The Degradation of Wives in the Victorian Period
The degradation of the married woman in the Victorian era existed not only in that she was stripped of all her legal rights but also that no obligations were placed in her realm. Upon marriage, Victorian brides relinquished all rights to property and personal wealth to their husbands. Women were, under the law, “legally incompetent and irresponsible.” A married woman was entitled to no legal recourse in any matter, unless it was sponsored and endorsed by her husband. Helpless in the eyes of civil authority, the married woman was in the same category with “criminals, lunatics, and minors” (Vicinus 7). Eighteenth-century, English jurist, William Blackstone curtly described her legal status, “in law a husband and wife are one person, and the husband is that person” (Jones 402).
The Victorian woman was her husband’s chattel. She was completely dependent upon him and subject to him. She had no right to sue for divorce or to the custody of her children should the couple separate. She could not make a will or keep her earnings. Her area of expertise, her sphere, was in the home as mother, homemaker and devoted domestic. Clear and distinct gender boundaries were drawn: Men were “ . . . competitive, assertive, . . . and materialistic.” Women were “pious, pure, gentle . . . and sacrificing” (Woloch 125).
No greater degradation took place in the Victorian woman’s life than in the bedroom. The Victorian woman had no right to her own body, as she was not permitted to refuse conjugal duties. She was believed to be asexual: “The majority of women, happily for them, are not much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind” (Woloch 128). The inference is, if the husband did not demand the fulfillment of his marital rights, sex would not exist in marriage. Sexual relations within Victorian marriage were unilaterally based on men and male needs. Neither a woman’s desire, nor her consent was at issue. The ideal Victorian woman was pious, pure, and above all submissive. The question of her consent was rarely a matter for concern. A Philadelphia physician reinforced this distorted view of women. He asserted that their emotions and character were more “interior” than men, saying: “The house, chamber, the closet, are the centers of her social life and power” (Woloch 128).
Victorian marriage was a patriarchal authoritarian institution wherein the husband was family protector and representative. However, he who was expected to protect, often became the abuser in the bedroom. The wife, whose vows included “ . . . affection, reverence, and duty,” frequently suffered “emotional isolation” as a result of her husband’s treatment of her (Battan 166).¹ Any hope for a mutually gratifying sexual experience in the Victorian marriage was sabotaged long before the nuptials. Men often found themselves honeymooning with a frightened, sometimes hysterical bride who was afraid of her husband. Young women were absolutely...