Women as “the Sex” During the Victorian Era
The most common way to characterize a society at a given time is to divide it into social classes and evaluate the differences between each group. However, the period known as the Victorian era in England, from 1837 to 1901, witnessed such polarized gender roles that it can also be analyzed according to the different functions assigned to men and women, more commonly known as the ideology of separate spheres. The separate spheres framework holds that “men possessed the capacity for reason, action, aggression, independence, and self-interest [thus belonging to the public sphere]. Women inhabited a separate, private sphere, one suitable for the so called inherent qualities of femininity: emotion, passivity, submission, dependence, and selflessness, all derived, it was claimed insistently, form women’s sexual and reproductive organization” (Kent 30). Following such principles allowed men, allegedly controlled by their mind or intellectual strength, to dominate society, to be the governing sex, given that they were viewed as rational, brave, and independent. Women, on the other hand, were dominated by their sexuality, and were expected to fall silently into the social mold crafted by men, since they were regarded as irrational, sensitive, and dutiful. As Susan Kent observes: “Women were so exclusively identified by their sexual functions that nineteenth-century society came to regard them as ‘the Sex’” (32). This essay will examine the Victorian social institutions of marriage, motherhood, law, prostitution, and conventional sexual values, from a bourgeois woman’s point of view, all of which played roles in hindering women in day-to-day life, and furthered the notion of women as beings governed solely by their reproductive systems.
In this period, marriage was possibly one of the most significant points in a woman’s life. The majority of women did not have the option not to marry: it was simply a necessity for survival. Because society prevented women from making their own living, there was an inescapable dependence upon men’s income: “Barred by law and custom from entering trades and professions by which they could support themselves, and restricted in the possession of property, woman had only one means of livelihood, that of marriage” (Kent 86). Therefore, no matter what the women desired, most were predestined to become wives due to their economic reliance on men. Secondly, to be even considered as a potential wife, women had to be not only virgins, but were expected to remain innocent and “free from any thought of love or sexuality” until after they had received a proposal (Kane 97). This requirement of chastity and absolute purity was not expected of men, as the potential husband had the freedom to participate in premarital and extramarital sexual relationships. Such a biased idea was one of many double standards in Victorian society, which demanded unquestionable compliance from women and none from men, since the women were thought to be controlled by their sexuality and were thus in need of regulation.
After a woman married, her rights, her property, and even her identity almost ceased to exist. By law she was under the complete and total supervision of her husband: thus through marriage, husband and wife became one person; whatever view he presented was the unquestionable truth (Perkin 73). Not only did the husband have almost complete control over his wife’s body, since beatings and marital rape were legal, their children also belonged to him, as did any property and money that the wife brought into the house. Indeed it is understandable to see why many women saw marriage as falling little short of slavery. Victorian society viewed marriage as women’s natural and best position in life, and men agreed, seeing marriage as an expected duty of women. One Victorian male contemporary writing in a letter to a friend described the perfect wife as nothing more than an extension of his household surroundings: “of course at a certain age, when you have a house and so on, you get a wife as part of its furniture” (Kent 91). In reality women held an important position as wives since they took care of the household, any servants, helped with their husband’s work, and managed the finances, however from the male’s point of view, women were nothing more than overly emotional and mindless creatures ruled by their sexuality, or simply “the Sex” (Vickery 389).
Motherhood, unfortunately, in reality was not any more respected than marriage. Formally it was a sacred and honored position, as a mother was viewed as “an angel in the house,” and motherhood was “the crowning achievement of a woman’s life” (Kent 33). Such was the overall view. However, as with marriage, there were unjust requirements and unfair expectations. Firstly, motherhood was almost always separated from anything sexual. Sex for any other reason than creating children was viewed as dirty and scandalous, quite separate from the revered sexless image of motherhood. Purity was an expectation and a necessity in order for motherhood to be truly appreciated: “Victorians considered purity a crucial component in ideal maternity. Although mothers were necessarily women of some sexual experience, they were nonetheless often canonized as essentially virginal” (Holmes and Nelson 2). This meant that mothers also had to be religious, since religion supported the view of women as free of sexual passion and gratification. Such beliefs were required in order to properly bring up children, because “a mother who lacked religious faith could not instill sexual propriety in her daughter, and thus was unfit to be a mother at all” (Holmes and Nelson 21). Furthermore, women’s compliance with the accepted social maternal values (being pure, religious) was more important than their roles as mothers. For example, in 1878, Annie Besant was denied the custody of her daughter because she had written in a magazine promoting birth control, sex for pleasure, and was an admitted atheist. As Holmes and Nelson relate:
Mothers were valued socially only if they were ‘good’ mothers, good according to rigid moral standards of propriety not only in behavior but also in opinion…When Besant was judged ‘not a fit and proper person’ to have a custody ofher child, not because of her mothering but because of her opinions, the courts and the public ruled unequivocally that social conformity was more important than maternal love (13).
Thus mothers were viewed by men as angelic only if they seemed to eschew sex, were meek, submissive, and conforming. Mothers, men kept in mind, were also women controlled by their emotions, and were socially accepted as long as they stayed in their sphere of submissiveness and passivity. One early twentieth century Protestant reformer wrote “If a woman becomes weary of bearing children, that matters not: let her only die from bearing, she is there to do it” (Kent 95). Motherhood, socially restricted and defined by women’s sexual abilities, was, like marriage, an institution to limit women’s roles in society. In order to be as sexually free as men in the Victorian era, women had to avoid motherhood and stand against society’s conventions and the rules set up by men.
Therefore it seemed that despite the superficially elevated positions of wives and mothers, women were alone in a world ruled by men. This could not have been more clearly evident than when women came into contact with law: “Justice was administered according to a male view of her rights, and of how she ought to behave. It seemed appropriate that justice was portrayed as a blindfolded woman, since her scales were so tilted in favor of men” (Perkin 113). Laws designed to benefit men over women were hard to overlook. Besides the legality of marital rape and wife-battery, the husband also had complete say in sexual intercourse. Refusal of sex was grounds for annulment of marriage (Perkin 64).
The issue of adultery was also skewed to favor men. “While a wife’s adultery was sufficient cause to end a marriage, a woman could divorce her husband only if his adultery had been compounded by another matrimonial offense, such as cruelty or desertion,” wrote Holmes and Nelson (40). The reasoning was that wives and mothers served as moral guides to children, so adultery committed by a woman was considered perverted and unnatural. Also, it called the paternity of the children (the heirs to the husband’s property) into question. And thus men believed that unless there was an explicit rule against it, men were free to treat women any way they wanted without any shame. Men justified their actions with their supremacy and expected women to tolerate the abuse without demur.
The extreme polarization of roles based on gender resulted in a world ruled solely by male discretion, which almost never took into consideration the women’s viewpoint. Emmeline Lawrence of WSPU, an organization that fought for women’s emancipation, challenged the patriarchal power of society: “The concentration of power in the hands of men, the containing of women to the private sphere…had resulted in a society in which ‘there is nothing that expresses the woman’s point of view. There is nothing that tallies with the woman’s soul…everything is arranged upon a plan different from their own’” (Kent 149). Kent goes on to argue that not only had men failed to protect the interests of women; they were almost incapable of it. Their lives, their laws, and the administration of justice reflected men’s deep-seated desire to debase women sexually (149). If women were looked upon as ruled by their sexual reproductive systems in the institutions of marriage and motherhood, they could not expect any more protection or understanding from the legal system.
Prostitution, legal during the Victorian era, seemed to embody the second of the two categories of women present in Victorian society: the first was the pure wife and mother, “the angel in the house”; the other was the depraved and sexually-crazed prostitute. However because wives and mothers were not truly respected, my belief is that prostitution reflected what men really considered all women to be: whores for the gratification of their sexual desires. And indeed in Victorian England a large number of women were prostitutes: “In a society that forced women into a position of economic dependence upon men, only an accident of birth prevented women of the middle classes from resorting to prostitution to support themselves and their children” (Kent 68). Men said they were revolted by prostitutes, that they were the “fallen women” who deserved the shame and disrespect, yet made no effort to make prostitution illegal since they believed prostitutes provided a basic service of satisfying men’s uncontrollable needs. Ironically, in a society that was not open to women working outside the home, prostitution seemed to be the only profession protected by law. Many men regarded prostitutes as “the necessary evil to protect the pure, who otherwise might unwittingly provoke the male to rape them” (Kent 62).
Although I’m not sure Victorian men really considered themselves to be so bestial and animalistic “theorists constructed a single sexuality for men that acknowledged the urgency of male drives and the necessity of relieving them” (Kent 62). The whole field of prostitution seemed to be built upon the belief that men had to express their sexual energy, women being the means of men’s expression. The Contagious Disease Acts of the 1860’s tried to limit the spread of venereal diseases and prostitution, by requiring the examination of the genitals of women who were suspected of being prostitutes: “Treatment was compulsory only for women…a military doctor said periodic examination of the soldiers ‘would tend to destroy the men’s self-respect’” (Perkin 231). Several years later, feminists fought and “opposed the acts not simply because they singled out one sex for punishment and obloquy, but because they sanctioned the notion of woman as the acceptable object for male use and abuse” (Kent 66). Prostitution thus was a direct identification of women as “the Sex.”
Men’s and society’s consistent definition of women’s roles according to their separate spheres and the reproductive system can also be seen through what today we would consider the ‘weird’ sexual values of Victorians. To begin with, sex as a subject was not at all discussed. Girls could grow up into women and still not know where children came from: “Women’s bodies, hidden in long, voluminous clothes, were almost as much of a mystery to themselves as to men…‘Nice ladies no more thought of showing their legs than did nice chairs’” (Perkin 51). Sexuality and anything in relation to it contradicted the accepted notions of purity and was strictly looked down upon. Masturbation was so demonized that it was considered a mental disorder. Doctors maintained that masturbation caused “‘certain forms of insanity, epilepsy and hysteria in females” (Perkin 22). Victorians, it seemed, simply could not understand why anyone would voluntarily choose to participate in such revolting and degrading activities.
One solution was the mutilation of female genitals: “Clitoridectomy was performed to cure dysuria, amenorrhea, sterility, epilepsy, masturbation, ‘hysterical mania,’ and various manifestations of insanity. The source of these diseases was thought to be sexual arousal; the termination of sexual arousal through clitoridectomy cured the disease” (Kent 47). Men so deeply believed the idea of women as beings who were controlled by their sexuality that some even thought the reason women were so unhappy with their positions as females was because they lacked a male’s sexual organs. The psychologist Sigmund Freud explained this argument: “The personality development of the female centered upon her discovery in early childhood that she lacked a penis; penis envy created in the female child a lifelong dissatisfaction with her identity as a woman” (Kent 224). The extent to which men stressed view of women as “the Sex” was almost limitless. The best view, perhaps, stated clearly to define women’s social niche, was written by an eminent British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley:
Reproductive process demanded all the energy a woman could muster; to spend it in another direction would inexorably undermine the very function that gave woman her only raison d’être [reason for being]. If women foolishly attempted to undertake study, he concluded, they risked ruining forever their childbearing capacities (Perkin 51).In the end, there was simply no way to escape from men’s never-ending subordination of women due to female’s sexuality.
It was not until after 1850’s that the effective women’s organizations arose and finally began to stand up against male oppression. From an early age girls were taught they were useless; supported by the ideology of separate spheres, women lived their lives in conditions that some feminists saw as being close to slavery. Feminists and suffragists viewed their campaign as the best way to end the sexual discrimination against women brought on by the separate spheres – “an ideology that finally reduced women’s identity to a sexual one, encouraged the view of women as sexual objects, and perpetuated women’s powerlessness in both spheres” (Kent 5). If women were going to fight against the oppression forced on them by men, they had to get to the root of the problem, and the idea of the separate spheres was the basis. One Victorian woman referring to her childhood recalled: “‘We just got instilled in us the feeling of being second best, if not coming up to scratch. We were girls, you see, and what use were girls anyway?’” (Perkin 6) The women of the early twentieth century realized their freedom lay in the dissolution of the ideology of separate spheres, through emending men’s views, and overhauling the legal system. By discarding the underlying beliefs that upheld the unjust aspects of Victorian society, women understood that their position in society would increasingly improve, especially in the institutions of marriage, motherhood, and law: “A truer, more moral relationship between the sexes, a sex peace, if you will, depended upon the reconstruction of gender and sexual identity…It was a fundamental step, they realized, if the laws and customs that subjected women to men were to be overturned” (Kent 134-9). Many of the freedoms we take for granted today indeed sprang from the seeds of Victorian women’s repression, and women’s continuous determination to fight patriarchal society.