European and American women in the nineteenth century lived in an age characterized by gender inequality. At the beginning of the century, women enjoyed few of the legal, social, or political rights that are now taken for granted in western countries: they could not vote, could not sue or be sued, could not testify in court, had extremely limited control over personal property after marriage, were rarely granted legal custody of their children in cases of divorce, and were barred from institutions of higher education. Women were expected to remain subservient to their fathers and husbands. Their occupational choices were also extremely limited. Middle- and upper-class women generally remained home, caring for their children and running the household. Lower-class women often did work outside the home, but usually as poorly-paid domestic servants or laborers in factories and mills.
The onset of industrialization, urbanization, as well as the growth of the market economy, the middle class, and life expectancies transformed European and American societies and family life. For most of the eighteenth century through the first few decades of the nineteenth century, families worked together, dividing farming duties or work in small-scale family-owned businesses to support themselves. With the rapid mercantile growth, big business, and migration to larger cities after 1830, however, the family home as the center of economic production was gradually replaced with workers who earned their living outside the home. In most instances, men were the primary "breadwinners" and women were expected to stay at home to raise children, to clean, to cook, and to provide a haven for returning husbands. Most scholars agree that the Victorian Age was a time of escalating gender polarization as women were expected to adhere to a rigidly defined sphere of domestic and moral duties, restrictions that women increasingly resisted in the last two-thirds of the century.
Scholarly analysis of nineteenth-century women has included examination of gender roles and resistance on either side of the Atlantic, most often focusing on differences and similarities between the lives of women in the United States, England, and France. While the majority of these studies have concentrated on how white, middle-class women reacted to their assigned domestic or private sphere in the nineteenth century, there has also been interest in the dynamics of gender roles and societal expectations in minority and lower-class communities. Although these studies can be complementary, they also highlight the difficulty of making generalizations about the lives of women from different cultural, racial, economic, and religious backgrounds in a century of steady change.
Where generalizations can be made, however, "the woman question," as it was called in debates of the time, has been seen as a tendency to define the role of women in terms of private domesticity. Most often, depictions of the lives of nineteenth-century women, whether European or American, rich or poor, are portrayed in negative terms, concentrating on their limited sphere of influence compared to that of men from similar backgrounds. In some cases, however, the private sphere of nineteenth-century women had arguably more positive images, defining woman as the more morally refined of the two sexes and therefore the guardian of morality and social cohesion. Women were able to use this more positive image as a means for demanding access to public arenas long denied them, by publicly emphasizing and asserting the need for and benefits of a more "civilized" and "genteel" influence in politics, art, and education.
The same societal transformations that were largely responsible for women's status being defined in terms of domesticity and morality also worked to provoke gender consciousness and reform as the roles assigned women became increasingly at odds with social reality. Women on both sides of the Atlantic, including Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Sarah Josepha Hale, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Frances Power Cobbe, both expressed and influenced the age's expectations for women. Through their novels, letters, essays, articles, pamphlets, and speeches these and other nineteenth-century women portrayed the often conflicting expectations imposed on them by society. These women, along with others, expressed sentiments of countless women who were unable to speak, and brought attention and support to their concerns. Modern critical analyses often focus on the methods used by women to advance their cause while still maintaining their delicate balance of propriety and feminine appeal by not "threatening" men, or the family unit.
Since prehistoric times, women have been looked at unequally. For instance, historically, women were not only viewed as intellectually inferior, but also a major source of evil and temptation to men. For instance, in Greek mythology, it is believed that it was a woman who opened the prohibited box, thus bringing unhappiness and plagues to humanity. Women have also been described as children and inferior to men in early Roman law.
Women have, therefore, long being considered naturally weaker than men. This explains the reason why during the preindustrial times, domestic chores were left for women, while heavier labor such as plowing and hunting were given to men. This trend of social inequality is evident especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. Generally, the 18th and 19th century was an extremely difficult time for women in Britain (Waters 11). They were rated as second-class people, and were kept from such things as voting and education, among other things. This paper shall focus on the role of women during this historic period.
The 18th and 19th centuries have been defined as the Romantic and Victorian eras. The romantic era was that time between 1780 and 1850, which was characterized by enlightenment. The Victorian era, on the other hand, is that period between 1837 and 1901. The Victorian era was characterized by cultural reform, industrial reforms, gracious living, wars, scientific progress, and grinding poverty. It is arguable that the 18th and 19th centuries can be defined as the Romantic and Victorian eras. The life of women during both the Romantic and Victorian era was mostly centered on commitments within the family. They were viewed as clean and pure, and could, therefore, not be used for physical exertion, and their bodies would not be ornamented with jewelry (Mary 123). They would also not be used for such things as pleasurable sex. Their most important role was to tend the house and have children, unlike the men, in accordance with Victorian masculinity.
Roles of Women in the 18th Century
During the 18th century, the life of married women revolved largely, around managing the house. This was a role which mostly included partnership in home businesses and running farms. Women also performed such duties as milking, poultry, brewing beer, and making butter. They would also make and mend clothing for the family. Moreover, they were expected to act as family doctors, making home remedies for sicknesses. They grew trees for herbs and curved various ornaments. Single women, on the other hand, worked for a living in domestic services and various trades. The textile trade, catering trade, and shops employed a large number of women. The onset of war and defiance of English rule disrupted the patterns of life such as the manner in which women responded to activities around them. Although the most essential role of women remained the maintenance of households, this took political overtones. With the onset of war, everyone was affected; resources became scarce, which led to high inflation. Invading troops led to the destruction of farms, and the absence of fathers and husbands led to starvation and danger. While some women still managed their homes, shops, and farms, some were not able to survive, abandoned their homes, and followed their husbands in the army. Those women that abandoned their homes to follow their husbands were known as camp followers and did this for such reasons as fear of attack, inability to make food available at home, desire to see their husbands, and eviction by troops, among other reasons. Historians have documented that over 20000 women followed the armies and changed camps into small towns…
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