STRONG-MINDED WOMEN: And Other Lost Voices of Ninetheenth-Century England by Janet Horowitz Murray

STRONG-MINDED WOMEN: And Other Lost Voices of Ninetheenth-Century England

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Not all the voices are strong-minded, not all are women, and many (witness John Ruskin, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Barrett Browning) were never lost. But, taken as a whole, they do constitute an intelligent and well-considered introduction to the central concerns and issues of 19th-century English womanhood. Most remarkable is the clash between attitudes which appear peculiarly Victorian--alternately sentimental and bizarre--and others which evince a cool levelheadedness. Thus, in the debate over woman's proper sphere, Charlotte Bronte echoes the approved sentiments of the day in advising a friend to dedicate herself to caring for her aging mother (""The right path is that which necessitates the greatest sacrifice of self-interest""), while Emmeline Pankhurst argues against the sacrifice of her own prospects for her brothers' interests (""It used to puzzle me to understand why I was under such a particular obligation to make my home attractive to my brothers. . . . It was never suggested to them as a duty that they make home attractive to me""). Similarly, Dr. Isaac Baker Brown's advocacy of curing the ""insanity"" of wanting to leave home (or become a nurse) through clitoridectomies, stands in sharp contrast to Harriet Martineau's outspoken joy in her singlehood. Sometimes the contrast is captured in one woman: the Florence Nightingale of popular ballad (""Her eyes beam with pleasure, she's beauteous and good. . ."") jars with the tough-minded crusader (A woman who takes a sentimental view of Nursing. . . is of course worse than useless. . .""). Murray also rightly emphasizes the class differences revealed in domestic life, in education, and work--with the genteel options of governess, writer, or nurse in contrast to the physical labor of domestic servants, factory workers, and miners. There's more to intrigue and delight: memoirs of the first women students at Cambridge and Oxford; discussion of ""redundant women"" (the 30 percent of all Englishwomen who remained unmarried); word of Josephine Butler's campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act, which sought to identify prostitutes as a separate class of women--and rallied middle-class feminists to the prostitutes' cause. ""A radical and imaginative effort,"" Murray terms it, for such women understood that ""the prostitute's pariah status reflected the general status of female sexuality--and even of womanhood itself--as an exploited and despised commodity."" Not lost voices, then, but voices given greater cogency and force through skillful selection and presentation.

Pub Date: April 26th, 1982
Publisher: Pantheon