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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
Wife and mother

Image of Victorian nursery maid with children
Victorian nursery maid with children 
At the heart of the domestic ideal was the mother and her children. Since early in the 19th century the role of mother had been idealised. Motherhood was no longer simply a reproductive function, but was imbued with symbolic meaning. Domesticity and motherhood were portrayed as sufficient emotional fulfilment for women and many middle-class women regarded motherhood and domestic life as a 'sweet vocation', a substitute for women's productive role.

'... the childless single woman was a figure to be pitied.'

Women of the middle classes spent more time with their children than their predecessors. They were more likely to breast-feed, to play with and educate their children, and to incorporate them in the day-to-day life of the home. Middle-class women who, by mid century, were giving birth 'confined' within the home, now achieved true womanhood if they responded emotionally to their infants and bonded with them through breast-feeding and constant attendance. Motherhood was seen as an affirmation of their identity.

Marriage signified a woman's maturity and respectability, but motherhood was confirmation that she had entered the world of womanly virtue and female fulfilment. For a woman not to become a mother meant she was liable to be labelled inadequate, a failure or in some way abnormal. Motherhood was expected of a married woman and the childless single woman was a figure to be pitied. She was often encouraged to find work caring for children - as a governess or a nursery maid - presumably to compensate her for her loss.

Published: 2001-08-09

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