The National Archives Learning Curve | Victorian Britain | Divided Nation

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Were men and women equal in Victorian Britain?

The Royal Family at the Great Exhibition (V&A Picture Library) *


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Source 1:
Ragged school

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Source 3:
Report on
women in mines

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Source 5:

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Source 7:
Article on
women's work
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Source 9:
Disraeli on
votes for women
Look at the opening of the Great Exhibition. Did you notice anything unusual? How many women did you spot in the crowd? There was the Queen of course and the other members of the royal family, the Princesses Victoria, Alice and Helena and their ladies-in-waiting were all there. But are there any other women? There are some women looking down from the back of the balcony. But why were they tucked away like this? It looks as though they were less important than men. So what was women's status in 1851?

In many different ways women were regarded as second class, even though Queen Victoria had been on the throne for fourteen years and few people would have dared to argue with her.

No women could vote, and this would not change until 1918. There were no important female political figures, apart from the Queen herself and almost all the major reforms during the nineteenth century were carried out by men. Queen Victoria was also a determined opponent of 'votes for women', which she described a 'mad, wicked folly'.

At work, women had few opportunities. Work in textile factories was one of the few that women had, the other main one was domestic service, which became even more important in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Women's legal rights were also restricted. In 1851 a woman could not even be the legal guardian of her own children and could not retain her own property after marriage. This led to unscrupulous men trying to run away with rich heiresses and take their fortunes.

Middle class women usually did not work. Their role in the family was to supervise the household and support their husbands. The great majority of women seem to have accepted this role.

But, despite all of these disadvantages, there were signs that women were beginning to demand and achieve some forms of equality. Many of the leading novelists of the first half of the nineteenth century were women. In the field of medicine, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Blackwell and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson all made important breakthroughs. In the second half of the century women began to demand the vote and the leaders of the suffrage movements were all female. The first leader was Lydia Becker, but the most famous was Emmeline Pankhurst.

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Source 2:
Report on
working women

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Source 4:
Report on
children in mines

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Source 6:
Servants' wages,

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Source 8:
Men & women's
wages, 1906