History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: 19th Century Society

Women's Roles

woman embroidering in veil

"angel of the home"

The foundation of public morality was private security, protected by the middle-class wife. The home was supposed to be a haven from the industrial workplace, where the husband spent his days. Depending on their financial status, women were expected to have specific knowledge of managing a household.

book Workbook document: Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861)

A home was a complex place to manage. In a lower middle-class home, the woman needed to be able to cook and do all but the heaviest cleaning. At a higher income, she was expected to manage servants. And this was not your minimalist artist's loft decor. Victorian homes were a crowded combination of the latest technological knick-knacks and older heirlooms. Overstuffed chairs, fireplaces, gaslights, furnaces, private bedrooms, a kitchen far from the dining room (to avoid icky cooking smells) were all expected. In larger homes, a conservatory of glass and steel provided a place to grow hothouse plants in cooler climes. And the whole thing was cluttered with personal items: silver-backed hairbrushes, pictures in ornate frames, a gramophone, a piano, and many, many books. The wife's job was to keep it quiet and happy, with the kids ready for a good-night kiss from daddy before going to bed. After tending house all day, and making the round of social calls necessary to her station, her job in the evening was as confidante and supporter of her man.

In return, middle-class men were supposed to worship their wives, and many did. One historian said that they gave women indulgence instead of justice. She should always be a visible representation of her husband's love and regard. Some women, and some men, didn't fit the mold.
bookWorkbook document: Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899)

Interestingly enough, Kate Chopin wrote this book in her parlor, surrounded by her children.

domestic help

Real men could afford domestic help; ones wife should not have to soil her own hands. In wealthier families, a parlormaid (whose only job was to answer the door) was a necessity, and she had to be pretty. A cook, groom for the horses, gardener, chambermaid (for bedrooms), downstairs maid, tweeny (between-floors maid) all demonstrated to society the wealth and status of the occupants. In 1851 in Britain, 25% of all females over the age of 9 were domestic servants.

protection and ignorance

As in the medieval image, women were subject to protection by men. They were to be shielded from the harsh realities of life so they remain pure and modest. This went to extremes (you may recall the image of a gynecological exam where the doctor can't see anything). In fact, women were expected to endure pain rather than submit to the "indelicacy" of an examination by a man. This was even an argument used by some against health exams for prostitutes!

Menstruation was considered a "disability", and motherhood was honored above all. But little sexual information was given to women, even by their own mothers, leading to extraordinary ignorance of ones own body.

7. Sexuality ->