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The Victorian Age and the Colonization of Women. Angels and Suffragettes: Women in the 19th Century. © Maria Grazia Tundo, 2006. Colonization.

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the victorian age and the colonization of women

The Victorian Age and the Colonization of Women

Angels and Suffragettes: Women in the 19th Century

© Maria Grazia Tundo, 2006

  • A "colony" can mean any people or group subject to a ruling power, and one of the key aspects of the relationship upon which empire is based is that of "us" and "other."
  • Traditionally, we conceive of "other" as anyone different from us in terms of ethnicity or race, but it can refer to any group not in power, any group on the fringes, any group marginalized by a dominant culture.
the angel in the house
The Angel in the House
  • At first glance, the period's dominant characterization of women is positive: glowing, laudatory, or complimentary .
  • Conception of woman as a household saint.
  • Woman as a beacon of light in a dark world.
  • If a husband alone could support the family, the wife not only did not have to but should not work.
  • The growth of the middle class helped create an interesting phenomenon during the period: the separation of spheres according to gender.
  • As the century progressed, women became more associated with the private sphere.
male writers and ideal womanhood
Male Writers and Ideal Womanhood
  • In Sesame and Lilies, Ruskin (1819-1990) suggests that woman serve the world in decidedly feminine ways: "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 . .. But the woman's power is for rule, not battle, --and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. . . . Her great function is Praise."
  • According to such definitions, Victorian women had influence, but they did not exactly possess personal power.
  • Obedience to duty always resulted in the sublimation of one's own desires to those of another: self-abnegation and sacrifice

The prostitute embodied the changing city affected by commerce and industrialization, and her socially unacceptable practices conjured up images of pollution and disease in the Victorian mind. The term 'fallen' referred to their fall from respectability.

past and present i the infidelity discovered
Past and Present (I) [The Infidelity discovered]

The first, The Infidelity Discovered, shows the fallen woman's body thrown at the feet of her husband, who has just discovered her deed. Her prostrate body points to the door, indicating her outcast status and forced removal from the family. Elements of the comfortable and happy life that the woman has supposedly ruined are represented by the lavish living room and the children at play in the corner.

past and present ii the abandoned daughters
Past and Present (II) [The abandoned daughters]

The second and third paintings, continue the dark story by illustrating the consequences of her actions and their self-destructive effects. The forlorn daughters, consoling each other by the window, and their fallen mother, huddling under a bridge, turn their respective heads to the same moon which becomes the sole connecting focal point of each piece.

past and present iii the wife abandoned by her lover with her bastard child
Past and Present (III) [The wife abandoned by her lover with her bastard child]
  • It shows the mother huddled under a bridge holding her illegitimate child. This series aptly demonstrates the consequences of the woman's failure to fulfill her role as mother and loyal wife: not only has she been cast into the street, but her daughters have been forced into destitution as well.

The only mention of the guilty man in this story remains in the first scene, as a small picture crushed under the husband's heel -- a minute detail easily overlooked. focusing the blame solely on the disloyal female

The Awakening Conscience

The Awakening Conscience comments on society by including the direct presence of the guilty male. Hunt's painting shows a kept mistress at the moment of her realization and repentance. She rises from her position on the man's lap and judging from his expression, he does not seem to be aware of her sudden consciousness. Captured during mid-song, his arm across her waist restricts the woman's movement and beckons her to sit back down. On the painting's frame Hunt placed a motto from Proverbs: "As he who taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he who singeth songs unto a heavy heart." These words criticize her unfeeling seducer, who remains unaware how his words have oppressed and aided her conscience. This work includes a heightened awareness of social injustices in the adulterous affair's traditional gender roles and challenges and disperses the idea of blame.

The Awakening Conscience

Holman Hunt (1951-53)

fashion as colonization the corset
Fashion as Colonization: The Corset
  • In the Victorian period, the corset was only one component of a woman's traditional multi-part apparel and was reinforced with flat strips of whalebone or metal.The strings were pulled tighter to produce what we might call an hourglass figure.
  • On the outside, the effect was an exaggerated or idealized female form--Woman's Shape Perfected.
  • On the inside the ribs were pushed inward. The stomach, heart, and lungs were compressed tightly together. Breathing became difficult. The corset could accomplish permanent disfigurement on the woman's torso and persistent health problems.
  • Stereotypically, women of the Victorian period are considered to have been delicate creatures prone to physical weakness and even fainting spells.
the fainting couch
Thefainting couch

The fainting couch was used by Victorian women who were frequently laced up in tight corsets and felt faint because they could not easily breathe.

women wore corsets balloon like sleeves and crinolines in the middle 1840 s
Women wore corsets, balloon-like sleeves and crinolines in the middle 1840's.

Derisive illustrations of ladies blowing into tubes to inflate their crinolines. 1857

the bustle
The bustle.
  • The crinoline thrived, and expanded during the 50's and 60's, and into the 70's, until, at last, it gave way to the bustle, padded with horsehair. The bustle held its own until the 1890's, and became much smaller.
the ideal female form
The Ideal Female Form
  • Beneath their skirts, Victorian women tied a large pad or framework called a bustle over their rear ends that pushed the back of their dresses out in an exaggerated manner.
  • The very exaggerated nature of the undergarments and accoutrements served more to hide each individual woman's shape. They created, as it were, an idealized female form that attempted to make each woman's body--no matter the natural size of the waist and hips--conform to a single womanly shape.
  • In this way, Victorian fashion can be interpreted as stripping away the unique shape of each woman's body--of rendering it identical to that of all women.
women as desexualized creatures
Women as Desexualized Creatures
  • In the Victorian period, under the conception of the angel in the house, women were by their very nature considered desexualized creatures.
  • They were supposed to be attractive to their men--and to even pretend to be sexual creatures for the sake of pleasing them.
  • Victorian physician William Acton even argued that "women seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband's embraces, but principally to gratify him"
  • Indeed the Victorian woman was supposed to engage in sexual activity so she could fulfil her most precious role in life: that of mother. However, she was not to enjoy.
  • Since women were thus desexualized by their culture, how they looked suited men's tastes more than it might have suited their own.
Icons of Victorian womanhood; bride and widow/mother
  • Icon of Victorian womanhood; bride and widow/mother
the pre raphaelite women destroyed by love in all its forms and fates
The Pre-Raphaelite Women destroyed by Love in all its Forms and Fates
  • The theme of the woman destroyed by love -- betrayed by unrequited love, seduced by false ideals or false lovers or victimized by tragic love -- dominated Pre-Raphaelite, as well as Victorian, paintings and poems of the nineteenth century.
  • Bound with the Victorian idea of feminine weakness, the Pre-Raphaelite concept of the woman as a victim stems from themes of medieval romance. The Pre-Raphaelites re-interpret this idea and focus on the sensuality and sexual frustration or punishment of the female -- ideas that were met with both fear and fascination by most Victorians. Their works also re-fashioned this theme to include an awareness of social injustices. Most Victorian works depicted the woman alone, left to bear the brunt of shared sexual transgressions and cast out into the uncaring world.
The Pre-Raphaelites depicted the woman destroyed by various forms of love, whether unrequited, tragic or adulterous, by highlighting not only her mental destruction but also focusing on her sexual frustration or punishment.
  • The Victorians believed passion to be deviant; thoughts of sexuality would cause insanity and thus repression was necessary. With the strong societal enforcement of these beliefs, many Victorians lived with great shame, guilt, and fear of damnation.
  • Pre-Raphaelite works with themes of sexual morality often emphasized the woman's sexual frustration or her punishment, which stemmed from her sexually deviant behaviour; for it was often considered unthinkable that a woman would have sexual thoughts or desires.
the lady of shalott by tennyson
The Lady of Shalottby Tennyson
  • Tennyson's poem of "The Lady of Shalott" relates the story of a woman cursed to remain inside a tower on Shalott, an island situated in the river which flows to Camelot. No others know of her existence, as her curse forbids her to leave the tower or to even look outside its windows. Instead, a large mirror within her chamber reflects the outside world, and she weaves a tapestry illustrating its wonders by means of the mirror's reflection.
  • As the poem progresses, the Lady becomes increasingly aware of the love which abounds in the outside world, and she tires of her lonely existence in her tower, saying she is "half sick of shadows". Then seeing Sir Lancelot riding down to Camelot, the Lady leaves her loom to look down on him directly from her window, which immediately fulfills the curse.
  • Her tapestry begins to unravel and the mirror cracks as she recognizes the consequences of her impulsive action. She flees her tower and finds a boat in the river which she marks with her name and loosens from its moorings. She dies before her boat reaches Camelot, where she would have finally found life and love, and Lancelot muses over the beauty of this unknown woman when the inhabitants find her body.
the lady of shalott
The Lady of Shalott
  • Pre-Raphaelite artists found a rich source of pictorial inspiration in "The Lady of Shalott" It attracted them in part because it emphasized the spiritual nobility and the melancholy of the more sorrowful aspects of love, such as unrequited love, particularly the embowered or isolated and therefore unattainable woman; the woman dying for love; the fallen woman who gives up everything for love; the special "tainted" or "cursed" woman; and the dead woman of unique beauty.
william holman hunt the lady of shallot
William Holman HuntTheLady of Shallot

In Hunt's drawing, the reflection of Lancelot and the Lady in the cracked mirror overshadows the Lady and the unraveling web. Attempting to free herself from the web, the Lady raises an outstretched hand in a gesture that wards off some unseen threat -- the curse, love, or Lancelot himself. The viewer cannot see Lancelot, who occupies a space outside the picture, literally positioned in the viewer's space.

john william waterhouse s lady of shalott
John William Waterhouse'sLady of Shalott

It is one of the few scenes of the time to depict a woman out of doors and alone, and this aspect serves to emphasize her vulnerability. Rather than safe within the confines of her tower, the Lady of Shalott now seems weak and helpless when placed at the mercy of the outside world.

Instead of condemning the Lady, however, this seems to evoke a sense of pity in the viewer.

This differs sharply from Hunt's blatant disapproval of the Lady's behavior

the girlhood of mary virgin 1848 dante gabriele rossetti
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin(1848)Dante Gabriele Rossetti
  • Pre-Raphaelite favourite depictions of women are especially those somehow involving their passive role. These painters often portrayed women at a window or in their bower where they sit lost in thought, as in Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin. Rossetti favored the theme of the Fair Lady, which particularly emphasized women's contemplative nature.
beatrice a portrait of jane morris dante gabriele rossetti
Beatrice (A Portrait of Jane Morris)Dante Gabriele Rossetti
  • These works, such as Beatrice (A Portrait of Jane Morris) or Regina Cordium or The Queen of Hearts, show female passivity and beauty as separated from the context of the rest of the world. Most of these paintings have blank or purely decorative backgrounds, removing the subjects from the active realm.
lady lilith dante gabriele rossetti
Lady Lilith Dante GabrieleRossetti
  • D.G. Rossetti's Lady Lilith represents a paradox since she can be viewed as both an excessively sexualized object as well as an empowered woman. The painting focuses on the Lady's seductive beauty. Her loose, flowing hair and nearly removed clothing emphasize her voluptuous, overtly sexual figure. Her revealing attire and lack of tight-fitting corsetry perhaps symbolize her refusal to fit into socially inhibiting roles and constraints. Although her physical appearance seems to suggest a sexual invitation to the male viewer, her facial expression does not encourage anyone to gaze on her. Lady Lilith does not engage in any eye contact, but instead toys with her hair and delights in her own reflection. Thus, she displays her sexuality for herself and is completely satisfied with herself. In contrast to the tenderness and submissiveness expressed by many of Rossetti's other fair ladies, Lady Lilith's expression exudes haughtiness and deviousness which would be more likely to inspire fear rather than desire in the male viewer.
woman as other the fight for equal rights
Woman as Other: The Fight for Equal Rights
  • Women had the role generally assigned to slaves and foreigners: that of Other.
  • Legally, women were marginalized, stripped of the most basic of rights and denied a voice in government.
  • Reform movements of the time all but ignored them.
  • For example, when the Chartists drew up the People's Charter of 1838 demanding, among other things voting rights, reference to female suffrage was eliminated
  • As long as they were marginalized by the law and given unequal, inadequate educations, women were destined to be lesser individuals.
the femme covert women and the law
The Femme Covert: Women and the Law
  • Under 19th century law, women had two recognized existences: they were either femme sole (unmarried; hence independent) or femme covert (married; hence "covered" by their husbands or covert).
  • In general, wives had no legal existence. By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being, or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband"
  • They had no legal existence, their property became his, any money she earned was legally his, she had to prove extenuating circumstances to obtain a divorce (he had to prove only her adultery), she had no right to her children, and she gave up control of her own body to him. In fact, in the 19th century, husbands were legally permitted to give "moderate" correction to their wives.
  • In 1870, the Married Woman's Property Act finally allowed wives to gain control of their personal property and income.
education for women colonization continues
Education for Women: Colonization Continues
  • Such an education was meant to instil in women just enough real knowledge to make them intellectually attractive to but not the equals of men.
  • They were advised not to offer opinions on controversial or intellectual issues, but merely to agree or nod in approval, to support their husband's wise assertions.
  • What mattered more was how they were trained in the feminine "arts," like dancing, playing the piano, singing, sewing, and painting. ./.
my wife is a woman of mind
'My Wife is a Woman of Mind'

GeorgeCruikshank, Comic Almanack, 1847

  • Thus it was that improved education for women became one focus of activists during the 19th century.
  • Going back to arguments made at the end of the 18th century in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, educational activists argued that women could never be vital, whole creatures--which in God's eyes they had a right to be!--unless they were educated in a manner equal to men.
women s suffrage imprisonment force feedings and ritual suicide
Women's Suffrage: Imprisonment, Force-Feedings, and Ritual Suicide
  • The loudest voices in the suffragette movement belonged to radical feminist social reformer Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst, (1867) who fought for the extension of equal rights to all women, and to her daughter, Christabel.
  • While imprisoned, many suffragettes tried staging hunger strikes, which led only to forced-feedings.
the right to vote
The Right to Vote
  • Although England finally extended the right to vote to women in 1918, at the close of World War I, at that time the franchise was given only to those over 30 years of age.
  • It took another 10 years before it was extended to those as young as 21 (1928).

© Maria Grazia Tundo, 2006