Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Victorian Expectations on Women & Morality

In my last post, I discussed one of the issues that is integral to studying and understanding Victorian society—the Woman Question. Queen Victoria herself embodied the delicate balance of a woman’s role in society as she fulfilled the duties of not only the angel in the house as a wife and mother to nine children, but also the political duties of being Queen of the fastest growing empire at the time.
Sarah Stickney Ellis, 1799-1872

Sarah Stickney Ellis, who we might call the poster-child for the position that women were the angel in the house, was a prolific writer on the issue. She has been credited with implementing the “doctrine of separate spheres” – or the concept that women and men have specific spheres of influence, men in the public sphere and women in the private sphere and the two do not, nor should they according to Ellis, cross over.   Ironically, despite her own success as a writer, Ellis enforced the idea that women ought to repress their own ambitions and dreams to serve others—primarily the male members in their household. She articulates this idea in her book, The Women of England, Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits (1839):
How much more generous, just, and noble, would it be to deal fairly by woman in these matters, and to tell her that to be individually, what she is praised for being in general, it is necessary for her to lay aside all her natural caprice, her love of self-indulgence, her vanity, her indolence—in short, her very self—and assuming a new nature, which nothing less than watchfulness and prayer can enable her constantly to maintain, to spend her mental and moral capabilities in devising means for promoting the happiness of others, while her own derives a remote and secondary existence from theirs.
While I will be the first to attest that there is a level of selflessness that comes with the territory of motherhood, that does not nor should it take value away from the woman as an individual and her intellectual faculties and personal aspirations, as Ellis suggests. Furthermore, Ellis suggests that women have a higher standard of morality because of their lack of exposure to the outside world that mars the morality of their husbands and sons; and as such their level of influence in the home holds the weight of being the moral compass for each member of the family. Let’s look at what Ellis says when she writes,
The women of England, possessing the grand privilege of being better instructed than those of any other country in the minutae of domestic comfort, have obtained a degree of importance in society far beyond what their unobtrusive virtues would appear to claim. The long-established customs of their country have placed in their hands the high and holy duty of cherishing and protecting the minor morals of life, from whence springs all that is elevated in purpose, and glorious action. The sphere of their direct personal influence is central, and consequently small; but its extreme operations are as widely extended as the range of human feeling…
A proper female's education on her domestic duties, from The Daughter's of England, 1842
Thus what Ellis portrays as the domestic sphere of women is not only the space for domestic comfort but also the space that directs the morality for the family. This expectation of women and their power and influence in the home is taken on by John Ruskin, who writes that, home is “the woman’s true place and power” and that in order to fulfill such a high calling,
John Ruskin, 1819-1900
She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise—wise, not for self-development, but for self-renunciation: wise, not that she may set herself above her husband, but that she may never fail from his side: wise, not with narrowness of insolent and loveless pride, but with the passionate gentleness of an infinitely variable…modesty of service…

These high expectations of women in the home lead Ruskin to a dramatic conclusion:
There is not a war in the world, no, nor an injustice, but you women are answerable for it; not in that you have provoked, but in that you have not hindered. Men, by their nature, are prone to fight; they will fight for any cause, or for none. It is for you to choose their cause for them, and to forbid them when there is no cause. There is no suffering, no injustice, no misery in the earth, but the guilt of it lies lastly with you.

Though we can certainly (and rightly) argue that Ruskin’s drastic conclusion is an unfair burden to place on the shoulders of women, we have to look at the overall argument that begins with Ellis, and see Ruskin’s statement as the inevitable conclusion to that kind of thinking.

 Home is the proper place of power and influence for women. From Wives of England, 1839.
If women are inherently moral and good, and their place of power is solely in the home, then it is chiefly their responsibility to pass on their goodness and morality to their children while they are young and impressionable. And if women don’t achieve this – their one mission – then the result is a generation of growing boys who have not been instilled with a moral compass – the voice of their mother in their ears telling them the difference between right and wrong. And when that growing boy enacts an injustice on someone else, it is not his fault, because he was never taught that it was wrong. No, the fault must lie with the Mother who failed to instill a sense of justice in her son.

How can women bear such a weight of expectation?  How did women writers grapple with this in their female characters? Have we changed our expectations of women today? Or are women just as hard on themselves and place impossible expectations on themselves?

I think about the blogging moms and effect of Pinterest on women today – how we still like to project the image that we have it all together: the beautifully decorated house, the crafty DIY projects, the perfectly stylish and well-behaved children, the meticulously prepared dinner, etc. Who puts these pressure on us today? Is it still our society or do we expect such perfection from ourselves?

I would love to hear your thoughts & comments!

Next up! A poetry reading of, “The Angel in the House.” A look at the poem that started it all…