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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain

By Lynn Abrams
The ideology

Victorian women indoors
Victorian women indoors 
If we approach 19th-century middle-class domestic life from the perspective of those living it, it becomes clear that women actively moulded a culture that served their own interests. The domestic sphere was a cultural expression of the female world. Their fashions, etiquette, domestic furnishings, social engagements, religious devotion and charitable activity all served to delineate a universe within which women could demonstrate their power.

It is only in prescriptive literature that the bourgeois woman, who idly spent her days exercising her creative talents, socialising with other women and supervising the servants, can be found. In reality most middle-class women were active both within and outside the home.

'This created a supply of cheap labour in the form of married women ...'

So far the ideal Victorian women has been portrayed as a member of the middle classes, but the ideology of domesticity was also powerful amongst the working classes. Working-class men began to demand the privileges of domesticity for their wives, while protecting their own jobs and rates of pay.

At the same time working-class women were beginning to demand these privileges for themselves, in order to protect their status within the home. In practice, though, domesticity meant something rather different for these women. Homework, that is paid work undertaken in the home, was regarded as compatible with marriage and children, so working-class women found themselves working at badly paid jobs in their own homes, while still maintaining the fiction that women's only duties lay within the domestic sphere.

Thus domestic industry was able to expand during the 19th century, given a boost by the ideology of domesticity. This created a supply of cheap labour in the form of married women, who earned the additional income that enabled the family to survive.

Published: 2001-08-09

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