Several Victorian age writers explored the concept of women—what role in society they play, their obligations, and their nature. A common idea from this period is that women are not valued for being intelligent, inventive, or individual. Rather, they are valued for being morally good. Men believed women should be complimented on beauty and kindness over passion, creativity, or skill. Sarah Stickney Ellis explained, and supported, this idea in The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits. In this book, Ellis says that women keep men in check morally, trying to keep men from falling to temptation. She goes on to explain that a woman’s role in society is to “[protect] the minor morals of life” (Greenblatt, 2019, p. 657). She explains that a woman’s role is not to be innovative or intelligent, but to have “disinterested kindness” (Greenblatt, 2019, p. 658). Ellis mentions heroines of romance and reality to support this claim, saying that these women were not those that could solve problems or come up with new philosophies but those that were morally great. Her entire book taught women of the time how to behave in socially acceptable ways and what their duty was—to be morally great.
Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House also supported the view that women were not valued for creative thought and skill. The poem explores marriage within the time period and was written about his first wife, Emily Augusta Andrews, and their own marriage. Throughout the poem, Patmore states that women “wish to be desired”—tying back to the idea that beauty was valued more than skill (Greenblatt, 2019, p. 660). The whole poem gushes over the beauty and good nature of Patmore’s wife. He mentions that “she’s simply, subtly sweet,” gentle, has a “fair heart,” and is meek—all attributes admired during the Victorian age (Greenblatt, 2019, p. 660). Again, Patmore never mentions that his wife was talented, smart, or decisive—only that she was good natured and pretty.
Florence Nightingale challenged this view of women and their societal role in Cassandra, aligning with her own life going against social norms by remaining unmarried and forming a group of nurses to care for wounded and ill soldiers. In Cassandra, Nightingale argues that women are more than just kind and pretty—like having “the imagination, the poetry of a Murillo” that goes ignored—and calls for the recognition of other qualities (Greenblatt, 2019, p. 673). She also states that women lead boring, unfulfilled lives. In addition, she mentions that women cannot hold jobs of intellectual importance; they are only allowed to be homemakers, wives, and mothers. Nightingale says that having to be only homemakers prevents women from pursuing their passions and talents as there is not enough time to fulfill all homemaking requirements and focus on a passion. This is such an accepted and familiar norm that Nightingale states that women view the thought of holding other jobs as “selfish amusement” they should give up (Greenblatt, 2019, p. 674). She also touches on the fact that during this time women were raised to be complacent and obedient to men rather than to be individual, free, and intelligent. She states that because of this belief, allowing women to take roles outside of being homemakers would cause men to feel slighted, as if women did not have enough time to do the same quality of housework and cooking—allowing this social role to remain.
Gender roles has always been a topic that writers explore—from Victorian writers explaining how to behave as a woman, to feminist writers taking arms against oppressive norms to civil rights writers fighting for essential rights. Reading these works can give a glimpse into the lives, communities, and societies of different time periods and allow exploration and discovery of differing views and experiences during the times of these pieces.
Greenblatt et. al., (Eds). (2019). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York, NY: Norton & Company.