Women, Wives, and Widows

Nineteenth-century women were, at least in the minds of most nineteenth-century men, wives and mothers. The difficulty about this concept was that there weren’t enough men to go round. The mortality rates for boys were far higher than for girls and men were more likely to emigrate than women. The consequence of the idea that women were essentially wives and mothers was that they were regarded as altogether dependent on men, either as fathers or husbands.

Wives wait for their husbands to finish drinking on pay night.S.C.Hall, The Trial of Sir Jasper (1872), from The Victorian City, Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)

Until almost the end of the century, 1882, everything that a woman owned passed into the possession of her husband when she married. At the upper end of the social scale it was possible to arrange marriage settlements, a sort of prenuptual agreement of the time which at least assured a small number of women of some degree of independence. For the vast majority however, even the money they might earn independently belonged to their husbands and it was perfectly possible for, for instance, the husband of a novelist to demand from her publisher whatever money she earned. It was not until the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 that the position changed. Nor was there any escape through divorce. The position which had obtained all the way through the eighteenth century, in England and Wales at least, continued until 1857. It was virtually impossible to obtain a divorce until this time because it required a private Act of Parliament which was very expensive. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 might, at first sight, seem an improvement, but in fact it was nothing of the sort. It was now possible, indeed, to obtain a divorce through the courts rather than through Parliament but only men could divorce their partners for adultery. A woman’s petition required some extreme provocation such as cruelty, bigamy, incest or desertion. On divorce the children of the marriage became the property of the husband who could prevent his wife from having any contact with them.

At the opposite end of the social scale prostitution provided the ‘best’ living for women. A girl on the streets could earn more in a night than a working man in a week. It was quite possible that she would be healthier too as she would be better fed and better housed. The down side was the danger of disease. The worst of the venereal diseases, syphilis, was incurable until the end of the nineteenth century. Then as now a certain number of women lived extremely well but for the most part prostitution was apt to end in alcoholism and disease.

‘O’melia, my dear, this does everything crown!

Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?

And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?…

‘O didn’t you know I’d been ruined? said she.

You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,

Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;

And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!’…

‘Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,’ said she.

Tomas Hardy, 1840-1921: The Ruined Maid, Collected Poems (1930), Macmillan

A London ginshop 1852. T.B.Smithies, Working Man's Friend, i, new series (1852), from The Victorian City, Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)

Child prostitution too was not uncommon. The legal age of consent was twelve but as late as 1871 a Royal Commision reported nearly 3000 cases of venereal disease in girls between eleven and sixteen in three London hospitals. The response was to raise the age of consent to fourteen. The Burlington Arcade and the Haymarket were the preferred beats for ‘street walkers’ and the usual approach was, ‘Are you good natured dear?’ – the equivalent of the modern, ‘Are you looking for business?’.

The respectable alternatives were dressmaking and domestic service. A small number of women might become governesses like Jane Eyre but they were plainly regarded as servants. The clothing industry was dominated by women who either worked in sweatshops, or took in sewing at home, generally making shirts. Seamstresses were quite likely to lose their sight and their pay was between five and ten pence a day. It is not suprising that the word milliner came to be a synonym for prostitute.

The lowest form of domestic servants were the ‘slaveys’, maids of all work, hired from ‘markets’ held under the arches of viaducts where children as young as seven offered themsleves for hire. The most unfortunate group of all were those employed to make phosphor matches. They were afflicted with what was called ‘phossy jaw’ which made them incapable of eating solid food and usually ended in death. There was a huge variety of manufacturing enterprises in which women were involved – matchbox making, sacks, brushes, fans, umbrella bands, even pulling fur from rats, cats and rabbits. In mid century there were about 250,000 servants in London and women were five times more likely to be employed in that capacity as men. About one woman in six made her living in this way at that time. Overall women repesented the largest of all classes, ‘Persons engaged in the domestic Offices or duties of Wives, Mothers, Mistresses of Families’, London 1808-1870: The Infernal Wen, Francis