The Women’s Rights Movement in England: 18th Century and Beyond
The 18th century was a period of slow change for women’s rights in England. The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution were coterminous at this point in history and brought the new thoughts about women’s rights to England in the late 1700s. In the 1700s women were not as concerned with voting as they were with divorce, adultery, and child custody rights. However, as the population of single women grew throughout the 18th and 19th century the concern for more rights for women became prevalent (Wolbrink, 4 Nov. 2011). By 1851, 43 percent of women in England were single and began to campaign frequency and sometimes forcibly for their rights (Wolbrink, 4 Nov. 2011). Reformer and feminist, Caroline Norton, sums up the feelings of women in both the 1700s and 1800s in her Letter to the Queen,“I do not ask for my rights. I have no rights. I have only wrongs” (CP 148). Rights movements do not begin abruptly, they are often simmering long before an uprising. The 18th century is one such simmering pot. Women were confined at first by their maternal roles but with the growth in knowledge from the Enlightenment women began to raise into the public sphere as activists and reformers.
Many constraints and limitations were placed on women in the 1700s. Women were not allowed to vote in this period and would not amalgamate a movement for the right to vote until the early 1800s. Yet many women were distraught that they, as citizens, could not contribute their opinion to English society. Women could not be members of the House of Commons and could not change the law to let women be representatives because they could not vote (CP 146). English women were considered to be part of their husbands house and the it was thought that the man of the house would express the views of its residents.
According to Victorian ideology women were expected to behave with politeness, meekness, delicacy, and gentleness (Wolbrink, 4 Nov. 2011). Essentially a “sweet vocation” was the goal and employment of women in the 1700s (CP 141). Victorian author Jean-Jacques Rousseau often spoke of women’s virtue as a unifying strength, “ [A] woman’s empire is an empire of gentleness, skill, and obligingness; her orders are caresses, her threats are tears” (DiCaprio 250). A brash women would have been seen as an embarrassment to the family.
This can be seen in Jane Austen’s novels from this period. An example of a brash or over emotional women in her book Sense and Sensibility would be Marianne. This sister defines ‘sensibility’ by riding with her emotions and typically not planning through her actions (Video). Most women were tied to the home in the 18th Century. Modesty had become an important part of family and society life. Women were considered to have a natural maternal instinct and a natural devotion to family. Attempting to leave this role of motherhood was seen as monstrous and unwomanly by society (Wolbrink, 4...