Sunday, April 17, 2011

being a victorian woman sucked

I came across an informative article on Victorian expectations and views towards women the other day on The Ravena News-Herald's website.

The article presents a summary of a lecture by Bronck Museum manager and curator Shelby Mattice.  The lecturer compares the lives of two seemingly different women of the 19th century- Theresa Sickles, the wife of a politician, and prostitute Helen Jewett.  Why are these two women, at opposite ends of the social spectrum, so similar in Mattice's eyes?

Because they were involved in scandals with men that resulted in harm to themselves, but apparently no real problems for the men who created the scandals.

Jewett was murdered by a young man in 1836, but justice was never served due to the woman's profession and unimportance in society due to her gender:

A jury acquitted him within half an hour after the judge ordered them to disregard the testimony of the witnesses, most of whom were prostitutes.

Considered a seductress Jewett, according to nineteenth century standards, deserved her fate.

It was more important to protect a well-connected, nice looking young man than the woman he had murdered.

An Albany newspaper carried an account of the trial and called Robinson a "valuable member of the community" who should not be punished because of an insignificant person.
If that last graf doesn't make you sick, then I don't know what will.  Poor Helen Jewett- reduced to the status of an "insignificant person"  because of her profession and, possibly, her gender.

Sickles, meanwhile, found herself caught between a rock and a hard place when her husband shot her lover, making her infidelity a public scandal:

After Sickles leaked letters between his wife and [her lover] to the press, Theresa's reputation suffered enormously and she lived the rest of her life in virtual seclusion.
That's consistent with how Victorians interacted with each other, especially at the top of the social and economic totem pole. Association with a "fallen woman" would have brought shame to yourself and a detailed societal analysis (a.k.a. "gossip" or "rumors") of the modesty of your own conduct.  Mattice, however, argues that Theresa Sickles' suffering was directly related to her husband's behavior rather than her own because he was acquitted on a plea of temporary insanity and did not suffer any legal ramifications for his actions. She, meanwhile, was banned from polite society, which could probably be likened to being forced into exile to a woman back then.

It's hard to say whether Mattice has a point.  No information is given about whether Theresa's husband suffered in his personal life or political career after his "temporary insanity plea."  Besides, the poor guy did have to deal with his wife cheating on him.  Now if he was cheating as well that would change my perspective on his actions, but I do have some compassion for a spouse that suffers infidelity.  The woman isn't as innocent a victim as Mattice seems to indicate.
While I think that Mattice stretches the point a bit with the Sickles case I did learn a few things about Victorian views on women from the article, such as this:

Newspapers printed articles about the roles of successful wives, including tips like never contradicting your husband, never wounding his vanity, never prying into his concerns and never forgetting that a wife owed all her importance to him.
And this tidbit (which I did know, but still sends chills down my spine):

 Invisible except for the status conferred by a husband or a father, there was no legal redress for spousal abuse and no legal consequences unless the father pursued the matter in court as damages done to him.
This part of the article introduced an idea that I had never really considered before: women had greater liberty before the Victorian Era.

"Wives worked side by side with their husbands," Mattice said, "When the men were gone they kept the farms and the businesses together. As long as they were a significant part of the economy women had more power."

But the 1800s brought the rise of urban areas, the influence of the Industrial Revolution and a new social model which called for men going off to work and women staying at home.
From the 1700s to the 1800s education for women suffered as well:

Mattice said that while the percentage of women during the American Revolution who could write their name was 40 percent, by the Victorian era it had dropped to 20 percent.
I would not have guessed that the Victorian Era's ideas of gender roles would have affected the literacy rate that drastically.  What exactly happened?  I'm not sure industrialization is the full explanation for this illiteracy phenomenon in Victorian women.

It appears to me from the article that Mattice doesn't make it clear in her lecture how, exactly, Theresa Sickles and Helen Jewett were the "property" of the men who created the scandals that hurt them.  But the information dispersed in between the real-life examples are pretty appalling to say the least, and consistent with experiences I have read of many women during this time period.

Once again, I do not want to be a Victorian woman.  Ever. 

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