Monday, 30 May 2011

A woman's place?

Women in the Victorian period suffered a number of legal disabilities. They could not vote in Parliamentary elections. They were excluded from some professions. Until 1870 married women could not own property, and they were unfavourably treated under the divorce laws.

However, it would be wrong to assume that Victorian women were passive creatures who meekly submitted to their fathers and husbands, limiting their concerns to their homes and families.

The campaign for women's suffrage began in 1867, before all men had the vote. From 1869 women could vote in local elections, and women could stand for election to local authorities such as Boards of Guardians and School Boards.

Women campaigned on a range of issues. Josephine Butler and Annie Besant worked on behalf of some of the most disadvantaged women.

Frances Buss and Emily Davies were among those who raised standards of education for girls. Barbara Bodichon demonstrated that illegitimacy did not prevent a woman from taking part in public life.

Gertrude Bell and Marianne North travelled independently in remote parts of the world and were acknowledged by men and women as experts in their fields.

These women were financially independent and had the time and money to pursue their interests. Women who had to work also found opportunities increasing in the Victorian period. Domestic service was the most common employment for women, but many more types of work were available by the end of the century.

A large proportion of the workers in cotton mills were women and girls. The new department stores employed many young women. After 1870 compulsory, state funded education brought an increasing demand for school teachers, many of whom were women.

Women also ran businesses. In one town in 1855 women were running schools, lodging houses, public houses, hotels, dining rooms, beershops and shrimp warehouses.

They were shopkeepers, bakers, grocers, greengrocers, milliners, straw hat makers, dressmakers, staymakers, haberdashers, booksellers and printers, boot and shoemakers, pawnbrokers, basket makers, dealers in eggs and fruit, stationers, whitesmiths, dealers in marine stores, furniture dealers, market gardeners, barge owners, ironmongers, leather sellers, wax modellers and glass and earthenware dealers.

There were some things that women did not do. They did not go to sea in the fishing industry, although they were often part-owners of fishing boats and in many fishing ports they were involved in handling the catch on shore. They were excluded by law from some occupations. From 1842, for example, women could not work underground in mines, although they could and did work at the surface.

However, there was a wide range of occupations that women could undertake in the Victorian period. A writer setting a novel during this period could make her heroine something other than a governess or a servant, without her necessarily appearing unusual or encountering opposition. Giving a heroine a different occupation allows the writer to explore different aspects of Victorian life and of the heroine’s own character, which can only make the story stronger.

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