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Victorians were very much concerned with the roles assigned to gender in society, particularly those roles that were customary for women. From this concern and fascination, the “Woman Question” arose, a debate that touched on issues of sexual inequality in politics, economic life, education, and social interactions. Both men and women were torn on the subject; some felt that their roles were divinely assigned and that in bringing women to an equal level with men they would be going against God, whereas others saw the subordination of women as the worst form of slavery that ever existed. The feminist movement began, during the same time, to pick up momentum and to be recognized by the public. “The awakening of the democratic spirit, the rebellion against authority, the proclamation of the rights of man, was almost necessarily accompanied by the growth of a new ideal concerning the position of women, by the recognition, more or less defined and conscious, of the rights of women” (Stanton 2).
The fact is that men could not continue to better their lot in the world while ignoring a lot of women. It was slow going to convince the masses though; the first petitions to Parliament to give women the right to vote were in the 1840’s, but it was not until 1918 that the right was finally granted. Many of the women who fought for their rights in the early period of the movement were said to have “disgraced themselves and their sex” (Stanton 11). Although a great percentage of men were anti-feminist, there were a few, and one in particular, that fought vigorously for the equality of women. John Stuart Mill, in his book ‘The Subjection of Women’, as well as in his efforts at Parliament, was pivotal in the fight for equal rights for women and took a major step toward the solving of the “Woman Question.” It is thus in the 19th century where we see significant developments in the widespread questioning of the place of women in English society. While many women would increasingly demand more political and legal rights and greater economic and social opportunities, the period also saw the increasing identification of women with the domestic sphere.
Coventry Patmore’s poem “The Angel in the House” (1854), for example, helped to consolidate this ideal of the domestic angel, the idea of the perfect woman as submissive to her husband, meek, powerless, and deeply spiritual. In this essay, we will address whether the ‘woman question’ constraints or frees the characters within “Lady Audley’s Secret” and “Woman in White” and how the characters interact with society’s perception of them and the effects of their social rebellion or submissiveness.
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