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Victorian Women

ISSUE:  Spring 1979
A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women. Edited by Martha Vicinus. Indiana. $15.95.

The value of women’s studies to more traditional scholarship is made clear in A Widening Sphere.This volume is a successor to Suffer and Be Still, a collection of essays which first appeared in Victorian Studies and was edited by Martha Vicinus in 1972.A Widening Sphere, published just recently, reinforces the impression given by the earlier volume that historians can no longer ignore gender differences, any more than they can class differences, in studying the effects of social change, since social and economic evolution proceeds differently and has varying implications for diverse groups within a society. Even those scholars who are not especially interested in the history of women will often find that such an approach unexpectedly illuminates more traditionally focused historical studies.

A Widening Sphere moves beyond the concern with the rigid social and economic constraints imposed on Victorian women described in Suffer and Be Still to the study of the changing role of women in the Victorian era. This shift in focus makes it clear that Victorian notions of women’s proper sphere and role were not as monolithic as we have a tendency to think, as the great ferment over the “woman question” in the latter half of the 19th century should suggest. Many of the issues discussed in this volume—marriage laws, emigration, prostitution, education, and sexuality—were, in fact, first raised in the debates, from the 1860’s on, between those committed to the old roles and stereotypes and those who sought “a widening sphere of moral and social activities” (p.ix) for women. Insofar as these studies of women’s place call into question unduly simplistic cliches about Victorian womanhood, and do so by attending to differences in class, differences between prescribed and actual female behavior, and changes in ideas about women over time, this volume represents an advance over Suffer and Be Still and indicates how much more sophisticated women’s studies have become. Furthermore, most of the essays attempt to connect changes in women’s situation with the changes in the larger social matrix created by industrialization and urbanization. For example, Lee Holcombe places the reform of the married women’s property law within the context of the great legal reforms of the century, in which conflicts between common law and equity were resolved by the triumph of equity. Rita McWilliams-Tulberg sees the struggle of women for degrees at Cambridge as a “microcosm of the national struggle for female enfranchisement” (p.118). And finally, Judith Walkowitz suggests that prostitutes were the victims, under the Contagious Diseases Acts which required their registration and periodic medical examination, of a widespread attempt to control the mobility of the chronically unemployed. Most of the essays in A Widening Sphere thus fulfill the criterion of excellence suggested by Barbara Kanner in her fine bibliography, that modern scholarship make “an attempt to answer, with sufficient supportive evidence, why and how changes transpired within the female population in reciprocity with trends in general society” (p.201).

Nineteenth-century feminism, though it receives attention in several of the studies, is discussed only as it helped to change the situations of various female groups: married women, emigrées, actresses, and students. It is generally seen, however, as only one of many influences shaping the course of women’s history. Martha Vicinus, in her introduction, claims that the successes of any group of women were largely due to the needs of that group fitting into “larger social and economic needs” (p.xvii). For instance, women’s gains in education, as both A. James Hammerton and Rita McWilliams-Tulberg indicate, were a response to a two-fold social change: on the one hand, women needed to find wider employment opportunities because of changing demographic patterns which forced many of them to remain single, and, on the other, such opportunities gradually developed within the society as a result of the mechanization of office work. Social change was also profoundly affected, Vicinus argues, by the extent to which women’s desires clashed with or coincided with those of male power groups. McWilliams-Tulberg attributes the failure of women to be granted degrees by Cambridge, despite other important gains in education, to male resistance to allowing women a governing voice in the university. The reform of the married women’s property law, as Holcombe makes clear, was almost entirely dependent on the good will, or lack of it, on the part of a male Parliament. The psychological, rather than the political benefits to men of women’s continuing to embody the characteristics of passivity and asexuality are explored by Carol Christ in her article on “the angel in the house”; she suggests that poets like Tennyson and Patmore reverence in women the freedom from traits traditionally attributed to males, but about which they feel painfully ambivalent: aggression and sexuality.

Victorian men and women both felt strongly the tension between women’s desire for independence and traditional definitions of women’s proper role and genius. Feminism itself was partially shaped by this and other tensions. Feminists did not want to consider marriage as a woman’s only proper place and resisted, for instance, the conservatives’ tendency to reduce the Female Middle Class Emigration Society to a “colonial marriage bureau” (p.57), but to some extent they viewed women’s work in the public sphere as an exercise of the moral superiority attributed to women by the Victorian myth and as an enlargement of women’s maternal and domestic duties to the teaching and tidying up of society as a whole. While few militant feminists would have viewed aggressiveness as a purely masculine trait, a stereotype found in sources as diverse as the penny family weekly magazines and the poetry of Patmore and Tennyson, a reluctance to pursue their rights aggressively is clearly perceptible, for instance, in the activities of the Cambridge women seeking certification by their university. While the feminists were sympathetic to the plight of lower class women, their middle-class bias meant that they frequently became enmeshed in the net of middle-class respectability. Much feminist reforming activity directly benefited poor women: their resistance to the Contagious Diseases Acts on behalf of prostitutes is the most obvious example, but even the reform of common law regarding married women’s property was essentially a poor woman’s issue, since wealthier women were substantially protected by the courts of equity through marriage settlements. But Hammerton demonstrates how the feminist effort to encourage female emigration, like the more general attempt to open up broader employment opportunities to women, was severely hampered by their reluctance to see middle-class women in “unladylike” occupations—i.e., anything but teaching.

Respectability was not only a middle-class concern, however. As Sally Mitchell perceptively shows in her article on the penny family weekly magazines of the 1840’s and 50’s, a concern for respectability and how to attain it was prevalent in the upwardly aspiring class between the established middle class and the industrial lower class; these magazines “both directed and reflected woman’s role in a period when the pattern of femininity was taking on a new character” (p.30). Christopher Kent’s article on the changing position of the actress between the 1830’s and World War I reflects the same connection between status and respectability. While on the one hand it seemed that by becoming an actress a woman could escape “from the normal categories, moral and social, that defined woman’s place” (p.94), a belief which he thinks accounts for the reluctance of propriety-conscious feminists to advise women to take to the stage, on the other hand the theater’s reputation improved in the course of the century as actresses were recruited from and married into higher social ranks. Notions of respectability and the desire to separate the respectable from the non-respectable poor through public shaming and branding were the forces behind the Contagious Diseases Acts, according to Walkowitz; in the process prostitution became more professionalized, prostitutes were cut off from their communities, and a criminal class was created.

These essays are generally impressive in the specificity with which they treat their topics, and hence in the authority of their conclusions. Holcome describes the war to change the married women’s property law battle-by-battle, as does McWilliams-Tulberg in describing the women’s fight at Cambridge. Mitchell carefully identifies the socio-economic group reached by the London Journal and the Family Herald before she goes on to describe the values embedded in the fiction, articles, and letters of those magazines; she further refines our image of the ideal lady by indicating how the definition of correct female behavior was adapted in these magazines to the social and economic realities of their readers. Hammerton’s close attention to the philosophies of the Female Middle Class Emigration Society’s two successive leaders explains why that group was ultimately so ineffectual; his article also makes clear why emigration was no solution to the problems of the “redundant woman.” Walkowitz’s handling of the familiar subject of prostitution gains impact from its close examination of the effects of the Contagious Diseases Acts on two towns, Plymouth and Southampton. Christopher Kent distinguishes between the fantasy and the reality of the actresses’ life over eight decades in terms of the status, power, and artistic merits of women in the theater. Even Christ’s essay on the image of masculinity in the poetry of Patmore and Tennyson, while traditional in its approach, looks at the significance of the “angel in the house” from a slightly different angle.

In two of the chapters, however, the data do not support the conclusions drawn from them. Sheila Johansson, in her essay on age- and sex-specific death rates, develops the interesting argument that young girls were poorly fed and clothed in pre-industrial areas and that their condition improved visá-vis that of men with the development of industrialization; some of her data, however, do not conform to her conclusions. F. Barry Smith’s article on sexuality in Britain does not fulfill its promise to revise our notions about Victorian sexual attitudes. His quotations from popular writings about sexuality seem as often to support as to refute those notions, particularly with regard to frequency of intercourse and masturbation. He also has a tendency to leap to conclusions: for instance, he speculates that silence on the part of the writers in regard to sexual techniques may indicate that the readers already had rudimentary sexual knowledge. But both he and Christ do suggest convincingly that, among the lower middle class at least, it was assumed that females did have sexual feelings, even if they must be repressed.

Perhaps the most useful chapter in this very informative book is Barbara Kanner’s annotated bibliography. This is the second part of a bibliography of contemporary and historical work on issues relating to women whose first part is in Suffer and Be Still.Part I focuses on women’s public concerns; Part II deals with articles about women in the private sphere. The categories under which Kanner organizes her material are the family and marriage; sickness and health care; science, social science, and their social application; and organizations. Kanner suggests useful criteria by which to judge works on women’s history, and in her footnotes she gives a good deal of information on work in progress by various scholars. Since items in the bibliography are cross-referenced, including relevant items from Suffer and Be Still, the bibliography is very easy to use. The book’s index, though, is inadequate, as was the index of Suffer and Be Still, since it contains none of the items in the bibliography or in the footnotes of any of the articles.

In general, A Widening Sphere is a book which should be consulted by anyone interested in women’s history or in the Victorian period. It is an excellent example of what Vicinus describes as “an increasingly rich and sophisticated body of scholarship demonstrating the importance of women’s studies in altering an imbalance in the study of the past and changing present” (p.xi).


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