The wanton life of the Victorian woman

July 30, 2016

Having not been around in the Victorian age I can only go on what my mother tells me

One of the topics our panel debated at the recent She High Tea was “Have women got it better now than in the Victorian era?” This provoked some very interesting reactions from both our panellists and the ladies enjoying the morning tea.

Having not been around in the Victorian age I can only go on what my mother tells me. JOKE MUM! She’s not that much of an antique.

Victorian-era career girls

Career options were extremely limited and yet, not coming as any shock whatsoever, prostitution was hugely popular and could earn women big bucks. There were a few exceptions—not many though—such as Gertrude Bell, Isabella Bird, Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie.

Middle class women could work in service as a domestic maid or cook, but the more sort after jobs were as governesses or midwives.

The women of the lower classes had a dreadful time. Staying alive and moderately healthy was an achievement in itself.

You could pick from any number of truly crappy jobs: working in a laundry or textile mill; match-box making; or sorting rags in a rag factory. That involved sorting the flea and lice ridden rags to be pulped for manufacturing paper. Doesn’t that sound like a rewarding career?

And the wages were so low; to earn enough to live you had to work for around 14 hours a day.

Sex, exercise and things to be feared

Formal exercise was frowned upon in the Victorian era, which is ironic given domestic staff and the women working in the factories did back-breaking work for more than half the day.

Bicycles were especially feared. In 1896, doctors in Canada fiercely debated how appropriate it was for women to use them.

Some of them were concerned if ladies rode bicycles they would have orgasms resulting in a multitude of “over-sexed” women being unleashed on society.

Obviously this was kept pretty quiet otherwise we may have seen an underground culture of female cyclists rise up and take over the world. Do we think it was male doctors who came up with this theory?

I love the fact the mere thought of over-sexed women was enough to strike fear into the hearts of Victorian men.

It’s also reflected in the infamous fallen women strewn throughout the literature of the time. Being so repressed, it was rich fodder indeed. Tragic heroines such as Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) and Madame Bovary (Flaubert) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Hardy) essentially their lives were all in toilet due to wanton behaviour leading to their ruin and ultimately, deaths. Forewarned is forearmed, ladies! Keep those pantaloons on.

Flirting with caution

Victorian women, having always been the smarter sex, had to be very clever to exercise any independence and they were allowed some liberties.

One way they were able to do this was by flirting with their fans as this was considered acceptable behaviour. I think of it as the texting of the day.

I’ve been asked about this so many times since I spoke about it at the She High Tea, so below are the meanings of each movement.

  • Fan fast – I am independent
  • Fan slow – I am engaged
  • Fan with right hand in front of face – Come on
  • Fan with left hand in front of face – Leave me
  • Fan open and shut – Kiss me
  • Fan open wide – Love
  • Fan half open – Friendship
  • Fan shut – Hate
  • Fan swinging – Can I see you home?

So much simpler than today’s mixed dating messages, don’t you think?

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Alexandria Bernard

With a successful 20+ year career in media and communications, Alex’s media portfolio includes contracts as a radio and television presenter (612 ABC, 4BC, Channel 9 and Network Ten) and as a feature writer for bmag and Brisbane Times.


Alex’s voice and face may be familiar to you from her voiceover and television commercial work. She has been featured in national radio and TV advertising campaigns, corporate videos and has been a regular MC for major events.