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Women in the Victorian era

18 Nov

Victorian era was full of contrasts; while the privileged minority enjoyed prosperity and luxury that came along, the poor ones had to carry the burden of development and industrialization of Great Britain. Women had no political rights, but rich aristocratic ladies spent their days in leisure and idleness; going to tea parties, dancing on balls or simply discussing the newest fashion with her friends.


Women’s virtues

Whether married or not, Victorian women were expected to be fragile, innocent, modest, polite, obedient, chaste, submissive, delicate flower incapable of deciding anything except menu and her evening attire.

In order to find a suitable (rich, noble and accepted in the society) husband girls were polished head to toe. Victorian women’s knowledge consisted of singing, painting/drawing and embroidery skills, playing an instrument and dancing. Besides all this it was also good for a girl to know a little bit of French or Italian, but her most valued skills were the domestic ones. Women were expected to be ”Household Angels”; taking care of their children and learning them proper values but also keeping eyes on the servants and arranging a menu for the day. The ideal Victorian women were tirelessly patient and sacrificing. Tough job, right ?

1866. Evening dresses for women and girls


In Victorian era marriage was not romantic and fairytale affair as shown in many novels. Love played a minor role in choosing a spouse. Good-breeding and huge dowry were, on the other hand, much more important. Engagement was something like a business contract and Victorians were encouraged to marry within their social class or higher, but never lower rank. Poor nobles often married wealthy bourgeoiswomen; they got their fortune and ladies got a title – perfect match.

1840. queen victoria and albert's wedding

A woman who was getting married had to provide a large dowry and her future husband had to prove he can provide her a luxurious life she’s used to. Marriage was carefully planed and financial aspects of both families were openly discussed.

1861. wedding dresses, godey's ladies book

After the business aspects were secured, engagement followed. The husband gave his wife a ring, and the woman’s mother was responsible for organizing engagement dinner for the bridal couple. Engagement lasted roughly six months to two years. After the official engaged, couple was allowed more intimacy: they could hold hands in public, take a walk together, ride alone in the open carriage, and even spend some time alone behind closed doors, but only at daytime.

Family life

Women had to ensure that the home is a place of comfort and peace for her husband and family from the stress of industrial Britain. To ensure a respectable household, happiness, comfort and well-being of their families women had to be the mistress of the household and work off her job wisely and effectively. She had to supervise their maids and organize their work, which was not easy because they are most often unreliable.

1843. Queen Victoria, Albert and Victoria, Madame Royal

Popular poem The Angel in the House, written in 1854., shows the ideal wife; patient and willing to sacrifice for her family.

Man must be pleased; but him to please

Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings her breast […]

She loves with love that cannot tire;
And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
As grass grows taller round a stone.

The woman was supposed to be an angel in the house, always sacrificing for others, always cheerful, charming, nice but above all chaste. Her chastity was supposed to be her chief beauty.

Free time

Aristocratic ladies spent their days embroidering, reading, painting, writing letters, sipping tea or coffee and chatting with their friends. Lady should be her husbands pride, always looking presentable dresses in fashionable apparel. Rich ladies also had a lot of social obligations. They were obliged to organize and attend balls, dinners, dances or tea parties. Theater was also a place of amusement to nineteenth century ladies.

1869. The Game of Billiards by Charles Edouard Boutibonne

At least once a week lady should visit her tailor in order to keep up with the fashion. The biggest shame in ladies life was for sure to be seen in last seasons dress. Unforgivable!

Victorian morality

Sex was a taboo in Victorian era and women had to save themselves for the marriage. If women had sexual contacts with anyone except their husbands they were considered fallen women. Victorian literature and art is full of examples of women paying dearly for straying from moral expectations. Adulteresses met tragic ends in novels such as Anna Karenina by Tolstoy or Madame Bovary by Flaubert.

1877.  Portsmouth Dockyard painting by James Tissot


Women had the opportunity to study refined subjects like history, geography and literature. These subjects were to provide them with interesting, but undeniable topics for discussion. Despite the limitations and stigmatization, some women have succeeded in male subjects such as law, physics, engineering, science and art. These women were pioneers in the struggle for equal education in England. Women rarely had the opportunity to attend universities. It was even said that studying is against women’s nature. Women were to stay more or less an ornament of society.


Women today have more privileges but they are indeed denied a privilege to wear such fine dresses.