George Eliot is remembered for such powerful novels as "Middlemarch," "Silas Marner" and "The Mill on the Floss." The eminent Victorian author is also remembered for being a woman. At the time, women writers were generally not well respected, so Mary Anne Evans chose the pen name of George Eliot to publish her novels. Her success in a male-dominated profession made her a rare exception. Most women in the Victorian era had far fewer options. Confined largely to the home, they were essentially limited to housekeeping and motherhood. They were also expected to maintain ladylike comportment and demeanor. Yet Victorian society's perception of women as nurturing and compassionate helped to enable them to become a social and political force in their own right.
Queen Victoria: The Ideal Woman
The woman who gave the Victorian era its name occupied the English throne from 1837 to 1901. Her worldly power notwithstanding, Queen Victoria made home and family life her central priorities. Deeply committed to her marriage with Prince Albert, Victoria was seen as a model of respectability for middle-class women to emulate. The English people even called her "the mother of the nation." Following Albert's death in 1861, Victoria retreated from the public eye, further underscoring the belief that a woman's proper place was in the home.
The Victorians believed that men and women were fundamentally different. While men were said to be physically strong and morally weak, women were seen as being the exact opposite and invested with the responsibility to maintain the entire family's moral rectitude. The qualities of womanhood, according to historian Barbara Welter, included "piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity." In the eyes of society, women were ill-equipped to meet the demands of the outside world. Getting a job or becoming politically active would only be damaging for a woman and for society at large, it was believed.
Despite their purported delicacy, women nonetheless performed a great deal of heavy labor around the home. Besides bearing and raising children, they were responsible for every aspect of housekeeping. And in the days before electrical appliances, the labor involved could be physically demanding. Most middle- and upper-class families tried to ease the burden by bringing in young female house servants. Yet there was still too much housework to be done for most women to enjoy much in the way of leisurely idle time. In essence, the life of an average Victorian housewife was that of an unpaid laborer.
As the 19th century wore on, an increasing number of women took up various kinds of philanthropy work. They became Sunday School teachers, established charities and led temperance campaigns. In a sense, society became an extension of the home, as they set about to perfect it. But without political power, their efforts proved limited. It was this expansion into the public sphere that helped bring about the early feminist movement. As the 20th century rolled around, women began campaigning for greater political rights, including the vote, and better educational opportunities, higher wages and other privileges. The Victorian image of women as domestic helpmates was gradually being dismantled.
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