WOMEN'S STATUS IN MID 19TH-CENTURY ENGLAND
A BRIEF OVERVIEW
by Helena Wojtczak
It takes a considerable leap of the imagination for a woman of the 21st century to realise what her life would have been like had she been born 150 years ago. We take for granted nowadays that almost any woman can have a career if she applies herself. We take for granted that women can choose whether or not to marry, and whether or not to have children, and how many, Women of the mid-19th century had no such choices. Most lived in a state little better than slavery. They had to obey men, because in most cases men held all the resources and women had no independent means of subsistence. A wealthy widow or spinster was a lucky exception. A woman who remained single would attract social disapproval and pity. She could not have children or cohabit with a man: the social penalites were simply too high. Nor could she follow a profession, since they were all closed to women. Girls received less education than boys, were barred from universities, and could obtain only low-paid jobs. Women's sole purpose was to marry and reproduce. At mid-century women outnumbered men by 360,000 (9.14m and 8.78m) and thirty percent of women over 20 were unmarried. In the colonies men were in the majority, and spinsters were encouraged to emigrate. Most women had little choice but to marry and upon doing so everything they owned, inherited and earned automatically belonged to their husband. This meant that if an offence or felony was committed against her, only her husband could prosecute. Furthermore, rights to the woman personally - that is, access to her body - were his. Not only was this assured by law, but the woman herself agreed to it verbally: written into the marriage ceremony was a vow to obey her husband, which every woman had to swear before God as well as earthly witnesses. Not until the late 20th century did women obtain the right to omit that promise from their wedding vows. In 1890,...
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