[Click on image to enlarge] Many of the historical changes that characterized the Victorian period motivated discussion and argument about the nature and role of woman — what the Victorians called "The Woman Question." The extension of the franchise by the Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867 stimulated discussion of women's political rights. Although women in England did not get the vote until 1918, petitions to Parliament advocating women's suffrage were introduced as early as the 1840s. Equally important was the agitation to allow married women to own and handle their own property, which culminated in the passing of the Married Women's Property Acts (1870–1908).

[Click on image to enlarge] The Industrial Revolution resulted in changes for women as well. The explosive growth of the textile industries brought hundreds of thousands of lower-class women into factory jobs with grueling working conditions. The new kinds of labor and poverty that arose with the Industrial Revolution presented a challenge to traditional ideas of woman's place. Middle-class voices also challenged conventional ideas about women. In A Woman's Thoughts About Women (NAEL 8, 2.1596–97), the novelist Dinah Maria Mulock compares the prospects of Tom, Dick, and Harry, who leave school and plunge into life, with those of "the girls," who "likewise finish their education, come home, and stay at home." They have, she laments, "literally nothing to do." Likewise in Cassandra (NAEL 8, 2.1598–1601), Florence Nightingale, who later became famous for organizing a contingent of nurses to take care of sick and wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, writes passionately of the costs for women of having no outlet for their heroic aspirations.

[Click on image to enlarge] Popular representations of Florence Nightingale, "The Lady with the Lamp," reflect the paradox of her achievement. While her organization of nurses was an important advance in hospital treatment, the image of her tending the wounded seems to reflect a traditional view of woman's mission. Even Queen Victoria herself represents a similar paradox. Though she was queen of the British Empire, paintings and photographs of her, such as Winterhalter's The Royal Family in 1846, represent her identity in conventional feminine postures and relationships.

[Click on image to enlarge] Texts in this topic address both the hardships faced by women forced into new kinds of labor and the competing visions of those who exalted domestic life and those who supported women's efforts to move beyond the home. Journalist Henry Mayhew's interviews with a seamstress and a fruit seller vividly portray the difficulties of their lives. In Of Queen's Gardens John Ruskin celebrates the "true wife," and Elizabeth Eastlake's "Lady Travellers" proposes her as a national ideal, while in The Girl of the Period Eliza Lynn Linton satirizes the modern woman. In contrast, two fictional characters, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and George Gissing's Miss Barfoot, from The Odd Women, speak passionately of the wish that their existence be "quickened with all of incident, life, fire, and feeling." All of these texts show how complex the debate was on what the Victorians called "The Woman Question."


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