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RP8: How did the Social Customs of London Work to Oppress Women?

Throughout her travels in the 19th century, French feminist Flora Tristan wrote in depth about the way women lived in other societies and how she perceived their lives to be. Specifically in England, not extremely different from France in most ways, she detailed how men and women exist together, and gives many of examples of the subjugated lives of daughters, wives and mothers. By way of English law and custom, women were given little room for deviation from the common path of becoming first a bride, then a mother and eventually a housewife.

Tristan first compares England and France. About France she says, “women are proving that their intelligence is equal to that of men, and public opinion is becoming enlightened on the subject” (Tristan 57), this is the reason she is taken seriously as a both a traveller and a writer, however she suspects this wouldn’t be possible in England. She describes the British Isle as much worse, “half the nation is not only deprived of civil and political rights, but, worse, it is in various circumstances treated as a slave” (Tristan 57). Because English women aren’t given much choice as to their path in life, the one most go down systematically keeps them from gaining a public voice. When they are young, they have minimal contact with their parents, and instead are raised predominately by help, saving when their parents ask to see them. Girls are deprived of the compassion that Tristan claims is essential to being a strong woman. If they are bright in school, their spark is quickly extinguished according to Tristan; “the system for the education of young people seems to me appropriate for dulling the most intelligent child” (Tristan 93). This leaves women to rely on men to provide later on in life, as they are not encouraged to become experts in any one trade, but instead learn a little of everything and be a master at nothing. Taken out of school sooner than boys and taught to be docile, young women wait to be handed off to a husband. The life of a housewife in 19th century England could stand to drive any modern person mad. They are given zero responsibility in the household, with almost everything being outsourced to help. While many resort to writing (with much praise from Tristan), the idea of being occupied is frown upon, as Tristan puts it, “not only do English women do nothing in their houses, but they would also think themselves lowered to the servant class if they should pick up a needle.” (Tristan 96). These women find themselves conflicted by wanting to be productive, but being looked down on by society if they choose to do any work, for work is for servants and the poor. If by chance, a women was left to provide for herself and her children, options were bleak. It was not respectable for a women to be the head of a household in this time and place, and therefore almost no work was available to skilled women, even. Tristan says, “finally, since women are excluded from nearly all the professions, when their children no longer have a father to provide bread they are forced to choose among infanticide, prostitution, and theft,” (Tristan 74). This is of course demeaning and there is often little chance of escaping this level of social status, and having a more gratifying life.

In summary, women were not granted the chance to succeed from the beginning and therefore were subject to a cycle of oppression. In the male dominated legal system they were given little attention, and Tristan compares the stereotypical English woman of this time to a type of servant.

Works Cited

Tristan, Flora, and Doris H. Beik. Utopian Feminist: Her Travel Diaries and Personal Crusade. Bloomington: Indiana U, 1993. Print.

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