The term “Victorian” brings to mind demure females, frigid marriages, and clearly-defined gender roles that kept men and women in separate spheres. But some say that Queen Victoria did as she damn well pleased because her station as Queen allowed her to take licenses that many women never could.
Not only did Victoria form a close (and perhaps romantic) relationship with her servant Mr. Brown, she defied both class and racial divisions in her intimacy with Abdul Karim, who served as a teacher. (Learn more about that “deep friendship.”) However, it took assertiveness and conviction on Victoria’s part to trample upon centuries of firmly ingrained class hierarchy.
Victoria’s birthright made it impossible to confine herself to what society called the woman’s spheres of influence – home, hearth, and babies – without losing the security of her throne. And get this: according to those who knew Victoria and her own letters, she shamelessly enjoyed a fantastic sex life with her husband and didn’t view lovemaking as a nasty necessity for reproductive purposes only. Victoria loathed her pregnancies and viewed them as hindrances to her romance with Albert and her quality of life.
But was Victoria a feminist? Not by her own definition. Victoria’s own words have damned her in the minds of feminists past and present, especially this quote from a letter she wrote to Sir Theodore Martin about women’s suffrage (and in the third person):
The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Woman’s Rights,’ with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety. Lady —— ought to get a good whipping. It is a subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself. God created men and women different—then let them remain each in their own position. Tennyson has some beautiful lines on the difference of men and women in ‘The Princess.’ Woman would become the most hateful, heartless, and disgusting of human beings were she allowed to unsex herself; and where would be the protection which man was intended to give the weaker sex?
The former quote is a clear case of “do as I say, not as I do.” Did Victoria buckle down and find herself a new husband for protection after her beloved Alfred died? No: she enjoyed close companionship with men of her choice (two in particular) without ever again submitting to restrictions of a 19th century marriage. Despite her happy marriage to Alfred, Victoria wrote to her daughter Vicky:
All marriage is such a lottery – the happiness is always an exchange – though it may be a very happy one – still the poor woman is bodily and morally the husband’s slave. That always sticks in my throat. When I think of a merry, happy, and free young girl – and look at the ailing aching state a young wife is generally doomed to – which you can’t deny is the penalty of marriage.
It’s as if Victoria more or less recognized and accepted the realities of marriage, but she had no inclination to join in the “wicked folly of ‘Woman’s Rights.’” Did her antipathy and lack of support for suffragists and women’s rights activists completely cancel out her feminist beliefs, or was Victoria a contradictory product of her environment, nurturing and her own intelligence?
In some ways women of today – unlike Victoria – may support feminism in their words even though they might not represent feminism in their actions. How many of us first-world women have a career and an education, the achievements for which our foremothers fought, and still behave like 19th century belles over a prospective mate? When Victoria wrote to Vicky, “should one delay too long, opportunities for a suitable marriage grow fewer and a woman becomes desolate and bitter,” I immediately thought of the themes in Sex and the City, The Bachelorette, and a host of “chick flicks” that depict women getting the guy as the climax (unintentional pun) of the female protagonist’s life.
Which leads me to ask: Will the myth of the knight in shining armor and how women who don’t find him morph into crazy cat ladies continue to haunt us like it did our Victorian predecessors, or will more women in the future come to believe that happily-ever-afters come many different forms?