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Women in the Nineteenth Century

The Nineteenth Century is often called the Victorian Age, taking that name from England's Queen Victoria who ruled for over 60 years.

The English Monarchs of the 1800s were:

George III (1760-1820)

George IV (1820-1830) --Regent from 1810-1820

William IV (1830-1837)

Victoria (1837-1901)

Vittorio Corcos's Dreams, 1896.

It was an age where the impact of the industrial revolution caused a sharp differentiation between the gender roles, especially of the upper and middle classes. Men and women were thought to have completely different natures, owing largely to Darwin's work in biological determinism, and people saw those differences as dictating separate and different functions in society.  Men were thought to have natures suited to the public world, women to the private. The following chart illustrates some of the differences that were thought to exist biologically.


Men Women
Powerful Weak
Active Passive
Brave Timid
Worldly Domestic
Logical Illogical
Rational Emotional, susceptible to madness, hysteria
Individual Social/Familial
Independent Dependent
Able to resist temptation Unable to resist temptation
Tainted Pure
Ambitious Content
Sexual/Sensual Not sexual/sensual
Sphere: Public Sphere: Private

Note that these traits are generally polar opposites, following the thought that men and women were complete opposites of each other. Note, too, that several of these characteristics are mutually exclusive. Women were thought to be more pure, innocent, and morally superior to men; however, they were also more easily corrupted. More importantly, women who expressed traits or desires contrary to these ideals were ostracized and deemed to have "unsexed" themselves.

"The Cult of True Womanhood," 1820-1860, is a term coined by historian Barbara Welter to describe the process of acculturating women to this ideal in America. Welter identifies four main virtues that a "true" woman must exhibit:

Note: These values are still encouraged by most media (print, television, etc.) today.


Most doctors of the period believed that "true" women felt little or no sexual desire, and that only abnormal or "pathological" women felt strong sexual desire. Male sexual desire was acknowledged, but it was thought that masturbation or frequent sex could damage a man's health or distract him from his work, eventually, if not properly controlled, could destroy his life.

Marriage was seen as the only proper locale for moderate sex. Same sex sexual relationships or frequent sex were seen as being unnatural and evil. "Proof" of these points came from Dr. William Acton who wrote in the 1860s that the "majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind. . . . No nervous or feeble young man need, therefore, be deterred from marriage by an exaggerated notion of the duties required from him. . . .The married woman has no wish to be treated on the footing of a mistress." Proof that those ideas did not hold true for all women was found in the research of a Scottish physician who found, in the 1890s, following a survey of over 190 women that 152 admitted that they did have sexual desires and 134 reported having had orgasms. The physician sent out 500 surveys and got only 190 back, perhaps showing the influence of the ideal on a woman's behavior.

Many Cultural Factors Acted to Restrict Women's Sexuality:


Fashion evolves to complement this view of sexuality and control. Women began to wear long skirts with layers of petticoats and then crinolines, which made it both difficult for woman to dress and undress by herself and time consuming.


As corsets develop, the woman's breathing becomes much more difficult. Fainting as a reaction to excitement or an "improper" situation is acceptable and frequent, as it denotes that a woman is truly a lady.


Lower-class women could be servants, domestic help, factory workers, prostitutes, etc. Middle- and upper-class women could help, in some cases, with a family business, but generally, the economy and the society dictated that women should work in the home, taking care of home and hearth. They could be educated and could study, as long as it did not interfere with their housework. Any serious or passionate study of any subject was seen as harmful to the family, unless that serious and passionate study dealt with a social or religious issue, or to the woman, herself. Physicians believed that if a woman became too scholarly, her uterus would become dysfunctional, possibly leading to madness.

In a famous example of such limits on a woman, Robert Southey, the poet laureate of England, wrote a response to Charlotte Bronte's request for advice on pursuing a literary career, saying that "literature is not the business of a woman's life, and it cannot be." Upon receiving this letter, Bronte suffered angst and depression, as her journal indicates, but eventually, she did write, and became a successful novelist under an androgynous pen name. Even when women wrote and were popular, they were not well-received by the critical literary establishment. Nathaniel Hawthorne bemoaned the mass "of scribbling women" whose works the popular culture preferred to his "serious" and "literary" works.

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek-Hall, the instructor of Women in Literature, at Kimberly_RadekHall@ivcc.edu

This page was last updated on 11 January 2017 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek-Hall, 2001.