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Historical Analysis

Women as “the Sex” During the Victorian Era

The most common way to characterize a society at a given time is to divide it into social classes
and evaluate the differences between each group. However, the period known as the Victorian era in
England, from 1837 to 1901, witnessed such polarized gender roles that it can also be analyzed
according to the different functions assigned to men and women, more commonly known as the
ideology of separate spheres. The separate spheres framework holds that “men possessed the capacity
for reason, action, aggression, independence, and self-interest [thus belonging to the public sphere].
Women inhabited a separate, private sphere, one suitable for the so called inherent qualities of
femininity: emotion, passivity, submission, dependence, and selflessness, all derived, it was claimed
insistently, form women’s sexual and reproductive organization” (Kent 30). Following such principles
allowed men, allegedly controlled by their mind or intellectual strength, to dominate society, to be the
governing sex, given that they were viewed as rational, brave, and independent. Women, on the other
hand, were dominated by their sexuality, and were expected to fall silently into the social mold crafted
by men, since they were regarded as irrational, sensitive, and dutiful. As Susan Kent observes: “Women
were so exclusively identified by their sexual functions that nineteenth-century society came to regard
them as ‘the Sex’” (32). This essay will examine the Victorian social institutions of marriage,
motherhood, law, prostitution, and conventional sexual values, from a bourgeois woman’s point of view,
all of which played roles in hindering women in day-to-day life, and furthered the notion of women as
beings governed solely by their reproductive systems.

In this period, marriage was possibly one of the most significant points in a woman’s life. The
majority of women did not have the option not to marry: it was simply a necessity for survival. Because
society prevented women from making their own living, there was an Inescapable marrigeinescapable
dependence upon men’s income: “Barred by law and custom from entering trades and professions by
which they could support themselves, and restricted in the possession of property, woman had only one
means of livelihood, that of marriage” (Kent 86). Therefore, no matter what the women desired, most
were predestined to become wives due to their economic reliance on men. Secondly, to be even
considered as a potential wife, women had to be not only virgins, but were expected to remain innocent
and “free from any thought of love or sexuality” until after they had received a proposal (Kane 97). This
requirement of chastity and absolute purity was not expected of men, as the potential husband had the
freedom to participate in premarital and extramarital sexual relationships. Such a biased idea was one of
many double standards in Victorian society, which demanded unquestionable compliance from women
and none from men, since the women were thought to be controlled by their sexuality and were thus in
need of regulation.
After a woman married, her rights, her property, and even her identity almost ceased to exist. By
law she was under the complete and total supervision of her husband: thus through marriage, husband
and wife became one person; whatever view he presented was the unquestionable truth (Perkin 73).
Not only did the husband have woman serving manalmost complete control over his wife’s body, since
beatings and marital rape were legal, their children also belonged to him, as did any property and money
that the wife brought into the house. Indeed it is understandable to see why many women saw marriage
as falling little short of slavery. Victorian society viewed marriage as women’s natural and best position in
life, and men agreed, seeing marriage as an expected duty of women. One Victorian male contemporary
writing in a letter to a friend described the perfect wife as nothing more than an extension of his
household surroundings: “of course at a certain age, when you have a house and so on, you get a wife as
part of its furniture” (Kent 91). In reality women held an important position as wives since they took care
of the household, any servants, helped with their husband’s work, and managed the finances, however
from the male’s point of view, women were nothing more than overly emotional and mindless creatures
ruled by their sexuality, or simply “the Sex” (Vickery 389).

Motherhood, unfortunately, in reality was not any more respected than marriage. Formally it was
a sacred and honored position, as a mother was viewed as “an angel in the house,” and motherhood was
“the crowning achievement of a woman’s life” (Kent 33). Such was the overall view. However, as with
marriage, there were unjust requirements and unfair expectations. Firstly, motherhood was almost
always separated from anything sexual. Sex for any other reason than creating children was viewed as
dirty and scandalous, quite separate from the revered sexless image of motherhood. Purity was an
expectation and a necessity in order for motherhood to be truly appreciated: “Victorians considered
purity a crucial component in ideal maternity. Although mothers were necessarily women of some sexual
experience, they were nonetheless often canonized as essentially virginal” (Holmes and Nelson 2). This
meant that mothers also had to be religious, since religion supported the view of women as free of
sexual passion and gratification. Such beliefs were required in order to properly bring up children,
because “a mother who lacked religious faith could not instill sexual propriety in her daughter, and thus
was unfit to be a mother at all” (Holmes and Nelson 21). Furthermore, women’s compliance with the
accepted social maternal values (being pure, religious) was more important than their roles as mothers.
For example, in 1878, Annie Besant was denied the custody of her daughter because she had written in a
magazine promoting birth control, sex for pleasure, and was an admitted atheist. As Holmes and Nelson

Mothers were valued socially only if they were ‘good’ mothers, good according to rigid moral standards
of propriety not only in behavior but also in opinion…When Besant was judged ‘not a fit and proper
person’ to have a custody ofher child, not because of her mothering but because of her opinions, the
courts and the public ruled unequivocally that social conformity was more important than maternal love

Thus mothers were viewed by men as angelic only if they seemed to eschew sex, were meek,
submissive, and conforming. Mothers, men kept in mind, were also women controlled by their emotions,
and were socially accepted as long as they stayed in their sphere of submissiveness and passivity. One
early twentieth century Protestant reformer wrote “If a woman becomes weary of bearing children, that
matters not: let her only die from bearing, she is there to do it” (Kent 95). Motherhood, socially
restricted and defined by women’s sexual abilities, was, like marriage, an institution to limit women’s
roles in society. In order to be as sexually free as men in the Victorian era, women had to avoid
motherhood and stand against society’s conventions and the rules set up by men.

Therefore it seemed that despite the superficially elevated positions of wives and mothers,
women were alone in a world ruled by men. This could not have been more clearly evident than when
women came into contact with law: “Justice was administered according to a male view of her rights,
and of how she ought to behave. It seemed appropriate that justice was portrayed as a blindfolded
woman, since her scales were so tilted in favor of men” (Perkin 113). Laws designed to benefit men over
women were hard to overlook. Besides the legality of marital rape and wife-battery, the husband also
had complete say in sexual intercourse. Refusal of sex was grounds for annulment of marriage (Perkin

The issue of adultery was also skewed to favor men. “While a wife’s adultery was sufficient cause to
end a marriage, a woman could divorce her husband only if his adultery had been compounded by
another matrimonial offense, such as cruelty or desertion,” wrote Holmes and Nelson (40). The
reasoning was that wives and mothers served as moral guides to children, so adultery committed by a
woman was considered perverted and unnatural. Also, it called the paternity of the children (the heirs to
the husband’s property) into question. And thus men believed that unless there was an explicit rule
against it, men were free to treat women any way they wanted without any shame. Men justified their
actions with their supremacy and expected women to tolerate the abuse without demur.

The extreme polarization of roles based on gender resulted in a world ruled solely by male
discretion, which almost never took into consideration the women’s viewpoint. Emmeline Lawrence of
WSPU, an organization that fought for women’s emancipation, challenged the patriarchal power of
society: “The concentration of power in the hands of men, the containing of women to the private
sphere…had resulted in a society in which ‘there is nothing that expresses the woman’s point of view.
There is nothing that tallies with the woman’s soul…everything is arranged upon a plan different from
their own’” (Kent 149). Kent goes on to argue that not only had men failed to protect the interests of
women; they were almost incapable of it. Their lives, their laws, and the administration of justice
reflected men’s deep-seated desire to debase women sexually (149). If women were looked upon as
ruled by their sexual reproductive systems in the institutions of marriage and motherhood, they could
not expect any more protection or understanding from the legal system.

Prostitution, legal during the Victorian era, seemed to embody the second of the two categories
of women present in Victorian society: the first was the pure wife and mother, “the angel in the house”;
the other was the depraved and sexually-crazed prostitute. However because wives and mothers were
not truly respected, my belief is that prostitution reflected what men really considered all women to be:
whores for the gratification of their sexual desires. And indeed in Victorian England a large number of
women were prostitutes: “In a society that forced women into a position of economic dependence upon
men, only an accident of birth prevented women of the middle classes from resorting to prostitution to
support themselves and their children” (Kent 68). Men said they were revolted by prostitutes, that they
were the “fallen women” who deserved the shame and disrespect, yet made no effort to make
prostitution illegal since they believed prostitutes provided a basic service of satisfying men’s
uncontrollable needs. Ironically, in a society that was not open to women working outside the home,
prostitution seemed to be the only profession protected by law. Many men regarded prostitutes as “the
necessary evil to protect the pure, who otherwise might unwittingly provoke the male to rape them”
(Kent 62).

Although I’m not sure Victorian men really considered themselves to be so bestial and animalistic
“theorists constructed a single sexuality for men that acknowledged the urgency of male drives and the
necessity of relieving them” (Kent 62). The whole field of prostitution seemed to be built upon the belief
that men had to express their sexual energy, women being the means of men’s expression. The
Contagious Disease Acts of the 1860’s tried to limit the spread of venereal diseases and prostitution, by
requiring the examination of the genitals of women who were suspected of being prostitutes:
“Treatment was compulsory only for women…a military doctor said periodic examination of the soldiers
‘would tend to destroy the men’s self-respect’” (Perkin 231). Several years later, feminists fought and
“opposed the acts not simply because they singled out one sex for punishment and obloquy, but because
they sanctioned the notion of woman as the acceptable object for male use and abuse” (Kent 66).
Prostitution thus was a direct identification of women as “the Sex.”

Men’s and society’s consistent definition of women’s roles according to their separate spheres and
the reproductive system can also be seen through what today we would consider the ‘weird’ sexual
values of Victorians. To begin with, sex as a subject was not at all discussed. Girls could grow up into
women and still not know where children came from: “Women’s bodies, hidden in long, voluminous
clothes, were almost as much of a mystery to themselves as to men…‘Nice ladies no more thought of
showing their legs than did nice chairs’” (Perkin 51). Sexuality and anything in relation to it contradicted
the accepted notions of purity and was strictly looked down upon. Masturbation was so demonized that
it was considered a mental disorder. Doctors maintained that masturbation caused “‘certain forms of
insanity, epilepsy and hysteria in females” (Perkin 22). Victorians, it seemed, simply could not understand
why anyone would voluntarily choose to participate in such revolting and degrading activities.

One solution was the mutilation of female genitals: “Clitoridectomy was performed to cure dysuria,
amenorrhea, sterility, epilepsy, masturbation, ‘hysterical mania,’ and various manifestations of insanity.
The source of these diseases was thought to be sexual arousal; the termination of sexual arousal through
clitoridectomy cured the disease” (Kent 47). Men so deeply believed the idea of women as beings who
were controlled by their sexuality that some even thought the reason women were so unhappy with
their positions as females was because they lacked a male’s sexual organs. The psychologist Sigmund
Freud explained this argument: “The personality development of the female centered upon her
discovery in early childhood that she lacked a penis; penis envy created in the female child a lifelong
dissatisfaction with her identity as a woman” (Kent 224). The extent to which men stressed view of
women as “the Sex” was almost limitless. The best view, perhaps, stated clearly to define women’s social
niche, was written by an eminent British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley:

Reproductive process demanded all the energy a woman could muster; to spend it in another direction
would inexorably undermine the very function that gave woman her only raison d’être [reason for
being]. If women foolishly attempted to undertake study, he concluded, they risked ruining forever their
childbearing capacities (Perkin 51).

In the end, there was simply no way to escape from men’s never-ending subordination of women due to
female’s sexuality.

It was not until after 1850’s that the effective women’s organizations arose and finally began to
stand up against male oppression. From an early age girls were taught they were useless; supported by
the ideology of separate spheres, women lived their lives in conditions that some feminists saw as being
close to slavery. Feminists and suffragists viewed their campaign as the best way to end the sexual
discrimination against women brought on by the separate spheres – “an ideology that finally reduced
women’s identity to a sexual one, encouraged the view of women as sexual objects, and perpetuated
women’s powerlessness in both spheres” (Kent 5). If women were going to fight against the oppression
forced on them by men, they had to get to the root of the problem, and the idea of the separate spheres
was the basis. One Victorian woman referring to her childhood recalled: “‘We just got instilled in us the
feeling of being second best, if not coming up to scratch. We were girls, you see, and what use were girls
anyway?’” (Perkin 6) The women of the early twentieth century realized their freedom lay in the
dissolution of the ideology of separate spheres, through emending men’s views, and overhauling the
legal system. By discarding the underlying beliefs that upheld the unjust aspects of Victorian society,
women understood that their position in society would increasingly improve, especially in the
institutions of marriage, motherhood, and law: “A truer, more moral relationship between the sexes, a
sex peace, if you will, depended upon the reconstruction of gender and sexual identity…It was a
fundamental step, they realized, if the laws and customs that subjected women to men were to be
overturned” (Kent 134-9). Many of the freedoms we take for granted today indeed sprang from the
seeds of Victorian women’s repression, and women’s continuous determination to fight patriarchal