A few years before I met my husband, I was sitting in a coffee shop with another single female friend while we lamented over our despairing “singlehood.” We were both discussing how complicated the “dating world” can be, especially from a more traditional Christian perspective. In a progressively changing world, the older traditions from our parents and grandparents generation were becoming increasingly untenable. Traditional dating advice in churches for women had been to wait for a man to pursue you instead of pursuing him – advice which seemed archaic in the new 21st century culture of social networking and online dating.
I remember my friend said to me –
“Sometimes I wish we could just go back to the Victorian age- everything was so much simpler then. The man pursued you, you got married, and that was that. None of this dating game nonsense we have today.”
However, despite all of the beautiful and idyllic images we conjure up in our minds when we imagine the Victorians, there is plenty which would be distasteful to our palates today. Thus, I have six reasons why I do not wish to be a Victorian Woman…
Six Reasons I am glad that I’m not a Victorian Woman
1. Victorian women could not vote.
The most obvious disadvantage – women could not vote in the Victorian era; the vote was not granted until 1918, and even then only to women over 30 with particular qualifications. During the Victorian era, the husband’s vote (for those who had the right to vote) would represent the family. It was widely believed that women were intellectually (and physically) inferior to men, and – therefore, largely incapable of making such informed decisions (without the aid of their husbands).
2. Victorian women had no legal rights.
Once a woman was married, she was considered “one with her husband” in keeping with biblical tradition. In the Victorian era, this was extended to her legal status as well. A married woman had no legal status apart from her husband. And thus, she had no independent property rights apart from her husband. Early in the Victorian era, all of the property and earnings which a woman gained through inheritance or wages would be passed to her husband. Women who were entitled to an inheritance from a parent or former spouse risked losing all control over this inheritance if she married. Indeed, it was not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 that this changed – after which point women were allowed to keep their earnings and inheritance up to £200.
3. Victorian women had no independent conjugal rights.
Married women had no independent conjugal rights. Her husband was permitted to force intimacy, and could not be accused of rape. On the contrary, if a wife refused intimacy to her insatiable husband, he could have her imprisoned. This remained in force until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1884 – which ruled that women could not be imprisoned for resisting conjugal relations…but she could be divorced.
4. Victorian women could not keep their children.
If a marriage did turn out to be tumultuous, and the couple ended up legally separating or divorcing, the custodial rights of the children belonged exclusively to the husband. This was even the case if the husband was the offending party which caused this divorce. A scorned woman could end up with her children seized by her husband upon divorce, and then raised by his adulteress – and she would have no legal recourse to prevent this from happening. This outcome dissuaded many women for seeking divorce, even if they had a legitimate cause to do so. If they did end up in this situation, by choice or otherwise, they risked losing their children.
A famous example of this was through Caroline Norton, who was accused by her husband of holding a “criminal conversation” (sleeping with) Lord Melbourne. Mr Norton, it appeared, was jealous over his wife’s success as a writer, since he held very little success in his job ventures. When the divorce case was thrown out due to lack of evidence, Mr Norton kept their children away from Caroline and refused to let her into their family home. Caroline was extremely active – publishing pamphlets and writing letters appealing to lawmakers to implement women’s rights. Eventually, it did – through the 1839 Infant Custody Act which allowed children under the age of 7 to remain with their mother – only if she was of good character. This was raised to age 16 in 1873.
5. Victorian women could not disobey their husbands.
Women could suffer serious consequences for disobedience to their husband. Wife-beating, in the 19th century, was not uncommon, nor was it socially unacceptable. In fact, it was generally believed that men could beat their wives if they were disobeyed, as long as it was not excessively cruel. A popular phrase in the 19th century was that a wife should only be punished with “a stick not thicker than his thumb.” Notably, a number of magistrates did disagree that men had this right. Nevertheless, a litany of cases can be found which document the brutal beatings many wives suffered. Despite this brutality, women were not permitted to divorce, as identified in the next point.
6. Victorian women could not leave their husbands – with few exceptions
Divorce carried with it almost insurmountable difficulty, for both men and women in the Victorian era. However, this task was far more difficult for women than men. Early in the Victorian era, a husband could divorce his wife for one instance of adultery. We saw above that later in the era, a wife could be divorced for refusing conjugal relations with her husband. A wife, on the other hand, could only divorce her husband in cases of desertion. Later, the 1857 Marriage act did make divorce more accessible for women – she could divorce her husband for adultery, but if (and only if) it was accompanied by cruelty, incest, or bigamy.
For example, Elizabeth Lander, endured constant abuse from her husband. He threatened her with a razor and a gun, and beat her with a rod. However, her divorce was only granted when she was able to prove this abuse and his repeated adultery.
While the Victorian era may conjure up images of a sweet and quiet idyllic life – the lack of women’s rights made this far from a reality for many women. On one hand, for some fortunate women, all six of these issues would never have been a problem for them. A kind and loving husband may have consulted his wife with a listening ear regarding politics, may have given her generous access to their finances, been respectful of her intimate desires, been humble during disagreements, fair with their children, and given no cause for separation or divorce. However, this was most certainly not the case for all women – and the fact is – if women did end up in an unfortunate situation which was less than ideal, they had no legal recourse to change it.
Atkinson, D. (2012). The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton. London: Preface Publishing.
ParliamentUK. Custody Rights and Domestic Violence. [online]. Available at: http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/overview/custodyrights/
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Perkin, J. (1995). Victorian Women. New York: New York University Press.
Steinbach, S. (2004). Women in England 1760-1914. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Victorianweb.org, (2010). Timeline of Legislation, Events, and Publications Crucial to the Development of Victorian Feminism. [online] Available at: http://www.victorianweb.org/history/wmhisttl.html
Wojtczak, H. (2014). British Women & Emancipation since the Renaissance. [online] Available at: http://www.historyofwomen.org/marriage.html
Woolley, L. (2014). Investigating the Victorians. [lecture] Oxford: Oxford Univeristy.