How then could a Victorian woman break away from imitation – or guilty aberration – of the model of the perfect lady? The full answer is surely subject to interpretation, and far more research is necessary, but the new woman was in part a product of changed social and economic conditions, and in part the result of the courageous 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 downfall of hypocrisy and rigidity. By the 1880’s 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, making it possible for women to achieve economic independence (though often at great psychological cost. as George Gissing’s The Odd Women  illustrates). Social attitudes were also changing… In popular literature independent women became heroines for the first time. Sexual attitudes also changed; the most consistent tenet of the women’s movement was the application of female sexual standards to all of society. Only a few advanced thinkers recognised that equality would not lead to male continence, but female indulgence. The women and men of the late nineteenth century were never so Victorian as when they insisted upon radical economic and social change within the context of stern Victorian sexual mores.
The 19th century gave birth to many sad statements on the “natural” position of women in society, but one of the saddest, given that it appeared in a conduct manual widely read and followed, Sarah Stickney Ellis’s 1845 publication, The Daughters Of England, is surely the following:
If, then, for man it be absolutely necessary that he should sacrifice the poetry of his nature for the realities of material and animal existence, for woman there is no excuse—for woman, whose whole life, from the cradle to the grave, is one of feeling, rather than of action; whose highest duty is so often to suffer, and be still; whose deepest enjoyments are all relative; who has nothing, and is nothing, of herself…
From this chilling passage comes the title of Suffer And Be Still: Women In The Victorian Age, a collection of essays addressing the Victorian woman edited by Martha Vicinus and published in 1972—a time when the idea that “women’s studies” might be a legitimate field of research was still fairly new, rather ridiculous, and yet somehow threatening, as is evident in the tone of Vicinus’s introduction:
…there has been a widespread distrust in the new field of women studies. Some argue that it lacks academic depth and rigor, or that there is not enough material to study, while others say that we must maintain our loyalty to a particular discipline lest we lose ourselves in an ill-defined area without “acceptable” criteria of research or clear academic standards. The most common criticism has been against research has been against research that might be biased, trivial or, worst of all, trendy. The simplest answer to such critics is that the failure to study the position of women in society and history is equally biased—and to date no standard nineteenth-century history text gives the women’s movement more than token space. With the widespread publication of books about women, past and present, and the growing acceptance of courses on women, many of these fears will be silenced. Nevertheless, the financing of women studies and research remains minimal—in part because of financial cutbacks in higher education, but primarily because of the continued refusal to take seriously the study of women as a paramount, and not merely legitimate, field of study.
With this background, it is comforting to know that Suffer And Be Still grew out of a situation of demand. A 1970 issue of the journal Victorian Studies with the theme “Victorian woman” was so successful that a second round of essays were commissioned, eventually resulting in the publication of this book. The ten essays cover a variety of aspects of Victorian life, though necessarily the topics are fragmented and unconnected, and much remains unaddressed. Among the contributors are some important Victorianists including M. Jeanne Peterson and Helene E. Roberts, as well as the feminist authors Elaine Showalter and Kate Millet, who coincidentally (or not?) co-author and author two of the essays I found most compelling and wish to consider in the most detail.
M. Jeanne Peterson’s The Victorian Governess considers the anomalous position of its title figure, a lady but not a lady, a servant but not a servant, occupying a kind of twilight zone between “upstairs” and “downstairs”. It also examines the contradictory system wherein a man’s status was indicated by how thoroughly his wife was a lady of leisure, this in turn requiring that some other woman, born in the same sphere but faced with financial necessity, give up her own claim to be a lady of any kind by finding paid employment. Peterson also makes a case that the attraction of foreign-born governesses was not the advantage of language lessons for the children but that, existing outside English society in any case, these women did not bring with them the same awkward sense of class dislocation.
In From Dame To Woman, Jane W. Stedman examines cross-dressing stage actresses in the Victorian era, but her focus is on the handling of unmarried women on the stage generally, and by Gilbert and Sullivan in particular – Gilbert being a common (and in her opinion, unjust) target of criticism for his work in this area. She demonstrates the extent to which the old maid was a figure of ridicule and opprobrium, equally for being unmarried and for wanting to get married at an “advanced” age. However, she also shows that over the latter decades of the century there was a softening of attitude, with spinsters more frequently allowed a romance and a happy ending, a greater tendency to cast unmarried women in the role of fairy godmother, and a willingness to admit that there might be female qualities of more value than the external.
One of the two slightly “cheaty” essays in this volume is Peter N. Stearns’ Working-Class Women In Britain, 1890-1914, which goes beyond the bounds of “Victorianism” in order to draw upon the increasing availability of demographic data for the first decades of the 20th century in its discussion of changing financial, social and medical conditions for working-class women during this period. This essay considers shifting patterns of residence, employment, marriage and child-bearing – noting the decrease in average family size as understanding of birth control spread, and also the increasing tendency for married women with children to nevertheless find employment, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes by choice. (I find myself thoroughly in sympathy with the woman who, questioned as to her choice to work instead of confining her activities to the home, responded: “It’ud give me the bloomin’ ‘ump.”) Overall, Stearns contends, the lot of the single woman improved during this time, with greater freedom, employment opportunities and recreational options, but that of her married sister deteriorated as ages fell, prices rose, and the economic partnership that had traditionally existed in working-class homes increasingly broke down under a variety of pressures.
Marriage, Redundancy Or Sin is Helene E. Roberts’ examination of women as depicted by artists during the early Victorian age, the vast majority of renderings falling, as she notes, into one of three categories, and too often functioning as a form of propaganda or a shying away from reality—although this was in keeping with the prevailing view of the function of art: a reviewer in the Art Journal of 1852 criticised those artists who used their work to draw attention to the darker side of life: “It is not the office of Art to present to us truths of an offensive kind; these are abundant in every-day life and it is in Art that we seek a refuge from them.” Though a few artists chose to ignore this stern warning, many took the hint and produced idealised portraits of fulfilling middle-class domesticity or, alternatively, happy cottagers living a life so increasingly far from the reality of industrialising 19th century England as to be pure fantasy. Alternatively, they produced cautionary tales showing the inevitable fate of any woman who strayed off the narrow beaten path – the most famous example being perhaps Augustus Egg’s triptych Past And Present, which centres upon an adulterous wife. A few artists did buck the system, doggedly producing confrontational pictures of either “redundant” or “fallen” women, though not without encountering resistance: when Richard Redgrave painted The Poor Teacher, showing the miseries of a governess’s life, his patron made him re-do it with happy children playing in the background, to lighten its mood (though they were by definition not the subject’s children). Other artists stuck to their guns, including George Frederic Watts, whose The Seamstress gives Suffer And Be Still its cover image.
From the idealisation of women in Victorian art we jump to a particularly grim Victorian reality in Eric M. Sigsworth and Terence J. Wyke’s essay, A Study Of Victorian Prostitution And Venereal Disease, which offers wide-ranging statistics on both of these aspects of life, and covers the introduction of, and the battle against, the Contagious Diseases Acts, which allowed for the forcible detention, medical examination and virtual imprisonment of prostitutes. This area of study repeatedly highlights the tacit acceptance of prostitution as the “maintainer” of polite society, freeing “good” women from the vile necessity of submitting to their husbands’ carnal lusts and retaining marital sex as merely for procreation. The Contagious Diseases Acts were introduced in response to the skyrocketing levels of venereal disease amongst the armed forces, yet no attempt was made to alter the behaviour of the men, merely to render the prostitutes “safer”. Similarly, those pressing for the legal power to detain prostitutes in order to prevent the infection of married women and their babies managed to leave the erring husband almost entirely out of the equation, treating the prostitute as directly responsible for the transmission of disease to the wife. A bizarre sidelight of this area of research is the related argument over whether prostitutes experienced sexual pleasure, or whether they merely “simulated” it to heighten male passion; it was believed by some that sexual desire was dormant in women until they had “fallen”; though few seemed to join Point A and Point B, namely, that married men turned to prostitutes for the enthusiasm (simulated or otherwise) they were by definition not finding at home. Resorting to prostitution was also considered less transgressive and damaging than masturbation—or as it was discreetly called (in The Lancet, of all places!), “Another evil resulting in the abomination of prematurely exhausted powers.” This article quotes copiously from William Acton’s Prostitution, Considered In Its Moral, Social, And Sanitary Aspects (1857):
Later, Acton echoed: “I should say that the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind”, and, allowing for aberrant exceptions (“nymphomania, a form of insanity”), had no doubt, “That sexual feeling in the female is in the majority of cases in abeyance…and even if roused, which in many instances it can never be, is very moderate compared with that of the male.
“Many of the best mothers, wives and managers of households, know little of or are careless about sexual indulgences. Love of home, children, and of domestic duties are the only passions they feel.
“As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him; and, were it not for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions…”
(Yeah, baby… Nothing gets me hot and bothered like “domestic duties”…)
Much of the rest of Suffer And Be Still is devoted to the profoundly contradictory Victorian views on the nature of women and the relations of the sexes. The question of female sexuality was obviously a deeply troubling one, informing a set of life-rules for young women that were simultaneously hilarious, bewildering, and just plain cruel. Even supposedly scientifically-based studies of biology managed to conclude in justifications of a social system that confined women to the home and severely limited their activities and opportunities. Again and again academic studies showed signs of insight and advanced thinking, only suddenly to contract upon themselves in an explanation of why the existing social arrangements were biologically pre-determined.
Jill Conway’s Stereotypes Of Femininity In A Theory Of Sexual Evolution examines the work of some of the leading figures in sociology during the late Victorian period. At this time physiology and genetics were imperfectly understood, allowing academics to fill out the interstices in general knowledge with their own particular prejudices. Biological explanations for the “natural” inferiority of women were sought, and the idea that a woman’s primary function was reproduction, and that all her other functions, mental and physical, were subservient to the development and maintenance of her reproductive organs, recurs again and again. According to Herbert Spencer in his The Study Of Sociology, for instance, sex differences were the result of, “A somewhat earlier arrest of individual evolution in women than in men, necessitated by the reservation of vital power to meet the cost of reproduction.” In The Evolution Of Sex, Patrick Geddes argued for distinct metabolic processes between the sexes, “katabolic” in the male and “anabolic” in the female: the former transmitting or dissipating energy, that latter conserving and storing it. Under this theory, “The hungry, active cell becomes flagellate sperm, while the quiescent, well-fed one becomes an ovum.” In the developed human, men were necessarily active, and women passive. Social structures which kept women in the home were an evolutionary determinant geared towards ensuring that women conserved the energy necessary to reproduce. A few years later, Leonard T. Hobhouse rejected many of Geddes’ arguments in Morals In Evolution, yet managed to come up with a competing theory that still kept women in the home, namely, the necessity of “reconciling” them to their fate by convincing them that, “Motherhood of the healthy and capable [was] a form of social service.” Pre-determination had been ceded, but women still weren’t making it out the front door…
The desire to stop women expanding their lives also fuelled one of the most peculiar Victorian arguments about female biology, as is considered in this volume’s second “cheaty” essay— “cheaty” because although it stays within the broader boundaries of Victorianism, it finds it necessary to cross from England to America in order to gather some of its materials. Co-authored by Elaine Showalter and her husband English, Victorian Women And Menstruation examines the co-opting of female biology by male doctors as part of the effort to prevent women having access to higher education. The early stages of the essay are devoted to emphasising just how little was understood about the process in question, and how long a variety of bizarre myths were believed and propagated. Like “wet dreams”, menstruation was regarded as a disease and treated accordingly; as the century wore on, there was greater and greater insistence upon regarding it as a debilitating condition. In 1869, addressing the Anthopological Society of London, James MacGrigor Allan, an author and prominent antifeminist, had this to say upon the subject:
At such times, women are unfit for any great mental or physical labour. They suffer under a languor and depression that disqualify them for thought or action, and render it extremely doubtful how far they can be responsible beings while the crisis lasts. Much of the inconsequent conduct of women, their petulance, caprice, and irritability, may be traced directly to this cause… Michelet defines woman as an invalid; such she emphatically is, as compared with man. In intellectual labour, man has surpassed, does now, and always will surpass woman, for the obvious reason that nature does not periodically interrupt his thought and application.
And as the century wore on, the clamour grew ever louder—not without an underlying agenda. As women agitated for change, demanding greater access to education and even to careers, the medical profession fought back with lengthy treatises explaining why their own biology made it impossible.
The main focus of this essay is the publication in 1873 of a book called Sex In Education, which was devoted to arguing that higher education for women destroyed their reproductive capacity—if not their entire lives. The author of this remarkable work was Dr Edward Clarke, a professor at Harvard; his argument (by no means unique to himself, astonishingly) was that education – too much thinking, in other words – “diverted” the blood flow from the reproductive organs to the brain, causing the former to shrivel and die.
(There were a variety of reactions to Dr Clarke’s treatise, as we shall see. Disappointingly, no-one seems to have inquired into whether higher education for men led to an epidemic of “shrinkage”.)
Clarke’s book was leapt upon by others with a similar agenda. Henry Maudsley, a leading British psychiatrist, used it to attack female aspirations across the board—for women’s own good, of course: “Women are marked out by nature for very different offices in life from those of men, and that the healthy performance of her special functions renders it improbable she will succeed, and unwise for her to persevere, in running over the same course at the same pace with him,” he wrote in 1874, adding that this was true even if women never married or had children. Their physiology was a fundamental, inescapable handicap: “[Women are] for one quarter of each month during the best years of life…more or less sick and unfit for hard work.”
But the barriers that these men were so desperate to keep in place were already crumbling. There were already female doctors and social scientists, and a number of them made sharp attacks upon the arguments of Clarke, Maudsley and their ilk—in the process dragging menstruation out of the mire of myth and into the light of common knowledge.
The ongoing argument was mostly confined to the predominantly masculine world of medical and scientific journals and societies – menstruation being regarded, of course, as a subject unfit for women – but Henry Maudsley made the tactical error of publishing his thoughts in the Fortnightly Review, thus opening it up to public debate. A doctor called Elizabeth Garrett Anderson published a rebuttal of Maudsley in the next issue of the magazine, contending both from personal and professional experience that the debilitating effects of menstruation were “much exaggerated” by male doctors. In particular, she pounced upon the blatant class bias inherent in their arguments, pointing out that working-class women were hardly known for taking “complete bed rest” for a week each month, as was often prescribed as necessary for their middle-class sisters. Nor were female servants in those very same middle-class households generally given any dispensation from their duties (which presumably included waiting on their incapacitated employers) at that time. Meanwhile, back in America, a women’s health manual called Eve’s Daughters by Marion Harland countered the “bed rest” brigade with admirable common sense, prescribing instead ginger tea and hot water bottles if necessary, backed up by warm encouragement to go on with life as normally as possible.
Yet Clarke’s book threw a long shadow. In 1908, M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr, reflected upon her own encounter with it in her youth:
“We did not know when we began whether women’s health could stand the strain of college education. We were haunted in those days by the clanging chains of that gloomy little spectre, Dr Edward H. Clarke’s Sex In Education. With trepidation of spirit I made my mother read it, and was much cheered by her remark that, as neither she nor any of the women she knew, had ever seen girls or women of the kind described in Dr Clarke’s book, we might as well act as if they did not exist.”
As with this debate over menstruation, much Victorian thought on the subject of female sexuality was a matter of trying to reconcile reassuring theory with upsetting practice. Various sociological models at the time centred around the constructs known as Homo Economicus and Homo Sensualis and the tensions between these two “sides” to human – meaning male – nature. In Innocent Femina Sensualis In Unconscious Conflict, however, Peter T. Cominos is concerned with the female counterparts of these constructs, Femina Domesticus and Femina Sensualis. In both sexes, in addition to the overt conflict between Economicus / Domesticus and Sensualis, the Sensualis construct was also divided and in conflict, with tension between the “higher” part of human nature – reason, conscience, duty – and the “lower” – bodily appetites, including sexual desire. The very idea that women had bodily appetites was disturbing to many Victorians, and much effort was put into reconciling this distasteful idea with the prevailing belief in “natural” female innocence. Innocence itself was almost a tangible thing, to be preserved at all cost. Once it was lost – and at this time, “loss of innocence” meant not loss of virginity, but simply the acquisition of certain knowledge – purity was gone forever and corruption the inevitable consequence. But what of that troubling Femina Sensualis? Nature, it was argued, protected girls from their “animal” natures by making them ignorant that they existed in the first place; unaware that there was such a thing as desire, they surely could not feel it. Here we have the most consoling answer to the troubling questions highlighted in A Study Of Victorian Prostitution And Venereal Disease: namely, that women could experience sexual desire, but as long as they did not know they could, they were safe.
Ridiculous as all this might seem to us, it wasn’t funny for the frightened and mortified girls who found themselves experiencing feelings which, it had been drummed into them, were low, shameful and corrupting. Really good girls, it was contended, though not of course recognising evil of their own knowledge, had an instinct which intervened in time to prevent them from gaining such knowledge. If you did not have such an instinct, if certain thoughts and feelings made their way into your consciousness, you were “soiled” forever.
We have met Elizabeth Missing Sewell at this blog before, in my consideration of the 19th century religious novel: you might recall her as a proponent of the theory that the best way for young women to live was to submit themselves utterly to the authority of fathers, husbands and/or brothers, immerse themselves in religious practice, and never, ever think or act for themselves. This being the case, it is hardly unexpected to find her also weighing in on the subject of the “protective instinct”: Cominos quotes from her Principles Of Education (1865), which has a chapter titled “Purity”:
“If a girl’s mind is not pure,—if her own instincts are so blunted that she cannot feel evil before she can explain it,—if she cannot shrink from it without knowing why she does so,—may God help her! for the wisest safeguards which the best friends may provide for her will never be sufficient to secure her from danger.”
We are not much surprised when Peter Cominos also starts quoting William Acton in this context, nor to find that he was a believer in the desexualised “angel in the house”. According to Acton, a “good” woman’s lack of desire was intended to help men control their own, more “animalistic” natures. The problem was that too many boys got their ideas about sex from “loose” women: “Any susceptible boy is easily led to believe, whether he is altogether overcome by the siren or not, that she, and therefore all women, must have at least as strong passions as himself.” Acton goes on to excoriate prostitutes for “simulating” sexual feelings, thus further propagating “false” ideas of female nature which were carried into the marital bed with tragic consequences. Remarkably, it seems that Acton was so set against the notion of women being capable of sexual pleasure that he was reluctant to concede that even prostitutes might experience it: one of his main purposes in writing on the subject, he explains, was to, “Vindicate female nature from the vile aspersions cast on it by the abandoned conduct and ungoverned lusts of a few of its worst examples.”
Comments Cominos wryly:
The contrast with ladies is simply marvellous. They were alleged to have no physical desire to control so long as their innate “island of innocence” was kept pure by the proper surveillance of mothers and chaperones and by the sense of shame which every manifestation of their own erotic desire aroused. Theoretically and ideally, gentlemen were to be masters of themselves, responsible and self-controlled; ladies had nothing to master or to be responsible for and were to be controlled or “protected” by others. Thus, in the Victorian battle of the sexes, women were disarmed of the weapon of their sexuality. Gentlemen imposed unilateral disarmament upon them which they simultaneously denied doing through the theory of female sexual anaesthesia.
Over the course of the 19th century, arguments over the “true” nature of women became more and more public; the two extremes of the conflict are the subject of Kate Millet’s essay, The Debate Over Women: Ruskin vs Mill, in which she considers the irreconcilably polarised views of women to be found in their definitive publications on the subject, John Ruskin’s own essay, Of Queen’s Gardens, and John Stuart Mill’s ground-breaking The Subjection Of Women.
Of course, given what we know these days about the ins and outs of the Ruskin marriage—or rather, the lack of ins and outs of the Ruskin marriage—the idea of John Ruskin setting himself up as an expert on women seems rather ludicrous; though of course, in his writings he was very much concerned with theories of the ideal woman.
Ruskin was a profound believer in “separate spheres”: he was in favour of female subjection, denial of education, and of an existence confined entirely to the home; not that he phrased it quite as bluntly of that. Instead he dresses it all up in the language of fairy-tale and chivalry – every woman is a “queen”, every man her loyal subject; instead of pernicious “rights”, she has “a natural power” – her innate moral superiority acted as a guide and an inspiration for men; her duty was to build, less a mere home, more a magical fairy-bower, which could act as an impenetrable barrier against harsh reality, and into which men could retreat. Where this system failed, it was because women did not appreciate the power they wielded over men, which was nothing less than “royal” in its extent; her home was not merely a home, but a “realm” which she “ruled”. If only women realised this and were content, instead of striving for empty acquisitions which could only breed dissension and cause unhappiness – !
Each [sex] has what the other has not; each completes the other. They are nothing alike, and the happiness and perfection of both depends on each asking and receiving from the other what the other only can give… 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… But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle and her intellect is not for invention or recreation, but sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. She sees the quality of things, their claims and their places. Her great function is praise; she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest. By her office and place, she is protected from all danger and temptation…
Ah, yes— “temptation”—that spectre lurking just outside the door, which threatened to destroy any woman foolhardy enough to step over her own threshold, in spite of that moral superiority of which we hear so much… It is, in fact, painfully evident that John Ruskin had bought into the most fundamental contradiction of Victorian life: the belief that men were crude, animalistic, and irreversibly soiled by being forced to contend with the world—yet at the same time inherently superior and in a position of natural authority; whereas women were pure, spiritual, strong and superior in their innate morality—yet at the same time weak, vulnerable and liable to instant and profound corruption, and so in need of constant supervision.
In the course of his own comprehensive examination of the position of women in society, John Stuart Mill has a few choice words to say about this paradox:
[Women] are declared to be better than men; an empty compliment which must provoke a bitter smile from every woman of spirit, since there is no other situation in life in which it is the established order, and considered natural and suitable, that the better should obey the worse…
The Subjection Of Women is a sweeping denunciation of the beliefs and practices most cherished by the Victorians. Mill attacks on every front: the law, education, home life, religion, finance, social theory; everything that contributed to a power imbalance between the sexes that, he contends, was not only unjust and brutalising in itself – to both sexes – but which was preventing society as a whole from achieving its potential. The “natural” differences between men and women, on which the “necessary” subjection of the latter is generally predicated, are a particular bugbear:
Standing on the ground of common sense and the constitution of the human mind, I deny that anyone knows or can know, the nature of the two sexes, so long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another… What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others…
All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite of that of men: not self will, and government by self control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others…
Mill sums up his thesis as follows:
That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on one side, nor disability on the other…
Comparing Of Queen’s Gardens and The Subjection Of Women, it is almost impossible to grasp that they were the work of men exposed to essentially the same experiences and influences. Reading John Stuart Mill, the lasting impression one gains of him is not merely that he was ahead of his time, but that he was from another planet.
Which is also – more or less – the conclusion reached by Kate Millet:
It is hard to believe that Mill and Ruskin are discussing the same subject—or, that since each claims to have the best interests of womanhood at heart—that one of the two does not prevaricate.
She then pens three words that very nearly manage to sum up the bewildering and contradictory views of the Victorians on that most difficult of subjects, Woman:
Both are sincere.