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,
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
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.
“ 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).
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
Marshall, Gordon, ed. Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press,
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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This page was originally posted: 3/25/2002; 2:40:31 PM.
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