Women In Victorian Britain: Separate Spheres

As with my post a few weeks ago, this is a piece I produced for my history degree. This one gained a mark of a 2:1, feel free to use it for information, but don’t just plagiarize! Feel free to comment below on your opinions. The topic: Why did the notion of separate spheres prove so popular in Victorian Britain? So, here goes:

Queen Victoria (1819-1901)

Queen Victoria (1819-1901)

The notion of separate spheres reoccurs throughout the Victorian period. From political ideology to breakthroughs in science, all aspects of life were adapted to fit the idea that men were powerful and inventive and should thus be out in the workplace, progressing the world forward, whilst women held a vital role as a domestic controller, keeping the home as a haven and rearing well-educated and socially aware children.[1] This concept was not new to the Victorian period and can be tracked to prehistoric times, where men were seen as the hunters and women the devices and minders of the home. However, it is interesting to consider what made the notion of separate spheres so appealing to a rather modern  and largely revolutionary Victorian society.

In order to gain a full understanding of how views on the separate spheres were constructed in the Victorian period, it is necessary to consider how the roles of gender changed in the period. An argument supported by Christopher Wells, states that the most significant reasoning for the increase of the separate spheres theory came due to the industrial revolution.[2] This revolution ended as the Victorian period began and showed a clear transition away from family based, agricultural economics to factory based business. This meant a considerable re-adjustment of family life; men left the house in order to sell their labor and gain funds for the house, leaving women to look after the children and the home. Friedrich Engels, who claimed that there had been a ‘shift in control of space’, initiated this opinion during the Victorian period.[3] This seems to suggest that the influence of the industrial revolution, and its impact on the structure of society and family life was largely to blame for the idea of the separation of spheres. Engels’ idea that the industrial revolution caused the division of roles between the sexes is the most practical reasoning for the popularity of the notion of separate spheres, however it is partially weakened by the fact that many spoke of there being further reasoning for this division. As will be considered in this essay, from biology to religion, there was constant support for the theory. Therefore, it seems that although the industrial revolution gave the opportunity for division, there must have been further reasoning for why it was only the men that went to work in the factories when men and women had previously worked alongside one-another.

Due to the failures in Engels’ argument, it is vital to consider the opinions of the times in gender and sexual relations. This will enable thought into why the division was drawn between the sexes and established as a social norm. The first of these reasons comes from religion. Much of the Christian religion seemingly taught a message of opposition toward female suffrage and appearance in the public sphere.[4] The suggestion was that God had created roles for both men and women and that by following the guidelines stated in the Bible, gender relations would find the correct balance of the public and private spheres, creating an ideal society. The main texts that suggested these theories came from Thomas Gisborne and Henry Venn in 1797 and 1763 respectively.[5] The dating of these texts however raises a large issue. Yes, their ideas were still being preached through the Victorian period, but they had been in existence for half a century prior to Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838. This means that although there was religious support for the notion of separate spheres, the support had been there for at least fifty years (if not more, as the information came from the Bible, a much older text). Therefore, religion could have sustained popularity toward the philosophy, but it cannot have caused what seemed to be a boom in acceptance of the separation of spheres in the Victorian period.

The notion of separate spheres also cropped up in politics. Although women had no part of the vote, they still had an interesting role to play in political thought. The idea that women were to stay at home was a traditional thought in society. However, it was also one that was seen with a form of respect. The rearing of children was seen as extremely important for the future, and thus the role of women was common ground for the discussion of politics.[6] It is highly arguable that the most interesting piece on gender relations from a political thinker came from William Lovett, a Chartist leader. Chartism’s role as a political ideology was to revolutionize, to push forward suffrage. It is believed that Lovett’s personal wish was for female suffrage, and his piece entitled ‘Women’s Mission’ is highly interesting to consider. In it, Lovett states that a woman would be out of place within a ‘factory’s health destroying air; where coarse and vulgar sounds her ears assail’.[7] This is highly interesting to consider as it shows that even the most revolutionary of Victorian politicians still saw the view of the separate spheres was correct, that man and woman were ‘twin halves apart’.[8] Therefore, it seems clear that there was no political authority rejecting the notion of separate spheres and thus it is unsurprising that its popularity was so broad in the period. The reasoning for this political acceptance is likely to be due to its satisfaction of a political wish to keep social hierarchy. The separate spheres was just part of the want to keep society in clear order and allowed for the everyday person to understand their social position. This, supported by the evidence from William Lovett’s poem, shows clearly that there was mass support from the political world for the separation of spheres theory.

Victorian Britain is often rather wrongly named as a time of conservatism and a considerable lack of change. However, this is a highly dubious opinion. It seems that this title is based upon the rigid ruler in Queen Victoria, rather than the change that she oversaw. Arguably the largest of these changes came in the scientific world, through Darwin’s discovery of evolution. Darwin’s theory was that all organisms had evolved from a prior state via a ‘recurring struggle for existence’, working towards creating the optimum being of a species via a process of natural selection.[9] Although this is now seen as scientific fact, it is Darwin’s thoughts on gender relations that are more debatable, particularly for the sake of this essay.  Naturally, as a scientist, Darwin brings a largely animalistic tone to the human race. His argument suggests that it is accepted that ‘the bull differs in disposition from the cow, the wild-boar from the sow [and] the stallion from the mare’, so therefore there should be acceptance that the role of men and women must have fundamentally natural differences.[10] He argues that men have to compete for females, and that this initially improved the strength of the male species in the early history of the human race. However, as time went on and violence became an outlawed part of society, men were forced to improve their intellect in order to find a mate over ‘the rival of other men’. This, in Darwin words, led to man attaining ‘a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman’. [11] Therefore, men are far more suited to go into the world of work, make progress and earn a living. Darwin also claimed that Women’s skills are left in areas of ‘intuition [and] perception’; suggesting that they would prove perfect for child rearing and the upkeep of the household as a haven. This seemed to be scientific backing of the notion of separation of spheres, coming from arguably the most important biological scientist in history. Therefore, it is unsurprising that with his support, popularity for the separation of spheres grew considerably as ‘the separation of male and female was written into and sanctioned by the biological’.[12] Darwin’s opinions suggest that a lack of competition amongst women has led to the progression of the male species through rivalry, both physically and intellectually leaving females behind. To the modern reader, it appears likely that Darwin had looked to apply his theory of evolution too heavily upon an incorrect topic, rendering his view a simple re-utterance of the Separate Spheres view held by much of the Victorian period. But it was this re-utterance that gave a philosophy that had been supported by religion and politics for generations a real platform for justification. It therefore seems that Darwin’s scientific approval of the notion of separate spheres may have been the key catalyst toward gaining popularity for the theory in the Victorian period.

Although Darwin was likely the most important of all scientists to back the philosophy, it is important to discuss other scientific supporters of the separation of spheres theory. Most notable of these seems to be the man that may have influenced Darwin’s views, William Acton. The scientific view that men are muscular, powerful workers whilst women have less drive and a more maternal instinct toward child rearing and protection of the home as a haven undoubtedly comes from highly traditional views, but the view of scientists was viewed by many as top-authority in a time when the Church’s expertise was beginning to be severely questioned. William Acton’s most interesting piece is arguably his writings on (the lack of) sexual feelings within females. Although seemingly irrelevant for the separate spheres in the workplace, it is important to remember that the concept spread to the division of public and private life outside of the workplace. Men were seen to know their place in society, they were able to meet up in taverns for a drink with their friends and it was accepted that their sexual drive was a more open subject than that of a female. It is therefore interesting to read Acton’s piece that supports this idea.[13] He suggests that women bring almost a form of corruption when attempting to enter the public sphere, that they can only enter via prostitution and the fooling of younger men into sexual indulgences, when really the ‘love of home, children, and domestic duties, are the only passions they feel.’[14] This illustrated a clear difference between men and women. Acton stated that there were natural reasons for the difference in drive for men and women, and these fitted the separation of spheres theory perfectly. The interesting thing about Acton’s research was that most women agreed with his findings. Whether this is due to the trust of science or genuine belief from women is hard to get a true answer to, but without doubt the support and resulting popularity was there from both sexes. This again seems to suggest that Victorian Britain was at a time of skepticism over the Church, and acceptance of theories put forward by scientists. Therefore, it seems that similarly to the previous discussion of Darwin, much of the Victorian popularity of the separate spheres theory came about due to the support it gained from science.

Discussing the scientific side of the separation of spheres was not a new concept to Victorian Britain however. Prior to scientists such as Acton and Darwin, much study had been put into the concept of natural reasoning for the differences in men and women. The most commonly sighted of these arguments came from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an eighteenth century Genevan philosopher. Although lacking in strong evidence due to the unavailability of modern scientific research methods, Rousseau was sure that the differences between men and women went beyond their physical build and reproductive organs. Instead, he argued that there was a difference in their biological make up.[15] In a piece on the nature of men, published in 1762, entitled ‘Emile, or On Education’ Rousseau looked to prove that women were there for men; to raise them as a child and to be available as a mate and a comforter for grown adults. Much like Acton, Rousseau claimed that this was due to their natural ability to make ‘lives sweet and pleasant’ and their incline to love the more domestic things in life.[16] However, it is interesting to consider the difference that a century makes in public reception to such suggestions. Due to the fact that the book seemingly went against religion by looking into scientific reasoning, the book was publicly burned in both Paris and Geneva within the year of its publication.[17] This suggests that prior to the Victorian period, religion held too high-a authority for this form of scientific claim any form of respect. Thus, it seems that the atmosphere of Victorian Britain, particularly due to the credibility and extensive studies done by Charles Darwin, was far more critical of religion and accepting of science. Therefore, it seems highly arguable that it was the progress in science and natural knowledge that allowed for the separation of spheres philosophy to hold so much popularity in the Victorian period.

To understand the relevance of the idea of the separate spheres in the Victorian period, it is vital to consider how the idea seems to and how it has influenced the modern day. The role of separate spheres seems to have largely faded from most modern societies, particularly in Britain. The notion took its largest setbacks as Britain lost its sense of social hierarchy in both World Wars. In this period, the need for conformity to traditional values declined as the country was pushed into a fully efficient wartime economy. This meant that men from different social backgrounds were sent to war together (although the higher positions within the armed forces were often taken by those from higher social positions), and more importantly women were required in the workplace to keep up Britain’s output of wartime necessities, from clothing to weaponry.[18] Since this shift and the resulting rise in feminism and views of equality of the sexes, the idea of separate spheres has rapidly become an outdated and obsolete philosophy. The fact that the separate spheres declined so quickly after the breakdown in social hierarchy is no coincidence. It seems clear that the separate spheres was an idea held by society in order to keep order and control over society and the class system, however the wars proved that women were often capable of working to deadlines and could also show notable use in communication.[19] There was no true threat to this social hierarchy in the Victorian period, so it is thus unsurprising that the British people accepted it so willingly. It allowed for control from above, whilst also delivering both men and women important roles in serving and comforting their families and each other.

To conclude, it seems that Victorian Britain held the perfect scenario for the notion of separate spheres to gain popularity. With the industrial revolution came the division of labour, leaving women behind to ensure that the home was a haven for the ideal growth of the family. Religion continued its support in the division of gender roles, whilst scientists such as Darwin were able to bring new scientific evidence forwards to prove that men and women were naturally different. This fitted society perfectly as the aristocracy looked to keep a form of social hierarchy and politicians looked to give everyone a place. This is confirmed by the fact that the separate spheres did not begin to truly decline until after the Second World War, when the traditional social hierarchy broke down and it was proved that women could prosper in the workplace.

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Primary Sources:

  • William Acton, The Function and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, 1875, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1867 (Accessed via Google Books 02/03/2013).
  • Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, vol. II, 1871 (as on Blackboard).
  • Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, John Murray, 1859.
  • William Lovett, Woman’s Mission, University of Bristol Press (As on Blackboard).
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Translated by William Payne), Rousseau’s Émile: or, Treatise on education, Appleton & Company, Michigan, 1908, (Accessed via Google Books 01/03/2013).

 

Secondary Sources:

  • Roy Anupama, Gendered Citizenship: Historical and Conceptual Explorations, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2005.
  • Stephen Barton & David Wilkinson, Reading Genesis After Darwin, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Betty DeBerg, Ungodly Women, Mercer University Press, 2000
  • Joshua Goldstein, War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Ashlyn Kuersten, Women and the Law: Leaders, Cases and Documents, Santa Barbara, California, 2003
  • Lucy Noakes, Women in the British Army: War and the Gentle Sex, 1907-1948, Taylor & Francis, 2006.
  • Jodi O’Brien, Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, SAGE Publications, Los Angeles, 2009.
  • Geoffrey Searle, Morality and the Market in Victorian Britain, Oxford University Press, 1998.

 

Journals/Articles:

  • Cathy Ross, “Separate Spheres or Shared Dominions?” in Transformation, Vol. 23, SAGE Publications, 2006.
  • Christopher Wells, “Separate Spheres” in Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory, Routledge, London, 2009.

[1] Ashlyn Kuersten, Women and the Law: Leaders, Cases and Documents, Santa Barbara, California, 2003, pp. 16-17.

[2] Christopher Wells, “Separate Spheres” in Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory, Routledge, London, 2009, p. 519.

[3] Cathy N. Davidson & Jessamyn Hatcher, No More Separate Spheres!, Duke University Press, 2002, p. 33.

[4] Betty DeBerg, Ungodly Women, Mercer University Press, 2000, pp. 43-58.

[5] Cathy Ross, “Separate Spheres or Shared Dominions?” in Transformation, Vol. 23, SAGE Publications, 2006, pp. 228-35.

[6] Geoffrey Searle, Morality and the Market in Victorian Britain, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 140.

[7] William Lovett, Woman’s Mission, University of Bristol Press (As on Blackboard), p. 17.

[8] Lovett, Woman’s Mission, p. 15.

[9] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, John Murray, 1859, p. 5

[10] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, vol. II, 1871 (as on Blackboard).

[11] As above.

[12] Stephen Barton & David Wilkinson, Reading Genesis After Darwin, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 184.

[13] William Acton, The Function and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, 1875, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1867 (Accessed via Google Books 02/03/2013), p. 143

[14] Acton, Function and Disorders, p. 145.

[15] Jodi O’Brien, Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, SAGE Publications, Los Angeles, 2009, pp. 600-603.

[16] Roy Anupama, Gendered Citizenship: Historical and Conceptual Explorations, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2005, pp.80-81.

[17] Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Translated by William Payne), Rousseau’s Émile: or, Treatise on education, Appleton & Company, Michigan, 1908, p. 316 (Accessed via Google Books 01/03/2013).

[18] Lucy Noakes, Women in the British Army: War and the Gentle Sex, 1907-1948, Taylor & Francis, 2006, p. 113.

[19] Joshua Goldstein, War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 403-405.

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