Thursday, 24 January 2008

Re-presenting Women: 4

Representing 'separate spheres'?

How were women represented in this period? The concept of 'respectability' was a complex combination of moral, religious, economic and cultural systems. It was a concept of the public world of the middle classes that helped defined the individual's proper relationship with their worlds. Ethics and aesthetics were part of the definition of respectable values and of the categorisation of acceptable and unacceptable social codes[1]. The notion of respectability was defined for women in terms of dependency, delicacy and fragility. Independence was unnatural; it signified boldness and sexual deviancy. Female dependency was secured through economic, legal, medical and cultural discourses. Dependency should not be seen in terms of a repressive exercise of power but as a natural and gratifying part of respectable femininity. Male veneration, it was argued, upheld the delicacy and purity of women and, far from oppressing them elevated them to a superior position. Baptist Noel, an evangelical writer stated, [2] “Women deserve all tenderness; and, made of a more delicate organisation, and of less strength, they need respect and courtesy, protection in danger, the supply of their wants, and above all affection to repay affection.” The characteristics of ideal femininity were a part of a woman's normal biological development. This representation of the fragility of middle class femininity was set up in opposition to an image of working class women who were defined as inherently healthy, hardy and robust. This myth served the interests of the medical profession and of many middle class men.

The definition of female respectability was part of the wider formation of the domestic ideology[3] and the development of home and family values. A cult of domesticity developed with the separation of the home and the workplace during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Rather than the home being above the business in town centres with the women of the household involved in both commercial and domestic activities, businessmen began to move out of cities, investing in suburban housing and travelling daily into the city to the place of work. This had important implications for how the middle classes perceived the city. It was defined as a dangerous and threatening place into which a population of working class and casual poor could easily turn into a riotous mob and, by definition, not the place where middle class women should go.

The separation of work and home led to a reconstruction of gender identities. Women were defined ‘naturally’ as domestic beings, suited to the duties of the home and children. Men were associated with a public sphere, the world of work and politics. The middle-class home lost its association with work and was increasingly defined around notions of recreation, leisure, privacy and shelter. The home became a shelter or haven from the speculation, competition and conflicts of business and public life. It was ‘domesticated’. It was, however, much more than that[4] “The Home is the crystal of society -- the very nucleus of national character; and from that source, be it pure or tainted, issue the habits, principles and maxims, which govern public as well as private life. The nation comes from the nursery; public opinion itself is for the most part the outgrowth of the home.” Regulation, control and peace in the home ensured national security and prosperity. The breakdown of domestic order was understood in terms of a total social disintegration.

The ideologies of the home and of the separate spheres were fundamental elements in the formation of an ideal for middle class Perfect Lady. Both male and female writers, secular and clerical, sang its praises. How representative of nineteenth century womanhood was it? The existence of Perfect Ladies presupposes the availability of a plentiful supply of money, provided by working husbands, to create the cosy sanctuary, the home. However, the vast majority of women in Britain belonged to the working class for whom the ideal did not correspond to the reality of their lives. In trying to find Perfect Ladies historians have to look to the middle and upper classes, so we are already dealing with a small minority. The economic realities of life for the great majority of the middle classes meant that they had insufficient income to employ a legion of cooks, maids, nannies and governesses. The lot of many, perhaps most, middle class women was often one of hard work and making ends need, whilst helped in the house often by a single young maid-of-all work. Most middle class women could not afford the idleness or other trappings of the Perfect Woman stereotype. In reality, there are doubts whether many women indulged in the hypersensitivity with which the Perfect Lady is usually accredited. Ill health among lower middle class women was far more likely to arise from overwork and from non-stop childbearing than from inertia. Yet, this sickly facet of the Perfect Woman stereotype is important. Many novels provide evidence to this invalid image and one thinks of Elizabeth Barrett Browning kept as an imprisoned invalid by a possessive father. The view of women as consumptive weaklings could not have been projected without the active support of the medical profession that attempted to exert social controls over women’s lives by producing medical arguments in favour of the ‘traditional female role’. Their views on the health of women actually differed enormously according to class. Working class women were not dubbed as delicate invalids. Middle class women were regarded as inherently sick if they tried to step outside their prescribed role; working women, on the other hand, were themselves health hazards, who harboured the germs of cholera, typhoid and venereal disease, and who bore numerous unfit and inferior working class babies. The operation of a dual standard between the women of the middle and the working classes is quite striking.

The power of the dominant stereotype can be measured by its hold in areas very inappropriate to the objective conditions. Economic and social conditions made it impossible for the working class woman to attain the ideal of the Perfect Lady and for them there was rarely a separation between work and home. Yet, many members of the working class admired the ideal. Young girls could not be as innocent and as ignorant as a middle class girl. But the better off embraced premarital chastity and the family even more ardently than their social superiors in the middle classes. Middle class writers who were popular among the working class wrote about the moral purity of the reputable working class and the deserving poor. Dickens, Mrs Gaskell and George Eliot portrayed the sanctity of the working class home in the face of the moral carelessness of upper class men who thought they could freely dally with women beneath them.

In summing up the Perfect Lady, it must be restated that in many respects she represented only a very small minority. Nevertheless, there is little doubt of the influence of the ideal. The idea of the wife at home, the ‘angel in the house’, to look after the house and family became increasingly desirable. This copy of the Perfect Lady could not afford servants or idleness but she could be respectable, chaste and virtuous. Women who did not live up to these standards would be cast off by affronted husbands and be socially ostracised. The important point is that the Perfect Lady stereotype was gradually rejected by women -- by women who felt themselves suffocated by its cloying image. Middle class women launched the attack on the inactivity and economic dependence that was expected of them. They demanded control over property, economic independence, and admission to education and to the professions, wider employment opportunities and the franchise[5]. There were several economic and social reasons why feminism emerged and why it often focused on the Sex Question:

Some historians suggest that feminism emerged because of the break up of the old productive family unit, consequent on industrialisation that left single women redundant. Others pursue the sex ratio theory, showing that a ‘surplus’ female population existed in this period (in 1851 there were 1042 women to every 1000 men and by 1901 this had risen to 1068) and stating that these surplus, unsupported spinsters broke down the barriers to entry into the professions. The emergence of a distinct middle class effectively closed many of what would previously have been middle class female occupations. It was this group of middle class women, dissatisfied with their lot as defined for the Perfect Lady sought to redefine women's social position. They provided the overwhelming majority of feminists or New Women. It was these bourgeois women whom John Stuart Mill had in mind when he pleaded for equality of the sexes in The Subjection of Women in 1869 and it was they who took up the challenge. The increasing standards of living in the lower middle class and the labour aristocracy after 1870 resulted in rising social aspirations.

The new women were in part the product of changed socio-economic conditions and in part the result of the efforts of individual women who suffered social ostracism for their beliefs. The suffrage movement, educational reform, the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts and the fight to distribute birth control information all contributed to the decline of hypocrisy and rigidity. By the 1880s, the Perfect Lady could no longer hold her own unchallenged. Women increasingly demanded and gained constructive and useful roles in society. Job opportunities were opening to every class and the typewriter and telephone had a profound impact of work for women. Social attitudes were beginning to change. In the 1880s and 1890s, W.S. Gilbert was far softer in his satire of middle-aged spinsters than his predecessors in the music halls and in popular literature independent women became heroines for the first time. However, this was a slow process. The pages of Punch, a journal renowned for its anti-feminism, provide historians with the popular caricature of the New Woman. Her aspirations to education were derided in its pages throughout the 1890s. The entry of women to the professions was similarly a great joke. The New Woman was lampooned and shown in a variety of unladylike postures such as playing golf and riding bicycles. On the women’s campaign for the vote, Punch was equally biting: Suffragettes were uniformly old, ugly, butch and bespectacled. Despite the more sensitive nature of serious literature, the warnings were still there. In Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, 1896 there can be no happiness for Sue Bridehead: she recoiled from marriage to a good man, Jude; her children die horribly and she finally breaks down. George Gissing’s portrayal of spinsterhood in The Odd Women, 1892 showed the unhappiness to which their course had led them.

The image with which we are most frequently presented of the New Woman was cruel, mocking and hostile. In 1914, women were still largely excluded from circles of power, authority and prestige; marriage was still held out as the prime goal of every young woman. The ideal of the Perfect Lady was in the process of being replaced by the middle class notion of the New Woman, an ideal that condemned women to a less than equal position in society. It was the First World War and its immediate aftermath that, for a time, provided women with a significant degree of emancipation but by the mid 1920s, feminism was in retreat and women had been restored to what men saw as their place in the home.

The degree to which attitudes towards women changed during this period is one of some debate. Womanhood was an ideal to which most women were compelled to conform. Only the very bottom of society was immune to so pervasive a model. Women were educated to believe that they were, on the one hand, morally superior to men in their lack of sexual drive and, on the other hand, inferior because of their weaker nature. The chaste woman was seen as exerting an all-pervasive moral influence within the home and more generally in society. The woman who broke the family circle as prostitute, adulteress or divorcee threatened society’s very fabric. If society condoned these individuals then its very life was imperilled, though seemingly heaven and the colonies would welcome some fallen women. Women themselves were the greatest enforcers of standards of moral behaviour defined in purely sexual terms: Grundyism was a powerful force in the service of duty over passion and obedience over independence.

It is difficult now to evaluate how satisfied women were with their lot. A woman who was discontented would seek an individual rather than a group solution to her predicament. Clearly, the limited choice of employment, especially before the 1890s, and low pay for all classes of women meant that marriage remained the most attractive option. Nevertheless, the fluidity of Victorian England meant that women could not remain within a static role of domesticity. Even the most contented could not help but be affected by the intense debate on the position of women that swirled about them. By the 1860s, middle class women in particular were taking on an increasingly large number of tasks that required public agitation. A small number of activists hoped to broaden the definition of women’s ‘proper sphere’. This expansion proceeded unevenly and was based on assumptions that could not always be reconciled. Respectability was the goal of outsiders, from actresses to shopkeepers, and its possession the prize of even the most militant feminist.


[1] Nead Myths of Sexuality examines the issues surrounding the representation of femininity in Victorian art. High culture in the form of publicly exhibited paintings carried very high stakes in Victorian England. It was the arena in which class and national identities were proposed and where definitions of normality and deviance were shaped.

[2] Baptist Noel The Fallen and their Associates, London, 1860, pages 7-8.

[3] Catherine Hall ‘The Early Formation of Victorian Domestic Ideology’, in her White, Male and Middle Class, Oxford 1994, pages 75-93 provides a valuable discussion of the development of this central concept between the 1790s and 1840s. It provides a fundamental context for later developments.

[4] Samuel Smiles Self-Help, London, 1859, page 274

[5] Philippa Levine Victorian Feminism 1850-1900, London 1987 looks at feminist protest before the Suffragettes and provides a valuable examination of the emergence of the 'New Woman'

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