Possibly the most important, and most broadly felt pattern dominating the life of the Victorian woman was what the reformer Jane Addams once called the "family claim." According to the family claim, women, far more than men, were regarded as possessions of their families.
In much of the world at the turn of the century, families regarde
d their sons as possessions too, but by the end of the 18th century in the U.S. important political and economic forces had begun to weaken the ties of parents and sons, but not – to anything like the same extent – between parents and daughters. There were many reasons women continued to be regarded as family possessions.
- Physical demands of Home Work -- America remained an overwhelmingly rural society. In rural homes, technology had made relatively few inroads, and the burden of work for women remained immense. Whether a wom
an married (which 90% did) or remained single, her life was largely confined to the care of family members and home.
Housework alone required enormous physical effort. Few women stayed in bed past daybreak, even when they were sick. They ran the house, made the clothes, cared for the sick, and grew and processed much of what the family ate. Middle class families in urban areas were beginning to install indoor plumbing and electrical wiring.
But the typical housekeeper's sole labor-saving devices were her treadle sewing machine, the mechanical wringer she used to do the wash, and the great cast-iron stove she fired up each morning to cook the meals and boil the water.
Nursing: In addition, at unpredictable times throughout the year women had to abandon some part of their housework to care for someone who was sick. The major killer, then as now, was heart disease, but tuberculosis, pneumonia, influenza, gastritis, cancer, typhoid fever, diphtheria, malaria, polio, and measles also took a heavy toll, killing many hundreds of thousands every year. Alcoholism and mental illness also added to women's burdens.
Maids: Well-to-do housewives employed cooks, maids, nurses, and laundresses to free them from many of these tasks, but nine out of ten homes never had any domestic help.
Home Production: The burdens of housework kept most wives out of the labor force. Only 3% of white wives (25% of black wives) worked for wages. But farm wives earned money by selling butter and eggs; poor city women took in boarders and did piece work for the garment industry; black women did laundry in their homes.
- Weak State - The physical burdens that women faced were especially great because the US had such a weak state at that time. The US provided none of the social services that we now take for granted: medical services, old age pensions, nursery schools. Women were the doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, teachers, and social workers of the day. Without the services that they provided privately,
American society would have collapsed.
- Lack of Reliable Contraception - The physical burdens of family and social care that women shouldered were accentuated by the difficulty they faced in controlling their fertility. As land became more scarce in the US and providing for new generations more difficult, American men and women struggled to limit the number of children they brought into the world. Ever since 1800, the birth rate in America had been declining, from roughly 7 children per family to an average of 3.5 by 1900. This figure excluded blacks, who bore an average of five children, and it masked enormous variation among whites. Women with husbands in the professions or in business routinely had two or fewer children, while rural farm wives and urban immigrants gave birth to as many children as had women in colonial America.
Birth Control: The decline in the birth rate took place before the widespread availability of birth control. Some couples favored abstinence to limit the number of children they bore. Many more favored withdrawal, the rhythm method, or one of a wide range of contraceptive devices then available, including condoms, sponges, douches, and cervical caps. Unfortunately, none of these methods was very effective, and some posed special problems. Abstinence required utter self-denial, withdrawal considerable self-control. Many men objected to using condoms. Douching proved difficult for the great majority who had no bathroom. And the rhythm method often failed because medical texts disagreed about the timing of ovulation. (Many couples carefully restricted intercourse to the period midway between the menses, thinking it to be safe, only to find the wife pregnant nonetheless.) When contraceptive methods failed, one in five pregnancies ended in abortion. Poor women, in particular, relied on this most drastic means of birth control.
The imperfect nature of birth control affected women in two important ways:
First, and most obviously, it made it impossible to plan their lives, because a woman could never predict whether she might become pregnant.
Second, and more subtly, the haphazard nature of birth control had a powerful effect on sexuality. Wherever the appearance of children
posed an economic threat, women, more than men, were forced to assume responsibility for sexual control. To achieve economic success men had to be aggressive and out-going; to protect that success, women had to be restrained and modest -- qualities that did not enhance women's chances of becoming economically independent of their families.
Legal Constraints - Wherever private forces were insufficient to enforce the family claim, the law stepped in to guarantee women's compliance.
The marriage contract into which the vast majority of women entered resembled an indenture agreement between master and servant. Indeed, economically speaking, women might be viewed as the last large class of indentured servants in America. Under the terms of the marriage contract, a husband promised to support his wife in return for her promise to serve and obey him, and many men objected to their wives working outside the home on the grounds that doing so violated this solemn agreement. [Note that this agreement limited men as well, by making them single-handedly responsible for the economic support of the family]
Divorce: Once married, only one in ten women divorced. The permanence of most marriages was due to several factors: the relative maturity of those who wed; the cost of maintaining separate households; the difficulty most women found in supporting themselves; as well as the stigma attached to divorce. But the law played an important role as well, especially as legislators became aware of a modest, but nonetheless unsettling, rise in the divorce rate at the end of the century. Between 1889 and 1906, state legislatures, seeking to tighten their laws, greatly reduced the statutory grounds for divorce.
Comstock Laws: The law added force to the traditions that bound women to the family in other ways as well. Women's efforts to control their fertility met especially severe legal resistance. Since the middle of the nineteenth century a movement of middle-class men, led by doctors, but also including such prominent political figures as Theodore Roosevelt, had sought to inhibit what they
believed to be an immoral trend among white, middle-class women to restrict childbearing. Warning of "race suicide," by which they meant the extinction of White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestants, these crusaders fought to ban contraception and abortion. By 1900 doctors and their sympathizers had persuaded Congress to outlaw the dissemination of birth control information through the mails; many states restricted the sale or advertising of contraceptive devices; and the Society for the Suppression of Vice, headed by Anthony Comstock was waging a campaign to enforce these laws. Moreover, every state in the country banned abortion except to save the life of a mother.
Economic Restrictions: Women who managed to circumvent the law's effort to control their fertility and enforce the family claim found themselves restricted in other ways. Despite a movement since the middle of the nineteenth century to increase women's economic liberty, most states continued to reinforce patriarchal authority within the home by restricting women's ability to engage in the economic world beyond their households. In Pennsylvania a woman could not enter a business contract without her husband's approval. In Georgia, a woman's earnings belonged to her husband. And in Louisiana a married woman did not have legal title even to the clothes she wore.
It was in the area of public affairs, however, that women suffered the broadest legal disability. Viewed as the dependents of their husbands or fathers, women, for the most part, could not serve on juries; could not hold elective office; and, except in four sparsely populated western states -- Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah, could not vote. Thus did the law bind women to the domestic sphere.
Despite the strength of the family claim, structural changes in economic life were beginning to undermine it. By the turn of the century improved te
chnology, an expanding transportation network, and burgeoning cities were pulling women out of the household into jobs and professions that had never existed before or that had long belonged exclusively to men. Indeed, the large-scale migration from farm to city that began as industrialization accelerated in late 19th century America may well be the most important change taking place in women's lives in the early twentieth century. It created jobs and the chance for a limited independence they could not find in rural America.
In 1870 60 percent of the women employed outside the home worked as domestic servants. These jobs allowed working-class daughters to contribute to family income, yet still confined them to a familial setting. By 1900, however, the proportion of women engaged in domestic service had declined to one-third. Meanwhile, factory, office, retail, teaching, and other professional jobs grew at a rapid pace. As a consequence, the number of working women expanded far faster than the growth of the female population. By 1900 about 40% of all unmarried women were working for wages. Young women's increasing separation from family control and their intermingling with men in the world of work fostered a growing spirit of independence.
Domestic Service: The most common employment for women in 1900 was still domestic service, accounting for a third of all women workers. But long hours limited freedom.
Factory Work: Most women, given the chance, chose factory work over life as a servant, and manufacturing claimed the next largest group of women w
orkers, slightly less than a third. The typical female factory worker tended to be young, single, and an immigrant or the daughter of immigrant, and she tended to be working in the garment industry.
White Collar Work: If a family could afford to keep a daughter in school through the eighth grade and if she spoke good English, the path would be opened to a position as a sales clerk, teacher, secretary.
Prostitution: Between 2-5% of all young women workers turned to prostitution. Contemporaries usually blamed women's low wages for the problem, but other factors were often more important. Among the Chinese lived many prostitutes who had been kidnapped in China and brought to the United States to live in virtual slavery. In the case of many other women, lack of education, trouble at home, unscrupulous seducers, disreputable employment agencies, or a desire for "easy money" often played a part. A young woman making $5.00 a week in a store could make $35.00 as a prostitute. For some women prostitution led to a miserable life of venereal disease, drugs, and crime. But for most the experience seems to have been temporary, lasting no more than five years and ending in a return to menial work at low wages or marriage.
Liberation: Was the world of work liberating for young women? In some ways no, but in others yes.
Sexual Segregation and the Wage Gap: The gender roles that divided work in the family carried over into the world of work outside the ho
me. Rarely did women perform the same work as men. Indeed, in jobs where both men and women were employed, the men were almost always on the way out. Many male workers resented women workers, and condemned them for taking work needed by men. But in fact technological change made direct conflict rare. Employers liked to reserve the growing number of unskilled jobs for women, who were mostly young, temporary workers. They hired men, on the other hand for the higher paying, heavier, and more highly skilled jobs. Overall, upward of 90 percent of all wage-earning women worked in jobs where women workers were heavily concentrated, and where, therefore, the values of the family claim tended to be re-imposed.
The Family Wage: Moreover, because women were restricted in the jobs they could choose, they made about half what men earned. Because women were young, temporary, and had little training they found it difficult to command high wages. But there was another factor, that prevented women from earning as much as a man could, even when they were doing exactly the same work, THE FAMILY WAGE.
Most young women went to work to help their families survive in a world in which the family wage was more ideal than reality, but the world of wage labor proved liberating in small, but important ways. The heterogeneity of the city led women to question traditional values. Mixing daily with men on the streets and in the offices, violating by their very presence the Victorian ideal of separate sexual spheres, they set a new standard of female assertiveness. Their earnings, even if handed over to their mothers, made them less dependent, for they had contributed to the family support, and in doing so gained new power. These experiences rendered their lives before marriage less distinct from those of men and helped them loosen the family claim.
Conditions of Life
Women's Rights to Property and the Vote
Health care: physical and mental
General health and life expectancy
Pregnancy and Childbirth
Conception, Pregnancy, and Childbirth in Mid-Victorian Hastings
Recent Dissertations on Women's History and Health Care (resource)
Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts — Philanthropist (and the first Victorian woman to receive a peerage)
Florence Nightingale and Nursing as a Profession
Jeanie Senior and the education of poor girls
University: The University of London and Women Students
Manners and Mores
From Dressmaker to Dress designer and the Coming of Haute Couture
Anti-Fashion, or Victorian Attempts at Reform of Male and Female Dress
Women's Undergarments in Victorian England, 1850-1900
Victorian Women's Fashion, 1850-1900: Dress Bodices, Jackets, and Blouses
Victorian Women's Fashion, 1850-1870: the Skirt
Victorian Women's Fashion, 1870-1900: the Skirt, Blouse, and Dress
Hats and Headwear
Accessories and Jewelry in Victorian Women's Fashion, 1850-1900
Woman's Dress for Presentation at Court (1904)
Etiquette for the Ball Room (1880)
Punch on Society and Manners — Dinner Parties, Dances, and so on
Punch on fads and fashions — swimming, musical instruments, bicyling
Punch on Life with the Upper Crust: the Country House
Punch on Men and Women, The War of the Sexes