Working Class Gender Roles in the Victorian Age

Much like the previous post, this one is guilty of being the topic of an essay and presentation for Women in History. “Why do a whole presentation on it?” you ask, “Surely it’s obvious what the gender roles were!” This is true, and you only need to think of a stereotypical Victorian family to get the general idea – man works, woman has babies and cleans. However, my intention is to look a little deeper and, more specifically, at the working class.

It makes sense to focus mostly on childhood, as I have only got limited space and this was when the whole gender separation began. Up until the age of about six, boys and girls were treated the same – they even put boys in dresses (something I would love to see brought back now – if any reader has a brother, wouldn’t it be fantastic to see them in a dress!?). At about six, boys went through a formal ceremony when they were “breeched”. They were given their first trousers and had their hair cut, and on top of that, had a party with cake and fun – there was not an equivalent of this for girls. From this point onwards, it is easy to spy the differences between gender roles.

Girls were almost always expected to act as “little mothers” to their siblings. They would be made to look after the younger children, often sitting on the doorstep with the baby while watching the others as they played. Some playgrounds and play groups allowed girls to bring ‘their’ babies along with them, knowing that there would be no one to care for the child otherwise. With the dawn of industry, most women would be working in factories or similar work at home, which meant there was no time to look after the children themself. Boys, on the other hand, were allowed to run wild in many cases. They were allowed to play outside and were not tied down with younger siblings like their female counterparts.

School is another case where the gender division is clear. Girls had much worse attendance than boys – most cases of girls’ absence from school was them being kept home to mind younger siblings. Illness or new baby or something similar meant that the girl would be kept home. Girls were more likely to be late or called out during the school day to help their mothers – boys less so, as the types of jobs they did (paper rounds/milk or bread delivery) were early and did not affect them too much. The curriculum was wildly different – girls had to do needlework, knitting, cooking, clothing, food, laundry, the duties of servants, household expenses of a labouring man and his family, savings banks, the nature of interest and the practical rules, personal and domestic, for the preservation of health. Playgrounds and classes were separated by gender and there were in fact fewer places for girls at state-subsidised schools.

Children often left school for work at 11/12 – unless the family could afford for them to have an apprenticeship if they were a boy. A daughter would usually stay at home on leaving school and help with the house and any younger siblings, whereas a boy would be expected to get a job and help with the money situation. Girls usually stayed in the family economy until marriage – either at home, helping their mother with home-based work or childcare, or as a residential domestic servant (sending part of their pay to her family every month). Girls were obviously relied upon a lot more in the household, and given far less freedom than their brothers. This is made even more obvious when you look at medical studies which have shown far higher rates of anaemia and poor eyesight among girls than boys. This is a side effect of them having to do needlework and domestic chores in the poor light indoors, and also of them receiving less meat and protein than the boys.

To conclude, the gender roles of the time were just as limited and stereotypical as we believe them to be. Women were the ones who stayed at home to care for their children and their men – though a lot of the time, the childcare was delegated to the oldest daughter of the family. Men and boys, on the other hand, had far more freedom. The man was the breadwinner and his sons were expected to follow in his footsteps, becoming reliable working men, while their wives kept their homes running behind the scenes. It really makes you wonder what on earth would have happened if there were not any women around. Personally, I think society would have collapsed.