Men and women in Victorian Society

The subject of life for all in the Victorian era encompasses a great deal of issues, not least those regarding gender. It is not possible for these all to be addressed here and further reading is recommended.

Victorian Women

It has to be said, women did not occupy an ideal place in Victorian society which is ironic since the monarch was female. Indirectly, however, she was in part responsible for her sex’ predicament. She herself had loudly supported the notion that men were superior and to be treated as such inside their own homes and in the world at large. She had little time for grievances of women or their suffering (see Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion By Helen Rappaport ). Helen Rappaport asserts that she was ‘in fact, a great hindrance…to women’s rights’, protesting that women belonged in their ‘own separate domestic sphere’ and ‘constantly reminding her daughters and granddaughters of the shortcomings of their feeble sex, ‘ actively encouraging the notion that women were subject to instability, hysteria and out of proportion anxiety; the idea that they could not cope with the unpleasantries of life.

In a patriarchal society it can only be imagined that the nation’s leaders were pleased with their monarch’s point of view and many laws, be they formal or tradition upheld the advantage of the male who ‘should be looked up to and obeyed’. Women, for example, could be put in an asylum by a male relative merely the oddest of reasons, many of which came down to the fact they had disappointed, disobeyed or embarrassed a male in some way. They were at a great disadvantage in divorce courts and could not testify against their husbands. A female was not supposed to be angry or upset with anything her husband/father did and, if she showed such emotion, she was often ignored, ridiculed like a child or even physically chastised. A woman’s or girls’ view was not supposed to outwardly differ from that of her menfolk, even if they were blatantly wrong and in some families this attitude prevailed well into the next century.

In essence women were treated as children but with the added responsibilities of household chores and childcare. Healthwise, they were more likely to suffer certain illnesses that came with poverty; largely because the better food was often reserved for the males of the house and female specific conditions were hardly recognised and, if they were, often misunderstood in a medical world presided over by men.

Females also tended to receive less education though ironically this was probably more evidently the case in the higher classes where it had become common for a boy to be sent to boarding school from around the age of seven whereas girls would be taught by governesses. They were thought incapable of absorbing such complicated subjects as their brothers, such as Latin and science – and education of females was regarded as a waste of money anyway because they would be married off as soon as possible and thence managing a house and children.

These issues were far reaching. The health issue likely contributed to the notion of women being the ‘weaker sex’, whilst the lack of education no doubt reinforced the notion that females could not be educated beyond a certain point. Either way they were regarded as naturally less able and had a lower life expectancy in all levels of society.

The Male in British Victorian Society

In theory, the male held an almost blessed position. In the family, as Father, he was the Head, representing God in his own small way, supposedly providing, compassionate, fair and issuing discipline only when strictly necessary. As the son, he was to be prized over girls as he would carry on the family name, take on a trade and, of course then become a responsible father himself. Boys and men were usally given the best food the family had, girls and women would defer to them. They were seen as entitled to rest or play time and were given a much wider reign as to where they went and what they did. If one looks at photos from the time depicting a sudden happening or event, most often the majority of people depicted will be male.

The male, of course , did not always live up to the theoretical responsibilities of his position, but neither did life in return. There were prices to be paid . In most histories of the era, when gender restrictions are refereed to, one will read of their effect on females. Quite rightly, to a point, considering that these were the people who saw most of the strictures but, it is wrong to assume that men, and boys, were not negatively affected by the expectations of society as well. In fact, in regards to the story of Rivers, and the shell-shocked soldiers of the Great War, it is very important not to ignore the influence.

There were rules governing every semblance of emotion. A man could have pity and being charitable was good; accepting charity or even sympathy in some circumstances was bad. Anxiety, panic or fear was classed as hysteria and something to be dreaded:
men, who showed these emotions, were regarded as weaklings, degenerates. Tenderness even was to be strictly controlled for fear one might appear ‘unmanly.’ the subject was touched upon in almost every part of life; school lessons, church sermons, the banter of friends, the verbal abuse from a boss. Boys books, should their families afford them carried on the illusion ; filled with adventurous heroes who faced challenges stoically and resourcefully, stiff-upper-lip firmly in place. In 1912, the Scott Expedition belatedly supplied just the example the Victorians would have adored when Captain Oates sacrificed his own life in order to make it more possible for his colleagues to reach safety. Two years these qualities were brought to the fore again when the Great War began – and, for many, setting up an emotional time bomb in its wake.

Even for the rich, however, personal preference was not always felt to matter – it was a man’s duty to fall in with whatever plans life held for him. Wealthy males were usually educated at in independent or boarding school from the age of seven. The subjects taught would be wide ranging and normally include the Classics, Mathematics, and education continued until they were at least sixteen. A number then went on to university though was a tradition that the eldest would be ‘trained’ take on whatever business or property the Father of the family maintained. Whilst many were lucky and enjoyed whatever position they were given, this, unfortunately, neither guaranteed that great soldiers, rectors or even industrialists were always the result and must have meant misery for men who felt unsuited to their roles.

In their spare time, the gentry enjoyed traditional country sports such as hunting and shooting, before retiring to a meal then maybe a cigar and a drink. Males and females tended to socialise in separate rooms as females were regarded as not possessing the mental capacity to join discussions on politics, overseas investments and, of course, impolite topics of conversation. Children , did not feature a great deal, in the life of a ‘gentleman’ – before school age all normally lived in a nursery with a nanny, and would be brought down at suppertime or on special occasions to speak with their parents, and thus fatherhood was not normally a burden; once a man ensured he had an heir, his part was finished until the boy came of age when the father would oversee his entry into the world of business and a girl’s potential marriage.

To an extent, the life of the working man did have some similarities. . The Father was still viewed as the head of his household and was to be obeyed, by his wife as well as his offspring. He would not be expected to engage much with his children, other than to deal out discipline although, in this case of course, they would be tended to by their Mother rather than a member of staff BUT, he was also in a position to see more closely the effect any deprivations of changes might have upon them and thus be compelled at a basic level to try his best to ensure their welfare as best he could. This was not easy.

A working class boy of this period would, most likely, have received some education. The Elementary Education Act 1870 required all children to regularly attend school between the ages of 5 and 12 although special regard could be given at the discretion of the headteacher at times such as Harvest when extra hands were needed in the fields, because it was seen as crucial to the continuance of the entire community. The education received would only cover the very basics; reading, writing, elementary mathematics and scripture. It did not give the pupil a foundation to build a grand range of careers on and, even if it had, circumstances and convention would probably have still prevented choice. After leaving school, a few lucky ones may be selected as apprentices for a trade, and eventually become masters of that in their own right. Most would simply enter into whatever employment was available in the area ; quite often the same as that which their father and elder brothers were involved in.

From infanthood a boy would be expected to develop a certain set of manners; respect for elders, the treatment of women. This, involved, amongst other things, finding and keeping a job , no matter what. It was not unusual for a woman to need to work as well, but it was customary that a man did, and a mark of shame if he did not for whatever reason. In this age, there was no government benefit to help out and a family could starve without a wage coming in, could be taken into the dreaded workhouse or made to bear the shame of being ‘On the Parish’. To prevent these catastrophes, a man struggled to his place of employment no matter how bad he felt, or how appallingly he was treated