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To exist for men? Not much different from men? Meant to please and praise? Sickly, feeble, and useless? A fountain of self-sacrifice? No better than a slave? These opinions and more swirled through the cultural climate of Dickens’s time.

Image Many Victorians believed what Jean-Jacques Rousseau had said in 1762:

“Women’s entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect. to raise them as children, to care for them as adults, correct and console them, make their lives sweet and pleasant; these are women’s duties in all ages and these are what they should be taught from childhood.”

Image In 1847 Charlotte Bronte, who wrote under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously, said:

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women fell just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do;they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.”

Image In 1854, in a long poem in praise of his wife, Coventry Patmore said:

“Man must be pleased; but him to please

Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf

Of his condoled necessities

She casts her best, she flings herself.

How often flings for nought! and yokes

Her heart to an icicle or whim,

Whose each impatient word provokes

Another, not from her, but him;

While she, too gentle even to force

His penitence by kind replies,

Waits by, expecting his remorse,

With pardon in her pitying eyes;

And if he once, by shame oppress’d,

A comfortable word confers,

She leans and weeps against his breast,

And seems to think the sin was hers.”

Image In 1865 John Ruskin said:

“The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest necessary. But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle–and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims, and their places. Her great function is Praise: she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest.”

Image In 1864 Sarah Stickney Ellis, a devout Congregationalist and minister’s wife, said:

“When the cultivation of the mental faculties had so far advanced as to take precedence of the moral, by leaving no time for domestic usefulness, and the practice of personal exertion in the way of promoting general happiness, the character of the women of England assumed a different aspect, which is now beginning to tell upon society in the sickly sensibilities, the feeble frames, and the useless habits of the rising generation.”

Image In 1869 John Stuart Mill, with the help of his wife, Harriet Taylor, said:

“We are constantly told that civilization and Christianity have restored to the woman her just rights. Meanwhile the wife is the actual bondservant of her husband; no less so, as far as the legal obligation goes, than slaves commonly so called.”

Image In 1931 Virginia Woolf, whose mother was one, said that the Victorian woman:

“was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.”


Queen Victoria, age 26, in 1845. A model of womanhood for the women of her time.