The status of women

Women and the vote

In the second half of the nineteenth century, campaigns to give women parliamentary representation as individuals gained popularity. Since some women were now given an education and were beginning to establish themselves in roles previously reserved solely for men, many believed that they were entitled to the same rights as their husbands, brothers and fathers.

More on suffrage: During the second half of the nineteenth century, various campaigns attempted to persuade Parliament to give women the right to vote. Petitions, letters and texts were issued advocating the cause.

This view was not universal however. Many women still could not read and worked in the home either as servants, mothers, housewives, or carers. As such few were concerned with parliamentary representation. In addition, it was widely believed that fathers and husbands should direct and guide their daughters and wives. With this in mind, many saw parliamentary representation for women as unnecessary.

It was not until 1918 that women who were over the age of 30 were granted the vote and not until 1928 that they were granted the right to vote on the same terms as men.

Rossetti's reaction to female emancipation

The poet Augusta Webster wrote to Rossetti in the late 1870s asking for her support in a campaign she was involved with, which aimed to give women the right to vote. However, Rossetti refused. In her letter of response, she asked,

Does it not appear as if the Bible was based upon an understood unalterable distinction between men and women, their position, duties, privileges?

In her mind, this ‘unalterable distinction' was made with Eve and continued throughout the Bible. To Rossetti, men and women were created by God as fundamentally different creatures. Because of their fundamental differences, Rossetti believed that men and women should have different responsibilities and rights.

Social constraints

Rossetti was acutely aware of the disadvantages faced by nineteenth century women and of the pressure society put on women to conform to expected standards. In her poem, The Lowest Room, she contrasts the weary life of a Victorian woman confined to working on some embroidery at home, with the active life of classical heroes. At one point, she has her speaker compare the life of a wife to the life of a slave. This comparison was commonplace among women writers for, in the nineteenth century, English law still withheld any legal status from married women.

Sexual double standards

Coventry PatmoreMany of Rossetti's early poems focus on the distinction often made by Victorian male writers between two sorts of women: the angelic maid or mother and the wicked temptress. In The Angel in the House, a poem written by Coventry Patmore, published in 1854 and revised up until 1862, the ideal woman is described as a charming and unselfish creature completely dedicated to her husband and children. Child-like and weak, she is seen as pure and in need of male protection. Her proper place is said to be the home.

If a woman did not fit the prescribed pattern of the girl-like and innocent angel, she was often conceived of as being a dangerous threat. By combining confidence with fairness, many of Rossetti's poems challenge the sharp line that her male contemporaries drew between the pure woman and the seductress, to present a much more balanced picture of womanhood.

The fate of ‘fallen' women

Rossetti was especially concerned with the welfare of women who sought to come out of prostitution. During the 1860's, she worked as a volunteer in a home for women deemed as ‘fallen' by Victorian society.

Rossetti recognised that, according to the Christian principle of forgiveness, these women did not and should not be deemed outcasts for the rest of their lives. Instead, she sought to change commonplace and stereotyped assumptions. Throughout her poetry, she uses the figure of Mary Magdalene to highlight the fact that women who have once been prostitutes can undergo a complete change.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.