The Battle against Victorian Values

Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the “Women’s Social and Political Union,” was an integral contributor to the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. Born in Manchester to politically active parents, Pankhurst was introduced to the suffrage movement at a young age. She subsequently married Richard Pankhurst, a supporter of women’s suffrage who supported her activist work. In her 1913 writing “Militant Suffragist,” Pankhurst asserts that the suffrage movement in England, unlike its counterpart in the United States, had progressed past the state of advocacy into a revolutionary and civil war. ((Emmeline Pankhurst, Militant Suffragist, 1913)) The text was authored in the midst of the WPSU’s energized campaigning. The group condoned destruction of property and even arson as tactics to achieve suffrage, staying true to the title of “militant.” The use of such approaches explains Pankhurst’s self-conceptualization as a soldier rather than simply an activist. Part of her duty as a soldier fighting for liberty was a willingness to die for her cause; Pankhurst states that her group forced the government to accept that “either women are to be killed or women are to have the vote.” Her impassioned writing aimed at converting men to her cause. She beseeched men in the United States specifically to consider whether they would rather kill women they respected than give them equal citizenship. ((Emmeline Pankhurst, Militant Suffragist, 1913))


Pankhurst during her first prison sentence in 1908. She was imprisoned for “obstruction” after attempting to give a document of protest to the Prime Minister.

Pankhurst represented a significant shift away from the glorification of middle class “virtues” prevalent in the Victorian Era. During the nineteenth century, female authors such as Elizabeth Poole Sanford and “Mrs. Beeton” authored self-help works instructing women to be contented with their inferior position and avoid leaving their domestic sphere. Pankhurst’s text was the antithesis to the concept that a woman should live to please her husband, an idea which bred anti-suffragist concerns about a man simply deciding for whom his wife would vote. Victorian middle class values were largely an illusion, only attainable by the wealthy and perpetuated by those it subjugated. Pankhurst aided in the eventually successful fight for women’s suffrage, accounting for the partial destruction of values oppressive to women. In thinking about the dramatic differences between the writings and lives of the two Victorian authors versus Pankhurst, I would ask what major social, cultural, or economic factors may have influenced the divide.

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Smiles’ Contradiction

Samuel Smiles was a firm believer that growth comes from the individual; hard work, perseverance, and application all made an individual strong and knowledgeable. ((Samuel Smiles, Self Help, 1882)) Smiles was a Scottish writer who learned the importance of self reliance from his childhood; as one of eleven children with no father, he learned from his mother the meaning of individual strength. When he was a little older he moved to England where he joined the chartists in fighting for worker’s rights. His writing is said to be some of the most reflective writing of the Victorian era, exemplifying a lot of common identities and ideas from this era.


Something very interesting about Smiles’ writing is that he seems to advocate for child labor, saying that schools don’t give the best education. ((Samuel Smiles, Self Help, 1882)) Instead he advocates for students to be “in the workshop, at the loom and the plough, in counting-houses and manufactories”. ((Samuel Smiles, Self Help, 1882)) As a chartist who generally fought for worker’s rights, women’s suffrage, and other very liberal ideals, I found it surprising that he is inferring that children should be kept out of schools and instead should be in workshops. I found it especially surprising because at one point in the excerpt we read from his book he mentions that biographies of other men are especially useful and should be read by individuals. If children are not going to school, how does he expect them to read these biographies? It was a little unsettling that he wasn’t opposed to child labor, but I found that Smiles was a big advocate of capitalism and was even heavily involved in the railway business. A lot of industries at that time (including the railroad industry) relied on child labor.

Is Smiles’ position as a railroad tycoon swaying his opinion on child labor and education?

Defining Etiquette

In the nineteenth century as capitalism was established in many developing countries around the world, the middle class grew significantly. People began to have more money and high society and socializing became something that was not just for the aristocracy. Thorstein Veblen discussed this phenomenon in his Theory of the Leisure Class where he wrote that this upper class consumes just for show and as a performance to solidify their social standing. He also briefly mentioned that women were responsible for consuming and demonstrating on their own behalf, but also to show the wealth and stature of their husbands. ((Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899)) While Veblen wrote in 1899, he was clearly observing a phenomenon that was put in place partially by works such as The Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton. This work outlined what the rules and duties of a woman were in this time, especially with regards to their relationship with their husband and the best and most proper way to run their household.

Isabella Beeton was an English woman, married to a magazine editor and publisher. She began writing by publishing weekly magazine articles for her husband’s publication on cookery and French fiction. She then began writing longer pieces for his “Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine” about the correct etiquette for Victorian society. These pieces were eventually published into a single Book of Household Management, which described how to conduct oneself in a variety of situations from hiring servants to throwing a dinner party. ((Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management, 1861)) The book became extremely popular and the name ‘Mrs. Beeton’ became synonymous with a domestic authority. One reason that this book was likely so popular was that many women were entering into the upper middle class society for the first time. The middle class was growing, and many women likely looked for a codified authority on what proper etiquette was so that they would not make any social blunders or embarrass their husbands in social settings. Victorian society was also one with a lot of rules and standards of what was considered acceptable and not, so having this book with the rules written down likely assisted many women in making sure they fully understood what the proper action was in each situation.

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is still being published today, and while it is now largely used as a study on Victorian etiquette, are there other similar publications today? Do magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens or the Oprah Magazine perform similar functions as The Book of Household Management? Is social etiquette as clearly defined today as it was in nineteenth century England?

Women in the Victorian Era

Author: Elizabeth Poole Sanford. A British female author whose works revolved around women’s gender roles in the social and domestic spheres in 1842.

 Context: Sanford’s wrote during the Victorian era. In British History, the Victorian era is marked by the reign and death of Queen Victoria from 1832 until 1901. This period was marked by cultural shifts from romanticism to rationalism as well as societal peace and economic prosperity; Sanford herself thought romantic notions of love and passion were in decline.

Language: The language is elementary. Sanford uses neither specialized jargon to weed out the less refined and educated members of society, nor language so simple as to hinder efficient writing.

Audience: Middle-class women. Primarily, married women who must nurture their man through the outlet of domestic comforts. Aristocratic women most likely have servants for domestic maintenance and their own elite social norms and mannerisms, while lower class women are most likely have differing, more industrial priorities.

Intent: Sanford’s intent is to teach the women of the middle class how to properly behave in the domestic and social spheres in order to support their husbands and to help them realize their role and position in accordance to their male counterparts in society.

Message: Romanticism is dying, and women now have a more practical role in society as a functioning domestic member rather than an object of love or passion. In order to obtain less romantic, but more sincere love a women must nurture her man by maintaining his and their domestic environment; to put as much of their domestic labor on her shoulders as her sincerely willing, dependent inferior. That remains her proper role in society as well as in the relationship.