The status of women in the Victorian era has been one of the major areas of researches and debates in the stream of sociology. The most remarkable reason for this specific interest in the study of women’s status is the fact that the life of women in the Victorian age is closely related to the social system prevalent during the period of material prosperity. “The status of women in the Victorian Era is often seen as an illustration of the striking discrepancy between England’s national power and wealth and what many, then and now, consider its appalling social conditions.” (Answers.com, 2008).
It was an era noted for the power structure that existed in the society based on the sexual hegemony of the male over the female. The role of women in the Victorian period is worth analyzing as there was the social categorization of women based on various forms such as position, power, money, and other influences. There is an apparent classification of women themselves based on their social influence, mainly on the consideration of economical status.
Thus we find the existence of high-class women and low-class women, the former with a social existence and the latter without one. When we analyze the social position of the women who belonged to the highest echelons, we come to very interesting conclusions, which are mostly the results of the so-called Victorian morality and double standards. On the one hand, women enjoyed a high status or position in society which is the result of Victorian social hypocrisy. That is to mean the high position enjoyed by women was the result of a social adjustment in which women played their role. The position of high-class women viewed from a specific angle was one of great prosperity with all the attending luxuries, fashion, standards, etc and thereby commanding the respect and obedience of the women of inferior social status.
Viewed from another angle, the position of elite class women in the Victorian age was a tough call to maintain as they needed to uphold high standards of morality and chastity. They were expected to be perfect mothers and wives (to please their husbands) and revolve their lives around social gatherings. The social set-up, to expatiate the specific case, did not provide them with a prospect of setting long-term career and life goals for themselves.
The Victorian woman had no opportunity to make decisions concerning even her life on her own, and self-determination was not a part of her life. There was clear power inequality evident between the men and women of the age and the status of women was one of mixed quality. To be more specific, the Victorian women were trapped in a system not only with those of superior power, namely men; but also those whose power status was inferior to hers, including domestic staff and younger women. Among the different theories that are used to analyze this power relationship that exists between man and woman of the Victorian age, an effective one is a theory of Symbolic Interactionism, which states that “meaning is the construction of social reality.” (Jordan, 1997).
In this paper, therefore, the most significant concern has been to explore how Symbolic Interactionism provides the most effective theoretical tool, to explicate some of the specific phenomena which are discussed here and how it helped to maintain the male-female power status in Victorian families.
Determination of different sexes
As we have already established, there has been a power structure in Victorian society that determined the social functions of different sexes. Taking advantage of this characteristic structure, the males were able to acquire great influence over the actions and decisions of the females and dominate them completely. Therefore, the male-female relationship that existed in the Victorian period can be best comprehended based on the power structure which resulted in the unequal power status in the society. There are a handful of observable facts or phenomena that helped maintain this unequal male-female power status.
In a proper observation and explanation of such characteristic phenomena, the social theory of Symbolic Interactionism can serve as the best and the most effective theoretical tool. This innovative theory in contemporary sociology and social psychology is often used to analyze social interaction by its symbolic content. As we have already observed in the paper, the social interaction of the woman in the Victorian age was determined not by her personal decision, but more significantly, by various social situations including the norms of the social standards, the relation with the husband, and with the inferior women.
In other words, there was no scope for self-determination in the case of a woman of the Victorian period, and in a way, she was trapped in a system with those of superior power, i.e. men, and those whose power status was inferior to hers which include domestic staff and younger women. Let us remark at this point that man is a social being and his behavior is determined and shaped by social interaction.
Therefore, the communications of Victorian women in the social situations can be best detected by Symbolic Interactionism which “sees the interaction of people as continuous dialogue, then people watch, think through intentions of one another and react to them.” (Sociumas, 1998). In the case of Victorian women, we can find them to be engaged in many social interactions, communications, and dialogues which create and change the social meanings of these interactions. The meaning of the interaction of the women in the Victorian era, as Symbolic Interactionism states, can be best understood as the result of such social reality. “Humans act toward people or things based on the meanings they assign to those people or things.” (Jordan, 1997).
As we analyze the social inequality that existed in the Victorian community which gave rise to the social meaning of the women’s actions based on their relationship with men, it is of great significance that “the barriers of the Victorian class system rigidly defined the role of a woman. Divided into four distinct classes, Nobility and Gentry, Middle Class, “Upper” Working Class, and “Lower” Working class, these women each had their specific standards and roles. They were expected to adhere to these standards alone, and it was considered a high offense to adapt to the standards of another.” (Women of Victorian England, n.d.).
When we consider the social life of the high-class woman of the Victorian age, we recognize the fact that her life was very much determined by the social interaction she had with the males who dominated her actions and with the other women such as the servants and those who were inferior to her. Therefore, the social interaction of the woman can be very much the reason why she behaved in a particular manner in the social institution and the conclusions of the women are very much affected by the way she turns out to be in the social setup.
It is very much evident that the Victorian woman’s social position or the unequal power status of the male-female relationship was the result of the social interaction of the women, and this interaction of the individual in the social system had a tremendous influence on one’s social position. As the American sociologist and social psychologist, representative of the Chicago interactionist school, Herbert Blumer, following the assumptions of Mead, explains it, “social interaction means that the group’s life consists of the interaction of its members. The importance of interaction, that forms human behavior and meanings hidden in it, is emphasized.
Making a decision, the individual takes into account the actions of ‘Others’, thus, interaction – real or imagined – determines individuals’ conduct.” (Sociumas, 1998). Therefore, what the Victorian woman became in society was the result of her interaction in the social system.
A lack of opportunity for Victorian woman
One of the most significant elements in the social interaction of the Victorian woman is that in her social interaction with the males in the system there existed a lack of opportunity for efficient interaction or communication. Remarkably, the woman in Victorian society was very much developed through the different stages of her growth to be fitting enough in a social life especially as part of the family.
In other words, family life was of central importance to the whole making of the woman in the particular age and she was prepared, all through the adolescent age, for the family life which would form the core part of her existence. “From the time she was young, a woman was groomed for this role in life–dutiful wife and mother. Properly trained, she learned to sing, play piano or guitar, dance and be conversant about light literature of the day. She also learned French and the rules of etiquette as well as the art of conversation and the art of silence.” (Hoppe, 1998).
However, a very common phenomenon related to the family life of a woman of the period is that there was a conspicuous lack of communication between the male and female genders in Victorian families. A distance between the two genders, whose lives and experiences vastly differ, that results in a lack of mental and emotional understanding for the members of the respective another gender, was a characteristic phenomenon of the period.
This can be comprehended as contributing to the social status of women in the era. There was no perfect communication between the males and the females in a social system, where the domination of the former was as clear as the daylight, which means that there is more possibility that the issues of the power relation are even more powerfully reinforced. As a prominent principle of Symbolic Interactionism suggests, “Language gives humans a means by which to negotiate meaning through symbols… It is by engaging in speech acts with others, symbolic interaction, that humans come to identify meaning, or name, and development discourse.” (Nelson, n.d.).
The lack of symbolic interaction with the dominant sex in the society results in a situation wherein there is a greater possibility for improved social inequality and the loser in the bid must be the inferior sex. Consequently, the position of the woman in comparison with that of man in the society was affected.
In a similarly important situation, the ‘meaning’ of power in the Victorian age was ascribed to males and the females depended on the position of the males for carving their social identity. Judging others and oneself outside the scope of gender was prevented by the rigid categorisation system in the Victorian society, which further complicated any attempt to distance oneself from one’s traditional gender role and power status.
Society had a system that gave undue importance to the male superiority around which every other power relation revolves. “Conventionally, the Victorian middle-class family has been regarded as a social and economic unit usually headed by a married man. The woman’s role within this unit has been associated with service and dependency.” (Gordon & Nair, 2002, P. 125-138).
Thus, the power meant to be the domination of the males, and whatever part of this power the women expected, depended on how she shared the relation with the males in the society. In this system where there is little room for effective communication between the two sexes, and where the power is enjoyed by the males, we can find a greater possibility of the influence of the males over the females being strong. The particular phenomena, which we discussed, also determined the practical reasoning and decisions of the woman in the Victorian community as she was influenced by the intentions of males in society.
Inflexibility is one’s thinking was very much observable in Victorian society and this can be crucial in the power distribution of any society when it is analyzed with the help of the theory of Symbolic Interactionism. Victorian society was noted for the specific situation in which one does not listen to arguments that criticize gender stereotypes. There was an evident gap in the symbolic interaction between the two sexes, and the miscommunication between the two sexes resulted in the unequal power distribution to carry over to the next generation as well.
There were even more prominent events in the lives of the Victorian women which determined the social status she enjoyed or the unequal power distribution she faced. These are situations that enable us to understand how the unequal power relationship between men and women in the 19th century was maintained based on the theory of Symbolic Interactionism. Remarkably, “in the Victorian era, laws were more open in presenting women as subject to male supremacy by Victorian sentiment and family division of labor… Social sanctification of the home as a place of tranquility and obedience gave the blessing to the patriarchal rule of the male head of the household to control the role of his spouse as well as set apart for himself the unpredictable, exciting, and valued world of war, friends, and commerce.” (Women and Law, 2002).
The rigid gender roles inhibited reflection on the motives of others for their behavior in Victorian society. In a similarly observable situation, the rigid gender roles also controlled reflection on the consequences of one’s behavior or its emotional impact on others, unless one’s actions stood in obvious contrast to the societal norms. The intentions of the woman of the period, as the Practical Inter-subjectivity maintains, were determined by the intentions of other factors which influenced her life, especially the dominations of the males. “The intentions of others often enter into your practical reasoning, even when you’re acting on your own.
Given all the agents around you, you’ll come to grief if what they’re up to is never a consideration in what you decide to do and how you do it. There are occasions… when the intentions of another (or others) figure in your practical reasoning in a particularly intimate and decisive fashion.” (Roth, 2003).
Such occasions were available to the life experience of the women at that particular age in a great amount and they were crucial in her social making. Therefore, we can state that one of the most obvious reasons for the unequal power relationship between men and women of the Victorian age lies in the intentions of the other.
Nature of society in the Victorian age
Under the specific social situation that existed in the Victorian era, we also notice that many of the individuals did not care about the feelings of others. There are various implications to this characteristic nature of society in the Victorian age. Therefore, it is important to note that this aspect resulted in the following:
- an obstacle to the development of self-responsibility, which however would be a requirement for breaking free from the traditional female Victorian gender identity.
- a lack of understanding, communication, and empathy not only between the members of the different genders but also between female family members.
- On this basis, achieving unity between females in Victorian families to fight against gender-based restrictions and for more power was difficult.
In the given situation, it is impossible for the women to actively participate in meaningful interactions with others. The second result of the lack of care for the feeling of others as existed in the Victorian society which is highlighted above points out that the women could not change the system in which she was a part. That is to say, relationships in Victorian society were very much affected by the specific situations that existed there. “People act based on symbolic meanings they find within any given situation. We thus interact with the symbols, forming relationships around them.” (Changing minds. Org, 2007).
Remarkable enough, there was not even a possibility that a joint effort by the same sex, which required social change to incorporate their interest, was impossible.
In a very significant situation, the women in the Victorian age themselves encouraged power inequality. There was a perceived need for several women or girls to bond with the powerful male family members to win their trust and consequently gain more freedom for themselves or to be in the position of exerting direct power over the dominant sisters or nieces, by acting on behalf of the wishes of one’s male family members. In other words, the women themselves supported the domination of men to suit their selfish interests. There was a wish to bond with those in power to nourish a feeling of being more powerful.
Therefore, the women of the age did not find any great meaning in the need for a better and more equal social status with the men of the time because such meaning is possible only when there is interaction with others through the sharing of symbols. “Meaning is created in the interactions we have with other people in sharing our interpretations of symbols. Meanings are modified through an interpretive process whereby we first internally create meaning, then check it externally and with other people.” (Changing minds. Org, 2007).
Thus, in this case, we find a lack of self-concepts about the social system where power relation is unequally distributed. It is possible only through effective communication and interaction between different organisms in society. Instead of an environment for social interaction between the different women what we find is a lack of unity between the females in Victorian families. There was a situation where a lack of communication and understanding between the females in Victorian families is visible.
This lack of communication and understanding makes it impossible for the females to join for a common cause. In other words, there is no personal or self-object in the women which hinders them from social interaction with the other females. “Self-object” turns up from social interaction, then people perceive each other.” (Sociumas, 1998).
In this context, we arrive at an important understanding or conclusion that the conflict that existed, if at all there was any, was one between the direct (male) versus indirect, manipulative (female) power. Direct (male) versus indirect (female) power, which was often expressed through labeling others (e.g. “depraved women”), especially since the female role was a complementary one to the powerful male role, which usually deprives females of the opportunity to exert direct power is a concept that contributes to the power system that existed in the Victorian period.
It is notable that the reduction of human beings to the gender to which they belonged made females (and, of course, males, too) restricted in their thinking, and thus it became difficult for them to look at the world from the perspective of members of the other gender or from that of an individual. Therefore, they remained trapped in their world, based on all the aspects and restrictions which go along with their gender.
The consequence of this specific situation is the inflexibility in their thinking. It is also pertinent to consider that symbolic interaction is the most important factor in this regard. “Symbolic interaction has only one variable: the individual with his set of meanings for things and people… In a way, symbolic interactionism is a liberating and emancipating force… Similarly, powerful groups of people or structure can impose their will upon others with complete disregard for social beliefs. Therefore structural sources of redefinition are ignored.” (Term paper on Symbolic Interaction Theory, 2008).
As we can gather from the foregoing discussions, the theory of Symbolic Interactionism points to the reason for unequal power distribution between males and females in Victorian society. A related phenomenon is that, same as the unequal power structure and the resulting different lifestyles of males and females, the strict gender-based categorization led to a distance between the genders, a lack of mutual understanding, empathy, and communication. These, in turn, caused the lack of social interaction and served as a tool for further inequality of power distribution.
A final phenomenon that is important about the particular question of unequal power distribution is the relationship that existed between high-class women and inferior women, especially the household employees. It is noteworthy that “the 1851 census displayed that 40% of working-class women were domestic servants.” (Mega Essays.com, 2008). A focus on the power and labeling of human beings and power inequality was reflected in the relationship between Victorian women and their household employees such as maids, cooks, etc.
It is seen in the unwillingness to engage in deep conversation with household employees and a tendency to attach scapegoat labels to these employees, if things in the house went wrong, instead of recognizing self-responsibility. There was also a lack of understanding and empathy for household employees. This phenomenon also can be explained with the help of the theory of Symbolic Interactionism. It becomes evident that the actions of people are determined by the objects based on the meaning that the objects provide for them. Interpretation makes it possible to modify and examine these meanings.
It is such interpretations that are included in the understanding of the women of the Victorian age which make them treat their inferiors in an aforementioned manner. “Those processes are possible because of human ability “to take other’s role”, to use and to make meaningful symbols. Symbols used in social context stimulate in the individual’s meanings that are quite similar to result in common actions.” (Sociumas, 1998).
Therefore, in the ultimate analysis of the power relations that existed in the Victorian society, in which the woman was trapped in a system with those of superior power, namely men, and those whose power status was inferior to hers can be best understood with the assistance of the theory of Symbolic Interactionism. In this paper that has effectively illustrated how the theory of Symbolic Interactionism explains some of the significant aspects of the power relationship between Victorian women and men in their families, we conclude that the core principles of meaning, language, and thought have been very central to understand the various phenomena that existed in the particular society. These principles lead us to the conclusions about the creation of a person’s self and socialization into a larger community (Griffin, 1997).
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