Queen Victoria, the second reigning queen of England, came to the throne in 1837. There she reigned until her death in 1901. Queen Elizabeth II came to power in 1952, and she still reigns today. But what have either queens done for women whilst in power?
The short answer: not a lot. If you, like me, have been watching the ITV drama Victoria, you’ll have been watching a feisty young woman, surrounded by men who want to control her. While watching the first three episodes, I found myself getting frustrated, wanting to shout, “leave her alone! She’s the queen!”, but then I realised that this is, of course, a dramatised version of history. And it got me wondering, what did Victoria do for women? How did she view equal rights and feminism? Rather poorly, it turns out.
This is a woman after whom I was named. The very picture of female strength and stability. A woman I imagined as strong and fierce, head of not only Great Britain, but also the expanding British Empire. And a time of industrial revolution and technological advances. What a time to be alive!
But there’s another, rather disappointing side to this coin. When Victoria was queen, women were severely oppressed. Inequality between the classes was rife, but the differences between men and women were also clearly distinct. During the 1800s, in order to support their growing families, more women begun to enter the workforce, but they were paid less. By 1860, women were allowed to study at some colleges, but they were segregated from men, and pushed towards subjects that were considered more “appropriate” for them, such as English literature.
Gender roles were sharply defined. Middle-class women were trained to become wives, and were expected to fulfil all domestic duties, while her husband was the breadwinner. Not only did Victorian society completely disregard anything other than heterosexuality, but it also strictly defined the roles of both women and men, allowing for no anomalies.
The two sexes now inhabited what Victorians thought of as ‘separate spheres’, only coming together at breakfast and again at dinner.
The ideology of Separate Spheres rested on a definition of the ‘natural’ characteristics of women and men. Women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men, which meant that they were best suited to the domestic sphere. Not only was it their job to counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere in which their husbands laboured all day, they were also preparing the next generation to carry on this way of life. The fact that women had such great influence at home was used as an argument against giving them the vote.
Gender roles in the 19th century by Katheryn Hughes
Middle-class women could only aspire to become wives of reputable men. They were expected to be feminine, graceful, and quiet. Families were concerned that if their daughters were too intelligent or curious, it would make them unmarriageable. Some doctors even believed that too much studying damaged the ovaries. Victorian doctors in fact had a fixation on women’s health. The treatment of “hysteria”, an illness that only seemed to affect women, and was believed to be brought on by problems with the uterus.
One doctor, William Acton, famously declared that ‘The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind’.
Gender roles in the 19th century by Katheryn Hughes
Apart from prostitutes, that is. Prostitution was rife in Victorian England, and society considered it to be a very distasteful problem. Young women were expected to stay chaste and faithful, but men would often have sex with prostitutes before and during their marriage. Society blamed the prostitutes for sexual diseases being spread, and passed legislation to punish them. It seemed that not many people bothered to ask why so many women were pushed into prostitution, but instead tried to lock them away, to protect the nervous dispositions of upper-class ladies – who often caught sexual diseases from their upstanding husbands. One only needs to read The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, or The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola, to learn all about how women were treated during the Victorian era.
Queen Victoria had little time for feminism. She might have been the most powerful woman in the country, in the world even, but she did nothing to further women’s rights. Women could not vote at all until 1918, and it still took a further decade for full equality.
I am most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Women’s Rights’, with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feelings and propriety. Feminists ought to get a good whipping. Were woman to ‘unsex’ themselves by claiming equality with men, they would become the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection.
From one Victoria to another, as one hateful, heathen and disgusting being, I can assure you that I have not perished without male protection. I have a male partner, true, but he is by no means my protector. I have flourished. I am educated, employed, confident and strong. Sexism is still rife, but I use the anger burning inside me to fire up other women, to contribute to our common cause.
The Crown burst onto Netflix a few weeks ago, and I, like many others, binge-watched the entire show in two days. A historical drama about our current queen, The Crown delves into the life of Elizabeth II, and how she had to pick up the crown when her father passed away unexpectedly. I do wonder how they got away with a lot of it. Philip is portrayed as, for lack of a better word, an absolute tit, but I suppose that would be an accurate representation.
Anyway. Elizabeth II is now Britain’s longest reigning monarch, surpassing Victoria a few years ago. It seems Elizabeth had to deal with a lot of drama regarding divorce. Her uncle famously gave up the throne to marry a divorced woman, passing it to his brother, Elizabeth’s father. Her sister, Margaret, was involved in a scandal when she intended to marry a divorced man. Elizabeth didn’t support her sister, and the two were separated. And we all remember the drama when her son, Charles, wanted to marry Camilla, a divorced woman, after his first wife Diana died.
Elizabeth has seemingly tackled everything with a calm demeanour, a quiet grace, but The Crown allows a peek behind the scenes at a woman who always seemed to put duty ahead of everything else. She and her children retained her family name, Windsor, when she ascended the throne, despite Philip’s protests. A seemingly feminist act on the surface, The Crown shows her reluctance to go against her husband’s wishes, her ties to gender roles. And it shows how Philip struggled to adjust to the idea of not being the head of his household.
It certainly seems that Elizabeth has never been the author of her own story. She bends to the whims and wishes of tradition, of the Church, of her advisors. She does what might cause the least amount of ripples. When William married Kate Middleton, Elizabeth refused to give her the title of Princess, because she’s a “commoner”. Williams is second-in-line to the throne, and his & Kate’s children are next. Her refusal to give Kate the title of Princess seemed like the queen was simply throwing a strop about her grandson’s choice of wife. She certainly seems stuck in her ways. In fact, the monarchy has been one of the slowest groups to move forward with the times. Only a few short years ago, Kate Middleton had the law changed to ensure that, if she had a daughter first, she would inherit before her subsequent brothers. Until then, male heirs always came first. Now there’s a feminist act, fighting to achieve true equality.
It seems to me that having a woman in charge of the country rarely makes a lot of difference to the female population. We currently have a reigning queen, and a female Prime Minister, but what do they do for feminism? What did Margaret Thatcher, who “owed nothing to women’s lib”, do for feminism? Not much, I reckon.
But more women are now involved with politics. The Women’s Equality Party is leading the conversation when it comes to addressing feminist topics, such as equal pay, equal representation, standing up against cyberbullying and body-shaming. It could be argued that women are doing more now than ever before to make their voices heard. We are moving forward, slowly, but we won’t back down. We will continue to smash glass ceilings and destroy the patriarchy. Nothing is off limits.
“I love peace and quiet, I hate politics and turmoil. We women are not made for governing, and if we are good women, we must dislike these masculine occupations.”
I’m perfectly content to not be considered a “good woman” by Victoria’s definition. My own definition is quite different.