues surrounding this subject were also connected to the advancement of women - a better education would enable a woman to hold a more equal place in society - ‘the argument for the potential equality of women, given educational opportunity, could arise from a concern from the education of mother ‘ (Rendall, 185, p. 116).


Again, as before where the idealisation of women as moral guardians had lead some to question why women shouldn’t take part in the public sphere, the debate over the education of mothers led people began to question the standard of education women should have in order to be able to educate their children. This gradually enabled women to gain access to better educational opportunities, and to slowly assimilate themselves into the public sphere and strengthen their position in society. Rendall quotes Mary Leman Grimstone in her article Female Education (‘New Moral World’, February 185) there arose a ‘a new moral courage among women, an assertion of their equal moral status and equal intelligence’ (Rendall, 185, p. 117).


From the 180s onwards attention this interest in the education of the educator was also directed towards the training of governesses, which was often found to be lacking, and the debates opened out to address the issue of secondary and even higher education for women (Rendall, 185, pp. 14-5). By the 180s and 1840s the case for the education of mother was widely supported in the UK, US and France. By this time there was also a shift in the argument - the role of the mother was still central to the debate, but the need for women to be able to support themselves had also become an issue. There were many women who did not have fathers or husbands to support them, and for whom there were few options of how to earn money. Wages were also very poor in many cases, even in factories where women were relatively well paid in comparison to other areas, they would only earn between two thirds to a half of what men earnt (Perkin, 1, p. 176). It was a natural progression of the debate when it came to be suggested that women trained as teachers (Rendall, 185, p.15). This resulted in a number of schools being founded in order to train middle class girls for this profession.


In the same way that educational opportunities for females had begun to change for women by the mid-nineteenth century, so had their legal status. Ironically, although women were idolised as the moral guardians of society, they had little (or if they were married, no) political rights at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Harman, 18, p. ). From the late 180s onwards this slowly began to change, as the issue of custody of children was gradually revised, giving mothers more rights over their children (Holcombe, 18 pp. 5-44), and eventually the Women’s Property Act was introduced. Holcombe states that this was the most important of legal reforms won by feminists in the nineteenth century, as it removed the severe legal disabilities that married women faced. In the history of English law property and personal status was closely related, so this act was particularly significant for the advancement of women’s position in society. However, the vote was still a long way off for women. In the early years of the nineteenth century, when very few males had the vote and women were seen as unequal to men in so many ways, any attempts to lobby for female suffrage were not taken seriously. The issue was raised repeatedly throughout the early years of the nineteenth century. The 18 Act clearly stimulated women’s interest in the issue, and there were repeated calls for women to be franchised. However, this issue was not taken seriously until later in the nineteenth century, and even then it was still a long time until all women all women received suffrage in 18.


Victorian feminists were also concerned with the issues surrounding women and work. As early as 1804 a Ladies Committees was formed with the objective of ‘promoting the education and employment of working women’ (Perkin, 1, p. 176). Women were paid considerably less than men despite doing the same work. For married working class women this was particularly hard, many such women worked out of necessity to supplement the family income, and this made them more likely to accept wages that were far from fair. Because of the large numbers of women looking for work employers were able to keep lowering wages, and often extended working hours. This in turn had a very negative impact on single women who often could not survive on this money. Many women turned to prostitution, at least occasionally to make ends meet. In 185 Harriet Martineau argued for the end of ‘artificial depreciation’ of women’s work and the assumption that women were dependent on male relatives. Liberal feminists of the 1850s answer to the problem was for better education for women and in new kinds of occupations, however this was still inline with the feminine ideals of the time, and the work had to be perceived as ‘natural’ for women (Rendall, 185, pp. 184-5).


Working conditions for many workers were also very bad, and a number of women’s committees were committed to lobbying for reform, There was a significant amount of government intervention in this area, and a number of acts were passed, for example, the 184 Mines and Colleries Act, which attempted to protect the working woman (this one excluded women from working underground). However, although many people saw this as progress, not all working class women favoured acts such as these as they were effectively excluded them from better paid work. Other acts such as the Factory Acts also gradually reduced the working hours particularly of women, young people and children improving working conditions.


In conclusion, it can be seen that feminists in the first half of the nineteenth century tended to concentrate on issues of law, education and work rather than engage in struggles for their own political rights. This is not to say though that Victorian women were not involved in the political world, their indirect influence seems to have been very great. Perkin comments that ‘All the great moral and social changes of the nineteenth century were pioneered by private activity and benevolence. Both unmarried and married women gave their time and energies to a vast number of associations, societies, leagues, guilds and alliances’ (Perkin, 1, p. 17). The dominant domestic ideology of separate spheres can be seen to have been used by women to advance their position rather than to restrict their cause, and was used to bring issues out into the political arena (Perkin, 1, p. 17). Lacey describes the 1850s as a turning point for women, and she appears to be correct (Lacey, 186, p.1). By the 1850s it can be seen that a strong women’s movement was emerging, which would go on later to take on the fight for married women’s rights, custody issues, higher education and entrance into the professions for women, and eventually to win the fight for female suffrage (Perkins, 1, p. 1).


Bibliography


Caine, B. (1). Victorian Feminists. Oxford University Press Oxford/New York.


Harman, B.L. (18). The Feminine Political Novel in Victorian England. University Press of Virginia Virginia, USA.


Holcombe, L. (18). Wives and Property. University of Toronto Press Toronto, Buffalo & London.


Lacey, C.A. (Ed.). (186). Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and the Langham Place Group. Routledge and Keegan Paul Inc New York and London.


Levine, P. (14). Victorian Feminism 1850 - 100. University Press of Florida USA.


Perkins, J. (1). Victorian Women. John Murray Ltd London.


Rendall, J. (185). The Origins of Modern Feminism Women in Britain, France and the United States, 1760 -1860. Macmillan London.


Rendall, J. (Ed.). (187). Equal or Different, Women’s Politics 1800 - 114. Basil and Blackwell Oxford.


Reynolds, K. D (18). Aristocratic Women and Political Society in Victorian Britain. Oxford University Press New York and Oxford.


Tyrrell, A. (180) ‘Women’s Mission’ and Pressure Group Politics in Britain (185 - 1860)’. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library of Manchester. Autumn 180, Vol. 6, pp. 1 - .


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