November 28, 2023

The Day – Your Turn: The (suffocating) lifestyle of a woman in 1860s The us

5 min read

Whilst looking into “A Rebellious Woman,” my new historical novel, I acquired some remarkable information about what it was like to be a “lady” in 1860s The us.

The novel is dependent on the everyday living of a authentic female, Belle Boyd, who lived from 1844 to 1900. She is ideal identified as a reckless teen who briefly spied for Stonewall Jackson, when operating throughout an active battlefield to deliver information.

The tale goes that she returned home with bullet holes in her petticoats.

But Belle was rebellious her complete life. She experienced three husbands, and divorced two of them, at a time when divorce was unheard of. Her 3rd spouse was 50 percent her age. When she was between marriages, Belle supported herself and her children as an actress – also viewed as shocking.

Even a lot more horrifying, she often appeared on stage dressed in men’s apparel.

Divorce. Various marriages. Acting profession. Putting on trousers. None of this shocks us currently, but in the context of her instances, these were being functions of defiance that set Belle very well outside the mainstream of appropriate feminine behavior.


Victorian females have been controlled in delicate and not-so-delicate means. There was a rigid code of right conduct which women discovered from the cradle on, instructed by mothers, grandmothers, aunts, nannies, and pretty much all female grown ups.

There were dozens of etiquette publications, and snippets of assistance appeared often in newspapers and ladies’ publications.

You, expensive woman-reader, are in all probability breaking some of these etiquette policies at this really moment, if you are so bold as to sit with your legs crossed at the knees or ankles, or are leaning in opposition to the back again of your chair.

Did you lately have a non-public discussion with a male who is not a member of your household? Did you contact him by his 1st identify? At a non-public gathering, have you been guilty of speaking rapidly, rolling your eyes, laughing loudly, or exclaiming, “Good gracious!”?

These factors are not allowed. A “lady” will have to by no means get in touch with consideration to herself, in word, gown, or deed.

Mind you, these amazingly particular principles used only to women of all ages. The policies for adult males were being more normal and the consequence for breaking them not so dire.

For a woman who disregarded the regulations, the repercussions had been grave in truth. She risked developing a reputation as “fast”, which could render her unmarriageable.

A Victorian woman’s a single objective in life was to be a effectively-behaved spouse and mother. Even even though this was a stultifying existence, it was improved than the substitute.

An “old maid” (unmarried lady higher than a selected age) expended her full grownup existence as a marginal determine in a residence that was not her personal. She would are living with her father until his dying and right after that with a brother, even a youthful one, or an uncle. She would have no cash of her possess and thus no freedom.

Among the the authorised activities were the housewifely arts of sewing and knitting. Ornamental arts bundled drawing, portray, and embroidery. Singing, taking part in an instrument, and ballroom dancing had been social arts and therefore suitable.

The most demanding actual physical action a “lady” could engage in was horseback driving. In contrast to the social arts, this action was done out of doors and largely without supervision. Which intended there were rules galore.

A girl will have to usually trip sidesaddle, never astride with a companion, and had to be guided by her escort, letting him to establish the direction and pace of the trip.

A girl need to hardly ever go speedier than her escort or obstacle him to a race or power him to chase her or be the very first to go around a leap.

The company of using sidesaddle is also well worth mentioning. Sitting down with both equally legs in shortened stirrups on the same facet of the horse was a precarious perch at ideal. This impediment by itself was adequate to guarantee that no woman would at any time be found to outride a person.


In addition to etiquette, other forces labored to management the habits of females. The wonderful attire of the working day generally weighed as a lot as 10 lbs .. Beneath their dresses, females wore levels and layers of underwear – quite a few petticoats, a chemise, pantaloons, stockings, corset, and crinoline.

The corset was tightly laced and built it tough for a woman to even breathe effectively — another way of restricting her actual physical exercise.

To hold out her enormous skirts, an essential undergarment was the crinoline, a contraption designed of steel hoops that was accurately like sporting a birdcage.

It is no exaggeration to say that women of this era were virtually tied up and caged.

Numerous Victorian gals ended up fairly content to be loving wives and moms and qualified domestic managers. But for Belle, with her overabundance of physical vitality, these daily constraints amounted to a kind of torture.


A further factor of existence for Victorian girls that was both a convenience and a curse was the common use of laudanum. This powerful mix of 10% powdered opium and 90% liquor was offered without having a prescription through the 1800s. In the absence of aspirin (not made till the 1890s), laudanum was consistently made use of as a painkiller and was also a well-liked sedative. It was believed to be significantly useful in dealing with “women’s grievances,” these matters as menstrual cramps or despair following the loss of life of a little one, an all way too standard prevalence in the lifetime of a Victorian mom.

It was normally dispensed in bottles just 3 inches significant, compact enough for a girl to have in her pocket or drawstring purse.

Addiction was prevalent and could support clarify why some ladies of this era identified it somewhat quick to be passive and obedient. Women’s diaries in this time period of time make distressing reference to worries about having to enhance or striving to lower the accustomed dosage. It is nicely-documented that each Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina, spouse of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, struggled with laudanum dependancy throughout the Civil War.

In the context of Victorian society’s endeavours to handle girls, Belle Boyd stood out as a scandalous determine. Now we can recognize her as a modern woman whose tragedy was to be born a century way too soon.

Claire Griffin of Aged Lyme will speak and indicator her book at Essex General public Library at 1 p.m. on Thursday, July 29. A Zoom link is accessible at up/tZwtfuiuqT4iG9dOWkrcw81YsqGptnaISjYG. For a lot more on Belle Boyd and her instances, go to