Historical Brief-Lives of Women in the early 1800s
Daily life for women in the early 1800s in Britain was that of
many obligations and few choices. Some even compare the conditions
of women in this time to a form of slavery. Women were completely
controlled by the men in their lives. First, by their fathers, brothers
and male relatives and finally by their husbands. Their sole purpose
in life is to find a husband, reproduce and then spend the rest of their
lives serving him. If a woman were to decide to remain single, she
would be ridiculed and pitied by the community.
When a women was married, all of her inheritance (if any existed) would belong to her husband. Her husband had rights to everything a woman had, including her body. This notion was supported by both the law as well as the marriage vows: “written into the marriage ceremony was a vow to obey her husband…Not until the late 20th century did women obtain the right to omit that promise from their wedding vows” (Taylor, online). Marriage for these women was a lifetime commitment. Very rarely were women allowed to have a divorce and until 1891 if a woman attempted to flee an unhappy marriage, she could be captured by the law and punished.
Women were broken up into three different classes: Women of the upper-working class, women of the lower-working class, and the underclass women. The divisions of the classes were very distinct, and although none of the women in any of the classes had much power, there were differences in the daily life, family life and working life. The worst off of all of the women were the underclass women. These women maintained a very different lifestyle than the others. Their clothes often consisted of dirty and torn skirts and blouses, and messy hair. Deprived of any form of education and respected jobs, these underprivelged women mostly relied on relief organizations and some even resorted to prostitution to make a living for themselves when there was no other alternative.
The majority of the women belonged in the lower-working class category. With little or no inheritance to look forward to, some women began working between the ages of 8 and 12. Like the underclass women, lower-working class women were often ridiculed by high society because their lives did not permit them to dress with presige and class. Their laborous work schedules did not allow for it. Some of the jobs that were available to them were: domestic service, agricultural laborers, seamstress, washer women, and serving the wealthy residents. Women in this category were expected to fullfil three roles: “mother, housekeeper, and worker” (Huysman, online). Such high expections made for a very high stress environment for these women.
The most presitgious of the classes for British women to fall under was upper-working class. These women were immediately distinguished by their strict clothes that consisted of “laces, corsets, veils, and gloves so that their bodies were properly covered” (Huysman, online). These women often had some sort of inheritance passed down to them from their fathers, so they were often courted by men of high standing who wished to increase their own wealth. Even though women were not yet allowed to attend college, these women sometimes received a general education consisting of reading, writing, and arthmitic. In such cases, a woman might decide to take a position as a governess or a lady’s companion.
1. What class do you believe the Bennet’s fall under? Lower-working class or Upper-working class?
2. Do you believe any of the Bennett girls have received any formal
1. Women’s Status in Mid 19th Century England: A brief Overview. 16 Jan. 2002. http://members.tripod.co.uk/HastingsHistory/19/overview.htm
2. Huysman, AnnMarie. Women, Economic Instability, and Poverty
in London During the Nineteenth Century. 1998. 16 Jan 2002. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/huysman-london.html