Women’s movements in 19th Century

In Britain and across the globe, the contemporary woman may not have gained full autonomy as well as the liberty to enjoy equal rights as men in society. Nonetheless, it is evident that considerable success has been achieved to liberate women from eminent suppression by patriarchal based ideologies. In spite of this minimal yet significant level of achievement, the modern-day woman might take for granted the fact that she has broad choice in terms of personal career development, education, political and economic decisions.

On the same note, it is imperative to underscore the fact that the scenario would have been quite different especially if the 19th century women in Britain would not have aggressively campaigned against suppression by men. To date, there are limited cases where women representation in society is still inhibited by male chauvinistic ideas. For instance, women can vie for political positions without fear of male domination.

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This was not the case three centuries ago when women could not make some of the most basic choices like when and who get married to, or perhaps how many children to have in a marital set up. In any case, most sensitive decisions were made on their behalf by men. This paper offers an incisive look into the cultural and political significance of the emergence of a women’s movement in Britain in 19th century.

To begin with, the 19th century women’s movements in Britain emerged owing to deplorable conditions which women went through in society. Feminist ideas had been conceived way back in 17th century as evident from the works of Wollstonecraft’ in 1792 (Vindication) although active women’s movements began in earnest sometimes in mid-19th century (Alexander, 1994, p. 52).

Although Wollstonecraft’s works received a major setback bearing in mind that it was banned from every household, it later gained popularity and fame from late 19th century when it was revived following rapid emergence of new dimensions and ideologies of feminism. Moreover, the rising radicalism towards women’s rights beyond Britain which had been heightened by French Revolution had created fear among British men. This accelerated their reluctance to extend certain rights and powers to women (Alexander, 1994, p. 53).

In order to understand the significance and necessity of the 19th century women movements in shaping present day cultural role of women, it is important to shed light on the social, cultural and legal status that women in Victorian England had to endure in their day to day life. First and foremost, it was a permitted cultural practice for women to obey men without question. Right from birth, a woman had no freedom to make major any decision either when under parental care or married (Hall, 1994, p. 112).

The underlying reason behind this unquestionable obedience was largely due to the fact that culturally, men owned and took charge of all forms of resources and therefore, women were not supposed to rebel. As a matter of fact, women lacked financial mobility that could be used to initiate major cultural changes (Hall, 1994, pp. 112- 114).

Furthermore, singlehood attracted pity and disapproval from society (Hall, 1992, p. 92). The fact that the number of men greatly outnumbered that of women did not make the situation any better since women were in constant competition for the inadequate number of available men in order it conform to societal norms and expectations.

On the other hand, those who failed to secure life partners were forced to emigrate because they were considered less desirable in society (Hall, 1992, pp. 86-94).The institution of marriage was not the type one could reckon with. For instance, immediately after being married, any material possession that a woman owned (and which was rare in this case) automatically belonged to the husband.

This was applicable to all her incomes from various sources (Hall, 1994, p. 116). Interestingly, it is imperative to note that even those who remained unmarried were under direction and guideline of male characters in the household such as male siblings and father since the law did not perceive women as legal beings capable of existing independent of men’s guidance (Hall, 1992, p. 96). Needless to say, the institution of marriage during this era had no close resemblance to what is witnessed in present-day marriages.

Hall (1992, p. 96) explains that being a woman during this time was like a curse since the male ruled society extended oppression from all perspectives, right from the family settings to corridors of law. Once married, a woman was condemned to put up with any kind of mistreatment. Legally, domestic violence, which is illegal in most countries today, was the norm since husbands were allowed to beat their wives though with caution (Hall, 1994, p. 102).

However, this was not observed because the same law prohibited married women from filing such petitions in courts of law (Rendall, 1985, p. 118). Likewise, the law allowed husbands full custodial rights of children in case of separation or divorce. This was not practical at all in spite of it being legally documented (Rendall, 1985, p. 221).

On the contrary, a woman was not legalized to file for divorce under any circumstance but a man could prosecute his wife and upon conviction, she would face dire consequences (Hall, 1992, p. 102). The gravity of the matter lies in the argument that a married woman had not rights even to her own body. The legal vows before marriage required a woman to pass over the rights to access her body to the husband.

Therefore, a woman was not supposed to complain even if her husband used force to obtain the conjugal rights (Rendall, 1985, p. 224). Similarly, a man would decide on the number of children that his wife was supposed to bear, and even then, he had exclusive rights to the children. There were situations when a man would send children to be raised elsewhere without the consent of the woman.

Moreover, women had no place in politics and were not allowed to participate in any sort of political movement during this time period (Hall, 1994, p.118). The rationale behind this male crafted perception was that women were overly incapable of taking part in active politics due to their biological makeup alongside other male chauvinistic ideologies (Hall, 1992, p.93).

From the perspective of biological makeup, men asserted that the process of childbearing consumed a lot of time which seemingly made it impossible for them to attend political meetings on a regular basis. It is crucial to note that the role of women was limited to home duties, which meant a woman’s political participation ought to be confined behind the walls of her home (Hall, 1992, p.78).

Nevertheless, they played significant role of educating their children on various present day political issues in an addition to guiding their sons on how to make best decisions and choices before casting their votes (Hall, 1992, p.78).

Besides societal view, religion also had a role to play in suppressing active participation of women in politics. As a matter of fact, Rendall (1985, p. 221) asserts that religious beliefs that were being taught during that time were orchestrated by the same men who were responsible for making women voiceless. According to Alexander (1994, p. 52), religious instructions forbid women from acting in public.

On the contrary, women were supposed to be meek and obedient to males in society who were regarded to be intellectuals. Despite these setbacks, women defied all odds and gradually started to participate in antislavery campaign.

As exemplified above, the 19th century Britain society dominated by men perceived women as lesser human beings. To a larger extent, women were sidelined from mainstream political and cultural pursuits. It is against this background that various women’s movements emerged to challenge the patriarchal doctrine in order to secure equal rights in social, political, education, legal and employment dimensions.

At first, this was not an easy task since they had to go through myriad of challenges. Needless to say, the present-day recognition of women’s rights and freedom in society owes its success to the women’s movements that were coined during the 19th century.

On a lighter note though, it is vital to underscore the fact that although industrial revolution brought about economic transition, it failed to eliminate or modify socio-political and cultural sufferings that women were going through. The fact that workplace was distinct from home setting further deteriorated the situation because women joggled between job and childcare, not mentioning meager wages that they were earning (Rendall, 1985, p. 222).

Therefore, change was inevitable as various brave women angered by continued oppression began to lobby for equal rights as men. At first, some women like Caroline Norton steered the cause single handedly. Although change came in slowly, these early initiatives paved way for organized women movements (Rendall, 1985, p. 224).

As already mentioned, the custodial right of children in any marriage was the sole mandate of husbands. However, Caroline Norton could not stand what she perceived to be unjustified ruling of the court after she divorced with her husband. The latter action barred her from contacting her children (Rendall, 1985, p. 226).

Nonetheless, her relentless effort to regain custody of her children was never fruitful. She was assisted by her barrister friend in circulating pamphlets to question the custodial rights of a mother, a move which generated great deal of public debate (Alexander, 1994, p. 84).

Despite the hostility that her actions attracted from the conservative press, an infant’s custody act was finally enacted in 1839 which transferred custodial rights of children under the age of seven to the mother (Rendall, 1985, p. 204). Although, it might appear insignificant in comparison to present-day law on custodial rights, Caroline’s achievement was a major milestone towards the tough journey in women liberation.

Similarly, society condemned any active participation of women in matters of public interest. It is interesting to note that although men considered women to be physically weak, their morals were expected to be superior (Rendall, 1985, p. 208). In addition, the issue of morality was cited by men as part and parcel of discouraging women from taking part in active politics since the latter was considered to be immoral.

Therefore, the role of women was confined within household level where she was expected to serve her husband diligently (Hall, 1992, p.88). All the same, the ideology behind the promotion of women as the source of superior moral was a blessing in disguise (Alexander, 1994, p. 55).

Indeed, women’s movements towards the end of 19th century placed emphasis on superior moral qualities to demand for favorable treatment of women in employment and education (Alexander, 1994, p. 52). Most importantly, the role of the 19th century women’s movements was visible in securing equal opportunity as men especially on political representation when it came to voting (Rendall, 1985, p. 211).

The movement commonly referred as woman suffrage movement gathered pace in the late 19th century to challenge the male doctrine that denied women from voting. The significance of this historical achievement cannot be overemphasized bearing in mind that modern-day woman is liberal enough to exercise voting rights.

In conclusion, it is evident that the uncontrolled rights and freedom that most contemporary women are benefiting from were not visible some three centuries ago. The fact that the 21st century woman can be treated with equity on matters related to employment, education, marriage, and politics is indeed a great milestone to reckon with.

Culturally, the 19th century women’s movements ushered in a new era of recognition of women as equally important beings that deserved to be treated with dignity. Politically, voting rights as well as political representation by women became a reality following these movements.


Alexander, S. 1994. Becoming a Woman: and Other Essays in 19th and 20th Century Feminist History. London: Virago Press.

Hall, C. 1994. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780- 1850. London: Routledge.

Hall. C. 1992. White, Male and Middle Class: Explorations in Feminism and History. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Rendall , J. 1985. The Origins of Modern Feminism. London: Macmillan.


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