As previously discussed, religion was an important part of life for many women in 19th-century Britain – so much so that it informed the centerpiece of their identity. Happiness and purpose were to be found in God and the obedience of his precepts. This could also mean religious beliefs reinforced societal expectations of ‘separate spheres’ for many women.
‘Separate spheres’ is historian lingo for a movement generally believed to have arisen in the late-18th century as work increasingly became separated from the home due to urbanisation and industrialisation. As this separation grew, men began to leave the home to go to work, while women continued to stay in the home, and were tasked with ‘domestic duties’.
There is much debate among historians as to whether this bifurcation of ‘home’ and ‘work’ was too distinct – suggesting that women and men crossed over these ‘boundaries’ frequently between the public sphere of work, and the private sphere of home. Families heavily influenced by evangelicalism did, however, tend to expect this division to be part and parcel of married life.
Helen Martineau, a Unitarian wife of a physician, remarked how happy domestic life had made her in August 1823, despite her previous apprehension due to her lively life outside the home:
“It is astounding how I am changed. I who used to enjoy society so much. I do still enjoy it, but I have a still dearer source of enjoyment in my child & when my husband also is with me – then it is almost heaven upon earth.”
Some women were worried about getting married at all, in the understanding that they would have to prioritise domestic work and possibly forfeit some of their other activities and interests. Elizabeth Gurney – later Fry – (a thoroughly active Quaker, female minister, and philanthropist) believed that marriage would mean serving God in a ‘different way’ in which the domestic realm would take precedence. She notes in a letter to her cousin in 1799:
“I have almost ever since I have been a little under the influence of religion, rather thought marriage at this time was not a good thing for me…If I have any active duties to perform in the church, if I really follow as far as I am able the voice of Truth in my heart; are they not rather incompatible with the duties of a wife and a mother?… but it is now at this time the prayer of my heart, that if I ever should be a mother, I may rest with my children, and really find my duties lead me to them, and my husband; and if my duty ever leads me from my family, that it may be in a single life.”
Religion shaped women’s understanding of family life, which – in their understanding – expected married women to prioritise domestic duties.
It is important to remember that belief in ‘separate spheres’ was shaped by an understanding of the Bible which was taught by the churches to which the women subscribed. Women were not simply subjected to these rules by force: they believed it was the ‘right thing to do’ to submit to them.
Freedom of choice for women did not always mean the ability to do whatever you wished or to challenge patriarchy – it also was notably defined by the willingness to ‘choose what is right’ – which, for many, were the principles their church believed were aligned with Scripture.
Thus, religious women found their identity and in purpose in God, and prioritised their love for him above all which manifested in their duties and activities. For married women, it was generally anticipated this would mainly include domestic work.
Angela Platt is a PhD student in Royal Holloway’s Department of History. Her thesis explores the lives of nonconformist families in England between 1780 and 1850. The next post will examine exceptions to this norm as religion provided women opportunities in the ‘public sphere’.