Dr. Kitty Ledbetter on Victorian Women: Women’s History Month in the Liberal Arts

Ledbetter on Women's History

History can teach us lessons, help us avoid past mistakes, and inform, in some cases, the progress achieved in contemporary times. Women’s History Month is an ideal time to reflect on the status of women and to highlight their contributions to societies old and new.

During the Victorian era in England, popular genres for women included magazines and manuals. Women of the middle and upper classes were concerned with the management of their household servants. This issue was the focus of many genres tailored to women.

Dr. Kathryn Ledbetter, a professor in the Department of English, contributed a chapter entitled “Regulating Servants in Victorian Women’s Print Media” for the book, Women, Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1830s-1900s: The Victorian Period. According to Dr. Ledbetter, “periodicals of the mid-Victorian era featured articles about using proper etiquette with servants, demonstrating adequate degrees of personal interest, and monitoring dishonesty or carelessness among all levels of domestics.

A burgeoning genre of household manuals assisted the effort…instructing servants on everything from scouring floors to washing lace.” There were distrust and low regard for servants, and these feelings were captured in manuals and periodicals, which covered topics such as the servants’ need to be “careful with furniture and avoid wasteful habits” and that “female servants may become unconscious instruments in the hands of thieves.”

Christianity dominated culture during the Victorian era and drove many of the attitudes and approaches taken by mistresses towards their household servants. Publications proclaimed that “maid[s] must be honest, modest, clean, faithfully Christian, and virtuous.” Mistresses were pressured to appropriately manage their households according to Christian values. Ledbetter quotes Margaret Beetham: “Underpinning the home beautiful was the work of the domestic servant and a woman’s regulation of her home was nowhere more evident than in the success with which she managed this other woman.”

Ledbetter recounts how it was a “common response in women’s periodicals…that bad mistresses made bad servants.” Ledbetter mentions popular publications written on the management of household staff, including the manual “Common Sense for Housemaids” (1853), Punch’s Guide to Servants (1845), and Leisure Hour (1856).

Reviewing these periodicals can enlighten readers as to the reality of those times. Hopefully, we have come a long way since then.  All women, no matter their job and status, are valuable.