WOMEN IN THE 19TH CENTURY
By Tim Lambert
In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution transformed life in Britain. It changed from a country where most people lived in the countryside and worked in farming to one where most people lived in towns and worked in industry. In that century women did gain more rights and some women became famous novelists.
In the 19th century at least 80% of the population was working class. In order to be considered middle class you had to have at least one servant. Most servants were female. (Male servants were more expensive because men were paid higher wages). Throughout the century 'service' was a major employer of women.
For working class women life was an endless round of hard work and drudgery. As soon as they were old enough they worked on farms and in factories. Even when they married and had children housework was very hard without electricity or modern cleaning agents.
On the other hand in the 19th century working class girls began to get some education. In the early and mid 19th century the churches provided some schools. After 1870 the state provided them.
The Family in the 19th Century
Divorce was made legal in Britain in 1857 but it was very rare in the 19th century.
In the 19th century wealthy women were kept busy running the household and organising the servants. Well to do women often also did charitable work.
In 1874 the first successful typewriter went on sale (It was invented in the USA by Christopher Sholes) and the telephone was invented in 1876. These two new inventions meant more job opportunities for women. At the end of the 19th century new technology created more jobs for women.
meanwhile in the late 19th century contraception became easier. In 1877 Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh published a book on the subject called Fruits of Philosophy. They were both prosecuted by their sentences were quashed on appeal.
Life became more comfortable for most women in the 19th century. James Simpson (1811-1870), who was Professor of Midwifery at Edinburgh University, began using chloroform for operations in 1847.
Meanwhile in the 19th century men and women practiced archery. In the late 19th century tennis, croquet and cycling were popular pastimes. Women first played at Wimbledon in 1884. Some intrepid women went mountaineering.
Women's Rights in the 19th Century
Women in Britain gradually gained more rights during the 19th century.
In 1865 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) became the first British woman doctor. Elizabeth also became the first woman in Britain to become mayor of a town (Aldeburgh) in 1908. The first woman in Britain to qualify as a dentist was Lilian Murray in 1895. The first woman to qualify as an architect in Britain was Ethel Charles in 1898.
In 1869 John Stuart Mill published his book The Subjection of Women, which demanded equal rights for women.
At Oxford University from 1884 onward women were allowed to attend lectures and take university exams for the first time (although they were not actually awarded degrees till 1920). Halls were built for female students (later they became colleges). Elizabeth Wordsworth founded Lady Margaret Hall for women in 1878. Somerville College for women was founded in 1879. St Hilda’s College was founded in 1893 by Dorothea Beale.
A history of women's rights
In Britain women ratepayers were allowed to vote in local elections after 1869. However in 1893 New Zealand became the first country to allow women to vote in national elections. The first Women’s Institute was founded in Canada in 1897. The first in Britain was founded in 1915.
There were many famous women in the 19th century. Two of them were Florence Nightingaleand Mary Seacole. They reformed nursing.
Elizabeth Fry played a key role in prison reform. Mary Kingsley explored parts of Africa. Ada Lovelace was a famous mathematician. Marie Curie (1867-1934) was a famous scientist. Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) was famous gardener.
There were also famous women writers in Britain in the 19th century. Among them were Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans). In 1818 Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein.
Women's Clothes in the 19th Century
In the early 19th century women wore light dresses. In the 1830s they had puffed sleeves. In the 1850s they wore frames of whalebone or steel wire called crinolines under their skirts. In the late 1860s women began to wear a kind of half crinoline. The front of the skirt was flat but it bulged outwards at the back. This was called a bustle and it disappeared in the 1890s.
From the 1840s onwards it was fashionable for women to have very small waists so they wore corsets. It was perhaps a precursor to cosmetic enhancements, particularly liposuction and surgical breast lift.
About 1800 women started wearing underwear for the first time. They were called drawers. Originally women wore a pair of drawers i.e. they were actually two garments, one for each leg, tied together at the top. In the late 19th century women's drawers were called knickerbockers then just knickers.
A number of inventions to do with clothing were made in the 19th century. The safety pin was invented in 1849. Henry Seely invented the electric iron in 1882 but it did not become common until the 1930s. Dry cleaning was invented in 1855. The zip fastener was invented in 1893.
In 1863 Butterick made the first paper dress pattern.
Life for women in the Ancient World
Life for women in the Middle Ages
Life for women in the 16th Century
Life for women in the 20th Century
A history of women's rights
Life in the 19th Century
Last revised 2013