The “Angel in the house”: How typical was she of the 19th century ?
In his poem published in 1854, an ode to his wife Emily Augusta Andrews, Coventry Patmore portrays his idealised version of womanhood. The idea of domesticity and separate spheres for women and men is central throughout the poem. The poem‘s influence in the 19th century and beyond is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the idiom “Angel in the House” has become the epithet for the 19th century woman.
But how representative was this ideal of real women living in the 19th century? This issue invites a series of questions: How successful was the ideology of the separate spheres to shape and influence women’s lives? Whether contemporary women had been in agreement or at odds with its principles, to what extent had they internalised the values of domesticity for themselves? How and how much were their lives affected by it? Were women influenced by the ideology of the separate spheres differently depending on their social class, age, marital status? Apart from propaganda, what other tools did Patriarchy use to ensure women’s compliance? Is the ideology of separate spheres an accurate and useful framework to understand women’s lives in the 19th century?
To address these questions and find out more about the specific nature of women’s oppression in the 19th century, it is necessary to confront the ideal with the reality of women’s experiences. This essay will investigate how the ideal took hold and some of the ways the ideology of separate spheres has been enforced on women, looking at areas such as the influence of religion, the construction of the middle class, the struggle for the vote for middle-class and the working-class men, changes in the law, mental health institutions and prostitution. The ideal will then be compared with what we know of women’s lives, their work, the diverse activities women were involved in, from charitable work, campaigns, political activism…
The “Angel in the house” is the archetype of the ideal woman every man ought to have in their home. She represents perfect femininity as 19th century patriarchy described it. She is the product of the separate spheres ideology which classified men and women as not only fundamentally different but profoundly unequal; ascribing qualities to each sex that would define men’s and women’s role in society, their behaviour, the kind of work they would be able to perform, and their relationship to each other. As men were thought to be naturally superior to women; assertive, dominant, active; their role was as leaders, out in the world, working, building society and creating wealth…. Deirdre Beddoe’s  determines that in contrast, 19th century’s cultural productions consistently portray women as inferior to men, physically and mentally frail, passive, intellectually mediocre. Women were not expected to have the same activities as men and certainly not to compete in the same field of paid employment. The sphere that was appropriate for them was the home and women’s role was strictly restricted to that of wife and mother; a servant of men, “naturally” inclined to sacrifice herself in order to look after others. Within that role women were expected to be deeply religious, sexually pure, dependant and submissive to their husbands who were women’s true master. Beddoe’ believes that images are a powerful way to enforce ideology. A successful “Perfect Lady” had internalised the message those images conveyed.
Jeanne Peterson demonstrates that patriarchal historians have long described 19th century women as the “Angel in the house” applying her attributes to real women, turning them into single-faceted stereotypes. Feminist historians have questioned the use of the term “Angel in the house” as purely descriptive, and challenged that uniform definition of womanhood in different ways; trying to give their interpretation of the “Angel in the house” as an ideology and analysing how it related to women of that age.
It is within the religious community that the ideology of domesticity has its origin. Catherine Hall argues that although the idea that men and women belonged in different spheres was not invented in the 19th century, it is the evangelical movement which was responsible for using the existing principles, promoting them successfully across the UK. Hall explains how evangelical leaders, who were men, worried about possible repercussion of the French Revolution in the UK, were alarmed about the moral deterioration and instability of the country. One of their concerns was to do with the growth of the middle class as a political force and within it the rising numbers of women who were becoming wealthy enough not to work. Female idleness and wealth (even if it was their husband’s wealth) was seen as problematic by the evangelical patriarchs who used the principles of separate spheres as a way to control the middle class female population. Hall doesn’t believe, nor does she argue that the ideology was successful to convert every woman in the Britain into a pious, submissive housewife. Still Evangelicalism had an undeniable impact throughout the country. Hall describes how the wives of the evangelical leaders were indeed displaying a lot of the characteristics the “Angel in the house” is supposed to possess. Hall’s work make clear that the ideology was created by men and enforced onto the women of their community; and first and foremost, their wives and daughters. This argument makes the point that the “Angel in the house” as an ideology is prescribing roles and behaviours onto women rather than describing them, in order to save society for social degeneration in other word patriarchal collapse.
Susan Kingsley Kent’s work is describing how middle-class men and later working-class men used the idea of domesticity for women to gain the suffrage for themselves. As the aristocrats became increasingly criticised for their debauched lifestyle, middle-class lifestyle, with its principles of virtue and stability, was elevated as the moral norm. The term “virtue” came to describe this lifestyle: a male breadwinner, a dependant stay-at-home wife and mother. A man was deemed virtuous if he possessed a virtuous woman, his quality as a man and citizen were judged on how well he controlled his wife’s behaviour. Virtue for men also implied masculinity and the ability to create wealth: a real man was the breadwinner and didn’t need the income of a wife to provide for his family. As working women from the middle class became demonised, and domesticated wives acclaimed, middle-class men argued that in virtue of their middle-class values, they should be granted the vote. After their success in 1832, the chartist movement campaigned to obtain the vote for working-class men, adopting middle-class principles and using the same arguments in the process. It became crucial for working-class men to restrict working-class women’s access to paid employment. The separate spheres as an ideology thus trickled down to the working class.
In “Women’s history of the world”, Marilyn French opens her volume on the 19th century by stating that it was the lowest point for women’s rights. Because women were under the law of coverture, upon marriage, their legal rights as well as properties were transferred onto their husbands. Women were forbidden to own property, to enter contracts, to work or gain education without their husband’s permission, to retain their wage. Lynne Harne adds that violence and imprisonment of wife and children were acceptable ways for a man to exercise his authority if done “within reason”. Additionally, a series of laws were passed strengthening the ideology with legal implications for women: The factory acts 1844 and 1847 restricted the numbers of working hours for women and children and limited jobs that women could carry out, defining some professions as specifically masculine. These changes restricted women’s abilities to sustain themselves financially. The New Poor Laws of 1834 reinforced the application of the law of coverture by forcing paupers (a vast majority of which were women) to enter the workhouse in order to receive poor relief, it also prevented poor women to receive poor relief independently of their husbands therefore forcing the whole family into the workhouse. With the Settlement Law, women could be removed from the parish where they lived with their families to the parish where they were born, where they had no connection and no support. The introduction of the “Bastardy clause” 1834 (diluted in 1939), made it impossible for women to prove paternal filiations thus impossible to receive financial support from the father of their children. The “Bastardy clause” placed the blame entirely on women for extra-marital intercourse and its consequences by making women solely responsible for their children financially. The implementations of these new laws impacted on women: Increasingly women choices were between getting married, giving up rights, possessions and earning, becoming the possession of a husband and being confined in the domestic sphere on the one hand; or on the other hand refusing to marry and having to provide for themselves and their children in an ever shrinking market that favoured men in terms of working hours and pay rate, or failing that being sent to the workhouse. It’s clear that this model promoted marriage. Faced with these options, it is not surprising that “marriage became the norm by far for the majority of women” and that women stopped working en masses. The fact that women may have disagreed about the domestic ideology becomes irrelevant if it was their only mean of survival.
While blamed that they emasculated their husbands if they worked, most working-class women could not afford an idle life, sometimes as the main earner of the household, to supplement their husbands wages or because they were unmarried. But gradually more and more women had to take up employment that complied with the ideology of domesticity. It became increasingly difficult for married women to find employment. Married women mainly worked from home as this was invisible work that didn’t tarnish their reputation. Women’s hidden labour varied from domestic service (which alone accounts for 40% of the female working population), housework and childcare, lodging, laundry, textile, assisting their husbands business…  Kent reveals that in the 1851 census, the authorities considered motherhood as the main occupation for women. By 1881 the census didn’t consider work at home by women as employment. This statement is painfully paradoxical and in sharp contrast in views of the reality of working-class women’s lives. Dot Jones’ ground-breaking study of working-class women in the Rhonda in the coal mining industry comes as a reminder that women’s invisible and unpaid work were costing them their lives. Her research reveals that women were dying at a rate that exceeded the death rate of their mining husbands. Jones work makes it disturbingly clear how much those women had internalised the domestic ideology and how it was costing them their lives as she depicts their sacrifice and the high standard of cleanliness and service they thought they owed their men.
But not all women complied. The huge amount of propaganda dedicated to dissidents is a proof women had to be threatened into submission: The accusation of being unvirtuous meant women were accused of being prostitutes which was, for the Victorians, the ultimate social shaming. A recent exhibition on the subject highlighted the strength of the stigma attached to the “Fallen Woman”, an image Victorian artists have consistently portrayed drowned under a bridge. This serves as a reminder that in the patriarchal Victorian mind, the price of women’s incompliance was death.
The other outcome for women’s refusal to conform was equally terrifying. Elaine Showalter’s study on mental health and women illustrates how wives or daughters who failed to display an appropriate feminine behaviour were at risk of being called mentally ill and placed into mental institutions by husbands or fathers. Clitoridectomy has been used as an “efficient and brutal form of reprogramming“, successfully turning difficult women in to docile wives and mothers.
One of the areas that was open for women was charitable work and it is within that realm that a number of women started to challenge some of the behaviour that were expected of them. Women’s involvement in the temperance movement is an example of how women have internalised ideas of domesticity while simultaneously subverting them for their own aims. Sian Rhiannon Williams in her work on women’s Welsh periodicals argues that women such as Cranogwen, one leading figure of the Welsh temperance movement, was both endorsing aspects of domesticity within her position as editor of Y Frithones, as well as promoting education for women and girls. Ceridween Lloyds-Morgan goes further and argues that the temperance movement may have been one of the building-blocks of the struggle for women’s suffrage, giving women skills and the confidence to step outside the home and to take on the very unwomanly task of speaking in public. Lloyds-Morgan also reports how Cranogwen was criticised and ridiculed for speaking in public. One can argue that because they were organising independently from men, women developed a different approach. We find a particular emphasis on the links between alcohol and prostitution with a special highlight made about protecting girls and women from it. Sheila Jeffreys describes how Josephine Butler used the ideology of separate spheres to campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act. Butler went far in her feminist analysis. She named men’s laws as the cause of women’s poverty, men as creators of prostitution as a system that exploited vulnerable women, and men’s sexuality as predatory. Using their roles as mothers, (and as such responsible to civilise their husbands and children) but pushing it into the public sphere, these women were essentially lecturing men. It is no wonder their interventions were not always welcome by the men of the chapels or the government!
Jeanne Peterson offers a fascinating account of upper middle-class women’s life as she depicts the lifestyle of the women of the Paget family. Her work illustrates how on many aspects, their behaviours and activities didn’t strictly follow the precepts of domesticity. But some of her conclusions could be refined or even subjected to a different interpretation. Peterson concludes the “Angel in the house” as such did not exist. But her account still demonstrates the pervasiveness of the ideology and how deeply it influenced these women’s lives. Petersons point about women’s relationship with money is less than convincing, highlighting how rarely women were in contact with it rather than the contrary. Similarly, her point about the women’s education and diverse artistic pursuits needs to be nuanced. The Paget women had access to a wide range of education and developed skills beyond what was necessary to find a husband. Yet none of them have taken their knowledge outside the realm of what was acceptable for women. Lydia for example, refused a career as a concert player and gave piano lessons to children instead; an activity that was considered more suitable for women. This indicates she may have internalised some aspects of the domestic ideology. In any cases the fact that women didn’t follow rigidly the code of conduct and that there were, in Peterson’s view, no real women actually embodying the “Angel in the house”, doesn’t mean the ideology wasn’t successful. To transfer it in today’s context, women and girls are bombarded with images of top models and celebrities, yet very few women actually manage to reach patriarchal body “perfection”? Do we argue that beauty standards are irrelevant because not every woman is a size zero?
Amanda Vickery in her essay “Golden age to separate spheres” expresses major disagreements about the theory of separate spheres as being a pertinent framework to understand women’s lives in the 19th century. Vickery makes the point that men and women have always evolved in different spheres across the centuries because of the way patriarchy has organised the sexual division of labour. She also disputes that the 19th century was worse in that aspect than any other times, and certainly not than the 18th century. She explains that prescriptive literature ordering women’s behaviour is no proof in and of itself that the injunction was being agreed and strictly followed by women. According to Vickery, women are free agents, unaffected by the power of propaganda under patriarchy. An answer to this critique would be to say that Catherine Hall never argued the ideology was born in or unique to the 19th century. Indeed patriarchy has always ensured its supremacy across the centuries in different ways and by different means, adjusting and shifting as necessary; none of these ways being better than the next one. However, we have undeniable evidence that the law changed specifically in the 19th century in clear disadvantage of women and in promotion of the principles Vickery proclaims to be irrelevant. Additionally, Vickery argues that the domestic ideology was irrelevant for middle-class women who couldn’t afford idleness. Beddoe agrees with part of that statement yet reaches a different conclusion. Based on her research, the “Perfect Lady” image was aimed at the upper classes but reached the middle classes as a “diluted version”. “This copy of the Perfect Lady couldn’t afford servants or idleness but she could be respectable, chaste and virtuous”. As for Vickery’s point on how women were subverting the ideology for their own purpose, this doesn’t constitute a proof that the ideology was irrelevant. On the contrary it proves that women are resilient and resourceful even as they are being oppressed. The fact that women have indeed always managed as Vickery points out, to “shape their own lives within male dominated culture” is not a denial of said “male dominated culture”. Finally Vickery argues that feminist historians have assumed the ideology of separate spheres as a central organising category rather than cross-examined it. She regrets feminists did not confront the ideology and the reality of women’s lives; yet nowhere in her work does she mention the structural oppression women actually faced in front of the law that rendered them inferior to men, and therefore particularly vulnerable in the private sphere. Vickery’s point of view on the matter of relationships between men and women comes out as ill-thought-out: “Assuredly, stern patriarchs sometimes married biddable girls, but by the same token strong women sometimes married weak men”. While this fact is undeniably true, using that example as an argument to conclude that domestic ideology is irrelevant, is illogical: the ideology was in place precisely to ensure that in the realm of the home, every man, even the weakest one, had a clear legal advantage and was in charge of the household and master of his wife under the law. No amount of looking at individual cases can remove the power relationship that is clearly at play when a woman comes into marriage and disappears legally as a person, handing over all the possessions she may own and all the earning she may gain to her husband. Amanda Vickery concludes that it is within the study of women’s lives and with scrutinising women’s manuscripts that we can best answer the question of the relevance of the theory of separate spheres.
We do, of course, possess some of women’s direct perspectives as women have recorded their experiences, provided critical analyses, and taken action to change the law. The fact that Vickery for one, has dismissed the voices of feminists, speaks volume about her perspective on the matter.
Showalter reports how the young Virginia Woolf was treated by doctors who forbade her to do any intellectual work so as to preserve her mental health. Showalter also details how Florence Nightingale famously wrote about how the enforced passivity she was subjected to as a young woman had made her ill and nearly drove her mad. The rest of her well-documented life is an account of her fight to live an active and meaningful life in direct opposition with what her education had prepared her for: becoming a pioneer in nursing while she was supposed to remain purely idle and decorative. One does not need to be literally “locked in the parlour” like Vickery dismissively argues, to be oppressed. Accounts like those do not prove that the separate spheres ideology is irrelevant because some women managed to escape it. On the contrary they prove how oppressive and omnipresent the domestic ideology was in those women’s lives as they had to battle against their education, their families and the law to accomplish their dreams and gain more rights. 19th century feminists took on many struggles, successfully campaigning to bring changes in access to education, better employment rights, securing the custody of their children under the age of seven in 1939, and in 1882 gaining the right to retain, own and control property upon marriage, effectively abolishing the law of coverture, restoring women’s legal status as legally separate from their husbands. But it is within the realm of the personal, when women discussed the institution of marriage, that the clarity of first wave feminism vision is the most visible. Both Cicely Hamilton and Harriet Taylor Mill offer clear-cut views of the realities of female oppression and evidence that women have been made to conform. For Hamilton, generations of women have been transformed into flesh and blood “Angel in the house” out of financial necessity: “Women have been trained to become unintelligent breeding machines, until they became unintelligent breading machines”. Hamilton articulates how women’s relegation in the private sphere, lack of legal status and opportunities renders them subordinate to their husbands, with no financial or legal means to escape. Cicely defines marriage as a necessity women have to go through in order to survive and a form of legal prostitution.
Was the “Angel in the House” typical of the 19th century woman? A short answer is no, she wasn’t. Evidence of women’s lives show a varied range of occupations women were engaged in, as well as a rich story of dissent and subversion, which contrast sharply with the ideology of the domesticity. But evidence also shows that it is absurd to suggest that the ideology of the separate spheres is an irrelevant framework to understand women’s lives of that period. To suggest this is to be in denial of structural oppression which shapes, restrains and controls all members of the oppressed group called “women”. There isn’t a divide between the myth and reality, the ideal of the “Angel in the house” was ever present in women’s lives whether they embraced or rejected it. Every woman had to function within that framework at all times. The ideology of separate spheres was imposed on them by patriarchal institutions as varied as propaganda (art, literature, magazines for women, religious publications…); the law, locking up women in a position of second-class citizenship at the mercy of their husbands who were their legal representatives as well as their direct oppressors. The law also restricted women’s access to paid employment outside the home, reducing women’s ability to be financially independent. Health institutions were quick to judge a woman insane if she was dissenting in anyway. Women engaged in the temperance movement for example rebelled against the restrictive nature of the domestic ideology by their actions, subverting the ideology to step out of their roles, while still promoting domesticity. Feminist struggles and feminist voices are here to attest the ideology was pervasive, oppressive and debilitating for women. These voices are not to be dismissed, they are powerful critical statements from women who have been directly restricted by the domestic ideology and have become politically active as a result.
The “Angel in the house” is a fabricated female creature as fantasised by men of the 19th century, and as such an immense piece of patriarchal propaganda designed to benefit men. All propaganda works to a certain extent. Knowing how much is internalised is difficult to assess and the fact that some women escaped by chance, somehow managed to make the most of it or rebelled against it, does not mean the propaganda wasn’t relevant. The “Angel in the House” was the symbol of femininity, the perfect template for every woman in the 19th century to emulate. It was a model very few women managed to perform to perfection but certainly no woman was left untouched by it.
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