What were the major reasons for the suffering of women in Victorian England?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Three of the major reasons for the suffering of women in Victorian England were legal, religious, and ideological constraints. In terms of legal constraints, women were not recognized as having legal status while they were unmarried and living under their father's guardianship and, then again, once they were married. Women whose father had died and who had their own means of support--whether through inheritance or work--and who refused to marry or co-habitate could be considered legally independent.

Otherwise, women held no legal rights. Once married, they held no rights to their property or bodies. All their possessions were legally turned over to their husbands upon marriage. A husband could demand both conjugal and childbearing rights of his wife. Children were the property of the husband and could be taken from the wife or sent away without her consent. Should she choose to leave a violent marriage, she would leave penniless and without her children. If she were caught, she would be returned to her husband who had the right to punish and imprison her. Literature to the point is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, A Dolls' House, Jane Eyre and David Copperfield.

In terms of religious constraints, the New Testament admonition to subordination of women to their husbands was raised to idolatrous standards and the Church of England condoned or, at best, turned its back on mistreatment given wives by their husbands. Additionally, women were typified as weak-minded individuals who were easily swayed by sin, vice and deceit and as the originators of the temptation that tore men from the Biblical Garden of Paradise, Eden; so women were not to be trusted.

This had ramifications in two directions. First, women were not to be trusted in terms of their power to seduce men away from moral conduct. Therefore their dress and deportment must at all times be the extreme of chaste and modest. Clothing of the Victorian period confined women's movement and endangered their health--much as women's clothing does now. Second, they were not to be trusted in the sense that they were not to be exposed to higher ideas such as men could objectively debate and judge as good or bad.

In terms of ideological constraints, women, at their best--when protected from deceit, sin and vice and covered up, thus hiding their seductive powers--were goddesses and angels of the home. They were recognized as the ones who would bear and rear the next generation of men (who would rule and expound untold great ideas) and women (who would bear and rear the next generation of great men and child-bearing women).

Even though women could independently educate themselves to the higher ideas of philosophy, science, and history (if permitted to do so), and even though women were permitted to be midwives and doctors, social pressures of criticism and ostracism were so great that few dared venture where permitted to go. Women of the upper classes restricted themselves to being nurses, writers and governesses. Women of the lower classes labored at menial jobs--domestic service, factory labor, farming--while trying to raise too many children with too little money--very much like women of lower classes do now.

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coachingcorner | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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A woman's lot in Victorian England partly depended on her social status and wealth. Privileged women may have had a comfortable standard of living but they did not have the vote, or much control over their finances or future. Poorer women often had to squash together with their huge families cheek by jowl in crowded unsanitary conditions where they and their children often died. Many were expected to get by by living on scraps of food such as bread, tea and watery porrige at the same time as bearing large numbers of children and holding down exhausting jobs in dangerous occupations such as mills and factories. Disease was rife and many couldn't afford a doctor.

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besure77 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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There were different classes of women in Victorian England ranging from upper class to lower class. The amount of work a woman did depended on her class but essentially all women worked in some manner and none of them had the same rights as men. Most women during this time period worked very hard taking care of the family and back then it was much different. Women had to sew clothing, hand wash it, grow and process food, and take care of sick members of the family.

Women were virtually dependents of their husbands or fathers. They were not expected to be educated but instead expected to get married and raise children. Everything they had belonged to their husbands, in some states even the clothes on their backs.

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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You can tell a lot from this conclusion reached by a leading expert in the medical field:

The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind" - Dr. William Acton

This phrase carries with it a lot of meaning and clearly is almost a euphemism of the complete disregard that society as a whole had towards the needs of women. In that, I believe that it is that lack of care of the quality of lives of woman what made for the most of the suffering they endured.

1. Women were not supposed to marry for love, but for the betterment of their relations, and to establish themselves as household mistresses. Their roles as mothers and nourishers was expected to ensue, and after that they were just fixtures in society expected to make calls, and run the routines of the day.

2.Women were not encouraged to be intellectually astute, nor seductive to their husbands, nor talkative..all these were signs of lack of self decorum and lack of control and implied your inability to provide peace in the household.

3.The medical field always treated female illnesses as if they were a production of the female imagination, not noticing that septicemia (childbearing death) was one of the leading causes of death among women, followed by ovarian cancer.

4. Women could not vote, were properties of the household, and had to depend entirely on their husbands to make a name for themselves.

I would say, however, that the lack of protection and care that women got in Victorian England was reason enough to cause most of their worries as they were literally nobodies in a world full of hypocrisy and double standards.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Of course not all women during this time would have been suffering, but some major reasons why many would have suffered include:

  • Women had very few legal rights.  They were essentially seen as the property of men -- first their fathers, then their husbands.  They could be treated however their men wanted to treat them.
  • Medical knowledge during these times was very sketchy.  Because of this, giving birth was an extremely dangerous thing.  Since there was little in the way of contraception, women tended to give birth quite often.  This helped cause their lives to be very hard.

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