(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Victorian Feminists focuses on the ideas of four major feminists: Emily Davies, Frances Power Cobbe, Josephine Butler, and Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Since Victorian feminism, and these four women, have been discussed in previous studies, it is reasonable to ask: Is still another volume on the subject needed? Barbara Caine justifies her book on the grounds that feminism has changed significantly since the 1970’s, and that this necessitates looking at Victorian feminism very differently. Prior to the 1970’s, historians tended to be dismissive of the sexual prudishness associated with Victorian feminism and to view Victorian feminists as conservative because they ignored women’s sexuality. Since the 1970’s, feminists have concluded that the sexual revolution has not brought women liberation or fulfillment. This reevaluation of sexual liberation has stimulated a more sympathetic analysis of the Victorian feminist belief that sexual exploitation was central to women’s oppression.

As a result of this conceptual shift, Caine’s interpretation of Victorian feminism differs considerably from earlier accounts. Instead of viewing it as a movement for equal rights of men and women, Caine suggests it was deeply concerned with establishing sexual differences between them. Rather than being preoccupied with gaining access to the public sphere, Caine portrays Victorian feminists as primarily concerned with the oppression of women in domestic life, including sexual relations. In contrast to the earlier belief that Victorian feminism was an outgrowth of liberalism, Caine stresses its roots in religious and conservative thinking. Finally, rather than viewing Victorian feminism as a relatively homogeneous movement, she stresses its diversity and the conflicts between Victorian feminists.

The four feminists included in Caine’s study differed in important respects: Davies and Cobbe were Conservatives, Butler and Fawcett, Liberals; Butler and Cobbe stressed the sexual differences between men and women, Davies and Fawcett stressed their intellectual similarities; Butler thought women should campaign for their emancipation without the assistance of men, while Davies opposed such single-sex efforts. They all agreed that women should have legal and political equality with men, and that women’s nature was different from men’s. In developing the latter point, they all drew upon distinctive Victorian ideas of the nature of womanhood.

As a result of her prominent role in the fight for women’s higher education, Emily Davies is a well-known figure in the nineteenth century women’s movement. She was the founder of Girton College, a women’s college, at Cambridge, helped establish the London Schoolmistresses’ Association, was one of the first female members elected to the London School Board, and campaigned for the right of women to earn University of Cambridge degrees. As Caine points out, Davies usually is viewed as an activist rather than as a theorist; some even have denied that she had any coherent feminist theory. Caine disagrees with this view and attempts to demonstrate that Davies’ actions were based on a significant feminist theory.

Caine suggests that Davies’ theories have not been taken seriously because she was a Conservative, and historians have assumed that feminist theory emerged from liberalism. In her own life, Davies typified the type of woman the nineteenth century women’s movement was chiefly concerned with: the single, middle-class woman in a society that stressed women’s family and productive roles. Other feminists stressed women’s distinctive qualities—their nurturing capacities and their moral superiority over men—but Davies wished to eliminate socially constructed sexual differences.

Davies’ feminism reflected the traditional view of Victorian feminism as being preoccupied with equality between men and women rather than with the special needs of women. This emphasis on the similarities between men and women gave rise to attacks on the Victorian concern with sexual difference. When it was proposed that female college students be given a curriculum specially designed for the needs of women rather than the standard curriculum male students studied, Davies insisted there be no difference between the educations given to male and female students.

Caine notes that there has been a considerable revival of interest in Frances Power Cobbe recently. This reflects the changed interests of present-day feminism. While Davies was an equality feminist preoccupied with the public sphere, Cobbe was a sexual difference feminist whose writings focused on issues of central concern today: marital violence and women’s domestic subordination, a defense of celibacy and female domestic companionship, and a concern with women’s health and the role male physicians have played in women’s subordination.

Caine suggests that it was Cobbe’s celebration of womanhood that was the most distinctive feature of her feminism. The...

(The entire section is 2036 words.)