Gender Roles in the Victorian Era

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During the Victorian Era, there were distinct gender roles to which society adhered to. This time period was a classic example of a patriarchal culture, where men were considered superior to women in all facets of life. However, as time progressed, changes in the traditional views of gender roles occurred. Women began to gain equity in legal, educational, professional, and personal aspects of their lives. Within Pride and Prejudice, there is an overarching theme of gender roles. Some characters, such as Mr. and Mrs, Bennet, and Lydia Bennet, strictly followed the tradtional gender roles. However, certain charcters, Elizabeth specifically, symbolized the changes in the role of women in Victorian society.









The Roles of Men


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The "Superior" Gender

During the Victorian Era, the roles of men and women were becoming less distinct than in previous time periods. There was a shift away from the traditional idea of male supremacy. However, men still had similar roles- when it came to family life and outside family life- to the ones before the Victorian Era. Men made all the decisions concerning politics, economics, and legal affairs. Although women were given the opportunity to be elected to certain board positions and council positions, these positions were still dominated by men. This is because men did not want to see a change in the way things were. Men, exclusively, were nominated to have positions in the Parliament in Britain. Women were not offered to be a part of such an influential and important part of government. Men wanted to keep themselves superior to women because they still felt that women were inferior to them.

Domestic Responsibilities

Regarding family life, men were still seen as the ones who gave commands, while the women obeyed them. This is shown when Mrs. Bennet is giving Mr. Bennet details about what took place at the ball. "Mr. Bennet protested against any description of finery. She was therefore obliged to seek another branch of the subject..." (Austen, 13). [5] As soon as Mr. Bennet told Mrs. Bennet that he no longer wished to hear about Mr. Bingley's interactions with Jane at the ball, Mrs. Bennet changed the subject rather quickly to Mr. Darcy, as if she already knew what to do. Even though women were seen as the inferior gender, men still had many responsibilities pertaining to the household and family life. They had the legal obligation to provide for their families. When Mrs. Bennet first heard about Mr. Bingley she was ecstatic because she knew that he was "A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year" (Austen, 6). [5] With that income she knew that he would be able to support one of her five daughters, which was very important in a man during the Victorian Era. Women who were given opportunities to work were not required to work, but the men in their families were. Men were also required to help out domestically, even if their wives were not working. These were the responsibilities that men could neither ignore nor avoid.Working_man_in_the_Vic_Era.jpg

More Responsibility, Less Morals

Despite the fact that men had a significant amount of responsibilities, many of them began paying less attention to their morals. The thrill of gambling appealed to many men and as a result it cost them their wealth and in some extreme cases, their families. A prime example is Mr. Wickham. "...For it had just transpired that he had left gaming debts behind him to a very considerable amount" (Austen, 247). [5] Mr. Wickham gave into the temptation of gambling and he needed to understand that such an addiction could go as far as to tarnish a man's reputation. Another instance was with the increase in prostitution. Many married men were becoming sexually active outside the household. Women noticed this occurring as a result of them getting sexually transmitted diseases from their husbands. This shocked many women, and thus brought about demands for men to stay faithful and outcries of disgust. Even with the many changes in society, the power and privileges were still mainly reserved for men, with few exceptions.



The Roles of Women


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The "Weaker" Sex

During the Victorian Era, women were often thought to be the weaker sex, subservient to men. This idea can be seen throughout Pride and Prejudice. Mrs. Bennet was characterized as someone with a “weak understanding and illiberal mind” (Austen, 226). [4] On the other hand, her husband, Mr. Bennet was portrayed as a competent and sarcastic man who was fond of reading. Mrs. Bennet was often teased by her husband, who found great pleasure in mocking her, sometimes without her knowledge.

Elizabeth Bennet also touched upon the idea of the inferiority of women during a conversation with Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley. After hearing what defined an accomplished women, “‘…a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages…’” (Austen, 44) [4], Lizzy declared that she had never seen such a woman. Even though Lizzy did not particularly fit the mold of a typical Victorian woman, she was intelligent and spoke her mind, she could not help but think that a woman was incapable of being what Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley considered accomplished.

Subject to Their Fathers, Husbands, Brothers, and Adult Sons

Mrs. Bennet was the epitome of what a Victorian woman was perceived to be. She was under the rule of her husband and was unable to do certain things without him. Mrs. Bennet acknowledged this social rule when she argued with her husband about visiting Mr. Bingley. She contended that “‘…it will be impossible for us to visit him if you do not’” (Austen, 5). [4] She was alluding to the fact that women could not be introduced to people without their husband meeting them first.
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Elizabeth was also under the rule of Mr. Bennet, her father. When Mrs. Bennet wanted Lizzy to marry Mr. Collins, she appealed to Mr. Bennet. “‘You must come and make Lizzy marry Mr. Collins…’” (Austen, 127). [4] If Mr. Bennet had told Lizzy to marry Collins, she would have had no choice in the matter.

Familial Responsibilities

During the Victorian period, motherhood was idealized. Additionally, women ran the household, looked after the children, supervised the servants, cared for the sick and elderly, and took care of any other domestic issues. [1]

In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet ran the household. She made sure that the servants did what was expected of them, organized feasts (as seen when Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy visited Longbourn), and encouraged (almost to the point of forcing) her daughters to get married as soon as possible.

When Jane was invited to Mr. Bingley’s residence, Mrs. Bennet told her “‘…you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain, and then you must stay all night’” (Austen, 34). [4] This act was not done to be cruel to Jane; rather, Mrs. Bennet believed that if Jane was forced to stay at Mr. Bingley’s house for an extended period of time, he would fall in love with her. Although this was a risky idea to send her daughter out during a storm, considering that Jane got sick and could have died had her illness been more serious, this example shows just how dedicated of a mother Mrs. Bennet was. She was willing to risk her favorite daughter’s life in order to fulfill her maternal duty to care for and marry off all of her daughters.

Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst also behaved in a way that was in accordance with societal roles of women. Despite the fact that they were of the upper class, they were responsible for tending to Jane when she fell ill at their brother’s estate. “‘All women are likely, at some period of their lives, to be called to perform duties of a sick-nurse…’” [1]

gender_equality.pngTransition to Gender Equality

The Victorian Era witnessed a transition from male dominance to more equality between genders. Changes in the legal, educational, professional, and personal parts of the lives of females arose. Women gained some autonomy; however, they were still dependant upon men.

Miss Bingley, Mrs. Hurst, Miss Darcy, Lady Catherine, and Elizabeth are all excellent examples of women who were somewhat independent. Both of Mr. Bingley’s sisters were educated women; they were well-read, they painted, and they played piano. This may be due to their social class, which afforded them many more educational opportunities. Miss Darcy was also a well-educated girl, owing to the notion that she was from a wealthy family and moreover, her brother doted on her and was not too controlling of her.

Lady Catherine’s independence greatly exceeded that of all of the other female characters in the novel. Due to her position of power, she was free to do as she pleased. It appeared that she had no husband, or any other man for that matter, to answer to. Ironically, it was often she that was in control of the goings-on around her. She told Mr. Collins to find a wife, which he did. She ran the estate at Rosings. Furthermore, she controlled the money from her estate. This idea that a woman of power was above men is paralleled by the real-life ruler of the time, Queen Victoria. Although women were considered to be beneath men, Victoria, who was monarch, “was socially and symbolically superior to…men…” [1]

Finally there was Elizabeth. She didn’t necessarily have to opportunities that Miss Bingley, Mrs. Hurst, and Miss Darcy had, and she in no-way compared to Lady Catherine. However, it was more of her demeanor, not her education that demonstrated her self-sufficiency. She was a strong willed young woman and wouldn’t acquiesce to the desires of Mr. Collins or Mr. Darcy when the two men proposed. Lizzy spoke her mind and wasn’t afraid to make anyone, man or woman, angry. She was literate and could also write; showing that she had had some form of education. Nevertheless, the ideals of previous times still plagued Lizzy. When her father passed away, the whole of the estate was to go directly to Mr. Collins, the next male heir. Unlike the other women of the novel, Lizzy and her sisters would receive no inheritance, presumably because of their lower class.


References

1. Marsh, Jan. "Gender Ideology & Separate Spheres." GENDER, HEALTH, MEDICINE & SEXUALITY IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND. 28 Oct 2007 <http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/periods_styles/19thcentury/gender_health/gender_ideology/index.html>.
2. Marsh , Jan. "'The Personal is Political': Gender in Private & Public Life." GENDER, HEALTH, MEDICINE & SEXUALITY IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND. 27 Oct 2007 <http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/periods_styles/19thcentury/gender_health/personal_is_political/index.html>.
3. "Women in the Victorian era." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2006. 27 Oct 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_the_Victorian_Era>.
4. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Enriched Classic. New York: Pocket Books, 2004.
5. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 1996.