Indeed, the prudishness of the Victorian woman is even supposed to reflect on modern political struggles: she is invoked as a grim-faced, disapproving specter of the past, whose ignorance of anatomy (and unpredictable attacks of the vapors) necessitated separate toileting and changing facilities for men and women. In the view of the modern left, desegregating the sexes is merely rectifying the wrong committed in the name of these prim, fragile ladies of leisure.
That was her stereotype. This is an attempt to find something closer to her truth.
Rather, they were arguing in favor of the basic inclusion of women in full public life: until these facilities existed, women simply did not leave the home for long enough to require restroom facilities, unless she had a carriage in which to relieve herself.
These facilities offered women an unprecedented ability to engage in public … which directly resulted in the ability of suffragists to organize the first women’s movement.
It is impossible to understand Victorian women’s attitudes toward sex without a comprehension that in the Victorian era, sex was more dangerous than it had ever been, especially for the exact women most famed for their prudishness.
Childbirth was the leading cause of adult female death in the Victorian era, a situation that was significantly worse than in previous centuries.
Abstinence, of course, is a full pregnancy preventative, but no woman in the world could claim in Victorian times that she had been “maritally raped.” The concept did not yet exist, and men’s legal rights to a woman’s body and sexuality in the context of the marital relationship were nearly boundless.
In fact, the husband’s rights extended to complete ownership and custody of all children born from the relationship.
Sex was the most dangerous activity engaged in by Victorian women, and it showed in the attitudes of women of that time.
The Victorian woman is a target of mockery and derision for her unwillingness to act playful and coquettish about sexuality — for refusing, in other words, to act like sex was no big deal, although even a single act of intercourse could foreseeably lead to her death.
The stereotyping of the Victorian woman, then, is patriarchy whistling the same jaunty tune as ever: Women’s fears are unfounded “prudery,” and women’s “no” is a result of deeply-hidden secret desire — which carries a mysterious, erotic charge.
It’s time to stop looking at the Victorian woman from the gaze of the men who confined her, raped her, shamed her, kept her a non-voter and an invalid imprisoned in her home. They deserve much better from feminists than to be used as an example of “prudes,” rather than one of the first generations of women to feel strong enough to say “no.”