The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
By Josephine Stone
The Victorian era, defined as the period between 1837 and 1901 during the reign of Queen Victoria, was a time of great sexual awakening in women. During this period, women's roles changed drastically from censored and submissive to educated owners of their bodies. The changes to the Victorian female, beautiful, childbearing property that need remain sexually uneducated for the sake of fidelity and virginity, occurred over the century with several marriage acts and contraception. From these amendments, a sexual being was born, debunking the archetype of the Victorian lady that exists today.
Despite the modern day sexuality tied to the image and dress of the Victorian woman, such as corsets and crinolines, the debilitating garb was an attempt to ensure a submissive, housebound female figure of the household. In the middle to upper classes, also called the "leisure class," women were valued for their beauty. As written by Fraser Harrison in "The Dark Angel," "The ideal emphasizes their estrangement from all aspects of vulgarly productive labour … and concentrates … especially the slenderness of the waist whose perfect proportions imply extreme debility." The fashion of the time included the baroque bonnet, high-heels, large skirts and corsets, all of wish proved the impracticality of doing any tasks. The important image of beauty as defined by soft hands, porcelain complexion and dainty feet kept women in the household outside of the sun's rays, and in the visually appealing clothing that served no purpose outside of emphasizing an image of sexiness to men (Harrison 34-7).
The Victorian woman was not only debilitated by her dress, but also in her education on sexual matters. Regardless of the emphasis of being attractive for men, once women were courted to be married they were introduced to sexual intimacy for the first time. Sexual language in Victorian Britain was almost nonexistent for the idea that without vulgar or sexual language in society, the existence of vulgar, sexual behavior and desires would not be. Women of this period were also excluded from discussions in institutions and intellectual discourse that kept them from any understanding of sexual behavior even in scientific means (Clark 115-9). In addition to their beauty, women were to be of little education, as "lethargic young women in whom the virtues of decorous idleness and pretty ignorance had been so assiduously inculcated" (Harrison 30).
The preservation of the "pure" mind of women lead to problems that would affect their relationships later with husbands, and even in understanding their own changing bodies. If the topic of female sexuality was discussed at all, it was done in a manner that made reproduction a topic of disgust, causing women to behave as though the erotic characteristic of humans did not exist. It was this lack of erotic reality in their minds that ensured virginity and fidelity, for a woman without acceptance of her own sexuality couldn't possibly put it at risk (Harrison 55). Besides being completely unknowledgeable of reproduction and the effects of puberty on their body, many were disgusted, disappointed or shocked upon entering their bridal bed. The lack of carnal knowledge catered to the magnified value of virginity, but caused women to act out on the lack of sensitivity and, in some cases, consummation.
Most knowledge of women's reactions to sexual behavior during the Victorian era is taken from letters, ones in which women wrote each other of their love, anger and common emotions that, at the time, weren't allowed to be openly expressed. A young Emily Austin wrote a letter describing the disappointment she felt after her wedding night, after her marriage to John Austin. She described their honeymoon as 'a nightmare of physical pain and mental disappointment' because John had intercourse quickly and without sensitivity (Clark 123). Emily voiced her frustration over not being able to change their sex life because she believed she was unable to make sexual demands.
Other exceptions to the rule existed with women who felt an unexplained lack in their relationship with their new husband, to learn later about sexual intimacy and realize they have received none. A young Effie Gray annulled her marriage of six years to John Ruskin at 1848 after being refused sexual consummation. Effie wrote her parents of her anger toward John for not having sex with her, an act that showed a great deal of confidence in her own sexuality. She was not sure at first what was missing in their relationship, writing to her parents, 'I had never been told the duties of married persons to each other' (Clark 122). A similar situation and annulment occurred between a Marie Stopes and a Dr. Reginald Ruggles Gates in 1911. Six months after their marriage Marie began to 'feel instinctively that something was lacking,' and visited the British Museum to learn about sex. Marie ended up suing for an annulment on the grounds that she was virgo intacta, and later published "Married Love" in 1918. The option to annul a marriage on such terms, however, was a new development, and at the beginning of the Victorian era, and prior to 1884, a woman could be arrested for denying her husband his conjugal rights, losing her complete legal existence once married (Harrison 7, 50-1).
Other, financially and socially powerful women provided another archetype of the sexuality of the Victorian lady after matrimony. Queen Victoria, aside from being royalty, was vastly different from most women during the beginning of the sexual revolution of her rule for the fact that she never had to submit to the will and standards of her husband, Albert. Queen Victoria ruled England, and therefore had no ruler or master in social and sexual servitude as most women after marriage. Queen Victoria's power allowed her to make a decision of how she would act during their sexual encounters, and Harrison writes that "On the few occasions, when she felt she could afford to behave toward Albert in a purely wifely capacity, she displayed a surprising submissiveness," continuing on to say that Victoria was unrelenting in her "determination to keep the word obey in their marriage service" (Harrison 25). As a woman of power it can be assumed that keeping her role with the public and with her husband as very separate entities was of utmost importance, and therefore chose to follow the common standard of submissiveness when appropriate.
Where relationships with men and husbands failed, women found solace in each other, commonly sprouting sexual relationships in a manner that seemed common at the time. Many women of the Victorian age lived together, shared property, described one another as spouses and went as far as to make a vow of fidelity to one another. Once women were vowed to one another they were also considered spouses by their social network, mimicking the legal marriages between men and women. A perfect example of women marriage in Victorian England can be found in the relationships had by a Charlotte Cushman, an acclaimed actress of the 19th century. Most documented sexual encounters in Charlotte's diary are between her and other women., writing in 1844, 'Slept with Rose,' a name mentioned several times before in her diary. A few days later an entry reads, 'Married.' The diary never describes the outcome of her "marriage" with Rose, and later Charlotte had two long-term relationships, among many other, short term ones, with a Matilda Hays and an Emma Stebbins. Sharon Marcus, author of "Between Women," writes that Charlotte's sexual behavior as a whole was "matrilineal, incestuous, adulterous, polygamous and homosexual" -- all traits that defied the conservative, primitive family outlined between men and women. "Patriarchal monogamy does not contain the promiscuity that results when women reign unfettered," Marcus continues (Marcus 145-7). Marcus' harsh description of the sexual freedom and promiscuity of Charlotte is given with proof in written letters of her incestuous relationship with a young woman named Emma Crow, who Charlotte convinces to marry her nephew so that her and Emma will be able to spend time together sexually, and as a family.
Social marriages between women seemed a common occurrence, and the accepted knowledge of Charlotte and her endeavors can be credited to her high social standing. As a popular actress, Charlotte had financial independence and did not need to marry a man to gain wealth or social standing. In this vein, marriage between women was mostly common between ladies of the middle and upper classes. It was these women that, before legislation allowing legal and property rights to women, did not have as dire a need to elevate their standing by marrying a man, becoming property and completely dependent post matrimony.
Near the end of the Victorian era, changes were made to the rights of women through the passing of several acts. With a prevalence of prostitution, pleasure-seeking men and a lack of scientific knowledge on the topic, venereal disease posed a threat that affected the interest of sex among women. In addition to the threat of sexually transmitted diseases, the threat of pregnancy also kept women from having sex for the sake of pleasure, in contrast to the motives of most men at the time. In Hera Cook's "The Long Sexual Revolution," Cook writes, "Contraception and pregnancy take place within the female body," whereas within the man's body, "coitus was assumed to be the aim of sexual desire." This double standard, as well as the legal inability for women to deny their husbands their conjugal rights, debilitated most Victorian women from seeking sexual intimacy. This all changed, however, in the late 1800s with the Divorce Act of 1857, the Married Women's Property Bill of 1857, Matrimonial Causes Acts of 1870, 1882, and 1893, in which both parties accept equal social standards with women gaining the right to property, legal proceedings and contracts, and the invention and widespread use of contraceptives beginning in 1871.
After the slowly earned rights of the Victorian woman came to a head, the sexual revolution and the importance of the female orgasm rapidly took way. The new found freedom of sexual education and the idea of feminine sex for pleasure prevailed through government retaliations of obscenity restrictions and laws. The literature and familial tradition of sharing sexual education still being limited, museums remained as one of the only places where detailed models of genitalia could be found. The London Museum was closed in 1873 due to anti-obscenity laws that disagreed with the display. Also during the period of which women were gaining rights, a flurry of pamphlets entitled "Aristotle's Masterpiece," that focused on fertility, were widely circulated, going so far as to describe sexual pleasure, and the female orgasm, to be detrimental to conceive, sparking the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 (Clark 115-6).
With the use of contraceptives, the birth rate fell from 1871 to 1900, and, according to Harrison, "For the first time in the history of monogamy, wives had obtained the means of liberating themselves from the tyranny of reproduction, and they could at last regard their husbands sexual attentions as a medium of pleasure, and to respect, not fear, their sexuality" (Harrison 67). This newfound pleasure and self-respect, in addition to a recently gained social independence, took time for men to adjust to. What was once their property to be used for a one-sided aspect to pleasure became a demanding, pleasure-driven being that could legally take action against him. During the late 1800s when the sexual hierarchy was shifting, the economy was in an instable state, adding to the anxiety of the men of Victorian England. Many men did not know how to react to the sudden aggressive nature in which women sought equal, emotional sexual relations (Harrison 118).
An example of bafflement on the male part of aggressive sexuality by women can be found in the writings of a William Hazlitt, who describes a young woman by the name of Sarah Walker, the daughter of a lodging housekeeper. Upon a stay at the lodge, William wrote that Sarah would 'be sitting in my lap, twining herself around me … rubbing against [me]' for an hour. When he brought up the idea of marriage to her, she was disinterested, and replied 'Why could we not go on as we were an nevermind about the word forever?' William, perhaps like many men of the period, associated her sexual desire with prostitution, and tried to offer her money when she denied her hand in marriage. Sarah also refused to be bought. These writings that describe a woman who wanted sex for what it was, and not for money or marriage, provided a revisionist view of female sexuality during the Victorian era, where most constructs describe Victorian women as exceptionally prudish or anxious (Clark 125-7). It was this total shift in the stereotype of women's sexuality that caused many men to alter their own understanding of sexuality, and "an equation between sexual pleasure and emotional fulfillment crystallized in their mind" (Harrison 133). In this manner, the sexual awakening of women also allowed for a greater understanding in the world of sexual relationships for men as well.
The typecast of female sexuality in the Victorian era mostly remains in the image of the early years, with the proper lady, lacking vulgar thought and action, beautified by the layers of lace and corset that ties her waist. It was this period, however, that a great change moved this image from the limited itemized part of the primitive family portrait to the woman seeking property and pleasure. Through dense censorship pertaining to sexual discourse and submission in marriage limiting sexual relations to childbearing, the Victorian lady remained, in the earlier years, completely in the dark when it came to sex. Bridal beds became a terrible learning experience, and women marriages abounded. With the many acts passed in the mid-18th century women finally found and respected their own sexuality, switching the role of the Victorian woman completely around to one with emotional and educational needs, and ultimately providing a lesson for the men of the period.
Cook, Hera. "The Long Sexual Revolution." The History of Sexuality in Europe. Ed.. Anna Clark. London, New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Marcus, Sharon. "Between Women." The History of Sexuality in Europe. Ed.. Anna Clark. London, New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Harrison, Fraser. The Dark Angel: Aspects of Victorian Sexuality. New York: Universe Books, 1977. Print.