Gendered Futures: The Limits of Female Desire in the Victorian Era

The etching  “Looking into the Future” by the Illman brothers depicts a woman kneeling by a window with her hands clasped, face turned up and out towards the sun, which presumably is the source of light bathing her clothing and face. The pose is strongly reminiscent of kneeling to pray, which would suggest that she is not only looking to the future but hoping to better her future by making requests of God. The specific future she imagines is unknown to the viewer and must, therefore, be assumed or imposed upon her, which relates to ideas described in the article “Gender roles in the 19th century” by Kathryn Hughes. In the article, Hughes discusses the stigma against women displaying their desires, sexual or for activities outside of the usual realm of women’s duties. The female subject of the etching, therefore, has no agency to display her own desires. Even the title, “Looking into the future,” is so vague as to say nothing whatsoever to differentiate this woman from any other. No one else should know her specific desires for the future because anything outside of the home would be considered deviant.

Because of the strict gender roles during the Victorian era, all that was left for women was to dream of a future, with no agency to decide their own lives. The expectation was to marry and have children, and few alternatives were considered legitimate, as is exemplified by Florence Nightingale’s outbursts because of her unrealized desires to be useful. The only option in the limited world of a woman was to gaze outward and upward to God, dreaming of a future beyond a contained life like the one shown visually by the walls of the woman’s home.

This interpretation, however, would not have been the assumed one at the time. The well-covered woman has soft lines forming her face and a brightness in her face and clothes, showing her chastity and respectability. She appears gentle and feminine. Likely, the interpretation at the time would have been that she hopefully awaits her life in the home, or prays for the future health and prosperity of her family. What, we might wonder, would this etching look like were a man the subject, looking to his own future? Would the title even remain the same, or would a man’s entire approach to the future be so radically different that he would take action rather than passively anticipating his life? Would he be making decisions, assertively, with a range of possibilities available?

The article initially announced itself as describing gender roles during the time period and then, to my surprise, devoted itself almost entirely to the role of women, with only a few sentences in comparison devoted men. This idea that describing gender roles can be accomplished only through looking at women reminded me of the concept that men are a blank slate, the norm, whereas women are the deviation from the norm that inherently must be imbued with meaning, instead of merely describing each as normal though distinct in the context of a limited gender binary. I should acknowledge, then, that either my interpretation of the etching or the etching itself conforms to this belief as well, saying that the meaning is inherently altered by virtue of the gender of the subject. I have to wonder whether the message of a gender-flipped version of the etching could have been the same in that era, or if the assumption of male normalcy was so ingrained that it would never be possible.

One thought on “Gendered Futures: The Limits of Female Desire in the Victorian Era”

  1. Really cool interpretation of the artwork and male-female position differences. I also noticed on the picture that the woman’s hands aren’t exactly clasped together like she’s praying or wishing, but the right is twisted over on top of the left, almost like she’s wringing her hands. Perhaps indicating some anxiety, or unwillingness, even though the light suggests a “bright” future? This subtle indication of her discontentment (if it is one) might be something to consider in terms of her freedom of expression. Though you’re right, she’s certainly not free to say what she wants to, but perhaps she could still be rendered into an artwork with hints of her message present.

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