INDEPENDENT WOMEN: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1920 by Martha Vicinus

INDEPENDENT WOMEN: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1920

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An exceptionally well-conceived study of the possibilities for single women in Victorian England, by a leading Victorian scholar (Suffer and Be Still, A Widening Sphere). Vicinus sees these possibilties as existing primarily in the joining of work and community--beginning with the revival of Anglican sisterhoods and the diaconate. Entering these religious communities, Victorian women ""moved from a world where their largely empty time was filled with casual engagments and intermittent family responsibilities to an enclosed community that took all of their time and divided it into minute fractious,"" devoted to healing the ill and reforming the wayward. Images of purity and saintliness carried over into a second work institution for single women: nursing, Though the first, Florence Nightingale generation of reformers used military metaphors to discipline their new troops, the second generation ""shifted the emphasis. . . to maternal [imagery] while simultaneously strengthening the control of women over women."" Both religious communities and the nursing corps were acceptable because they accorded with women's perceived duties of helping others. What, then, of the first women's colleges? To win over parents, some spokeswomen likened their colleges to families. (Not Emily Davies, founder of Cambridge's Girton: ""I will try to be respectful to parents, but how is it possible to describe college life without showing how infinitely pleasanter it will be than home."") Other women combined personal life with public duty by teaching in reformed public schools. In contrast to governnesses, boarding school teachers were apt to view their work as a lifetime career, the ""best combination of public service and motherhood."" In contrast to teaching the relatively privileged, settlement work, with the poor, offered excitement to young women whose brothers were off fighting for empire. ""The settlers in the slums would colonize the 'natives', teaching them not only cleanliness, but also new standards of speech, deportment, and manners."" More significantly, they demonstrated the viability of social reform--which women then used to press for suffrage. Vicinus detects in the militancy of the Women's Social and Political Union both a break and a culmination. ""The fierce loyalty and strength of the movement sprang from a spiritual self-confidence that unleashed enormous energies not only for the vote, but also for a total reconsideration of the role of women in society."" Lucid, frequently compelling.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1985
ISBN: 0226855686
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago Press