Lady Geraldine's Courtship

Annotated Poem

Part 2 of Annotated Poem

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Biography

The Poem's Textual History

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Style and Body of Work

Women in the Victorian Age

Robert Browning's Biography


Additional Texts





The Degradation of Married Women in the Victorian Era

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).╣ 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 ignorant in matters of sexual intercourse. For them the wedding night experience was nothing more than a bodily assault. The typical Victorian man, highly skilled in matters of courtship, but unenlightened to the considerate lovemaking his wife craved, merely exercised his rights and she performed her duty (Battan 176).

Medical professionals of the era reinforced the marriage prescription in their advice manuals. Their premise was that sexual intercourse was absolutely imperative for male wellness. Furthermore, as “master,” the Victorian husband was entitled to certain “rights” and “privileges of marriage” (Hellerstein176-79). Rights and privileges of marriage are euphemisms for brute sex, which was advocated by Dr. William Acton and Dr. Auguste Debay, both influential writers of their time. Thus was the male mentality throughout the nineteenth century, reinforced by medical professionals it laid the foundations for spousal rape, a condition not yet fully resolved.

French surgeon Auguste Debay, in his best selling marriage manual▓, established the necessity of sexual relations. According to Debay, routine intercourse was vital to one’s health. He warned his readers that abstinence all but guaranteed catastrophic illness. According to Debay, each human organ must be subjected to “moderate exercise.” To “condemn to absolute repose” any one organ would upset the body’s equilibrium, leading to illness in other organs. Accordingly, Debay constructed a regimented schedule for marital sexual relations. A young husband was reasonable if he “ . . .exercise[d] his rights. . .” four times a week and gradually limited his rights with age. Debay instructed wives that it was their duty to “. . .moderate his ardor. . .” and to quell her husband’s “fires” (Hellerstein 176).

Given DeBay’s understanding of human sexuality and the advise he exhorted, it is little wonder that married women were not only dissatisfied with their sexual experiences but came to abhor intercourse. Social scientists of the 1920’s, in examining the sexual lives of American women who reached maturity during the late nineteenth century, learned that most women described sexual encounters with their husbands as “ . . . hateful, dreadful, and disgusting” (Battan 176).

Dr. Debay could not have been unaware of the “dreadful” aspect of marital relations. Indeed, he did recognize the occurrence of spousal rape and counseled women to acquiesce, lest they suffer the wrath of their husbands. He acknowledged that husbands were capable of brutality and often demanded sex regardless of their wives’ mental or physical state. He implored women to “submit” as a “refusal can provoke his bad temper and sometimes a tempest” (Hellerstein 176)!

James Russell Price, a physician, can attest to the fact that forced sex occurred with frequency. Having studied one hundred cases of wives seeking separations from their husbands, he found that sixty eight percent cited sexual abuse “on the first night of married life.” He related one account of an eighteen-year old bride. Filled with fear on her wedding night, she pleaded with her husband not to kill her. He proceeded to lock the door and “took her against her will.” The young bride assured Dr. Price that she was incapable of forgiving or forgetting her husband’s brutality (Battan 169).

With no legal recourse, no means of self support and no control over her own body a woman had no option other than to endure. There certainly were couples that enjoyed sexual mutuality and, as one sexual reformist noted, where there is real love abuse does not exist. Sexual discontent was inevitable with the female’s lack of prenuptial education, the legality of the husband’s right to his wife’s body and the accepted norm that women were asexual.
Victorian morals disdained sex in general. Men were advised to limit sexual activity in order to maintain their strength; women were labeled “frigid” for their lack of sexual appetite. In 1840, when it was discovered that female orgasm was not required for human reproduction, Dr. Acton made the deduction that female satisfaction was attained through “childbearing and domestic life” (Duby 339).

Dr. Blackwell refuted Dr. Acton’s assertions. Girls, she pointed out, reached sexual awareness at about the age of thirteen, but did not marry until they reached their twenties. Dr. Blackwell explained how their sexuality was repressed. They learned that the mere act of thinking about sex was sinful and their primary concern was to remain “pure” until marriage. Parents, hoping to entice the most desirable husband, subjected teenaged girls to rigid dietary restrictions and sleep habits. A chaste female wore a chemise while bathing and closed her eyes while changing her clothes. Dr. Blackwell insisted that wives earned the label “frigid” not because they were born sexually unresponsive but as a result of their upbringing (Duby 339-40).

Societal boundaries covered every base in degrading and denying female sexuality. Dr. Debay went so far as to intimidate any female who may not have been completely indoctrinated. Should early teachings fail to completely retard sexual stirrings and masturbation ensued, Dr. Debay counseled that a women may predispose herself to a dread disease, “leukorrhea”&sup4; Hellerstein 175).

Englishman, Dr. William Acton, writing on female sexuality blamed the female’s lack of sexual passion for male impotence. According to Acton, the unfortunate husband, endowed with strong sexual desires, but frequently “ . . . debarred the privileges of marriage . . . ” ultimately suffers impotence. Acton maintained that most females never felt any sexual excitement whatsoever and recommended that women strive to overcome their “natural repugnance for cohabitation” so as to salvage male health (Hellerstein 178-9).

The male right to cohabitation was frequently a hellish experience for the female. “Free Lovers,” an 1850’s association of sexual radicals who sought “love reform” through the reconstruction of the emotional lives of both men and women, collected the personal accounts of everyday men and women. Moses Harmen, a Free Lovers advocate attested that, “in letter after letter” he learned of “humanity in its worst aspect.” According to Harmen, the abuse of married women by “exceptional villains” (their husbands) was brought to his attention continuously. The perpetrators of the said barbarism were not outcasts but were members of accepted society “who hide behind the facades of domestic respectability” (Battan 169-70).

Elizabeth Blackwell&sup5; in 1849 became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Dr. Blackwell practiced gynecology and obstetrics for five decades. She accused her male counterparts, Drs. Acton and Debay, of such narrow mindedness concerning female sexuality that they suffered a “misconception of the meaning of human sex in its entirety” (Hellerstein 180).

Dr. Blackwell eloquently reprimanded Drs. Acton and Debay, pointing out that heightened sexual sensation in the female is developed through the mind. Dr. Blackwell reminded husbands that wives, contrary to the paternalistic&sup6; view, are capable of and do relish sexual passion. It comes as a revelation to men, according to Dr. Blackwell, that there is a “mental element in sexual passion” for females. This “mental element,” love between the sexes, is the “highest and mightiest form of human sexual passion” and distinguishes human love from animal sex (Hellerstein 181).

Katharine Berment Davis conducted a study of one thousand women who enjoyed their sexual relations. She found that they frequently emphasized “unselfishness and consideration” on the part of their husbands and “mental unity . . . which accompanied physical pleasure” (Battan 176). While most of the women studied were born before 1890, Berment’s study, completed in 1929, was too late to have an effect on the typical married Victorian woman of the mid to late 1800’s. Her study reveals the fact that most medical professionals committed serious error in condemning women to an unrewarding, submissive and all too often abusive sex life. The erroneous propagation that females were incapable of passion remanded women to a married life of sexual abasement that often escalated into outright rape.

The sexually abused wife was without refuge. She relinquished all rights to her body at the marriage altar. As early as the 1600’s, jurists made it clear that husbands were entitled to the “privileges of marriage.” Michael Hale, who was Chief Justice in England during the seventeenth century, said a husband could not be guilty of raping his wife, "for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto the husband which she cannot retract” (National Center for Victims of Crime).

Not until the late 1970’s did women succeed in drawing positive attention to their plight. The first spousal rape law in the United States was passed in 1979 but was often considered a misdemeanor and treated as a distinctly different offense than that of non-spousal rape. State courts did not equate the penalties for spousal rape with other forms of rape until ten years ago.

The sexual conventions of the Victorian era left a legacy that haunts women to this day. While we have spousal rape laws in all states, obstacles remain for women who charge their husbands with forced sex. Some states place time constraints on the complainant. For example, in Illinois, "prosecution of a spouse . . . is barred unless the victim report[s] such offense . . . within 30 days.” Other states impose exceptions to their spousal rape provisions. In Tennessee rape or sexual battery of a spouse can be claimed only in cases where the offender is armed with a deadly weapon. In some states the prosecution of sexual acts, other than penetration, are precluded for spouses. For example, in Kansas, sexual battery is defined as "the intentional touching of the person of another . . . who is not the spouse of the offender” (National Center).

The most common approach to implementing spousal rape laws was to simply eliminate the spousal exemption clause in states’ existing rape laws. Legislators’ greatest error was in failing to add language that would allow the prosecution of sexual battery in marriage.

It has been two hundred years since Drs. DeBay and Acton espoused their learned findings on the asexuality of females and entitlements of men. The damage they and others like them incurred has yet to be completely undone. Spousal rape laws have yet to be fully tested and are still in the process of revision in many states. Some states, like Ohio and Kansas, have enacted weak and limited spousal rape laws. Several sexual acts, considered criminal outside marriage, are still perfectly legal inside marriage. Although the Victorian era is long over, its remnants have caused possible irreparable harm to sexuality in our society. The vast majority of our lawmakers are still men and our laws are such that women do not yet have full rights to their bodies.


1. James F. Battan heads the Department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.
2. Dr. DeBay’s “Hygiene et Physiologie du Marriage” was originally published in 1849.
3. According to the Oxford English Dictionary: A woman’s loose fitting undergarment or dress hanging straight from the shoulders.
4. According to the Oxford English Dictionary: Leukovirus: Any of a group of retroviruses which cause tumors in mammals.
Elizabeth Blackwell’s “On the Abuses of Sex-II Fornication,” Essays in Medical Sociology was first published in 1902.
5. Paternalistic: “ A loosely defined term which is often attached to social relationships within which the dominant partner adopts an attitude and set of practices that suggest provident fostering care for his or her subordinates” (Dictionary of Sociology 483).

Works Cited

Battan, Jesse F. “The ‘Rights’ of Husbands and the ‘Duties’ of Wives: Power and Desire in the American Bedroom, 1850-1910.” Journal of Family History 24 (April 1999): 165-86

Duby, Georges and Perrot, Michelle, eds. A History of Women: Emerging Feminism From Revolution to World War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Jones, Wendy. “Feminism, Fiction, and Contract Theory: Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right.” Criticism XXXVI (Summer 1994): 401-14 Hellerstein, Erna Olafson, Hume, Leslie Parker, and Offen, Karen M., eds. Victorian Women; A Documentary Account of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth- Century England, France, and the United States. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981

Marshall, Gordon, ed. Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

National Center for Victims of Crime. Public Policy Issues: “Spousal Rape Laws: 20 Years Later.” 27 March 2002 <>.

Perkin, Joan. Victorian Women. New York: New York University Press, 1993

Vicinus, Martha, ed. A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977 Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000

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