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What is a Woman to Do?

A Reader on Women, Work and Art, c. 1830-1890


Edited By Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi and Patricia Zakreski

This anthology contributes to a scholarly understanding of the aesthetics and economics of female artistic labour in the Victorian period. It maps out the evolution of the Woman Question in a number of areas, including the status and suitability of artistic professions for women, their engagement with new forms of work and their changing relationship to the public sphere. The wealth of material gathered here – from autobiographies, conduct manuals, diaries, periodical articles, prefaces and travelogues – traces the extensive debate on women’s art, feminism and economics from the 1830s to the 1890s.
Combining for the first time nineteenth-century criticism on literature and the visual arts, performance and craftsmanship, the selected material reveals the different ideological positions surrounding the transition of women from idleness to serious occupation. The distinctive primary sources explore the impact of artistic labour upon perceptions of feminine sensibility and aesthetics, the conflicting views of women towards the pragmatics of their own creative labour as they encompassed vocations, trades and professions, and the complex relationship between paid labour and female fame and notoriety.


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Section One Negotiating the Domestic Ideal 15


Section One: Negotiating the Domestic Ideal Introduction One of the most enduring and debated myths of the nineteenth century is the ideology of the separate spheres, the rigid equation of the mascu- line with the public world of work and the feminine with the private and the domestic. As we have pointed out in the general introduction, early debates on the Woman Question from the 1830s, such as those between Sarah Lewis and Marion Reid over the feminine ideal, developed into a questioning of how the nature of woman corresponded with her pri- vate role in the domestic sphere. Having as our starting point Lewis’s and Reid’s arguments for the reconsideration of the primacy of the domestic, this section explores the dif ferent ways in which Victorian middle-class women negotiated the boundaries of the woman’s sphere across the period. Although the separate spheres ideology was never an unchallenged doc- trine, prejudice persisted against women who sought remunerative work outside the domestic sphere up until the end of the century. For instance, the conservative journalist Eliza Lynn Linton invariably argued that any female writer who put her work above her métier as a woman only aped the manliness she could never possess. Linton’s gender essentialism fed into the biologically determined figure of the ‘womanly woman’ which embodied the female virtues of delicacy, modesty and reticence from which many of her literary contemporaries – like Harriet Martineau and George Eliot – ostensibly had to strip themselves in order to undertake what Linton saw...

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