How Capitalism Freed Victorian Women
Dr. Thaddeus Russell explains how capitalism offered women their own jobs, money, and freedom.
- How Capitalism Made Modern Motherhood (blog article): Steve Horwitz argues that the rise of capitalism allowed for women to stay at home to raise their children instead of working.
- The Gothic and the Literature of Liberty (blog article): Amy Sturgis explains why Gothic literature, which rose in popularity in the Victorian era, should be part of the libertarian canon. She also features a number of books written by female authors.
- Feminism: A New Perspective (on demand program): Professor Jayme Lemke, Heather King, and Sarah Skwire discuss the history of feminism and the intersections between feminism and libertarianism.
Historians generally identify the Victorian Era as the period from roughly the 1830s until roughly the 1920s. It’s rough around the edges there but that’s the period that we generally use. The Victoria Era was profoundly patriarchal. Women were either good daughters or they were good wives. Anything they did outside of those roles was considered to be disreputable.
Before the advent of industrial capitalism, most women in the United States were living on farms in isolated rural communities. They live in a home with their father or maybe with their husband who had power in the household and often controlled their lives outside the household. It was highly believed that women had no sexual agency and no sexual desire. Only men had any sexual desire and therefore women had to policed, they had to be guarded from the predations of men.
It was considered that women lived in a world of wild animals who were men who would do anything to seduce them. For instance, in the Victorian Era, it was not okay for respectable women to walk in public alone without a male chaperone. If they were they were generally shamed. They were considered to be prostitutes or they were called prostitutes.
There were a lot of social shaming, a lot of cultural norms that kept women in the home under the thumb of the husband or the father. Then men were often suspected of being sexual predators. A lot of it was shaming . It wasn’t so much a legal regime that kept women in the house, but there was very powerful cultural norms that did so.
At the same time as the Victorian Era and it’s sexual norms being ascended, we have women for the first time in world history anywhere in large numbers leaving the home, taking jobs, becoming economically independent. Being in the public’s sphere without the protection of the father or the husband, being alone in the world for the first time. This is the result of capitalism, the rise of capitalism. This is the end of the 19th century, this is the industrial revolution.
This is when for the first time there are factories that are employing females, so women can now leave the home, they can get jobs outside of their home, outside of their town. They can move to cities. They can be in public. They can meet men on their own terms. They have their own money. They’re independent and therefore they become sexually independent. That was very, very threatening to the Victorians.
There was also during this period the rise of the social purity campaign, that’s what it was called. It was led by feminists and Christians and cultural conservatives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What they did was in every city, every major town across the United States they would aggressively lobby the city government to shut down the brothels. The so called first wave feminists or suffragists of this period believed that historically women had been associated with the body and with sexuality, which was true.
The assumption that they were of the body kept them from entering the public sphere, entering the sphere in which people use their minds and rationality and reason where there were doctors and lawyers and politicians and military leaders. Feminists of that time wanted to enter that sphere and they believed that any association with the body of sexuality kept them from doing that. They believed that sex was dangerous, degrading, that it held women back, that it stopped them from advancing into full humanhood.
The late Victorian Era, particularly in the 1910s and 1920s you see a tremendous amount of policing of sexuality across the color line. There was great concern that Black men, and in particular immigrant men, were seducing White American girls and women often with drugs or kidnapping them or simply convincing them to have sex or convincing them to become prostitutes.
The Mann Act was passed in 1910 by Congress. It was largely in response to Jack Johnson who was the Black heavyweight boxing champion of the time and he very famously had White girlfriends and was very proud of that and not ashamed of it. This was at time, the height of lynching in the South of Black men who were accused of having sex with White women or raping White women. It was at the height of Jim Crow. The Mann Act made illegal the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes, which included in practice often men, Black men or immigrant men, having simply White girlfriends.
Jack Johnson ended up doing prison time for violating the Mann Act for transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes, which was actually just him driving his girlfriend across state lines. The Mann Act wasn’t very much a relic or a product of the Victorian Age, which policed a particular element of sexuality, which was sexuality across the color line.
In the late 19th century with the industrial capitalism you see the rise of Coney Island and amusement parks and movies and movie palaces and jazz clubs and dance halls and dime novels that women could read about women who had these tremendous exploits roaming the world on their own independently. Women were spending much of their money on those things, which they found very liberating.
Large numbers of American women were doing that at this time and the Victorians were very concerned about this and they wanted to police it and stop it. Capitalism very much was running against Victorianism. Capitalism was very much the enemy of the sexual norms of Victorianism. It was in many ways the solvent, the dissolved Victorian sexual norms.
During the late Victorian Era, the turn of the 20th century, we see both a rise of sexual objectification of women, we see the rise of pornography, we see the rise of dance halls and sexuality in public. Simultaneously, we see the rise of women into the economic sphere and the political sphere and the public sphere.
For the first time in the late Victorian Era in the late 19th century you have women who were able to leave the home, get jobs, move to cities, be in public outside of the control of men for the first time. For the first time in human history large numbers of women are doing that. This is deeply threatening to Victorianism. In fact, that’s what brought down the Victorian Era.