THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN VICTORIAN LITERATURE
Like Mary Wollstonecraft´s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Mill´s treatise brings libertarian arguments for reform in the privileges of men to apply to the status of women. It was not only the political revolutions of the times, however, that provided a basis for change in woman´s position, but the Industrial Revolution as well. The explosive growth of the textile industries brought hundreds of thousands of lower-class women into factory jobs with grueling working conditions. In its disruption of family life and in its similarity to male labor, women´s factory work presented an increasing challenge to traditional ideas of woman´s sphere. In quite a different way, however, the strains of modernization motivated a renewed emphasis on home and family that enforced the separation between men´s work and women´s work. All these changes brought to the fore what Victorians called The Woman Question, which concerned issues of sexual inequality in politics, economic life, education, and social intercourse. In the political area, it was abundantly evident that women continued to rank as second-class citizens. Like millions of working-class men, they could not vote or hold office except the highest office of Queen (and Victoria was in general an antifeminist).
In addition to pressuring Parliament for legal reforms, feminists worked to enlarge educational opportunities for women. In 1837 none of England´s three universities was open to women. By the end of Victoria´s reign, women could take degrees at twelve universities or university colleges and could study, although not earn a degree, at Oxford and Cambridge.
There was also agitation for improved employment opportunities for women. Writers as diverse as Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence Nightingale complained that middle-class women were taught trivial accomplishments in order to fill up days in...