Monday, October 10, 2016

The Right to Rule and the Rights of Women in Victorian Britain

Female leaders often inspire a role model effect: their achievements can help close the gender gap in aspirations and educational achievement. But how can gender equality advocates best use these role models to advance their cause? In this week’s WAPPP seminar, Professor Arianne Chernock, Associate Professor of History at Boston University, discussed the relationship between Queen Victoria and British feminists in the 19th century campaign for women's suffrage and legal equality.

Despite her personal achievements, Queen Victoria was no fan of women’s rights. In an 1852 letter to King Leopold, she wrote, “We women are not made for governing, and if we are good women, we must dislike these masculine occupations.” In other letters, she referred to the campaign for women’s suffrage as “mad & utterly demoralizing” and expressed her sincere desire that “woman be what God intended; a helpmate for a man – but with totally different duties & vocations.”

Considered in isolation, these statements tell us little about how Queen Victoria factored into contemporary discussions about women’s rights. These statements were initially private opinions; her opposition to women’s rights wouldn’t have been known to the public until decades later. Few scholars have acknowledged this lag. Instead, the Queen’s personal opinions tend to dominate conversations about Queen Victoria and “the woman question” of the 19th century.

However, despite her personal opposition, Queen Victoria played a central and surprisingly sustained role in the Victorian feminist imagination. While the Queen herself kept a careful distance from anything gender-transgressive, Victorian feminists appropriated her image and leveraged her status as a female head of state to advance their movement for equality.

This strand of what Professor Chernock calls “royalist feminism” had tremendous influence. It was paradoxical that a woman could rule, while female subjects were denied most rights and privileges. For the sake of consistency, if not decency or enlightenment, they argued that rights had to be extended to women. The figure of the queen was very attractive as a point of entry into the conversation. The queen is a fact, not a fantasy, in British history. Royalist feminists could rely on the “wisdom of our ancestors” and appeal to tradition, rather than abstract reasoning, in advocating for gender equality. Professor Chernock notes that these are very appealing British logics!

Traditionalists in this period saw royalist feminism as a very salient threat that needed to be countered. These opponents of gender equality argued that queens had always ruled differently than kings and sought to emphasize Queen Victoria’s dependence on male advisors, especially Albert. They even began to assign a less disruptive past to Queen Elizabeth I, arguing that her male councilors and the male writers, explorers, and inventors of the Elizabethan period were responsible for the greatness of the era. Traditionalists used chivalric language to emphasize female frailty and to argue that the queen was in desperate need of guidance from “masculine hands.”

At the same time, there was a marked increase in demand for a purely ceremonial role for monarchs. Democratization and international pressures played key roles in this development, but gender was also a significant pressure. Female monarchs, it was argued, merely “reigned” rather than “ruled” – they did not lead armies or interfere in civil contests, but dispensed royal patronage in arts and education. This shift assigned feminine qualities to the role of the sovereign and downplayed the monarch’s authority. Rebutting this argument would require a strong defense of the crown’s prerogatives, which fewer were willing to articulate as democratization progressed and the boundaries of constitutional monarchy became more defined.

Once Queen Victoria’s letters were released to the public, anti-suffragists had a field day. In the Edwardian period, traditionalists continued to highlight Queen Victoria’s “diminutive” position in the state, as well as her own personal disdain for women’s suffrage. In Edwardian feminism, Queen Victoria was an entirely transformed figure, from emulatable role model to reactionary intellectual dinosaur.

Professor Chernock is currently writing a book on royalist feminists’ “creative, dogged, and unsuccessful” attempts to appropriate the queen for their purposes, as well as the cultural and political backlash to this movement that has had lasting political consequences.

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