Womanhood in the Victorian & Edwardian Era in the US, Canada and Britain

This morning in my Historical Perspectives on Women class, we discussed the notion of womanhood in the Victorian and Edwardian Eras.


A woman in these eras was expected to stay at home, in her proper sphere where she was intended to be. She was looked at as different from men in the gender hierarchy, because she was below them, but men and women were looked at as having complimentary roles, mainly women being complimentary to men.

There were 4 cardinal virtues a woman had to display in order to abide by the ‘cult of true womanhood’ (dubbed by Barbara Welter):

(1) Piety – religion did not take women away from the private sphere; helped control women’s ‘longings’.

(2) Purity – virginity was a woman’s greatest treasure.

(3) Submission – men were superiors so women should be submissive and obedient.

(4) Domesticity – wife should create a refuge for husband and children in the home, the home being a place for her to exercise her innate womanly skills.

If a woman could not or did not follow the ideals established for women, she was considered deviant and was chastised.

Clergymen and Physicians strongly perpetuated the cult of true womanhood and the 4 cardinal virtues of womanhood. Clergymen claimed that men were superior to women because woman was created form man (Eve from Adam), and male doctors also strongly supported the belief of the cult of true womanhood, using science as their reasoning.

A lot of physicians gave their opinions of the cult of true womanhood in public resources like newspapers. The used biology and physiology to argue for the cult of true womanhood, and claimed that biologically, women were destined to work in the home, and that by nature they were weaker than being men, being called frail, meaning they should not be doing men’s work.

They claimed that during puberty, women’s energy was concentrated on developing her reproductive system, and so there was not enough energy left to focus on work or higher education or politics, and that pursuing such things would hinder her reproductive abilities. Male physicians argued that after puberty, women’s reproductive systems controlled their entire being and all of their actions, meaning they were more susceptible to illness and injury, and that they were more emotional. Doctors also argued that women had lower sex drives than men, and that sex was only for reproductive purposes, meaning they did not support contraceptive use.

Male doctors argued that losing their virginity before marriage would result in a physical breakdown and tremendous physical damage. Male physicians targeted menopausal women, saying their reproductive organs still provoked them and encouraged erratic behaviour, even insanity. This means that the Victorian Era is when we begin to see the first lunatic and insane asylums and women’s reformatories in response to the cult of true womanhood – women were sent to these places when they failed to abide by the 4 cardinal virtues of womanhood, and were committed against their will.

In The Victorian and Edwardian Eras, doctors did not understand mental illnesses, meaning any unnatural behaviour was dubbed a mental illness, victims typically being women resulting from things like postpartum depression. In these asylums, hundreds of women received unnecessary gynaecological operations, physical and sexual abuse from doctors, even hysterectomies meaning sterilization, and even lobotomies. Many women committed to asylums never left because of such extensive damage to their bodies and minds.

Today’s lecture was super interesting, so I figured why not blog about it.

What are your thoughts about the treatment and perception of women in these two Eras?

– Lauren

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