A Peep into the Lives of Some Nineteenth-Century Berkshire Women

Newbury Branch meeting Wed 8th March 2017

Speaker: Lin Ricketts

The talk is based on the dissertation which Lin Ricketts produced for her masters’ degree at the University of Strathclyde, examining the role and status of the women of the period, as laid down by men, the law and general social expectation.

         As a rural county with few natural resources, Berkshire’s nineteenth-century economy reflected relatively little of the Industrial Revolution. Local industries tended to be agriculture-based, ie, clothing, brewing, wool, bulbs and biscuits.

         The county’s demography consistently showed women to outnumber men, but few disputed that a women’s place was in the home. Middle-class women were not expected to work, but the few who did occupy themselves outside the home tended to work for charities. Working-class women were to be found in agriculture, laundry, dressmaking and nursing.

         The general presumption of female weakness was illustrated by the convention that they did not attend funerals, because they could not cope with public grief. In law a married woman had no status, all her possessions and earnings being transferred to her husband on marriage. She could not take legal action or write her own will.

         Childless women were pitied, but spinsters had higher legal status. the 1861 census found 63 per cent of females over 15 as unmarried.

         Art and literature of the time mirrored reality, and Queen Victoria was a champion of the status quo.

         Liberal thinkers promoted education for girls, and the more radical end of the political spectrum viewed women as trapped in domestic slavery.

         A handful of women proved to be exceptions to the stereotype, such as the daughter of Edward Loveden who defied her father to make a successful and eventually wealthy marriage, and Eliza Langley who founded the London Road Bookshop in Reading.

         

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