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18 September 2014
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Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain

By Lynn Abrams
Towards a political mission

'Punch' cartoon, depicting emancipated Victorian women
'Punch' cartoon: Emancipated Victorian women 
Female charitable activity was informed by religious commitment as well as by a sense of moral superiority. In Britain evangelicalism inspired the formation of an extensive range of female associations.

These ranged from temperance, missionary and Sunday School societies to female-run benevolent institutions, and societies for the care of widows, orphans, the sick and the infirm. The numbers involved were huge. In Glasgow, for example, in 1895 there were 10,766 Sunday School teachers, all of whom were female volunteers.

These women believed that the key to philanthropy was the personal touch, so the lady reformer ventured out to those in need. Across the country it was found that one of the best ways of reaching the poorest families was by employing a 'Bible-woman' from the working classes who would more likely be welcomed inside as 'a motherly woman of their own class'. Women's mission to women was an extension of the female role of service and self-sacrifice, but by the end of the Victorian era female philanthropists began to realise that, as women, they had little power to change things.

'The aim of first-wave feminists was ... the vote - so that women might have some influence over their fate.'

Many of the first feminists were active in the philanthropic movement, and it was from this feminine public sphere that demands for improvements in the position of women began to be made. By 1900 women's moral mission had also become a political mission.

The aim of first-wave feminists was to gain better education and employment opportunities for middle-class women, better working conditions and wages for working-class women, and eventually the vote - so that women might have some influence over their fate.

About the author

Dr Lynn Abrams is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at Glasgow University, where she teaches social and women's history. She has written on diverse topics from marriage and divorce in 19th century Germany to child welfare in Scotland. She is the author of The Orphan Country: Children of Scotland's Broken Homes from 1845 to the Present Day, (1998), and co-editor (with Elizabeth Harvey) of Gender Relations in German History, (1996).

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Published: 2001-08-09



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