The Victorian era in England is often associated with oppressive social mores that impacted all classes. During this period, which stretched from the crowning of Queen Victoria in 1837 to her death in 1901, personal and social life was governed by rigid and complex rules for behavior. Though men and women shared some of the same responsibilities during the era, Victorian customs and laws still enforced male dominance and female dependency.
Lower Wages for Women
At the beginning of the Victorian era, most English households mirrored the royal family -- who had nine children -- in numbers. As families grew, so did the need for additional sources of income. Although males in the family held the title of "breadwinners," and their income was regarded as more important, many women also worked to supplement their families. In the mid-1800s, women began working in mills and factories alongside men. Textile factories hired many women -- as did the metal and brewing industries. As more women entered jobs traditionally held by men for smaller wages, employers used them to undercut male employment and reduce overall wages.
Family Planning and Reproductive Health
There were many developments in health care and public sanitation during the Victorian era. Though most were gender-neutral, topics surrounding reproductive health were exceptions. As partnerships outside of marriage were deemed deviant, the need for birth control was minimized. Still, consumer interest in birth control products and devices rose substantially. The introduction of the diaphragm and commercial chemical suppositories in the mid-1800s directly contributed to the steady decline of birth rates after the 1870s.
"Decadent" Women and Virginal Brides
In the mid-1800s, Britain was racked by panic over prostitution. Between 1864 and 1869, Parliament passed the Contagious Diseases Acts to "shield" the population from prostitution. The acts allowed for the arrest and forced physical examination of women suspected of prostitution and the incarceration of women infected with venereal diseases. Working-class women, many of whom were not connected to prostitution, were labeled as "decadent" whore figures while men seeking prostitutes were given a pass. Men were not held responsible for their sexual dalliances until the end of the century, when stories spread about virginal brides being infected with sexually transmitted diseases from their husbands.
Gender Segregation in Education
By the 1860s, girls in England were able to attend some universities. Higher education was gradually provided in segregated institutions at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1878, women were allowed to attend London University. Still, as more schools opened to women, studies remained gender specific. English literature was considered appropriate for women while Latin was offered to men. Boys continued to progress to higher levels of education -- perpetuating inequalities in the workforce.
- Gresham College: The Victorians: Gender and Sexuality
- Victoria and Albert Museum: Gender Ideology and Separate Spheres in the 19th Century
- BBC History: Victorians
- Purdue University: General Introduction to Theories of Gender and Sex
- Family Planning Association: Contraception: Past, Present and Future Factsheet
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images