Queen Victoria: Getty
Queen Victoria, who ruled England from 1837 until 1901, was in the perfect position to be the forerunner for the women’s movement.
But, sadly, the Queen would have disappointed all 19th Century feminists by writing these words: “the movement of the present day to place women in same position as to profession – as men” was “mad & utterly demoralising.”
While the Queen’s words were not released publicly until after her death in 1901, it’s fascinating (and disappointing) for women to see exactly how Victoria felt about women fighting for equal rights
According to Arianne Chernock, author of “The Right to Rule and the Rights of Women: Queen Victoria and the Women’s Movement” the queen strongly believed that a woman’s place was in the home.
She didn’t support the suffrage movement at all; in fact, she was very much against everything the suffragettes stood for. And, while she ruled the nation because it was her duty she also wrote, “We women are not made for governing.”
In a letter written by Victoria in 1852 to her uncle Leopold, King of the Belgiums, she wrote that her husband Albert “grows daily fonder of politics and business and is wonderfully fit for both…and I grow daily to dislike them both more and more. We women are not made for governing and, if we are good women, we must dislike these masculine occupations.”
In 1850, the Queen was faced with a women’s franchise bill passing in parliament. By this time, Victoria had lost her beloved husband Albert. She began a very lengthy correspondence with the Prime Minister William Gladstone, letting him know about her “strongest aversion for the so-called and erroneous ‘Rights of women’.”
Victoria really made her feelings clear when she added that she “feels so strongly upon this dangerous and unchristian and unnatural cry and movement of ‘woman’s rights’… that she is most anxious that Mr Gladstone and others should take some steps to check this alarming danger and to make whatever use they can of her name… Let woman be what God intended; a helpmate for a man – but with totally different duties and vocations.”
Victoria also wrote to author Theodore Martin, “The Queen is most anxious to enlist someone who can speak and write etc. checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Woman’s rights,’ with all the attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex seems bent.”
“It is a subject which makes the Queen so furious she cannot contain herself God created man and woman different — and let each remain in their own position.”
But Arianne Chernock believes Victoria’s words tell us very little about how the Queen figured in 19th Century conversations about women’s rights in Britain. Victoria’s opinions about female emancipation were not public, even though her views were very clear to those she was communicating with; only to a small circle of friends and acquaintances.
Arianne Chernock writes: “Victoria’s comments to Gladstone on the vote in 1870 were only made public in 1933 when the historian Phillip Guedalla published ‘The Queen and Mr Gladstone’ over 60 years after the conversation had taken place. For most of the 19th Century, Britons would have been mostly unaware of the queen’s personal views on women’s rights.”
“Only in the 20th century would they have encountered her direct opposition to female suffrage. This is an important point because it requires us to rethink many long and widely held assumptions about the queen’s limited value to the 19th century women’s movement.”
This means that Victoria has been almost written out of the story of British women’s emancipation. Many historians claim Victoria carried a certain “subversive potential” simply by being a female monarch. Historian Julia Baird, author of “Victoria; the Queen” writes that Victoria was the “unwitting, pricky muse” of the early women’s movement.
Other historians believe that Victoria was “successfully appropriated” in campaigns for female employment and that she was “invoked in the call for the admission of women to the political system,” where she gave a “steady, rarely articulated impetus to the suffragette campaign.”
There’s another school of thought: that Victoria did play a part in furthering women’s agendas in different ways, via her literary and philanthropic activities. She also played a role through some of her personal choices. For example, her decision to use chloroform during the birth of her son Leopold in 1853, was very much in tune with “women’s rights” as the drug was still largely experimental as pain relief during childbirth at the time. And, because the Queen used it successfully, it paved the way for other women to use it during childbirth too.
Queen Victoria and her beloved Albert
But, overall, most historians assess the Queen’s impact on the women’s movement as being sadly minimal. Dorothy Thompson wrote that most feminists found “little help in the image of the female monarch,” as Victoria “made known her hostility to women’s entry into major professions, including medicine, and successfully concealed the extent of her own concerns with the day-to-day politics of the country, allowing an image to be presented that was almost entirely domestic.”
It’s also important to note that the queen relied heavily on her male political advisors; but it’s her description of women’s rights as “mad wicked folly” that will, unfortunately always define her true feelings about the suffragettes. And, that she will always remain peripheral to the history of the British women’s rights movement.
When suffragist Emily Crawford reflected on Victoria’s life in 1903 she wrote that the queen “rather stood aloof from the women’s movement than opposed it.”
While Victoria never publicly declared her opposition to women’s rights, she also never publicly presented herself as a supporter. During her long rule, she made sure to keep her distance from any activities that might have been construed as “pushing the gender envelope.”
Yet, the suffragettes still used Victoria’s image and continued to take advantage of the fact that the head of the British empire was a woman. It’s quite incredible to look back and remember that Victoria ruled at a time when her female subjects – up until the last third of the 19th Century – were denied most of the formal privileges and rights enjoyed by men.