Sophie [email protected] Introduction The Victorian era was named after Queen Victoriawho was the reigning monarch in England at this point.
This era lasted from1837 until her death in 1901. It was strange that this era was named after theQueen as women had very few rights and privileges during this period of time. Duringthe Victorian age a woman was considered to stay home to take care of thechildren and do the housekeeping. Women were believed to not have any other purpose. 2.
Perceptions about women in the Law in Victorian ageThe Victorian Era had a harsh punishment system forwomen criminals. The sentences were very often lengthy and unforgiving forwomen who induced abortion. As shown in many records, the age was not always adecisive factor when sentences were passed. The youngest conviction was for achild as young as eleven years old. Women were also very often convicted of violentcrimes, such as throwing acid and murder. In the beginning of the Victorian Agetransportation was a common sentence, while later on judges rather chose tosend women to prison.
In 1832 the Reform Act was introduced, thisAct changed the electoral system of England and Wales. There was no equalitybetween genders at all. When a woman got married her legal personality wassuspended and given to her husband. This meant that she could not go to courtor sign any legal document, as a contract for example, in her own name and herproperty and income were controlled by her husband. Depending on his goodwillshe received some money for the household and herself.
3. Reasons In general a smaller amount of women was convictedin comparison to men. Furthermore were the crimes committed by women ratherminor and non-violent.Divorce was very uncommon and hard to obtain forwomen during the Victorian era. The only opportunity for a woman to obtaindivorce was to prove that her husband cheated on her and that he engaged inincest. As women were seen as their husband’s property, it was commonlyaccepted for a man to beat his wife if she did anything that annoyed or upsethim.
Besides being abused physically, they were also very often abusedmentally.Another cause was the economic pressures many womenfaced. During the second half of the nineteenth century Liverpool was not afavourable economic environment for world trade. It was a desperate place forworking class women who struggled to survive. It was a city in which prostitutionthrived. But life as a prostitute in Victorian England was very hard anddifficult.
After the Contagious Diseases Acts it became very difficult forprostitutes to practice their job as working the streets became forbidden. Especiallysingle women, lower class women and widows had a rough time. In this “category”opportunity was a decisive factor. Item of clothing and linen such as shawls,pillowcases and handkerchiefs were often stolen by domestic servants, probablyas a contribution to their own families’ subsistence. Another object that wasvery often stolen were all kinds of foods. The usual punishment for this wasbetween seven days and three months of hard labour. Longer sentences might begiven for the theft of money or more valuable articles 4.
Criminal womenThe crimes of women in Victorian England could beboth ordinary and extraordinary, from child-stripping, hocussing, andfantastical frauds to brawls, drunkenness, and acts of utter desperation.Christmas crimesChristmas crimes were, asthe name says it, crimes committed during the Christmas period. An example ofthis is the case of Rebecca Porter. She was a domestic servant in 1864 and waspregnant with an illegitimate child. On Christmas day she secretly gave birthto her son in her room and strangled him almost immediately after birth.Afterwards she tried to act like nothing happened and had dinner with herfellow servants. Her mistress found out and called the police.
Christmas crimes were notexceptional. Every year women used the opportunity or were driven to commitcrimes. Some seized their chance to break into houses or shops, others werearrested for being drunk or for prostituting themselves. Thecase of Mary Ann CottonMary Ann Cotton, also knownas the Black Widow, lived between 1832 and 1873 and was an English serial killerwho was convicted for murdering her stepson Charles Edward Cotton, whom shepoisoned.
Her sentence was hanging. Some say that she might have murdered asmany as 21 people, of whom 11 of her children. Furthermore she is suspected ofmurdering three of her four husbands, probably in order to collect on theirinsurance policies. Her main method was poisoning the food of her victims witharsenic poisoning. This caused a painful but fast death. Policemen started toinvestigate her after there were some rumours about Mary Ann.
She was convicted,but her trial got delayed until after she gave birth to her last child. 5. Women in prison In the Victorian Era prisons were very often large,old buildings, such as former castles. They tended to be damp, unhealthy,insanitary and over-crowded. All types of prisoners were kept together as forexample at the prison Coldbath Fields. Not only men, women and children didtheir time here, but also mentally ill people, heavy criminals and pettycriminals. Even people awaiting their trial and debtors remained here.Each prison was run by the gaoler in his own way.
He had all the power and made up the rules. The rich, or anyone who could pay,could buy extra privileges, such as a private room, higher quality food, alarger amount of visitors, the permission to keep pets, the possibility to sendand receive letters, and receiving books to read. The prisoners who were notable to pay, lived under a basic regime which was rather grim. When theprisoners’ sentence was finished they evenhad to pay the gaoler in order to be let out.Being sent to prison was meant to make theprisoners reflect on their crimes. Many of the obligatory activities had noother purpose than the effort of carrying out the punishment itself. Someprisons even “practised segregation” or held prisoners in isolation in order tokeep them silent so that they could reflect their actions.
As a consequence ofthe harsh treatment many prisoners went mad under this system. Even though thehuge consequences of long internment Victorian convict prisons made verylittle provision to deal with mental illness, or to protect the mental healthof any of the prisoners.Another reason for the harsh treatment was that bythe 1850s it was believed that many criminals were habitual criminals and thusthat they would commit crimes over and over again and that nothing would changeor stop them. Therefor they had to be scared enough by prison in hope to neveroffend again. Political leaders of that time, such as Sir Edmund du Cane,promised the public that prisoners would get “Hard Labour, Hard Fare and Hard Board”when serving their time in prison.Although life in prison was harsh and supposed todissuade people from committing crimes, many women saw it as an improvement onlife in the workhouse.
As one inmate put it, ‘I can have a room to myself, andwhat with three meals a day, and the doctor whenever I want him, I’m better offhere.’ Women prisoners referred to a sentence of a few days as ‘a wash andbrush up’. 6. Reactions to women committing crimesThe media hype and furore surrounding the cases ofwomen who committed crimes remind us of the extreme cultural anxieties evoked by women who kill. Convictions ofwomen for violent crimes may be rare events; they invite, however,disproportionate comment and attention because of the perversions of”natural” womanhood that their actions are understood to represent,raising concerns about women’s role, marriage and the domestic sphere.The local community, therefore, was directlyimplicated in the unfolding drama of criminal cases; they were also involved,in a wider sense, as consumers of media and literary representations.
The veryorganised and controlled response to murder in the reporting of the newspapersasserted and implied the beliefs of those who produced and consumed them,beliefs which were ‘part of a popular and public explanation of ordinary andeveryday experienceWomen who committed murders were called words suchas ‘tigress’ and ‘vampire’ suggest an animal and supernatural strength andferocity; ‘taper fingers’ are evocative of witch-like characteristics.The New Newgate Calendar was one of the mostimportant publishers of criminal fiction in the 18th and 19thcenturies. They published stories of women who kill. Very often it had anerotic dimension.