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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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Women and Urban Life in Victorian Britain

By Lynda Nead
Image of seemingly typical Victorian wife
A seemingly typical Victorian wife 

The idea of femininity in the Victorian era was encapsulated in the idea of the 'woman's mission', but this passive role could not be tolerated for long. Women soon began to seek a more independent life.

Woman's mission

Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901) was a period of intensive industrialisation, urbanisation, and social change. Whereas in previous centuries generations had stayed in the same communities and remained close to the parental home, in the 19th century there was considerable mobility within the population. Within the span of two generations, a family might move from the country to the city, then to the suburbs.

For the new members of industrialised middle classes, social identity was created around sets of values which marked them out as separate and different from the aristocracy above them and the working classes below them. Broadly speaking, middle-class identity was built on a platform of moral respectability and domesticity.

'... the moral health of the nation ... depended on the moral purity of its women.'

Women played a central role in all this, and the ideal of femininity was encapsulated in the idea of a 'woman's mission', which was that of playing a model mother, wife and daughter. Women were also seen as moral and spiritual guardians - as Samuel Smiles declared in Self-Help, 'The nation comes from the nursery.' In other words, the moral health of the nation and its empire depended on the moral purity of its women.

Published: 2004-11-04

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