This paper discusses the role of women in Victorian England. In particular, it discussed the role that women’s sexuality and sexual roles played in confirming their inferior status in Victorian society, with regard to the idealised roles of virgin, wife, mother, or prostitute.
Women have been treated as inferior to men socially, physically, morally, and mentally in many societies throughout history; in Western history in particular women have not enjoyed emancipation until very recently in history. In examining the role of women in the society of Victorian England, it can be seen that the regulation of women’s sexuality has been fundamental to the suppression of women.
Women in Victorian England were considered inferior to men (Perkin, 1993, p. 1), and as such were affected by social, political, and legal regulations which reinforced this image of inferiority. Many of these regulations related to a woman’s sexuality: her role as a virgin, a wife, or a mother. The concept of “separate spheres” dictated that while men were permitted to act in the public realm, women were confined to the private realm of the home and the family, where they fulfilled the legitimate and sexually-determined roles of either virginal daughter or morally-upstanding wife and mother (Perkin, 1993). To enter the public realm was, for a women, to risk advertising her sexuality and being aligned with the only other role imaginable for a woman: that of prostitute. Sexuality, therefore, was seen as fundamentally linked to morality for women, and as expressed through every act of social compliance or transgression. This black and white polarisation of roles and identities meant that for a woman to act in a way that was in any manner considered independent, forward, or authoritative was considered equivalent to sexual transgression, and the regulation of women’s sexuality therefore became a matter of public policy.
For middle and upper class women, permissible sex occurred only after marriage, and was seen as a duty which allowed for the production of healthy children to promote the strength of the nation and the Empire. However, “an ideology about women emerged in the 1840s and 50s which virtually denied women’s sexuality” (Perkin, 1993, p. 64). As a result, the laws governing marriage, divorce, and inheritance revolved around concepts of a woman’s sexual duty, sexual morality, and sexual compliance with fundamentally patriarchal principles. A woman could, for example, find her marriage annulled if she refused the sexual demands of her husband; for a women without a husband or father to support her, work within the public sphere was necessary leading inevitably to her sexual reputation being called into question. A woman had no legal right to keep her children, and unwed mothers could find themselves denied social aid on moral grounds (Perkin, 1993). Sexual compliance was a requisite for social respectability, leading to the control of women through their reproductive and sexual behaviours.
For women who forsook the proscribed roles of mother and wife, social opinion would often align them with the morally reprehensible problem of prostitution. Just as the control of respectable women’s sexuality was a central concern of Victorian politics and law, so too was the control of the sexually-fallen woman. While pre-Victorian attempts to ban prostitution concentrated on “the harm prostitution did to women”, for example, Victorian attempts instead “emphasized the harm done to society, particularly to men and the military” (Landow, 2006, n.p.). This view suggests the way in which the inferiority of women was written into legislation and social policy, with sexual exploitation of women being indirectly sanctioned, and women themselves being considered as unworthy of social protection and status if their sexuality was made public.
As can be seen, therefore, the position of women in Victorian society illustrates the way attitudes towards women’s sexual roles in patriarchal society have contributed to their oppression. It was only as understanding of and attitudes towards women’s sexuality began to change in the twentieth century that women began to gain greater freedom and status in society.
- Landow, G. P. (2006). “Early and Mid-Victorian Attitudes towards Prostitution.” Victorian Web. Retrieved from: http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/prostitution2.html.
- Perkin, J. (1993). Victorian Women. New York: New York University Press.