Feminism in Literature Women in the 19th Century - Essay

Introduction

European and American women in the nineteenth century lived in an age characterized by gender inequality. At the beginning of the century, women enjoyed few of the legal, social, or political rights that are now taken for granted in western countries: they could not vote, could not sue or be sued, could not testify in court, had extremely limited control over personal property after marriage, were rarely granted legal custody of their children in cases of divorce, and were barred from institutions of higher education. Women were expected to remain subservient to their fathers and husbands. Their occupational choices were also extremely limited. Middle- and upper-class women generally remained home, caring for their children and running the household. Lower-class women often did work outside the home, but usually as poorly-paid domestic servants or laborers in factories and mills.

The onset of industrialization, urbanization, as well as the growth of the market economy, the middle class, and life expectancies transformed European and American societies and family life. For most of the eighteenth century through the first few decades of the nineteenth century, families worked together, dividing farming duties or work in small-scale family-owned businesses to support themselves. With the rapid mercantile growth, big business, and migration to larger cities after 1830, however, the family home as the center of economic production was gradually replaced with workers who earned their living outside the home. In most instances, men were the primary "breadwinners" and women were expected to stay at home to raise children, to clean, to cook, and to provide a haven for returning husbands. Most scholars agree that the Victorian Age was a time of escalating gender polarization as women were expected to adhere to a rigidly defined sphere of domestic and moral duties, restrictions that women increasingly resisted in the last two-thirds of the century.

Scholarly analysis of nineteenth-century women has included examination of gender roles and resistance on either side of the Atlantic, most often focusing on differences and similarities between the lives of women in the United States, England, and France. While the majority of these studies have concentrated on how white, middle-class women reacted to their assigned domestic or private sphere in the nineteenth century, there has also been interest in the dynamics of gender roles and societal expectations in minority and lower-class communities. Although these studies can be complementary, they also highlight the difficulty of making generalizations about the lives of women from different cultural, racial, economic, and religious backgrounds in a century of steady change.

Where generalizations can be made, however, "the woman question," as it was called in debates of the time, has been seen as a tendency to define the role of women in terms of private domesticity. Most often, depictions of the lives of nineteenth-century women, whether European or American, rich or poor, are portrayed in negative terms, concentrating on their limited sphere of influence compared to that of men from similar backgrounds. In some cases, however, the private sphere of nineteenth-century women had arguably more positive images, defining woman as the more morally refined of the two sexes and therefore the guardian of morality and social cohesion. Women were able to use this more positive image as a means for demanding access to public arenas long denied them, by publicly emphasizing and asserting the need for and benefits of a more "civilized" and "genteel" influence in politics, art, and education.

The same societal transformations that were largely responsible for women's status being defined in terms of domesticity and morality also worked to provoke gender consciousness and reform as the roles assigned women became increasingly at odds with social reality. Women on both sides of the Atlantic, including Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Sarah Josepha Hale, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Frances Power Cobbe, both expressed and influenced the age's expectations for women. Through their novels, letters, essays, articles, pamphlets, and speeches these and other nineteenth-century women portrayed the often conflicting expectations imposed on them by society. These women, along with others, expressed sentiments of countless women who were unable to speak, and brought attention and support to their concerns. Modern critical analyses often focus on the methods used by women to advance their cause while still maintaining their delicate balance of propriety and feminine appeal by not "threatening" men, or the family unit.

Representative Works

Lydia Becker

Woman's Suffrage Journal [editor] (journal) 1870s

Barbara Leigh-Smith Bodichon

"A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women, Together with a Few Observations" (essay) 1854

Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre (novel) 1847

Villette (novel) 1853

Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights (novel) 1847

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper

"Womanhood a Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race" (essay) 1886

Frederick Douglass

"Why I Became a Woman's Rights Man" (essay) 1881

George Eliot

Adam Bede (novel) 1859

Charles Fourier

"Degradation of Women in Civilization" (essay) 1808

Margaret Fuller

Woman in the Nineteenth Century (nonfiction) 1845

Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton (novel) 1848

Cranford (novel) 1853

Ruth (novel) 1853

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

"Women's Political Future" (essay) 1893

Victoria Earle Matthews

"The Awakening of the Afro-American Woman" (essay) 1897

John Stuart Mill

The Subjection of Women (philosophy) 1869

Caroline Norton

The Natural Right of A Mother to the Custody of her Child (essay) 1837

Emma Peterson

Women's Union Journal [editor] (journal) 1870s

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

"1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention Speech" (speech) 1848

"Solitude of Self" (speech) 1892

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin (novel) 1852

William Thompson and Anna Wheeler

Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the other Half, Men, To Retain them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery (pamphlet) 1825

Sojourner Truth

"Colored Men Will Be Masters Over the Women" (speech) 1867

Charlotte Yonge

Heir of Redclyffe (novel) 1853

English Woman's Journal [Englishwoman's Review] (journal) 1857

Charles Fourier (Essay Date 1808)

SOURCE: Fourier, Charles. "Degradation of Women in Civilization." Theorie des Quatre Mouvements et des...

(The entire section is 705 words.)

Nellie Weeton (Journal/Letter Dates 26 January 1810 And 15 September 1810)

SOURCE: Weeton, Nellie. "The Trials of an English Governess." In Victorian Women: A Documentary Account...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Emma Willard (Address Date 1819)

SOURCE: Willard, Emma. "An Address to the Public, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education." An...

(The entire section is 1894 words.)

Parisian Garment Workers (Petition Date August 1848)

SOURCE: Parisian Garment Workers. “The Adult Woman: Work.” In Victorian Women: A Documentary Account...

(The entire section is 208 words.)

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Speech Date 1848)

SOURCE: Cady Stanton, Elizabeth. "Elizabeth Cady Stanton's 1848 Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention...

(The entire section is 2112 words.)

The Sibyl (Letter Date February 1857)

SOURCE: The Sibyl. "Short Hair and Short Dresses." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

Louisa Bastian, Mary Hamelton, And Anna Long (Petition Date July 1862)

SOURCE: Bastian, Louisa, Mary Hamelton, and Anna Long. "The Adult Woman: Work." In Victorian Women: A...

(The entire section is 247 words.)

Harriet H. Robinson (Report Date 1883)

SOURCE: Robinson, Harriet H. "Early Factory Labor in New England." In Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics...

(The entire section is 1225 words.)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (Essay Date 1893)

SOURCE: Watkins Harper, Frances Ellen. "Woman's Political Future." In With Pen and Voice: A Critical...

(The entire section is 2010 words.)

Erna Olafson Hellerstein, Leslie Parker Hume, And Karen M. Offen (Essay Date 1981)

SOURCE: Olafson Hellerstein, Erna, Leslie Parker Hume and Karen M. Offen. "General Introduction." In...

(The entire section is 2867 words.)

Estelle B. Freedman And Erna Olafson Hellerstein (Essay Date 1981)

SOURCE: Freedman, Estelle B. and Erna Olafson Hellerstein. Introduction to Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France, and the United States, pp. 118-33. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1981.

In the following essay, Freedman and Hellerstein examine the domestic, sexual, and mothering duties of Victorian women in France, England, and the United States, citing first-hand accounts to show that women responded in a variety of ways to the often contradictory nature of their idealized and actual roles in private life.

The doctrine of the separate spheres, as elaborated in literature,...

(The entire section is 9157 words.)

Jane Rendall (Essay Date 1985)

SOURCE: Rendall, Jane. Introduction to The Origins of Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France and the...

(The entire section is 2888 words.)

Susan K. Grogan (Essay Date 1992)

SOURCE: Grogan, Susan K. Introduction to French Socialism and Sexual Difference: Women and the New Society, 1803-44, pp. 1-19. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

In the following excerpt, Grogan discusses how the idealized roles and proper lifestyles of French women were debated by the French clergy, philosophers, and doctors during the nineteenth century in an effort to maintain domestic and national stability.

The place of woman in early nineteenth-century French society was fraught with contradictions. She was worshipped as ‘Muse and Madonna’ of the society,1 but was legally a non-person. She was the...

(The entire section is 9065 words.)

Shirley Wilson Logan (Essay Date 1999)

SOURCE: Logan, Shirley Wilson. "Black Women on the Speaker's Platform, 1832-1900." "We are Coming": The...

(The entire section is 3165 words.)

Jennifer Waelti-Walters And Steven C. Hause (Essay Date 1994)

SOURCE: Waelti-Walters, Jennifer and Steven C. Hause. Introduction to Feminisms of the Belle Epoque: A...

(The entire section is 2581 words.)

Kathryn Gleadle (Essay Date 1995)

SOURCE: Gleadle, Kathryn. Introduction to The Early Feminists: Radical Unitarians and the Emergence of...

(The entire section is 3166 words.)

Sylvia D. Hoffert (Essay Date 1995)

SOURCE: Hoffert, Sylvia D. Introduction to When Hens Crow: The Woman’s Right Movement in Antebellum America, pp. 1-14. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1995.

In the following essay, Hoffert argues that American women who demanded a voice in national and domestic affairs in the first half of the nineteenth century created a philosophy that escaped the narrow confines of the ideology of Republican Motherhood, enabling women of future generations to enter public life.

Let me begin with a fable. “There once lived in a Farm Yard a great many Roosters and Hens, and it chanced one morning that a young Hen with a very fine voice began...

(The entire section is 8080 words.)

Barbara Ehrenreich And Deirdre English (Essay Date 1978)

SOURCE: Ehrenreich, Barbara and Deirdre English. “The Sexual Politics of Sickness.” In For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women, pp. 101-09. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1978.

In the following excerpt, Ehrenreich and English argue that many of the illnesses routinely affecting women during the nineteenth century were most likely manifestations of their gender subjugation, their feelings of powerlessness, and their unrealistic domestic roles.

When Charlotte Perkins Gilman collapsed with a “nervous disorder,” the physician she sought out for help was Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, “the greatest nerve specialist in the...

(The entire section is 3469 words.)

Ann Douglas (Essay Date 1988)

SOURCE: Douglas, Ann. "The Legacy of American Victorianism." In The Feminization of American Culture,...

(The entire section is 4534 words.)

Whitney Chadwick (Essay Date 1990)

SOURCE: Chadwick, Whitney. "Separate But Unequal: Woman's Sphere and the New Art." In Women, Art, and...

(The entire section is 6659 words.)

Further Reading

Barry, David. Women and Political Insurgency: France in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan...

(The entire section is 1662 words.)