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Women’s Suffrage

Women’s status in the 19th C.


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. (…)Women’s purpose was to serve men and (men’s) offspring, by marrying and reproducing, by raising children, looking after the sick, nursing and by teaching at elementary level. (…) Girls received less education than boys, were barred from universities, and could obtain only low-paid jobs. All professions that needed academic qualifications were closed to women. (…)

Most women had little choice but to marry and upon doing so everything they owned, inherited and earned automatically belonged by law to their husband. (…) Every man had the right to force his wife into sex and childbirth. He could take her children without reason and send them to be raised elsewhere. (…)If a woman was unhappy with her situation there was, almost without exception, nothing she could do about it. Except in extremely rare cases, a woman could not obtain a divorce and, until 1891, if she ran away from an intolerable marriage the police could capture and return her, and her husband could imprison her.(…)

Among the rich, family wealth automatically passed down the male line; if a daughter got anything it was a small percentage. Only if she had no brothers, came from a very wealthy family, and remained unmarried, could a woman become independent. (…)

From reading Victorian novels and watching television costume dramas it is easy to forget that the vast majority of women were working class. Born without a penny, they began work between the ages of about 8 to 12 and continued until marriage. A woman’s fate thereafter depended on her husband. If he earned enough to support her she would usually cease work, otherwise she worked all her life, taking short breaks to give birth. Anything she earned belonged to him.

Barred from all well-paid work women were forced into a very small range of occupations. Half were in domestic service and most of the rest were unskilled factory hands or agricultural labourers. (…)

Prostitution was rife in Victorian England, the majority being « casual », resorted to only when there was no alternative. (…)

Women’s clothing symbolised their constricted lives. Tight lacing into corsets and cumbersome multiple layers of skirts impeded women’s freedom of movement. (…) The skirts were so wide that many women died engulfed in flames after the material caught fire. (…)

During the early to mid-nineteenth century the social order was being challenged and a new philosophy was emerging, imbued with ideals of liberty, personal

freedom, and legal reform. Black slavery was being criticised and challenged, and was abolished, and working class men demanded that the right to vote be given to them and not just to a few thousand landed gentry. It was in this climate that women began to think that they, too, deserved to be emancipated from their enslaved status.

Your task : Read the text, find the translation of the words you don’t know using and list all the tasks women in the 19th C were obliged to do and what they were probited to do. + focus on the following themes and rephrase the information you find:

Tom : women’s purposes

Théo : education

Nolwenn : property and money

Mathéo : personal freedom

Julie : occupations for working class women

The fight

Millicent Fawcett and the suffragist movement ( WSPU)

Find information about the Suffragists, their leaders and their methods