Women of Victorian England
Two hundred years ago, the barriers of the Victorian class system rigidly defined the role of a woman. Divided into four distinct classes, Nobility and Gentry, Middle Class, "Upper" Working Class, and "Lower" Working class, these women each had their own specific standards and roles. They were expected to adhere to these standards alone, and it was considered a high offense to adopt to the standards of another.
The highest class was the Nobility and Gentry, who inherited their land, titles, and wealth. To the outsider, it might seem as if women of this class did very little--but their work was very important and sometimes very hard, as they were expected to manage the home and the household. As Etty Raverat, who was a young women in the late 1800s, said, "Ladies were ladies in those days; they did not do things themselves, they told others what to do and how to do it" (Harrison and Ford, 226).
However, this lifestyle left ample time for leisure. Social parties and balls were held often. Dancing was a favorite pastime among most upper-class women and men. An evening party often would end with a few sets among the four or five couples present. Unmarried women spent a great deal of time with other unmarried women. However, once a woman was married her role was considered manager of the household, and she had much less time than before to walk and talk with former friends.
Though the life of an upper class woman might seem easier and more secure than that of a lower class woman, it was not always so. Land, titles, and money were inherited by the closest male relative--typically the older son, but if there was no older son then it would go to a more distant relation. Only the small amount of money set aside as a woman’s marriage dowry went to an unmarried woman after the death of her father. As a result, many mothers and daughters were left extremely poor after the death of their husband and father (Mitchell, 107).
The next-highest class was the middle class. Women of this class were much like women of the upper class, though their lands were not so extensive nor their way of life so grand as that of the aristocracy and landed gentry. People of the middle class associated with their peers and sometimes with those in the upper class. Women of the middle class depended heavily on marrying "up" into the upper classes, therefore gaining social prestige as well as a great deal more worldly goods.
The middle class itself was a much broader area of people than the upper class. It included everyone between the working classes and the lower gentry. It depended mostly not on how much money one had, but on how this money was obtained (Mitchell, 20). Because of this, the singular roles of middle class women varied greatly from family to family. Some unmarried women might have a place in the family shop, while others might live very much as a genteel woman would, with little work and much leisure.
The third class was the "Upper" working class. This included any who were employed in jobs that took skill or thought, as opposed to physical labor. Women of the "Upper" working class often found positions in shops, as bookkeepers, or teachers. The unique women in this class were the former upper class women, who had fallen into poverty through the death of a father or some other tragedy. A great many of these women became governesses, relaying their own high-class tutoring to upper class children. This position was a deplorable one, as the governess was found a worthy scapegoat in the eyes of everyone, from the master and mistress to the house-maid (Allingham, 1).
The fourth and last of these classes was the "Lower" working class. This included the desperately poor, typically single women of the Victorian Era. Most women were pronounced "able-bodied" under the New Poor Act and sent to work alongside "Lower" working class men in the factories and other places offering jobs of taxing physical labor. Poor women, like men, were expected to work hard to support themselves (Levine-Clark, p. 1).
Another popular employment for "Lower" working class women was domestic service. Even the lowliest middle class family had at least one or two servants, and several had many more than that. Domestic service, though not as physically draining or demoralizing as factory work, had its own hardships. The life of a domestic servant was very lonely, while factory workers were allowed to socialize as they performed their tasks. Domestic servants worked seven days a week, twelve hours at least each day, while factory workers worked only six days and ten hours (Landow, p. 1).
Because of the restraint placed upon them, most women welcomed the suffrage movement when it came at the end of the Victorian period. Women of today may not realize how much they benefit from living in a time where such a class system no longer exists. The rigid division between classes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries defined a woman’s role, giving her no other alternative than what was placed before her. Modern women are fortunate that they are not subject to such restraints and that they may chose whatever occupation they would like.