Female emancipation

Status, money and marriage

Female status in the 1800s

The status of the majority of women at the beginning of the nineteenth century was low, despite the efforts by the late eighteenth century 'Blue-stocking' movement and the writings of Mary Wollstencraft. Her Vindication of the Rights of Women was published in 1792 and is regarded as a foundational feminist text.

In practice the status of a female depended on her:

Regardless of these issues, no woman had the right to vote and no married woman had the right to own her own property.

Wealth and marriage

Jane Austen, writing as the eighteenth century ended and the nineteenth began, depicts the connection between money and status for women in her novels:

  • A widowed aristocrat such as Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice had as much power as any lord
  • That novel's heroine, Elizabeth, has little power as the family's estate is entailed to a male relative; females rarely inherited, so that an estate would not be broken up by their anticipated future marriages. Elizabeth's only hope of status is to marry well. Her refusal of two suitors, both 'suitable' because of their wealth, is thus a daring move on her part. Had she remained single, she would have been consigned to future financial dependency on Mr Collins
  • Sense and Sensibility depicts the vulnerable situation of women when male relatives (here Elinor and Marianne's brother, John Dashwood) fail to make adequate provision.

In Benjamin Disraeli's political novel Sybil we see another powerful woman in Lady Deloraine. Her wealth (hers alone, since she is widowed) involves her in playing politics. The only other form of independence possible for the women of this novel is through entering a convent.


Women and work

The unacceptability of employment

That most women's economic power depended on their marital status was due to the fact that paid employment was not seen as acceptable for many of ‘the fairer sex' (except the poorest).

Many women novelists wrote clandestinely since it was not clear whether writing was a suitable role for women. The Brontë sisters wrote under male pseudonyms, as did George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Yet some took up authorship as the only means of earning money open to them, such as Mrs Craik, who supported her mother and siblings when her father deserted the family.

Possible ‘careers'

Women novelists did raise the question of what work was suitable for women. For middle-class single women, teaching or being a companion was the only work deemed suitable. Only later in the century was nursing added to this limited list of options.

Marriage and motherhood was the only real career. Ann Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall shows how disastrous that could be if the husband turned out to be unsuitable. In Charlotte Brontë 's Jane Eyre, the heroine succeeds in the wild hopes of a governess marrying her master.

More realistic is Mrs Gaskell's Mary Barton. Mrs Gaskell lived in Manchester and observed the working class girls there. There were possibilities of work for girls in the mills, but conditions were insanitary and poorly paid:

  • In the novel, Mary's father struggles to prevent her working there, whilst still avoiding the alternative option of becoming a prostitute like her aunt
  • Gaskell also portrays the small, but precious, freedom to spend their own money which unmarried girls still had. When they married and had a brood of children, such freedom rapidly disappeared.


Women's work, therefore, was mainly seen to be within the family, ideally as mother, managing economically with whatever the family budget would afford. Her welfare depended on her husband handing over his wage packet rather than not spending it on drink or other pleasures. If such income wasn't enough, typically:

  • Working class mothers could take in lodgers, wash laundry or undertake sewing to supplement the family finances
  • Middle class mothers had fewer acceptable options, apart from charity work.


Frustration and progress


The plight of intelligent girls

George EliotGeorge Eliot portrays the inevitable frustrations felt by young intelligent women living in Victorian society:

  • In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie only gains some education because of an indulgent father and a quick mind. But she is not able to put it to good use
  • In Middlemarch, Dorothea is a high-minded girl who wants to achieve something with her life beyond motherhood. The marriage which seems to provide an opportunity for this proves a dismal failure. Disillusioned, she has to learn resignation and a more modest place for herself.

This is perhaps a little hypocritical on George Eliot's part in that, against all the odds, she personally did achieve prestige and influence through her writing, as did Mrs Gaskell.

Separation of the sexes

Attempts by writers such as John Stuart Mill to claim freedom for women, for instance in his Subjection of Women (1869) were met by the doctrine of 'Separate Spheres': women were different and should find their identity in their own spheres of domesticity. Influential writers such as John Ruskin repeated this message, for example in Sesame and Lillies, or the Poet Laureate, Lord Tennyson, in his long poem The Princess about women's higher education. He wrote in 1847 'Man to command, woman to obey'.


Matrimonial law

Progress was made but slowly:

  • Divorce became a little easier for women in 1857
  • The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1878 allowed separation by reason of a husband's cruelty (abuse within the family was common)
  • Married women were able to keep title to their property in the same way as single women in 1882.

Medical careers

Florence NightingaleFrom the 1850s onwards, the work of Florence Nightingale raised the status of nursing to that of a professional career, which was also acceptable for a woman. The first woman surgeon qualified in 1871, the first woman dentist in 1895.

Democratic representation

The women's suffrage movement began as that of the middle-classes, tied up with the Second Reform Act of 1867. By 1869 certain women could actually vote in local elections and then in County elections in 1888, though it was not till after World War I that women could vote in national elections. The women's suffrage movement only became radical under the Pankhursts in 1903, and even then radicals were in the minority.

Further opportunities

The New Woman

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there were sufficient middle class women, mainly single, who had received enough education to claim a place in society in the own right, rather than as wives, daughters or mothers. They were sometimes dubbed 'The New Women'.

Educational advances

Opportunities for higher education, mainly through the University of London, and new women's colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, began to open up as a result of the foundation of Girls' Grammar Schools and Independent Schools. Teaching opportunities also widened with the setting up of Teacher Training Colleges. Hardy's Jude the Obscure shows its heroine, Sue Bridehead, gaining education in this way.

Service industries

Meanwhile, less obvious spheres of work were opening up for middle-class women, such as in shops and departmental stores. The invention of the telegraph, typewriter and telephone allowed careers in offices and as telephonists. Any such job was still curtailed in the event of the woman marrying. However, the numbers of middle-class female employees were still dwarfed by the thousands of working class women working as servants or in factories and mills.

It was not till World War I when British industry was desperately short of manpower, that women were freely allowed into the world of work as independent persons in their own right.


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