Often in feminist history, the political and social changes discussed are those of women of the middle- and lower-classes and rarely is it the upper-class women. This research task aims to explore the social and political attitude changes towards upper-class women by referring to their social and political positions in the early 1900s and late 1800s — which marked a turning point for a lot of women’s rights and changing ideals surrounding womanhood.
During the late 1800s most women did not have equal rights to en and were mostly viewed the same in society. They were expected to fulfil the role of the caring wife and mother who stayed home all day and did house chores while taking care of the children and the men would make the money. This was manly true for upper-class women whose “choices were limited to marriage and motherhood” (Source A). This was because the women rarely ever had to work because of their financial positions which never left them so desperate for money that they would have to work. This idea of “true womanhood” continued into the 1900s and would persist into the 1950s when feminist movements would begin to take a rise. Women’s literature at the time would also promote the idea of being a good “housekeeper” by selling books that gave advice on how to be the best “housekeeper”.
Wealthy women however had to fulfil the role of the “housekeeper” because they would have maids who would fulfil that role. Instead wealthy women often filled the role of hostess and had “tea parties” with their friends. These “parties” were important because during these parties, the women were fulfilling their “primary function…to ‘display…her husband’s wealth’” (Source B).
During these “parties” the women would often dress up in their best gowns in order to impress their guests. These dresses were often conservative in nature having long sleeves and long skirts. The women would also be expected to wear corsets underneath the dresses to highlight the S-shape which was often aimed for in their clothing (Source F and G). These fashions also highlight the position that women were in socially, especially wealthy women. These dresses were often extravagant and the women would often spend a lot of time preparing for their “parties” before having to change again and again to wear dresses of a similar nature for different meals during the day. The women were pressured to look their best all the time in order to often make their husbands look good and to fulfil societies’ idea of what the perfect woman was.
Because of the idea that women were meant to stay at home looking after children, women were often allowed to go to school in order to ensure the person who was taking care of the children would be able to educate them. However, because of the same idea, the women weren’t allowed to go to college and would be expected to stay home after school if they were lucky enough to go to school because it was often “exclusive to wealthy families” (Source E). Women’s healthcare was also subpar, bordering on negligent, because it helped to glorify the idea that men were healthier and therefore should be the ones to work while the “sickly” women should remain at home. Wealthy women could however seek medical help but because the doctors were male, it was rarely ever a help.
Attention began being put on the political inequality that women faced in the late 19th century. Western activists and philosophers like John Stuart Mill began advocating for women to be recognised as equal to men and to be recognised as “person’s”. There was also an emergence of the “New Woman” during the 1880s-1890s which were women who “demanded rights which their mothers would have barely imagined.” (Source C). This set the precedent for the future of women’s rights activism entering the new century.
Because of the upper-class women who “threw off the restraints of ‘proper’ behaviour in an effort to secure [their] own individuality” (Source D), more upper-class women were emboldened to fight for equal rights. The first major right that women were granted was the right to vote in 1893 when New Zealand first gave women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. It was soon followed by many other countries with the USA only following in 1920. From there, women were allowed to have more equal rights to en like the right to own property to their name or practise law if unmarried.
Although there weren’t any major changes socially for upper-class women in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were many changes that took place that put upper-class women in a stronger and more equal political position as men.
When beginning the investigation, I did it to gain more insight into the lives of upper-class women in history because I realised that their stories were often not told. The investigation allowed me the chance to gain a new perspective on the lives of the wealthy women who are often seen as better off than middle- and lower-class women in history, when they suffered just as much as the lower- and middle-class women. As a proud feminist, this investigation has helped me gain a deeper appreciation for all women, regardless of class while education me further on the history of women as whole.
Social and Political Changes for Women in the Late 1800s and Early 1900s . (2022, Feb 03).
Retrieved December 4, 2023 , from
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