Women in the 19th Century
Women in the 19th Century
It takes a considerable leap of the imagination for a woman of the 21st century to realize what her life would have been like had she been born 150 years ago. Women nowadays can have a career and can choose whether or not to marry. Women of the 19th century had no such choices. Most lived in a state little better that slavery. The struggle for women’s rights has its roots in antiquity and its branches across the world. Now the issue of gender equality is openly discussed in Britain and laws have been passed which help to maintain equality. This has not always been the case. During the whole of the 19th century, women in the Victorian period had no rights through there had been some movements to advance the rights of women. The extreme inequities between men and women stimulated a debate about women’s roles known as “The Women Question”. It was converged from many perspectives and with different arguments. John Stuart Mill, Harriet Taylor, and Florence Nightingale believed that women should enjoy all rights granted to men, while John Ruskin believed that women are different from men and require different domestic roles.
John Stuart Mill was one of the leading historical figures in Liberal Feminism. Mill was one the first 19th century figures to offer a sustained liberal argument in support of ending the oppression of women. He argued that the subjection of women (their exclusion from social and political power) was based on a false view of women’s natures. Women were thought naturally to be different from men, and in particular to lack the rational capacities in virtue of which men merited social and political rights and freedom. Mill attacked this claim, arguing that women, in fact, were not naturally different from men; instead, their “natures” were the result of certain kinds of artificial restrictions. If free from these restrictions, Mill contended, women would possess the same capacities as men and would, therefore, merit the same political rights and freedom. Among the things for which Mill campaigned most strongly were women’s rights, women’s suffrage, and equal access to education for women. His essay on the Subjection of Women (1869) is an enduring defense of gender equality. Mill considered women’s suffrage an essential step toward the moral improvement of human kind. Not only can women think as well as men, Mill argued, but their thoughts and experience incline them to be more flexible and practical in applied reasoning and, perhaps, therefore morally superior to men. Certainly the provision of social equality for women would serve the general welfare of society by promoting justice, enhancing moral sensitivity, and securing liberty for all.
Harriet Taylor Mill and Florence Nightingale were two Victorian women who believed in equality and supported the liberal movement. Harriet Taylor Mill wrote about women needing to be more involved in society. She called for women to work outside the household as well as raise children. She thought that women should be looked at as rational persons who are worthy of the same civil liberties as men. Harriet held that every human being of full age living in a nation should entitle to vote. Since political rights acknowledged no sex, therefore, men and women should be granted the right to vote. Women should have the professional employments thrown open to them in order to prove their abilities. Florence Nightingale was an important figure in modernizing the nursing profession, promoting training for women and teaching them courage, confidence, and self assertion. In Florence Nightingale’s Cassandra, 1852, she mourns the fact that middle class women were excluded from work- hence, gives the value placed on work in Victorian society, such women could not earn respect. This exclusion was underpinned by the ideology that the women’s place was in the home. A “respectable” family was one in which the husband earned the wages; the wife was “the angel in the house”. In her book “Cassandra”, Nightingale wrote about the frustration on upper class women being meant by society to sit around in a ladylike fashion, and do nothing much of value to silent misery.
Although Ruskin encouraged women’s education for its general social value; he did not endorse women’s employment or political involvement outside the home. Men’s lives were reshaped by gendered subcultures invented in the Victorian period, exemplified in politics by the ideology of “separate sphere”. Men’s roles were those of the public sphere, women’s of the private, but both men and women had public and private duties. According to Ruskin, each sphere affected the other. Because women were at the center of everything, what they did affected the public sphere, they were also “makers and doers”, and men could not manage without them. Hence although women were not fit for public life, they should be a good influence on men. “The Women Question”, according to the Victorian gender ideology writer Ruskin, was that men and women inhabit separate but complementary spheres: their essential natures qualify men and women for certain activities and disqualify them for others; so that women best suited for the home, and man for the workplace. Ruskin believed that moral respectability and domesticity were important ideologies of feminine behavior. The woman’s mission was that of supportive wife, dutiful daughter, and caring mother. The woman’s domestic role was seen as an important and private part of society. For men, society dictated they take the authorities role as head of the household.
As a conclusion, the liberal feminist movement has focused on eliminating female subordination and blocking woman’s entrance to the so-called public world. While Ruskin is seen as the most articulate advocate of 19th century England’s sharply differentiated gender roles, Mill defenses the right of women to participate in political life. Mill was certain that the differences between the sexes are essentially accidental. He outlined women’s suffrage and tried to remedy the enfranchisement of women. Mill was Nightingale’s friend and they mirrored each others views. In his letter to her” Later Letter”, he told her that women’s participation in political life is a way to secure their freedom and individuality. Just like his friendship with Nightingale shaped their issues on Women’s rights, his relationship with Harriet Taylor (Mill) led him to the strong conviction that women’s suffrage is an essential step toward the moral improvement of humankind. Throughout history Women have been subjected to cruel and unfair treatment in an unequal society designed to oppress the physically inferior woman. Men’s superior strength has too often debacle a woman’s ability to strive for success and reach one’s full potential. A man’s strength is an insufficient reason to suppress the powerful voice, and intellect of women. Throughout their struggle for equality, being oppressed, women have shown that they have the drive to persevere and come out on top in an unjust society.