Women, Gender, Sexuality Marriage,
the legal position of women, divorce law

The Victorian period saw many changes in marriage and property laws, though even at the end of the century these were still not egalitarian. It must also be remembered that a substantial class of persons lived “below the laws,” without recourse to magistrates or notions of middle-class respectability, marriage and divorce. In the early nineteenth-century a married woman was a ward of her husband--the same status accorded to infants and children.

In particular, this meant that her husband could spend her income and property, that she had no right to child custody, care or visitation, and that he retained to right to “chastise” her physically without the need to show cause. Most of these discriminations remained in place even after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857.

A married woman had the right to hold title to land, but only her husband retained the right to manage it and retain the income therefrom. As often, there were slight loopholes for the rich: wealthy women’s families could arrange separate estate trusts for them, managed by a male relative, which provided income separate from the husband’s control.

In the worst cases, a man could take his wife’s money and spend it on his mistress or illegitimate children while she and her children lived in want. Even a fiance had some legal rights over his future wife’s property.

For those able to afford servants, marital privacy would have been limited by the presence of strangers in the home. The choice of a marriage partner was limited for middle-class (and presumably other) women by financial considerations, parental dictation, and the prescription against meeting members of the opposite sex to whom one had not been introduced in protected situations, or without the presence of a chaperone or other family member. The Victorian ideal of romantic love, then, seems to have appeared in a day when, even for the most fortunate, a love match or companionate marriage would have been relatively difficult to attain.

And in all aspects of domestic life, the wealthy were permitted far more latitude in practice than were members of the middle-class. Religious marriage was the sole form of marriage before 1836, the year of the establishment of civil marriage. After this date, to be valid in England a marriage had to be performed before a minister or magistrate, and must be between persons outside the prohibited degrees of kinship (as a notorious example, one couldn’t marry one’s deceased wife’s sister).

Before 1857 divorce was a luxury of the very rich. A divorce cost about 700 or 800 pounds and required a decree of the ecclesiastical courts or a suit of damages against the spouse’s lover and a vote of Parliament! Only ten divorce cases on the average passed through Parliament each year, and of these only three in total had been granted to women. The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act created the possibility of civil divorce.

However it also set into law a sexual double standard: it granted men the right to divorce on grounds of adultery, but women had to prove adultery aggravated by bigamy, incest, sodomy, bestiality [that is, intercourse with animals], or violence so great that death was likely (hard to prove!). Adultery was harder for wives to prove since they were forbidden to testify against their husbands in court, or to serve as plaintiff, defendant, or witness, under the doctrine of coverture, enunciated by Willliam Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69). This held that a husband and wife were one person under the law, and that one person defined legally as the husband.

Under the new law, adulterous mothers (but not fathers) were denied access to their children. The rationale for the double standard for divorce, as indicated by the parliamentary debates preceding the Act, was the desire to preserve proof of paternity: male adultery had no effect on the certainty of their offspring, but if female adultery were unpunished, men might find their property inherited by other men’s children.

Even after 1857 divorce was still outside the range of the poor. A mitigation of the law was that local magistrates had the power to grant individual separations to wives too poor to use divorce courts on the grounds of cruelty, desertion for two years, or adultery. Though a husband was legally required to support his wife up to a level of fifty pounds a year, prorated on income, this obligation was only enforceable if the wife entered the poorhouse.

Before 1836 a husband had complete control over the disposition of his children, whatever his behavior had been, a fact which in itself would have prevented most women from seeking divorce. The Infants Custody Act of 1839, which resulted from Caroline Norton’s fight to change the laws, permitted a woman to petition for access to minor children and custody of children under seven years of age if her husband was convicted of cruelty or other offenses.

Mrs. Norton was a poet and novelist who had lost access to her three children to a physically violent and adulterous husband, despite the fact that no charges had been proven against her; though she did not gain equal custody rights for women, this was the first limited concession to women’s legal rights within the family. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1861 for the first time permitted wives to testify against their husbands in court.

The pervasiveness of violence against women and children was more publicized after a Parliamentary report of 1874 included hundreds of reports of brutal wife murder, often by men under the influence of drink. Frances Power Cobbe, also noted for her campaigns against cruelty to animals and author of “Wife-Torture in England,” advocated severer sentences for men convicted of wife-beating.

The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1878 provided for separation for wives whose husbands had been convicted of aggravated assault threatening life; and the Maintenance of Wives Act of 1884 gave minimal family support in cases of desertion in which husbands had been convicted of life-threatening behavior to their wives and children under the age of 10. And in 1886 mothers gained the right to seek custody of their own children on their husband’s death (previously this would have gone to someone else).

After a campaign by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and other members of the Married Women’s Property Committee in defense of women’s rights to property, the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 permitted wives to retain control of their earnings, to retain money in savings bonds, and to keep legacies up to 200 pounds. A further act of 1884 enabled women to retain property held before and after marriage, a right especially important for middle-class women.

A wife could still not maintain a legal residence apart from her husband or sue him. A “restitution of conjugal rights” law could enforce a mate’s return; in 1895 a Married Woman’s Act allowed protection and separation in cases of cruelty and non-support.

All of these laws, however, were so hedged round with qualifications that they would not have provided much relief for women of the middle or lower classes in cases of violence, desertion, or alienation of property, especially because of their need for access to their children.

At the onset of the Victorian period the age of consent for women was twelve, providing no protection for female minors--an omission which was especially hypocritical in an age which emphasized the (middle-class) female child’s innocence and helplessness (for lovely expressions of the veneration of girlhood innocence, see G. M. Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” and J. M. Millais’s painting, “Autumn Leaves”). Parents could threaten and even sell their own children (as her father sells Marian Earle in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1857 Aurora Leigh).

In 1885, as a result of publicity of the practice of buying children for use in child brothels, the age of consent was raised to 16.

Sexual harrassment in the workplace was also widespread.

During the Victorian period it was difficult to press charges for rape, and conviction was relatively low before 1841 (10%). In some cases it was assumed that “consent” was proven by the fact that the woman had survived the rape rather than resisted to the death! The rate of conviction rose to one-third, however, when rape ceased to be a capital crime. Incest became a criminal offense for the first time in 1908.

In the early twentieth-century, with the advent of partial women’s suffrage in 1918 and the rise of the Labour Party, the laws changed swiftly in the direction of equality. In 1922 the Law of Property Act provided that in case of death without a will, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, would inherit equally. The Maintenance Acts of 1922 and 1923 provided greater child support, and in 1923 the Matrimonial Causes Act provided for divorce on equal grounds for the first time. An act of 1937 added desertion, cruelty and insanity to adultery as grounds for divorce.

In 1925 a Widow’s Pension Act was passed, removing widows from the ignominy of being under the Poor Law and granting them a pension, and also in 1925, the Guardianship of Infants Act granted parents equal rights to their offspring. Other anomalies were also removed--provision was made for the legal adoption of children, and the 1926 Criminal Justice Act abolished the presumption that a husband was responsible for the criminal behavior of his wife if he witnessed it! See also timelinewomen.htm.

Women’s work in the early Victorian period:
The governess:

The movement for the higher education of women arose in part from the desire to improve the situation of governesses, who of all women workers, aroused the most middle-class sympathy, poised as they were in an ambiguous position between “lady” and worker. Most persons knew of middle-class women who had fallen on hard times and been forced to become governesses. Although the number of governesses was small in the context of women workers in general, they were represented in disproportionate numbers in fiction and art.

In 1850, over 21,000 women worked as governesses. Governesses experienced low pay, lack of privacy, no job security, the imposition of countless duties of all kinds, condescension toward women forced to earn their living, and the snobbery of those for whom they worked. Often the lack of peers within their situation made friendships and social life virtually impossible.

Scholars have noted the ambiguity of their class position--too high in social status to mingle with the servants, they lacked the income to behave as fellow members of the middle-class. And worse, perhaps, the absence of any entitlement to a pension left many governesses destitute in old age, as represented in George Gissing’s The Odd Women.

Some opposed the training of governesses with the claim that a governess required moral credentials only, or more pragmatically, that the expectation of certification could make the situation yet more difficult and competitive for potential teachers. Against several forms of opposition, then, the first women’s colleges were established to provide training for governesses and other professional women in the hope of improving their prospects and status.

Queens College was opened in 1847 specifically to train governesses; and between 1847 and 1850 alone it provided various forms of qualification for 200 women. Bedford College, founded in 1848, was attended by George Eliot (both Queens and Bedford later became colleges within the University of London).

The first “colleges” for women resembled secondary schools, and were based on a lecture system, with male teachers, female chaperones within each class, no exams, and thus no certification.

Equality came slowly, however.The University of London first permitted the granting of degrees to women in1878; in 1881 the Cambridge tripos were opened to women; but Oxford did not grant the B. A. to women until 1920--seventy-three years after the founding of the first women’s college.


About 105,000 dressmakers were recorded in 1850; thus their numbers were several times that of governesses.

To become a dressmaker the parent had to pay a high premium, usually 50 pounds, which was not refundable. Women apprentices frequently complained that they were not taught enough to carry on themselves afterwards. During the rush season, they could be forced to work up to 20 hours daily. Often they ate while sewing; more usual was a 12-13 hour day, with ten or fifteen minutes allowed for meals during rush, and late night work (which would cause eyestrain).

Other complaints included bad food--cheese, suet, potatoes, etc. Sleeping quarters were unventilated and crowded since the women slept together, sometimes several in the same bed. Cramped conditions and constant work could produce spinal and leg damage, fainting and blindness. A fresh supply of hands immediately replaced those who fell ill; Charlotte Tonna affirmed that almost all establishments killed a girl a year.

Middle-class reformers felt excessive interest in the moral consequences of this life, with its dependence on employers, night hours, and so on. Many of these issues are dramatized in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton.

Other women workers included the sewing woman and the slop worker, who by working from 7 a. m. to midnight could earn as little as sixpence daily, up to 1 s. 6 d. (12 pence = 1 shilling; 20 s. = 1 pound), at most 25 pounds yearly. A mantua maker with a 14 hour day could earn 4 s. 8 d. weekly. Shirt makers, who earned 10 d. for a dozen shirts, were the lowest grade of needleworker. (see Wanda Neff, chapter IV)

Women textile workers:

By 1832 women were to be found in almost every department of the cotton factories, and formed a majority of workers, a situation which prompted investigation by Parliamentary committees. These reported that in 1837 242, 296 women worked in factories, and that in 1833 the earnings of women for a thirteen hour day ranged from 5 shillings to 15 shillings. In cotton factories in Lancaster the highest average wage for men at the age of greatest efficiency was 22s. 8 1/2 d., as compared with 9 s. 8 1/2 d. for women. In 1833 the average working day was 6 a. m. to 8 p. m., with an hour for meals, but longer hours were required in busy times, often including nightwork.

Women were less unionized than men, although they formed friendly societies of various kinds. Women workers supported Chartism; of every 100,000 signatures on the 1842 Chartist petition, 8,200 were women’s. The first union exclusively for women was however not established until 1872, the Edinburgh Upholsterers’ Sewing Society.

The Victorian belief that women should be solely mothers was affronted by the sight of women mill workers. Extensive debates occurred on the effect of mill work on home life--and the effect on the health of women and children caused by the high temperatures, uncovered machines, and dusty, linty air of the workplace. Inevitably babies were neglected after their mothers returned to the mill, usually about two weeks after delivery. Since they could be nursed only three times a day and were otherwise left in the care of baby farmers or older sisters, they were often fed laudanum (a form of liquid opium) and treacle to quiet their cries, and many died. There was a contrast in conditions in the mills of different regions. The Scottish ones were healthier, the Lancashire ones less so.

Manchester itself was overcrowded, with a lack of sewerage and limited and dirty housing, with many people forced to sleep in the same room (as recorded in Frederich Engels’s The Condition ofthe Working Class in Manchester, 1844, see engelscondition.htm). The atmosphere of the factories, however bad, was probably superior to that of such homes. Workers were also malnourished, from a diet whose staples were bad tea, bread, potatoes and lard (see 19thcentintro2.htm, “What People Ate in the Nineteenth Century”).

Reformers were concerned that factory women had no time to read, sew, or cook, had they been so inclined. They also tended to ignore the personal hardships women suffered under the home labor system, deploring the independence and the alleged sexual laxity of female operatives.

The Factory Act of 1833 limited the hours children could work, and at first, when the hours of children were lessened, more women were employed. The 1847 Factory Act further limited children’s work and restricted employment to 58 hours per week for women and young persons over 13. In this case the limitation of the work day for women and children had the effect of limiting factory hours for men also, since often men, women and children worked in teams. Another act of 1850 fixed the hours of employment as between 6 a. m. and 6 p. m., which made the laws easlier to enforce.

The textile worker was seldom treated in literature, for she was not “ladylike,” lived amid dirt, and seemed promiscuous by middle-class standards. Note that Elizabeth Gaskell is careful to make Mary Barton a seamstress, avoiding the occupation of other members of her family. An exception among writers was Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, whose 1844 The Wrongs of Women fictionalized the findings of Parliamentary Blue Books.

When Ellen Johnston styled herself “The Factory Girl Poet” in 1867, she was making a significant claim, secure in the knowledge that few other “factory girl writers” could be found at the time.

Non-textile workers:

Outside the factories, conditions were even worse, as well as difficult to document and reform.

frame-work knitting--In this 16-18 hours daily toil brought only 4s.-7s. weekly. Knitters were forced to pay high rent on the frames whether they worked or not. At first hosiery was made by hand frames; steam-worked frames were introduced in 1846. After this old hand frames were used almost exclusively by women and children, who suffered hardships not surpassed in other industries.

lace-making--Lace makers worked long hours, and for an eleven hour day in 1843, they could earn 3 s. 6 d. weekly. Conditions for both lace makers and knitters were cramped and unhealthy.

pin and screw making--For appproximately 12 hours a day, pin and screw makers earned 6 s. weekly.

work in founderies--Women sorted patterns from the casting or added laquering; the latter was better paid.

match-making--This was one of the worst forms of labor for women. The phosophorus from the matches destroyed their bones, reproductive systems, hair, and so on, and caused various forms of cancer and early death.

paper mill work --Women worked in the rag rooms, and for 12 hours daily labor could earn 2-4 s. weekly. The dust and foul atmosphere in the rag room was especially unhealthy and annoying.

book binders--at the end of an apprenticeship, bookbinders could earn 20 s. weekly, although the hours were long. During the busy season they could be forced to work until 3 or 4 a. m.

Wanda Neff summarizes the bad conditions, 103.

Education of middle-class girls:

Education was closely linked with social class, with the assumption that “refined” and educated women should not perform menial services, even for themselves. Middle-class girls of the period were trained in needlework, a bowdlerized French, and a rote and superficial approach to subjects studied, with an emphasis on memorization of facts. Needlework was expected to be used for charity and church work--e. g., women sewed altarcloths and clothing for the poor (and the Oxford Movement provided a focus for the preparation of embroidered ritual cloths). Exercise was not promoted, with deleterious effects on health. The educational reformer Miss Buss noted that the majority of girls left school without even a taste for reading.

This poses the question of what happened to women who didn’t marry. There were fewer business opportunities for women in Britain than in the U. S. and France. The notion that women might serve as social workers was just being debated. At the time, for example, workhouses were administered by the worst possible, ill-paid people. Nursing, of course, was not a respectable career for women until after the efforts of Florence Nightingale in the 1850s and 60s.

There also seemed to be less enthusiasm for women’s rights in early Victorian England than in the U. S.--even Anna Jameson and Harriet Martineau objected to overt discussion of rights. The memory of Mary Wollstonecraft had faded (rendered more embarrassing due to the liasions of her private life) and socialist/cooperatist appeals for equal rights were marginalized in public debate (the most striking of these was William Thompson’s An Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Keep them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, 1825).

There were exceptions, however, e. g. Mrs. Hugo Reid’s A Plea for Women (1844) and Helene Weber’s Women’s Rights and Wrongs (1844). Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley contains an eloquent attack on the restrictions on unmarried women, and the contempt for women’s work. And the ideas of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s later Subjection of Women (1869) seem to have grown out of contact with a radical, unitarian, socialist and cooperatist tradition (see saintsimonfour.htm, Saint-Simonianism and Fourierism).

Wanda Neff’s Victorian Working Women (1929) was a pioneering work on this topic; unlike her predecessor Alice Clark she did not believe that women’s position in pre-Industrial England was superior to that of nineteenth-century women, a view reflecting that of the time in which her book was written. As of 1929 Neff felt that the literary record of professional women had not improved much since 1850, that there had been few independent heroines in literature since Charlotte Bronte, and that the theme of women workers was in general excluded from modern literature (253).

Neff seems to have been unaware of the considerable number of writings by “New Women” which take up this topic, but her point of view seems to apply well to “canonical” literary representations of women.

Standards for female and family gentility:

In a world ruled by the competitive and/or harsh practices of the marketplace, industry, and military service, women allegedly were obligated to maintain a haven of relative security in the home, where maternal functions precluded directly economic ones. Oddly from a modern view, expenditure could be seen as a form of moral duty, and the necessity of maintaining a “proper appearance” for one’s station required nurses, governesses, and kitchen servants.

A middle-class family was presumably expected to have at least three servants, and indeed it is estimated that as many as half of British workers not employed in factories worked at some form of “service.” For middle-class status it was necessary also to maintain occupations of conspicuous leisure, such as visiting friends or attending social events, and children were expected to be raised by servants, often under a fairly severe child-rearing regime (there would seem to be inconsistencies in the demand that women not work outside the home because they were mothers, but then must not spend the bulk of their time in fulfilling the task of motherhood).

On the other hand, those who lived so far beyond their means as to become bankrupt suffered opproprium and loss of status. Moreoever certain Evangelical and other religious groups placed a high value on frugality, and on women’s charitable, rather than frivolous, pursuits. It is thus difficult to predict which of these competing ideals might have applied more directly in a particular case.

In Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England, J. O. and Olive Banks advance the theory that family size was reduced from the 1870s onwards because husbands, more than wives, made the decision that the family’s standard of gentility would be threatened by too large a family, and thus initiated practices of birth control. They argue that although there is no evidence that women were emancipated from the home in the 1870s, yet the practice of birth control was begun during this period.

1850-70 had been years of relative prosperity and expansion for the Victorian middle-classes, with increased expenditure on food, drink, dining, clothes, vacations (needed becaue of suburban pollution), horses, carriages, grooms, and professional education for sons. Under standards of conspicuous consumption and gentility, women were required to be/seem less useful and be more genteel than before (as in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair). This was also the period of highest demand for complexity in dress, which added to the expense and demands of marriage.

Couples were expected not to marry until they could maintain the expected standard of living, defined rather demandingly as at their parents’ level of comfort; indeed they shouldn’t marry on less but should be genteel (Banks, 75), and should live “up” to the husband’s income (and this in a day without pensions!)

“Romantic” marriages were not encouraged, but condemned as imprudent. Women were assumed to have the “right to expect” a maintenance as comfortable as the one they had previously had; the choice of the “proper time to marry” was considered significant, and cannot but have inhibited matches based on love and affection.

Even professional and learned men faced difficulties in “setting up an establishment”; overhead for professional accoutrements and decorations for offices, etc. were required. And the frequent assumption that wealth, leisure and culture were synonymous, ignored the fact that wives did not necessarily share in their husbands’ intellectual pursuits. Thus when the economy suffered a recession after 1870, these greater expectations were threatened and economies were demanded somewhere.

The fall in infant mortality had increased the expenses of child-rearing, and the demand for training as entrance to middle- and upper-middle class occupations increased the outlay needed for each child. Between 1850 and 1870 three times as many boys’ public schools were founded as during the entire preceding century, as formal education was increasingly necessary for male careers; and on top of this, time spent at the university was also necessary for good breeding. It was estimated that 4,800 pounds would be needed to educate three sons.

Daughters could receive less education, but their clothes were expected to cost more. The rising cost of living, then, contributed to the sense of a “surplus” of middle-class women and--despite the lingering view that independent women were “unloveable” and thus unmarriageable--the agitation for female education and employment. Education and the attempt to procure employment for women was in part a response to the perceived excess of marriagable women caused by male emigration and colonial deaths, and to the late age for marriage induced by economic constraints. Educational reformers were less concerned with training married women than with helping those who could not be wives or mothers (as is Rhoda Nunn in George Gissing’s The Odd Women).

Although the expansion in boys’ public schools occurred before 1870, that in girls’ school occurred after 1870: 10 schools for girls were founded between 1840 and 1870; 36 schools for girls were founded between 1871 and 1880; and 34 schools for girls were founded between 1881 and 1890. Four rudimentary colleges for women were founded in the 1840s and 50s, but after 1870 women gained wider entrance into the universities (Newnham, Girton).

Appearance and clothing for women:

The idealized physical type of woman was short, petite, delicate, light-brown haired and blue-eyed, with translucent skin and a general paleness--a type somewhat parodied by George Eliot and other more strong-minded women writers of the period. In the 1860s middle-class dress required crinolines (several skirts on hoops) which were worn without undergarments. These made it difficult to maneuver or sit, and stairways in fashionable homes had to be enlarged to permit women passage. Bloomers, by contrast, were considered indecent until the end of the century, when the practice of bicycling and changing attitudes forced adjustments.

Clothes were generally made of heavy or easily wrinkled materials, velvet, satin, linen, and so on. Fashionable dress reflected the social ideal of the day--gender differentiation and conspicuous consumption. Constricted and difficult-to-clean clothing increased the diseases and helplessness of women, and made activity expensive because of the cost of soiling clothes. Corsets were of course the most harmful aspect of Victorian dress. These could be made of half-inch thick leather, with iron stays, and could deform such that women were unable to sit without them, or in one horrible case, needed to be worn during childbirth. Needless to say, they prevented exercise and caused shortness of breath.

How widespread was the use of such extreme forms of dress, and how much of an average middle-class woman’s life was spent in such costumry is hard to say. But for an upper-class or upper-middle-class woman at the peak periods of complexity for women’s fashion, changes of dress up to 5-6 times daily could be expected, and the help of a servant required.