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 f...
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... 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 <http://www.ncvc.org/law/issues/spousal/rape20/html>.
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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