In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Feminism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Databases
  • Victorian Feminism and 20th- and 21st-Century Literary Criticism

Victorian Literature Feminism
Molly Youngkin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0139


Although there is overlap with categories in Oxford Bibliographies entries such as Gender, Sexuality, Homosexuality, and the New Woman, feminism in Victorian literature and culture can be distinguished from these by its emphasis on individuals and organizations that foreground the advancement of women’s “political, social, and economic rights” (from the Oxford English Dictionary [OED]). The OED specifies that the term “feminism” did not come into use until 1895, when a book reviewer for the Athenaeum described a woman’s flirtation with “feminism” as humorous; however, there were similar terms such as “modern woman,” used well before 1895, especially in periodicals aimed at progressive women readers. Further, contemporary scholars have used the term “feminism” to describe the 19th-century movement that advocated the improvement of women’s rights and opportunities, suggesting that by the end of the 19th century, the “first wave” of feminism had developed. This entry provides an overview of the development of first-wave feminism in the 19th century. It also details 19th-century legislation aimed at improving women’s rights, the contributions of key figures involved in these legislative acts, and the role of women journalists and feminist periodicals in the movement. This entry also shows how Victorian feminism was key to the development of literary criticism in the 20th and 21st centuries, which usually (but not always) recognized the historical context in which feminism developed. As the section Victorian Feminism and 20th- and 21st-Century Literary Criticism shows, second-wave feminist literary critics brought attention to under-recognized Victorian women writers in the 1970s, and third-wave feminist theorists introduced concepts such as gender performativity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, concepts that reframed literary criticism by encouraging a more fluid understanding of identity issues. In the late 1990s, the New Historicism encouraged scholars to return to a historical understanding of feminism but with the stronger theoretical understanding that emerged from third-wave feminism, resulting in more complex analysis of the relationships among history, literature, and gender. Recovery of Victorian women writers has continued in 21st-century literary criticism, but with more emphasis on Victorian “antifeminist” perspectives (or “unfeminist” as Pamela Gilbert refers to these perspectives in her Oxford Bibliographies entry about Gender). With the rise of fourth-wave feminism, defined primarily by its ability to leverage online technologies to reach people across the globe, new perspectives on the contributions of Victorian women writers are developing. The use of different technologies by Victorian women writers should be part of this discussion.

General Overviews

Sources that provide an overview of the development of Victorian feminism are essential to any scholarly work on the more specific topics included in this article. Caine 1992, Caine 1997, and Levine 1994 all paved the way for serious discussion of Victorian feminism by highlighting key figures and themes in the movement. Hollis 1979 provides important primary documents on the subject, and Delap 2011 and Griffin 2012 place Victorian feminism in relation to men’s participation in the debate over women’s rights legislation and larger philosophical issues pertaining to human liberty.

  • Caine, Barbara. Victorian Feminists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

    Classic study of key figures in Victorian feminism, with an emphasis on their understanding of oppression against women, as opposed to the goals of their specific campaigns. Places these figures, active in the 1860s, within the context of early- and late-century feminism through bookend chapters on these topics.

  • Caine, Barbara. English Feminism, 1780–1980. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Good supplement to Caine 1992. Places Victorian feminism in the larger context of English feminism. Organization is historical but thematic, with chapters on periods of feminism (i.e., mid-Victorian feminism) and sections within these chapters on themes (i.e., feminism and sexual oppression). There is some emphasis on key figures, but within a larger historical-thematic scheme.

  • Delap, Lucy. “The ‘Woman Question’ and the Origins of Feminism.” In The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Political Thought. Edited by Gareth Stedman Jones and Gregory Claeys, 319–348. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521430562

    Places Victorian feminism within the larger tradition of 19th-century political thought. Essay is part of the section “Modern Liberty and Its Defenders,” which includes discussion of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Argues that Victorian feminism was not simply a campaign to gain specific rights but engaged broader debates about “sexual difference.”

  • Griffin, Ben. The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain: Masculinity, Political Culture, and the Struggle for Women’s Rights. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    Focuses on the role of male politicians in legislation that changed the status of Victorian women. Argues that “gendered identities” influenced how these men reacted to women’s rights campaigns and shaped parliamentary debate over legislative acts. Acknowledges John Stuart Mill’s role in Parliament’s response but also analyzes roles of lesser-known men.

  • Hollis, Patricia, ed. Women in Public, 1850–1900: Documents of the Victorian Women’s Movement. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1979.

    Still important because it includes primary documents on topics such as “Surplus Women and Emigration,” “Woman at Work,” and “Education.” Part 6, “Law,” should be especially helpful (pp. 167–196), since it includes Barbara Bodichon’s 1854 summary of laws pertaining to women and their children. Documents from Caroline Norton’s case are also included.

  • Levine, Philippa. Victorian Feminism, 1850–1900. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.

    Another classic study. More thematic than Caine 1992, with emphasis on class issues. Chapter 4, “Employment and the Professions: Middle-Class Women and Work” (pp. 82–104), and chapter 5, “Trade, Industry and Organization: Working-Class Women and Work” (pp. 105–127), show that class distinctions existed. Also emphasizes a shared sense of oppression across different classes of women.

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