The Influence of Scientific Theory on the Life of Woman in Victorian England

The Influence of Scientific Theory on the Life of Woman in Victorian England

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According to Suffer and Be Still by Martha Vicinus, early ideas about science and sexuality greatly influenced a Victorian woman's life. A Victorian woman not only had to worry about being everything that is feminine but she also was burdened with ludicrous ideas about her health and sexuality. Naturally who better to inform women of their health and sexuality than men? I will be examining three factors that influenced a Victorian woman. First the scientific support put forth that women were naturally weaker than men. Second I will look at the idea that women didn't need or enjoy sex the same way men did during the Victorian period. Third I will explore the effects of prostitution and venereal disease on Victorian women. I will present past theories offered by Victorian doctors and show how they influenced men's attitudes toward women and women's perceptions of themselves.

The scientific community put forth and supported the premise that women were weaker then men. The reasons presented for this idea were menstruation, conception and the physical demands of pregnancy. In Victorian times there was very limited knowledge about menstruation. The scientific observation that the menstrual cycle and the chemical changes in a woman's body during that time can affect behavior is accurate. However to claim that, "the monthlies were to blame" (p. 44), for any change in behavior wasn't true then and isn't true now. Modern society still blames any change in behavior in woman on their menstrual cycle. The little knowledge that they did have was that if a woman was acting different it was often said that, "the monthlies were to blame" (p. 44). While they did not understand why a woman would act differently and feel differently they blamed menstruation for it and saw it as a weakness. The idea that a woman involuntarily bleeds for a few days every month showed that they were weak and didn't have as much strength as men (Vavra notes).

There were many discoveries about how a woman's body worked but they were not always the most developed ideas. The new knowledge about conception also influenced how Victorian woman lived their lives. In 1845 Dr. Adam Radiborski discovered that the eggs were ejected spontaneously (p. 39). This new data was interpreted that woman's role in conception is passive because they have no control over their eggs, while men's role was viewed as aggressive because they have control over their role in conception.

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This reinforced the notion that women were weaker and passive while men were strong and aggressive. This new idea "proved" that because men had control over their role in conception, they obviously played a much stronger and more important role in conception than women. However after a child was conceived it was "the weak woman" that had to bare the child and all of the physical demands that went with the pregnancy.

Often time's pregnant women were told to do nothing because they were so frail and weak in their pregnant state. George Henry Lewis explained that women could not have jobs because they were so weak from childbirth and that it was their job to be mothers and bare children. "For twenty of the best years of their lives--women are mainly occupied by the cares, the duties, the enjoyments, and the sufferings of maternity. During large parts of these years, too, their bodily health is generally so broken and precarious as to incapacitate them from any strenuous exertions" (p. 43). This concept that women are weaker then men were in every aspect of Victorian culture. While scientifically this was never proven to be true, it was often hinted at with regards to menstruation, conception or pregnancy. Another aspect of a Victorian woman's life that was scientifically imposed on her was her involvement and enjoyment of her sex life.

Women were never encouraged to explore or develop their sexuality. A woman's enjoyment of sex was something that was never talked about and was seen as being more of a chore then a pleasure. According to Dr. William Acton (1865), "The sexual feeling in the female is in the majority of cases in abeyance...and even if roused is very moderate compared with that of the male" (p. 82). This sounds crazy now but when it was written it was widely believed by both men and women. So since women were not supposed to enjoy sex, they were told, "sex is vital for men and that women should put on an act to keep their husbands" (Vavra notes). This made sex for women more of a chore or a duty to their husband then something they should enjoy. However "Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell made a claim that sexual urges in women were just as strong as in men, but because of their fear of childbirth they hid them" (Vavra notes). This was an interesting and revolutionary view but one that was not really taken seriously by many during that time. One of the most outrageous accounts from the Victorian era came from Dr. William Acton. Acton told men that they didn't have to satisfy their wives as they would their mistresses. This idea seems so outrageous because if a man was satisfying his wife like he was satisfying his mistress he wouldn't really have a need for a mistress. It seems that a man should want to satisfy his wife and not need a mistress in his life. This idea of men having mistresses leads to the discussion of the pervasiveness of prostitution during the Victorian era.

Prostitution flourished during the Victorian era and was one of the best jobs a woman could have. "The low wages were themselves the reflection of the lack of opportunity for female employment which sharpened the competitive forces while depressing rates of pay" (p.81). While prostitution was not the best occupation for a woman either morally and health wise; it was the most beneficial financially. As discussed in Chapter 5 "A Study of Victorian Prostitution and Venereal Disease," sailors and soldiers played a very important role in the demand for prostitution. They also played a large role in the spread of venereal diseases. For men and woman venereal diseases were merely considered "a just punishment for moral depravity" (p. 92). While many people with venereal diseases were morally corrupt there was another side to it. It is often forgotten that men who contracted a venereal disease from a mistress or from a prostitute then brought it home to their unsuspecting and innocent wives. This doesn't seem to be a fair moral punishment for them or their children who often contracted the disease.

There was also the belief that during that time prostitution was actually helpful to society. "Prostitution not only satisfied the sexual appetites of the middle class male, it also performed the important social function within the context of the Victorian family of preserving the virgins of the wealthier classes and shielding their married women from the grosser passions of their husbands, though of course at a considerable risk of infection with venereal disease" (p. 87). This idea seems ironic considering that a man using a prostitute was a good thing for middle class woman and kept them pure. By the time she was married and having sex the possibility of her catching a venereal disease from her husband was just as probable as it would have been if she had been promiscuous.

During the Victorian era the scientific community was a huge contributor to how society viewed women and how women viewed themselves. Scientific theory told them that they should be sexually repressed and taught them that sex was bad unless with their husband. However society saw no flaw with men being sexually promiscuous because it was natural, according to science, for them to need sex more than women. "The Victorians' ideas...furnish a remarkable example of the way in which scientific knowledge reflects, rather than determines, the moral biases of an era" (p. 43). The fact that prevailing scientific theory strongly influenced sexuality for women and told them how to act resulted in woman during the Victorian era being extremely sexually repressed. "Clearly, scientific fact and scientific theory were being influenced by the prevailing social or ethical doctrine of woman's inferiority, so even relatively progressive investigators....were governed by prejudices rather than scientific truth" (p. 40). Often times the scientific findings were less accurate than they seemed because there was no physical evidence that a woman was weaker then a man and that her weakness stemmed from her femininity. As a result Victorian women were sexually and physically repressed by scientific theory and their own ideas of sexuality. With all the repression and limitations put on woman by society today it puts things in perspective that there was once a more repressive time.


Martha Vicinus, Independent Women: Work & Community for Single Women (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985).
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