The expectations for women of the Victorian Era were different from those of the Regency. Foremost, the ladies of the landed gentry were influenced by the prevalent Victorian opinion of a “natural” separation of the roles of males and females in society. A homegrown attitude of ladies benefitting others around them rather than themselves had taken root. Women of the day were expected to develop a loving and caring character, a well-read mind, sensibility, sympathy, social ease, and benevolence.There were also to be a “mild-mannered” companion to their husbands and a caring mother to their children. There were women who took to the role naturally and those who did not. Some had to learn to subjugate their thoughts and there more fiery natures to their husbands. Females were thought to be incapable of making rational judgments on crucial matters. This translated to their not being permitted to conduct business or their own financial matters.
Needless to say, they were given no say in such matters as marriage settlements. It was thought to be reprehensible of a woman to concern herself with such negotiations. In contrast, the potential bridegroom was considered diligent if he chose to be involved. Many Victorian women were expected to claim the role of “dumb blonde,” whether her hair color was that shade or not. Intelligence in females was not a valued asset during the time. Men tended to look upon a woman as an embellishment.
Wives of the landed gentry and lords of the land were expected to bring “gaiety”to social gatherings. They were to be the arbiters of proper conduct within their husband’s social circle. The wives and daughters of the landed gentry and the aristocracy depended upon their close male relatives (father, brother, cousin, husband, uncle, etc.) for their status and for their material well-being. Unfortunately, girls were not valued within the family. They were often considered a financial burden and there was a rush to have them married off. Mothers were known to express their own doubts by glorifying the birth of a son and treating the birth a daughter as a bit of a disappointment. The lack of an heir was considered the woman’s “fault.” She had failed her husband. (Each daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert received a 21-gun salute after her birth. Each son received a salute of 101 shots.) The daughters of the landed gentry and the aristocracy had neither freedom nor control.
Part of their life was to be devoted to the care of charity cases, especially of those surrounding their husbands’ estates. Parish life was a continual pull upon the woman’s role in the neighborhoods. A woman devoted to dress and gossip was frowned upon by the bulwarks of society. As part of the farce, recipients of the lady’s charity were expected to display humble gratitude. Unfortunately, many upon whom the great house’s charity was bestowed did not “read for their parts.” There a great deal of bitterness among the cottagers, servants, etc. It was not beyond the master’s domain to cane a cottager who did not utter the necessary respect to his wife. Daisy, the Countess of Warwick referred to the custom as a form of “serfdom.” [Note! This statement came in 1930, well after the Victorian attitudes had soften.}
Among other aspects of the process was the necessary example the lady was to set for the working classes. This demand upon the mistresses of the household was played in many ways: card playing and excessive drinking were discouraged because the activities led to all sorts of evils; keeping the Sabbath holy (not even cooking a hot meal); playing the organ in church, etc. Instead, many, especially the dowagers, spent their time in “instructing” the younger women in their duties, as well as “instructing” the single females in what or who would make a good marriage match. Women ruled the family and social life: Men ruled public life.
Until 1918, women were barred/excluded from exercising the parliamentary franchise and from the magistracy. In November 1919, the American-born Lady Astor was the first lady to take a seat as an MP. That did not mean they were not involved in political issues. It is said that Lady Georgiana Curzon, Lady Randolph, for example, masterminded her husband’s re-contestation of her seat on being given the seat from the Conservative party. Lady Randolph’s “connections” in the community served her husband well.
Women held few rights to land ownership in a system of primogeniture and of patrilineal descent. In 1883, John Bateman published the fourth edition of The Great Landowners of Great Britain and Ireland. It indicated that less than 7% of properties came to women due to the failure of the male line. Part of this system was the British peerage. In 1880, only seven of the 580 peers were women who held the title in their own right rather than being the female “subject” of her husband’s peerage. Needless to say, none sat in the House of Lords.
Girls who “did not take” in society would be dependent upon male relatives. They sometimes led a nomadic existence, clinging to the benevolence of first one relative and then another. A spinster in society could lose everything with the death of a father or the marriage of a brother. Her position as his “hostess,” as well as her financial future, was usurped by another. Sometimes an unmarried daughter had to make her home with her widowed mother. Lady Muriel Beatrix Gordon-Lennox Beckwith in her book When I Remember (Nicholson and Watson, 1936) says, “Spinsters were compelled to keep up [a] girlish attitude. Their hair might turn grey, and their cheeks become wrinkled, but they remained girlish, simpered, walked delicately.”