The early 19th century: reforming women
The 19th century saw an increasingly widespread and articulate statement of women’s claims – perhaps in reaction to the emergence of an image of true ‘femininity’ that seemed to become more constricted as the century wore on: a class-based ideal of gentility and refinement. But though many women (and men) spoke out eloquently against and acted on their beliefs, it was not until the second half of the century that any organized campaigns – particularly for better education for women, for the possibility of their working outside the home, for a reform in the laws affecting married women, and for the right to vote – began to emerge.
In 1843, a married woman, Marion Reid, had published in Edinburgh A Plea for Women, which has been described, rightly, as the most thorough and effective statement by a woman since Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication. Reid covered most of the areas that would preoccupy reformers for the rest of the century and her book deserves to be better known. (At the time, it was widely read, and reprinted several times, though it seems to have been more popular in America than in England.) Reid offers a cool and damning analysis of the way her contemporaries – and, she admits, they are mainly other women – talk so confidently about a ‘woman’s sphere’, and equate womanliness with the renunciation of self. ‘Womanly’ behaviour, in practice, means ‘good humour and attention to her husband, keeping her children neat and clean, and attending to
domestic arrangements’. But Reid insists, more forcibly than anyone else in the period, that this apparently noble and virtuous ‘self-renunciation’ in practice usually involves ‘a most criminal self-extinction’.
The education that most girls are given merely ‘cramps and confines’ them, she claims: ‘Any symptom of independent thought is quickly repressed… the majority of girls are subdued into mere automatons.’ Reid also comments bitterly on the almost insurmountable difficulties many women face in ‘obtaining the means of a good substantial education’. Most girls are brought up to ‘a mechanical performance of duty… their own minds all the while lying barren and unfruitful’.
This question of education would remain crucially important all through the 19th century; too little seemed to have changed since the days of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft.
Education for girls – whether at home by governesses, who were often barely trained, or at inadequate schools – remained a hit and miss affair.
Reid is careful to acknowledge women’s domestic responsibilities, though she claims that most women go about their household duties in ‘a cold, hard, mechanical, loveless spiritless way’. She admits that, as things are, domestic work must form part, and ‘perhaps even the chief part’, of a woman’s life. But she argues that there is no reason why woman should be limited to domesticity. A shade reluctantly, she allows that some ‘subordination’ of herself may be ‘due to man’. But, she asks, ‘if woman’s rights are not the same as those of man, what are they?’ In one sense, she admits, ‘woman was made for man, yet in another and higher she was also made for herself’. Innocence, she argues, is not the same thing as virtue.
But a married woman – living in a ‘shackled condition’ – has no rights over her own property; even the produce of her own labour is at the disposal of her husband, who can, if he chooses, take and
‘waste it in dissipation and excess’. Moreover, ‘her children, as well as her fortune, are the property of her husband’.
In what was, for the times, her most radical argument, Reid asserts that ‘womanliness’ is quite compatible with voting. After all, woman, as much as man, is ‘a rational, moral and accountable creature’. She has no particular wish to see women representatives, she remarks cautiously; probably few women would ‘consent to be chosen’ and few electors would choose them. But she sees no reason why women should not stand, if any are ‘able or willing to overleap natural barriers’.
The two best-known 19th-century arguments for women’s rights were written by men; though in both cases, the authors – William Thompson and John Stuart Mill – acknowledge the influence and inspiration of their wives. It is intriguing that neither of these women – who were well educated and articulate – chose to speak out for themselves. Was this a nervousness about breaking with convention and speaking out in their own voices, or simply a tactical recognition that a man’s arguments might be taken more seriously?
In 1825 the Irish-born William Thompson published his Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Restrain them in Political and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery. He describes the book as ‘the protest of at least one man and one woman’ against the ‘degradation of one half of the adult portion of the human race’. It is addressed to, and acknowledges the inspiration of, the widowed Anna Wheeler. Anna Wheeler had been married off when she was only 15 years of age; the couple had six children, but when her husband proved a drunkard, Anna found the courage to leave him, and in 1818 spent some time in France, where she came into contact with Saint Simonian socialists. After her husband’s death two years later, she returned to London, where she became well known for her interest in reform movements. She was attacked by no less a figure than Benjamin Disraeli, who remarked sarcastically that Anna was
‘something between Jeremy Bentham and Meg Merrilees, very clever but awfully revolutionary1.
Thompson shared and expressed Anna Wheeler’s radical views. ‘I hear you indignantly reject the boon of equality with such creatures as men now are’, he wrote to her: ‘With you I would equally elevate both sexes.’ The book concentrates on the situation of the married woman, who is reduced to being a piece of ‘movable property and an ever-obedient servant to the bidding of man’. For a married woman, her home becomes a ‘prison-house’. The house itself, as well as everything in it, belongs to the husband, ‘and of all fixtures the most abject is his breeding machine, the wife’. Married women are in fact slaves, their situation no better than that ‘of Negroes in the West Indies’. Mothers are denied rights over their children and over family property, and most are treated like ‘any other upper servant’.
The Appeal was in part couched as an answer to James Mill’s Essay on Government, well known at the time, which argued that women need no political rights as they are adequately represented by their fathers or husbands. ‘What happens to women who have neither husband nor father?’ Thompson asks. He then goes on to attack, pungently and at length, the unthinking assumption that the interests of husband and wife are always identical, and to criticize, bitterly, the unjust situation. He also looks forward to a time when the children of all classes, both girls and boys, will be equally provided for and educated.
Anna Wheeler later went on to become an effective writer and lecturer on women’s rights. Sadly, her own daughter strongly disapproved of her radical inclinations, claiming that she was
unfortunately deeply imbued with the pernicious fallacies of the French Revolution, which had then more or less seared their trace through Europe, and … was besides strongly tainted by the corresponding poison of Mrs Wollstonecraft’s book.
Interestingly, William Thompson, too, criticizes Mary Wollstonecraft, but for quite opposite reasons: he attacked her ‘narrow views’ and the ‘timidity and impotence of her conclusions’. (He was perhaps betraying his own lack of historical awareness.) But he calls on women to make their own demands for education, and for civil and political rights; in the long run, he feels, that must benefit men as well:
As your bondage has chained down man to the ignorance and vices of despotism, so will your liberation reward him with knowledge, with freedom and happiness.
In 1869 John Stuart Mill published The Subjection of Women, which also argued that the subordination of women was both wrong and ‘one of the chief hindrances to human improvement’. (Ironically, he was the son of the James Mill whose conservative views on women had so infuriated William Thompson.) Mill was profoundly influenced by Harriet Taylor, whom he had met in 1830. She was already married, with two small sons; the pair maintained an intense friendship for nearly twenty years, and eventually, two years after her husband died in 1851, they were able to marry. Harriet had published a short article on ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ in the Westminster Review in 1851; and she had written, though, interestingly, not published, papers that criticized the marriage laws and claimed a woman’s rights and responsibilities towards her own children. When she and Mill eventually married, he remarked that he felt it his duty to make ‘a formal protest against the existing law of marriage’ on the grounds that it gave the man ‘legal power over the person, property and freedom of action of the other party, independent of her own wishes and will’. Mill admitted that
the opinion was in my mind little more than an abstract principle … that perception of the vast practical bearings of women’s disabilities which found expression in the book on The Subjection of Women was acquired mainly through her [Harriet’s] teaching.
trade in America. What we presently call womanliness is something artificial, ‘the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulations in others’. He seems to have come to this notion only gradually, and probably under Harriet’s influence; in 1832, not long after they met, he had written informing her that ‘the great occupation of woman should be to beautify life… to diffuse beauty, elegance, & grace everywhere’.
But in the Subjection he denies that
anyone knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of woman, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others.
It is hardly surprising, given the poverty of their education and the narrowness of their lives, he argues, that women have not yet produced ‘great and luminous ideas’. He also claims, even more dubiously, that they have not yet created ‘a literature of their own’. Ann Radcliffe, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Susan Ferrier, the Brontd sisters: they all seem to have escaped his notice.
In an ideal world, Mill believed, men and women would resemble each other: men would be more unselfish, and women would be free of the ‘exaggerated self-abnegation’ expected of them. Mill never goes so far as to argue for the possibility of divorce. But he insists that there is no justification for not giving women the vote immediately, and under exactly the same conditions as men; in fact, he remarked, many of them deserve it more than some of the present voters. In 1866, Mill presented the first women’s petition for the vote, and he moved amendments to the 1867 Reform Bill in favour of women.
Some modern feminists have criticized Mill for concentrating almost exclusively on married women, while ignoring the situation of, say, daughters or single women. But married women – as both
Reid and Thompson had recognized earlier – were indeed, legally at least, particularly vulnerable. The problems wives might face were dramatically illustrated in the notorious case of Caroline Norton. Born in 1808, she was the granddaughter of the playwright Richard Sheridan, and she was beautiful, lively, and well educated. She certainly never set out to become a champion of women’s rights, asserting, in fact, that she ‘never pretended to the wild and ridiculous doctrine of equality’. She married, she once admitted, partly because she ‘particularly dreaded’ the prospect of ‘living and dying an old maid’. But she found herself, in 1826, tied to a husband who soon proved hopelessly uncongenial. Their relationship gradually deteriorated, and broke down in scenes of outright violence. Eventually, Norton not only refused his wife access to her own property (everything she had inherited, and everything that she later earned); he denied her all contact with her three children. He vengefully pushed her into a harsh public spotlight, making her the focus of scandal when he (probably unjustifiably) accused her of adultery with the then Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Though the case was dismissed, Caroline Norton understandably felt humiliated and betrayed, and her reputation was permanently tarnished.
Norton could not go to law to defend or protect herself, or to argue her rights of access to her own children, because, she discovered, a married woman had no legal existence. ‘It is a hard thing to feel legally so helpless and dependent while in fact I am as able to support myself as an intelligent man working in a modest profession’, she complained. In 1838, she supported the passing of a bill reforming an Infants Custody Act which gave a mother limited rights over her children until they were 7, and in 1854 and 1855, she produced pamphlets based on her own case: The Separation of Mother and Child by the Law of Custody of Infants Considered and English Laws for Women in the 19th Century, both of which reached a wide audience. ‘I have learned the law respecting married women piecemeal, but suffering every one of its defects of protection’, she remarked. In her 1855 Letter to the Queen
supporting a proposed bill on the Reform of Marriage and Divorce, she wrote that ‘I believe in my obscurer position that I am permitted to be the example on which a particular law shall be reformed’. A Divorce Reform Act was passed in 1857, but the circumstances in which a woman could file for divorce remained very limited.
Though Norton’s life dramatically illustrated some of the cruel anomalies in the status of married women, hers was certainly not a solitary, or even an unusual, case. Charlotte Brontd, for example, when she married not long before she died, discovered that her husband owned the copyright to her novels, as well as everything she earned. But Caroline Norton dissociated herself from other women who, in the mid-1850s were beginning to meet together over women’s issues, and who soon took up the cause that her case had publicized; indeed, a Married Women’s Property Committee, set up by the group known as ‘the Ladies of Langham Place’, was probably the first organized feminist group in England. But Caroline Norton, perhaps feeling that she had been too much in the public eye, perhaps anxious to retain at least the shreds of her reputation, kept her distance.
Florence Nightingale was another remarkable woman who flatly refused to be associated with the emerging women’s movement, though, in the long run, her example proved inspiring, and much more effective than anything she actually said. She famously remarked that ‘I am brutally indifferent to the wrongs or the rights of my sex’, and insisted that if women are unemployed ‘it is because they won’t work’. She would be prepared to pay a woman well to act as her secretary, she once said, but could find no one who was either able or willing to take on the work. But she herself came up sharply against the way society divided the sexes and constricted women’s lives. The daughter of a well-off and well-connected family, she complained that she was a martyr to genteel and leisured femininity. Why, she asked sarcastically, would it be ‘more ridiculous for a man than a woman to do worsted work and drive out everyday in a carriage?’ ‘Why should we laugh if we were to see
a parcel of men sitting around a drawing-room table in the morning and think it all right if they were women?’
Nightingale seems to developed her interest in nursing after undertaking some typically female duties – looking after her grandmother and her old nurse. But her growing interest in the work led to vocal disapproval, and to constant demands on her time from her mother and her sister Parthenope. In 1844, the family flatly refused to let her spend time at Salisbury Infirmary. ‘There is nothing like the tyranny of a good English family’, Nightingale once remarked bitterly, claiming that most women ‘have no God, no country, no duty to them at all except family’. But in 1849 she managed a visit to Kaiserwerth in Germany, an orphan asylum and hospital run by Lutheran deaconesses. Though she was critical of its standard of nursing and hygiene, she admitted that ‘I find the deepest interest in everything here and am so well in body and mind’. But at the age of 37, she was still asking bitterly, in a fragment of a novel which she called Cassandra, “Why have women passion, intellect, moral activity – these three – and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised?’
Her life changed when, in 1853, her father decided, against his wife’s strongly expressed wishes, to allow Florence £500 a year. She was finally freed from domestic tyranny, and in August of that year, she became resident superintendent of the Invalid Gentlewoman’s Institution in Harley Street. She had already determinedly set about learning everything she could about nursing, and regularly rose at dawn to study Government Blue Books, though she was still occasionally plagued by worries about whether it was ‘unsuitable and unbecoming’ for a woman to devote herself to ‘works of charity in hospitals and elsewhere’. In 1854 she worked at the Middlesex Hospital in London during an outbreak of cholera.
Nightingale had established enough of a reputation to be invited to go to Scutari with a group of nurses during the Crimean War; she soon became a national heroine. Ironically, at the time she was hailed,
4. Florence Nightingale was a national heroine – the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ – often, as here, celebrated for her compassion and womanly tenderness towards the wounded soldiers in the Crimea, rather than for her truly remarkable talent for administration and organization.
sentimentally, as a truly ‘feminine’ woman – indeed, a ministering angel – who had renounced a life of luxury and high fashion to bring comfort to wounded soldiers in the Crimea. Images of the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ were widely circulated, icons that celebrated her compassion, but also her delicate refinement, her gentility, and her ladylike grace. Nightingale certainly had great concern for her patients and sympathy with the ordinary soldier. But her greatest contribution, perhaps, lay in the fact that she was such a superbly efficient and clear-headed administrator. ‘I am now clothing the British army’, she wrote at the time, ‘I am really cook, housekeeper, scavenger… washerwoman, general dealer, storekeeper.’ The years during and following the Crimean War were undoubtedly the most satisfying, in every way the happiest, period of her life.
For she refused to stop when the war ended, instead undertaking an ambitious investigation into the health of the British Army. When, later in her life, she retired to bed for long periods – a habit that made a parody of fashionably ‘feminine’ fragility – it was simply in order to have time to work more effectively, undisturbed by the demands of her mother and sister. She remains an intriguing paradox: on the surface, and by reputation, the archetype of ‘feminine’ self-sacrifice and devotion to others; in fact, a model of determined, even heroic, self-assertion, who opened up the possibilities available to women. Her example certainly helped to make acceptable the idea of a woman training for some specific occupation, and working outside the home or the family business.
Harriet Martineau, too, insisted that her defence of women was impersonal and rational. Martineau, who dismissed Mary Wollstonecraft as actually harmful to the cause of women, saw herself as an educator. Her first book, Illustrations of Political Economy, appeared in 1832 when she was 30, an unknown provincial. It did well, and she became a widely read journalist who specialized in popularizing economic and social theory. Having travelled in the United States and worked there with Abolitionists, Martineau applied their arguments about slaves to women:
justice is denied on no better plea than the right of the strongest. In both cases the acquiescence of the many and the burning discontent of the few of the oppressed, testify, the one to the actual degradation of the class, and the other to its fitness for the enjoyment of human rights.
At the same time, she consistently, and perhaps short-sightedly, refused to support ‘the cause of women’, arguing that ‘women, like men, must obtain whatever they show themselves fit for’. After Society in America was published, dozens of women wrote to her complaining of how the ‘law and custom’ of England oppressed them and asked for help in changing things; others offered ‘money, effort, courage in enduring obloquy’ if she would offer advice.
But throughout, Martineau nervously shied away from overt emotion. She was deeply unsympathetic to a woman like Caroline Norton, whose exposure of her personal problems in an attempt to change marriage laws, Martineau felt, ‘violates all decency’. However, unexpectedly and touchingly, some of her surviving letters to her mother suggest real anxiety about her own choice of an independent life.
I fully expect that both you and I shall occasionally feel as if I did not discharge a daughter’s duty, but we shall both remind ourselves that I am now as much a citizen of the world as any professional son of yours could be. My hours of solitary work and of visiting will leave you much to yourself.
Understandably, perhaps, she never fully came to terms with this conflict between her own ambition and the current ideal of proper feminine behaviour. When she was 35, Martineau was offered the editorship of a new economics periodical, which would have meant money, prestige, and have been the culmination of her own ambitions, and of her hopes for women. She dithered, until a disapproving letter arrived from her brother James, and – obviously half-relieved – she turned the opportunity down. Instead, she wrote
an intriguing novel, Deerbrook, which indirectly explores, not just her own fears, hopes, indecisions, but the doubts and problems that still plagued so many of her female contemporaries. She died in 1876.
By the middle years of the 19th century, a whole series of women were working quietly but impressively for specific reforms, and in the process opening up new areas to other women. Frances Power Cobbe, for example, bitterly recalled the expensive boarding school which she had attended in Brighton: it was, she claimed, totally inadequate. The pupils were crowded round tables in a single room with a ‘hideous clatter’; a piano would be pounding upstairs, and down below a roomful of girls reading and reciting their lessons to governesses. Her own experience, she came to realize, was typical. Girls’ education was in urgent need of improvement; schools in her grandmother’s day, she speculated, had probably been better than contemporary ones. Despite her unpromising educational start, Cobbe went on to write vividly and thoughtfully, not just about education, but about other difficulties faced by both single and married women.
She was eloquent, for example, about the situation of wives trapped in miserable marriages. ‘We are used’, she wrote, ‘to tales of drunken ruffians, stumbling home from the gin-houses’ who assault their miserable wives. But ‘who could have imagined it possible that well-born and well-educated men, in honourable professions, should be guilty of the same brutality?’ She occasionally lapsed into conventional sentimentality:
we want [woman’s] sense of the law of love to complete man’s sense of the law ofjustice; we want her influence inspiring virtue by gentle promptings within, to complete man’s external legislation of morality. . . We want her genius for detail, her tenderness for age and suffering, her comprehension of the wants of childhood… .
But as a well-regarded journalist, she backed the idea of university