The New Woman
Womanhood and literature at the turn of the 19th century
The New Woman | The Victorian Woman | Education & Work | Marriage & Sexuality | Fiction | Cartoons | Works Cited
Precursor to the New Woman:
The Victorian Woman
The status of women in the Victorian era is often seen as an illustration of the striking discrepancy between England's national power and wealth and what many, then and now, consider its appalling social conditions. Women were seen as pure and clean. Because of this view, their bodies were seen as temples which should not be adorned with jewelry nor used for physical exertion or pleasurable sex. The role of women was to have children and tend to the house, in contrast to men, according to the concept of Victorian masculinity.
In her 1861 manual Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton first described the role of the "mistress of the household." Here she explained that this mistress is comparable to the Commander of an Army or the leader of an enterprise, only she must intelligently and thoroughly run a respectable household and secure the happiness, comfort and well-being of her family. Another duty described by Beeton compassion for suffering and sympathy with sufferers, neat-handedness, quiet manners, love of order and cleanliness; reducing the mother to being the "sick-nurse" who takes care of ill family members. This requires a good temper, qualities a woman worthy of the name should possess in the 19th century. They were dependent on their male family members as the brother's affection might secure their future in case their husband treated them badly or they did not get married at all. Furthermore, while it was very easy to lose one's reputation, it was difficult to establish a reputation. For example, it was not uncommon for whole families to be stigmatized as a result of the misdeeds of one individual member of that family.
In the early part of the Victorian age, girls of the upper and middle class were educated mainly in 'fashionable' subjects like French, drawing, painting, singing, dancing and playing the piano. However, in the later part of the century, giving girls a proper education became more important, and schools like Cheltenham Ladies' College and Rodean were established, offering girls an education broadly modeled on that of boys of the same class, with an emphasis on academic subjects and outdoor games. The expansion of the educational system for poor children meant that both boys and girls of the working class were guaranteed a basic education, though many left school early to work.