What Millennial Women Can Learn From Victorian Ladies

Photo: Lafayette/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
My birthday in 1980 technically places me right on the edge between Generation X and Y, but my home and wardrobe look more like they belong to someone born in the late 19th century, rather than the end of the 20th. For the past six years, my husband Gabriel and I have been gradually replacing modern everyday items with their Victorian equivalents, and now these historic details vastly outnumber the modern things in our life. Throughout the whole process, everything we've done has been based on a huge foundation of research into the culture and technologies of the late Victorian era. People are amazed at our icebox (we sold our electric fridge long ago), by our oil lamps, and by the antique bowl and pitcher I wash with every morning. Honestly though, the deeper we get into this, the fewer differences I see between late Victorian life and the modern world.

A huge number of etiquette guides were written in the Victorian era because it was an incredibly dynamic time. By the 1880s and '90s, travel was faster, easier, and cheaper than ever before. People from vastly different cultures were coming together and communicating at a rate that astonished their parents. New technologies were being developed every single day, and when they first came out, the older generations often didn't have a clue how to deal with them. Does all this sound familiar?

Rules like "Never introduce disgusting or unpleasant topics for conversation [when eating]" and "Never pick the teeth or clean the nails in company" outline the basics of how our society expects people to act. But Victorian etiquette guides went far beyond this. They even gave dating advice on things as complicated and seemingly modern as how to answer a missed connection. An 1891 guide gives an example that could have practically come straight from Craigslist: "Will the lady who rode up Broadway last Thursday afternoon, about two o'clock, in an omnibus, getting out at Stewart's, accompanied by a little girl in a blue suit, please send her address to D.B.M., Herald Office?" The manual warned people who realized they were reading descriptions of themselves that they shouldn't give out their name and street address right away. Instead, the book said they should make contact through general delivery at a post office — more or less the Victorian equivalent of a Gmail account. As for what parents thought of all this, the author advised them that telling young people to never answer ads like these was an exercise in total futility.
Photo: Courtesy of Estar Hyo Gyung Choi.
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I get terribly frustrated when modern people deride Victorian society as oppressive to women: in truth, it was completely the opposite. The Victorians felt that the two genders had different strengths. Men, on average, might be bigger and physically stronger than women, but the Victorians considered women to naturally be the moral superiors of men. Many of the simpler etiquette customs acknowledge this status. When a man tips his hat to a woman or opens a door for her, it's an outward mark of his respect. Because of their greater physical strength, men were considered to be the natural protectors of the women in their lives: hence the tradition of husbands or brothers offering to escort a woman who had to go into a rough neighborhood, or when she went somewhere after dark. (Naturally there were many, many instances where the women declined such assistance, but it was considered polite for men to offer.) As the morally superior sex, women, in general, were thought to be above behaviors like smoking, which the Victorians recognized as a filthy habit. Men were sternly advised not to smoke in front of ladies, and numerous publications instructed women on the best ways to convince their men to give up tobacco. (I've personally never had to make use of this particular advice, as Gabriel and I have both always considered smoking to be quite disgusting.)

Husbands were reminded that their wives could provide insights into the social and interpersonal aspects of their jobs, which the men themselves were probably oblivious to: "Let your wife fully understand your business. In nearly every case she will be found a most valuable advisor when she understands all your circumstances." At the same time, men were ordered very sternly to stay out of women's business: "Do not be dictatorial in the family circle. The home is the wife's province... It is her right to govern and direct its interior management... [Do not] interfere with the duties which legitimately belong to her." A man who meddled with women's authority in the home and private sphere was called a "Betty" and women derided him as a nuisance and a fool. (After all, what could he possibly know about the important business of running a home? He was just a man.) Equally annoying: Men who refused to be of any use in the kitchen.
"There is no reasonable reason why a man should not be able to broil a steak, boil or bake potatoes, cook an egg, make coffee or tea, and prepare other articles of food should an emergency arise to make it desirable (and such emergencies do often arise), and do it too without turning the kitchen and dining-room topsy-turvy in the operation. Some men can and do accomplish such work, and even make biscuits, griddle-cakes, and the like." — From "A Man In The Kitchen," Good Housekeeping, 1889.

Besides their authority in the home, Victorian women were considered inherently better at solving social issues, and their legacy continues to benefit our society today. Volunteering and charity work were almost entirely under female control. Indeed, women like First Lady Frances Cleveland (who invited common shopgirls to visit her in the White House and set up educational opportunities for the poor) felt that their hands-on approach to solving the world's problems had a much bigger impact than their husbands' mudslinging politics. In fact, they spent so much time helping other people that they had to be reminded to save some time and energy for themselves and those closest to them. I think a lot of women today have the same problem, and would benefit from the same reminders.

Above all, we must remember to give the highest priority in our lives to those we love the most. No matter how busy we are, or how much stress we're under, we must not give energy to the world by stealing it from those dearest to us. As Thomas E. Hill wrote in 1887, "Never give all your pleasant words and sweetest smiles to strangers. The kindest words and sweetest smiles should be reserved for home. Home should be our heaven." A very clear instruction in the Victorian husband's duty was, "Give your wife every advantage which it is possible to bestow." When Gabriel surprises me with flowers or candies, I always think of what sweet tokens these are, and of all the ways — little and big — he follows the old Victorian wisdom.

The Victorians left behind a lot of good advice for everyone. Whenever life provides challenges, I take a great deal of comfort in knowing that the issues humanity faces now are the very same problems people faced in the past. They got through them, and we can, too. When I look back on their records of exactly how they did it, I find tremendous joy in seeing that the good in people, the love we bear our partners, and the ways we can help each other — and ourselves — are eternal. Some things never change, and they shouldn't.

Sarah A. Chrisman is the author of Victorian Secrets and This Victorian Life; she also compiled and edited the etiquette guide, True Ladies and Proper Gentlemen.
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