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The Status and Education of Women in 19th Century, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Abstract

This paper explores the status and education of women in 19th century England.  Much of this period was dominated by the Victorian era and women were victims of a class system that permitted them limited rights and entitlements subjecting most of them to a life of domesticity and child raising.  The paper is split into four main sections: (1) Introduction – providing background knowledge to the period and the issues involved (2) The Challenge for Women – How women coped with these circumstances and the challenges represented (3) Fighting back – the struggle for recognition of freedom, equality and human rights. A look at some leading figures of this period (4) Conclusion – A summary of the key points.

Introduction

The women of 19th Century England had few rights when it came to such items as having a career and an education. They became victims of an era dominated by men and the inequalities of a regimented class system. Despite this abject condition of legal slavery women started to be heard in the late 19th Century and started to fight for their rights. It is questioned why Victorian England led by a strong female monarch continued to suppress its women.

Women of this period had little choice in the matter because they had no resources and were maintained by their husbands. The professions were closed to women and females received less education than males. This era only viewed women as having the purpose of marriage and raising children in the home. Theirs was a domestic role and everything that they earned or inherited belonged to the husband. During this period all marriage vows included the promise before God that they would obey their husbands.  This would not be excluded until the twentieth century.  It was Florence Fenwick Miller (1854-1935) who was a midwife and later became a journalist that described the plight of women during this period “Under exclusively man made laws women have been reduced to the most abject condition of legal slavery in which it is possible for human beings to be held  …” (Wojtczak).

Literature Review

(Hubner) | Hubner, Nico. Female Education in 18th and 19th Century Britain. London: Grin / Verlag Routledge, 2011. Seminar Paper.

A seminar paper of 21 pages that examines female education in the 18th and 19th century Britain. The paper focuses on the lack of women’s rights and male domination in the period. This lack of education of women created the loss of a valuable resource and contribution to society. The author has produced a number of papers in the subject area. The author being of German origin was a dissident and outspoken political columnist.

(Goodman) | Goodman, Joyce. Women, Educational Policy Making and Administration in England. London: Routledge, 2000.

An authoritative research book that examines leading feminists and female contributions in the late 19th Century.  Provides a valuable insight into the leading reformation characters and the contributions made by these women.  The book focuses upon the education of women and the research spans two centuries of critical thinking.  Professor Joyce Goodman is the Dean of Faculty at Winchester University, UK and scholar in Educational history.

(Nicole Schindler) | Nicole Schindler, Julia Oesterreich. The New Women Movement of the 1890s in England. London: Grin Verlag, 2005. Research Paper

Seminar paper presented at the University of Potsdam. Explores  the variety of new social and literary forms adopted by the New Woman movement at the end of the 19th century. Women challenged their subordinate social and political position and condemned prevailing sexual double standard during the course of the 19th century. With the new theories on Darwinism New Women found a way to rationalize their demands, apart from social and political arguments, also with biological explanations.  Authoritative authors who have produce a number of volumes of work in this subject area.

(Davidoff) | Davidoff, Leonor. Family Fortunes, Revised Edition: Men and Women of the English Middle Class . London: Routledge, 2002.

The Second edition represents a classical piece of historical research that examines both gender and class differences during this period.  It particularly focuses upon the English Middle class and provides a perspective of male domination and the role of women.  It has cast new light on the perception of middle-class society and gender relations between 1780 and 1850. Professor Leonore Davidoff is a tenured professor at the University of Essex. Founding editor of the International journal Gender and History. Numerous articles on nineteenth and twentieth-century English social history.

The Challenges for Women

The Social Circumstances

The Victorian times were amongst the strongest class conscious period of English history. England had a truly global empire and men dominated in the middle and upper class sectors of society.  Despite the fact that women outnumbered the men and some 30% of women in the colonies were not married.  In most circumstances women had little choice but to get married and it was expected that they would look after the home and raise the children.

Women had little rights during this time and were forced to obey their male masters.  The men had the right to marital sex, they could take the children and have them raised elsewhere, the man had the right to a mistress or access to prostitutes.  There were numerous examples of the brutality of men to their wives and little recourse to gal remedy on behalf of the women.  Divorce was difficult and if the woman ran away she could be found and returned to her husband who had the right to incarcerate her. All of this being sanctioned by the Church, the law and the government.

Discrimination and suppression of women

Whilst the Victorians were remarkable in controlling an empire they got it terribly wrong in the moral treatment of women. They looked more upon their women as moral icons that should look after the domestic side of life.  They were deliberately barred from Education or having sway in political or social circles and in that context dismissed by the men. This was compounded within the working class sector, to which the majority of women belonged. Here most of the women were penniless and their fate depended on the will of their husbands. Here the women were made to work for their husbands for all of their life only taking breaks for child birth.

Many of the women became indoctrinated at an early age to accept their fate and lot in life. Few rebelled in case of being thrown onto the streets.

Imposition of the class structure

There was essentially a three tiered class system in England and indeed throughout the colonies at this time.  An Upper class – This consisted of the aristocrats, land owners and wealthy merchants. A Middle class – this catered for the professions, managers and tradesmen and a Working Class – This was the lowest rung of society consisting of land laborers (peasants), factory workers and other employed workers.   Running alongside this was the Military who had senior officers within the Upper class and mid ranking officers in the middle class whilst the soldiers were in the working class.  A woman would generally fall into one of these bands depending upon her social circumstances and who she married.

Women’s Rights

It was not until the late part of the nineteenth century that women started to really campaign for their human rights.  The struggle for women’s rights, remains an international concern, even to this very day.  In particular the rights of the African woman who toils night and day amidst almost intolerable conditions of poverty.  They suffer extremely difficult social and prejudicial conditions.  Despite all of this women continue to fight for their human rights, race eloquence and tenacity.  Religion is also a contribution factor in denying women their basic rights.  The Islamic world seems particularly at fault here, unable to break away from outmoded tradition.  Prejudice here seems more focused towards women in the lower classes of society.  Whereas a more affluent women are able to gain much more independence and freedom.

Fighting Back

Influence of the Victorian era

The first wave of feminism in England was during the period of 1835 to 1920  and the second in the 1960’s.  Most of the first wave was brought about by females trying to obtain recognition through the political system.  This being trying to influence change through the political and socio-economic fabric of the country.  Queen Victoria did not really help the cause of women as she was seen to represent the virtues of domesticity and family.  She was seen as being dominated by her husband Albert and surrounded by an adoring family in her English Estate homes.  Queen Victoria was dubbed as being the mother of the nation and epitomized the virtues of domestic life and an English man’s castle being his home.  (Abrams)

The Rise of Feminism in the Late 19th Century

It was Caroline Norton who became a female advocate for reformation and changes in the British law.  She appealed to Queen Victoria in order to gain greater recognition for women with child custody  she highlighted the point that the English law virtually made women non-existent in the country.  At the beginning of the 19th century people like Marion Reid began to speak openly about the concerns and injustices towards women.  Frances Power Cobbe was concerned about the lack of education for women and called for urgent reforms in this area. Cobbe used the power of journalism to raise these issues and as such broadcast to a wider audience. Barbara Leigh Smith formed the group entitled ‘The ladies of Langham place’ and formed a lobby group to address the important issues of  education, employment and marital law as it impacted women.

One of the most important women relative to education reform in this period was that of Harriet Martineau.  She was very vocal about the Slave trade and women’s rights producing columns for the Edinburgh journal.  She particularly highlighted the changing role of women in the country and the lack of recognition for the contribution made “Out of six millions of women above twenty years of age, in Great Britain, exclusive of Ireland, and of course of the Colonies, no less than half are industrial in their mode of life. More than a third, more than two millions, are independent in their industry, are self-supporting, like men.” (Petzold).

The international spread of the feminist movement provided the opportunity to make serious points in England.  This particularly with the transatlantic links to the USA.  A good example being that of Elizabeth Blackwell who was one of the first medicine graduates in the USA. She collaborated with the Ladies of Langham in order to get more support for women in the medical profession despite a hostile opposition.

Conclusions

It is somewhat ironic to think that the concept of female human rights and equal opportunities has taken some 200 years to achieve real progress.  The situation in England had some parallels with the struggle in the USA. The struggle for women’s rights in America began in the 1820s, with the writings of Fanny Wright.  Wright also advocated for the abolition of slavery.  Her views had little support at the time, and it was not until 1848 that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott held a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, that the matters surfaced again.  In 1866, Stanton mocked and Anthony est. the American equal rights Association, and in 1869 saw the national women’s suffrage Association being inaugurated.

Bringing this examination in context with modern day events,  some of the largest issues confront women around the world of literacy, education, jobs and health.  These also apply to men, but not for women having the right to pursue these things.  The question of citizenship rights still remains an area for clarification in regard to women’s rights.  A large number of immigrants do not have birth certificates and as such applications for citizenship are refused.  As such these people are unable to get jobs, healthcare, welfare and other social benefits.

Within the general claims to male dominance in social theory, three challenges have emerged (i) the criticism against that of female knowledge and its’ inability to demonstrate adequate work that illustrates scientific or unbiased knowledge. This resulted in feminists coming under scrutiny in order to demonstrate abilities to rationalise knowledge, perform verification, subjectivity and freedom from political bias.  Secondly, how different influences shaped women’s lives.  The danger here is one of stereotyping and simply branding women as one gender that provides a uniform result.  The third challenge intertwines that of knowledge and gender whereby in essence women are taken for granted. Since 1993 this has caused feminists to re-evaluate the position and rewrite much of the subject matter.

Works Cited

Abrams, Lynn. Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain. 9 8 2001. 20 9 2012.

Davidoff, Leonor. Family Fortunes, Revised Edition: Men and Women of the English Middle Class . London: Routledge, 2002.

Goodman, Joyce. Women, Educational Policy Making and Administration in England . London: Routledge, 2000.

Hubner, Nico. Female Education in 18th and 19th Century Britain. London: Frin / Verlag Routledge, 2011. Seminar Paper.

Nicole Schindler, Julia Oesterreich. The New Women Movement of the 1890s in England. London: Grin Verlag, 2005. Research Paper.

Petzold, Charles. 1859 Journalism: Harriet Martineau’s “Female Industry”. 30 5 2009. 19 9 2012.

Wojtczak, Helen. Womens status in mid 19th-century England. 2012. www.hastingspress.co.uk/history/19/overview.htm. 19 9 2012.

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