Separate Spheres and Victorian Stereotypes

When I ask the average person to imagine a stereotypical Victorian woman, I suspect what comes to mind will be a woman with a strict hourglass form (corset, of course), perhaps a bustle, who lounges around the home or makes social calls and is supported by her husband. Any children are cared for by servants and a nanny or governess. Some people will perhaps mention a character or two from Downton Abbey, or mention something from a steampunk book or TV program. A proper Victorian woman was underemployed, domestic, depended on men, and had no rights because “society” and the male-dominated political system refused to grant her any rights. Any woman who stepped out of line got chased back into line.

The problem with stereotypes is that often they are based on what a few prolific writers (or critics) at the time declared to be good or bad. A very little digging in period sources or later biographies shows that the powerless, happily dependent Victorian woman . . . was a rare avis indeed. But that image is what later feminists grabbed onto, and what still pops up when “Victorian” is used as short-hand for hypocritical, stuffy, repressed, patriarchal, and so on.

So where did it come from?

Women have always worked to some degree. This was in the household, or a family business or farm. Only very, very aristocratic women were secluded, and even that was only if the head of the household chose to restrict her activities. Russia was different, but again, only for the very rich and the upper nobility. Otherwise? Women were out and about, even if they didn’t have official legal rights to conduct business (sign contracts, buy real property, and so on). Men also worked, again in the household and family property. Then along came the industrial revolutions, and labor moved outside the household and off the farm to factories and cities. It was in this setting that “separate spheres” really took hold.

To have the women in a household not have to work was an ideal that developed during the late 1700s, as best it seems. Women were always viewed as more domestic, physically weaker, more home-focused (children, church, household), and occasionally as more moral and less corrupt. For a man to earn enough that his wife and daughters did not have to work outside the household, or at all, was a good thing. Why? Because she could focus her attention and creating a welcoming haven of calm and comfort away from the conflicts of the world. She would be a beacon of goodness, a reminder of why he too should be moral and upright. He would defend, support, and shelter her from the corruption and ills of the world.

OK, so this is starting to sound just as bad as modern people take the separate spheres idea to be. Well, no one has ever accused Victorian moralists and preachers of being subtle and restrained. “Separate spheres” was just that, and ideal, something middle and working class families aspired to. The reality was rather different. Even with servants, women had to manage the property, oversee education (which often took them outside the home) and so on. The idea of women being secluded, pampered, put on pedestals and venerated (and cheated on), helpless, delicate flowers raised in the sheltered home by an overprotective patriarch . . . never really happened. A few times, yes, but this was an ideal, not the reality. Sort of like the fragile Southern belle who . . . slaughtered hogs, nursed the sick, cooked, and a lot of other tasks we call “hard work.”

A prosperous man could afford for his wife not to work outside the home. As more men worked outside the household in offices and factories, the idea of “separate spheres” took form. The world-of-work was male, the world-of-home was female. Note that this is urban. No farmer would look at this without laughing.

Some religious leaders, and eventually others, took to this idea. In a time of incredible cultural and economic change, going “back to the Bible” and “The way it should be” and “proper roles” is a common response. The industrial revolutions were that sort of change, and urging women to remain home as a touchstone with the calmer (?), greener past fed into the new economy as well as the “good old days.” The home was a respite from “the dark Satanic mills”, as William Blake called them.

Later reformers, suffragettes, proponents of “the New woman” and others took the ideal as “what actually happened.” Add in the later disdain for Victorians as stuffy hypocrits who oppressed everyone, including themselves, and locked women away from the world, keeping women from voting, owning property, and so on. And so the stereotype grew.

For an academic take:

Note that this second article draws in non-western examples, which shifts things a little.

15 thoughts on “Separate Spheres and Victorian Stereotypes

  1. It blows my mind how much a hold Victorian England has on the public imagination, despite it having very little to do with us.

  2. Considering the amount of labor that went into maintaining a household before the Industrial Revolution, there was plenty of work inside the home. Of course, there was nothing romantic about this type of work, so little attention was paid to it. It was much more interesting to hear about the follies of upper-class life, envy them while your back ached, and dream of this ‘ideal’ life.

    • I’m sure my grandparents’ dishwasher worked better, though.
      (Even if they had to pull it out and connect it to the sink.)

  3. Gee, you mean that stereotypes and literature don’t reflect reality? I’m shocked, shocked I say… 😂

  4. Both my grandmothers would have disputed that ‘reality’… Of course they were country folk, and put in their time in the fields, taking care of the animals, butchering them, putting up unknown numbers of canned items over the years…

    • Oh yes! This was the urban upper middle-class “ideal,” not the reality for most people. And I suspect it is more European/British than American. I know that the Social Democrats (SPD) in Germany were furious when the working-class men started to earn a good wage—and promptly asked their wives to stop working! They aspired to be middle class, not to embrace the goals of the Marxist revolution. Oops.

  5. And a woman whose husband had a small business usually was very much a part of managing and running that business, unless it was a wildly prosperous one. Women helped run the store, kept the books, was her husband’s second in command – and there were women entrepreneurs who were, in fact, business magnates themselves; Lizzie Williams, the schoomarm/cattle rancher/land-owner, C.J. Walker, who invented black hair-care products and died a millionaire, Mary Ellen Pleasant the investor and property baroness, and Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, who was left in control of her husband’s manufacturing enterprise when he died early on. (The Colt Arms Mfg was one of the most profitable manufacturing corporations in the USA pre Civil War.) There are certainly others, but those are the ones that came to mind off the top of my head. Most 19th century women were definitely not the sheltered hothouse flowers, with no control over their lives.

  6. Just got my monthly electric bill. Eeeek!
    One of my mother’s tasks as a girl was taking care of the kerosene lamps…filling them, washing the chimneys, trimming the wicks. The family had a progressive wood cooking stove with a water reservoir on the side. ‘Instant’ hot water!
    Maybe that electric bill isn’t so bad, after all…

    • Oooh, my grandmother had one of those– very Scottish, so of course they kept it…she got it set up so that the water to the water heater went through that thing on the stove before it hit the tank. Idea being that it’d reduce the power bill.

      When it was *really* cold outside, the water dang near boiled coming out of the tap!

  7. Emily Roebling who managed the Brooklyn project after her husband was stricken with caissons disease…

  8. Had a conversation about this recently.

    An older relative that I knew when I was young was always very gentle to me, and presented generally as the soft spoken southern lady type.

    Yet, I know fairly well one of the people she raised, and the manners she was able to instill in them. Raising them would not have been an easy task, and being successful in teaching them manners means that she was in no way weak willed or lacking in resolve. There are other elements of her biography that speak to a certain amount of resolve.

    Strength does not only mean being nasty to folks in public.

    Fitting the behavior that the modern mainstream esteems has nothing to do with real ability, or with what qualities a youngster can grow up admiring. Fitting the obvious behavior of this or that old fashioned female ideal does not mean that the ideal was the only real part of the real person’s behavior.

    Anime isn’t considered an example here, but the Yamato Nadeshiko. Okay, yes, an ideal of female deportment. Yes, gets used as a stock character, and some of those characters are flawed in weak ways. Others, are absolutely not lacking in resolve, for all that they aren’t shouting at people in a bid to compel compliance.

    • I find that raising my voice (unless it it is to be heard over a din) tends to be counter productive. The cool, polite, “I am very, very disappointed in you,” seems to be far more effective, at least with younger people. Even when I’m furious (especially when I’m furious), calm, quiet, and polite is my default. Past that? You do not want to go there. The Yamato Nadeshiko sounds rather like the Southern Belle – cultured, polite, always “put together” in dress and hair, and quite capable of overseeing hog slaughtering, running a business, hunting upland game or deer, and telling someone to go to perdition without raising her voice or resorting to vulgarity. Aunt D was the last Southern Belle in MomRed’s family, although Mom comes close.

  9. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, women represented a high % of employees in the textile mills (as did children)…they could be hired for less money, and their skills at doing things like tying tiny knots in thread and (in the case of the children) crawling into cramped spaces between and under the machines were useful.

    There is a very interesting book from 1836, Peter Gaskell’s ‘Artisans and Machinery’, which provides a contemporary view of the Industrial Revolution and its societal effects:

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