As a time of peace and prosperity, the Victorian period began in June 1837 with the coronation of Queen Victoria, and lasted until her death on January 22, 1901. During this prosperous time, women’s roles both in and outside the home began to evolve. While motherhood and marriage remained the primary focus for many Victorian women, others – fueled by financial necessity or by a quest for more independence – began finding occupations outside the home.
Not surprisingly, domestic service was the primary employer of women during the Victorian era. Depending on their social class, Victorian women could find employment in all facets of domestic work. Women from higher social classes could become governesses, housekeepers or lady’s maids who were responsible for helping the women of the house get dressed in their multiple layers of clothing, corsets included. On the other hand, women from a lower social class would be delegated to up to 16-hour days of heavy work as kitchen maids, laundresses or housemaids.
The new manufacturing processes that spun out of the Industrial Revolution presented new employment opportunities for lower-class Victorian women. Most women found work in textile or clothing factories under harsh conditions, while others found trades in such things as metals, pottery or laundry. In these industrial industries, women – and children – worked for dreadfully low wages for long hours. The supervisory jobs and jobs that required more sophisticated machinery were left to the men.
Teaching and Tutoring
When Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837, formal schooling was solely reserved for nobility and the wealthy. The 1876 Royal Commission on the Factory Acts became the first piece of legislation to require free compulsory education for children, primarily to stop the practice of child labor. Later laws required children between the ages of 5 and 10 to attend school; this age was extended to 12 by 1899. These laws required the building of additional schools and consequently more teachers. Most schoolteachers were unmarried women who had little formal schooling, worked for low pay, and taught only basic reading and math. Women could also find work as private teachers for wealthier families, especially if they were skilled in art or music.
The Victorian era represents some of literature’s most respected and enduring authors, including Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Bronte. Other women, however, found work penning less celebrated works, such as poems and stories for gift books, domestic manuals or etiquette books for the general public. Others found a voice writing children’s books or by writing advice columns on mothering and housekeeping for local periodicals. Because of the period’s strict gender roles, many of these works were published anonymously or under male pseudonyms.
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