“Fulfilling the Essentials of Woman’s Being”: How the 1851 British Census Legitimized Victorian Misogyny
University of Utah
Published in Utah Historical Review, Vol IV.
In its 1851 census, England recorded for the first time the marital status of its citizens. The result produced statistical “proof” that women not only outnumbered men by 500,000, but that two million of them were unmarried. Although some had previously expressed concern over the declining marriage rate, the census used concrete numbers to create what most Victorians automatically accepted as a new state of reality. “Superfluous women” suddenly became a problem of such magnitude that debate over what to do with them continued on into the next century, with many supporting their emigration to the colonies. This extreme reaction was justified by the commonly accepted belief that middle class single women were unproductive drains on society, as their class and mode of education were not conducive to earning a living. In this paper I will argue that this belief was not only problematic on a purely logistical level, but that those who argued for the women’s exile on economic grounds were merely using the census as an empirical means to legitimize the deep misogyny that pervaded every level of British Victorian life. For instance, instead of eliminating the problem by simply providing single women with educational and professional opportunities, British feminists ended up creating emigration societies out of “sheer despair” of convincing anyone that women could contribute if given a chance. This was especially galling given that Britain was importing significant numbers of foreigners at the time to fulfill the constant demand for labor. Emigration societies continued to tell single women that they were desperately needed in the colonies, even though it became clear within a very short time that the colonists had no place for upper class women who refused to get their hands dirty. Little to no attention was paid to the corresponding number of unmarried men, many of whom were admired for leading lives of leisure, with only nominal professions and often contracting great amounts of debt. Working class women were not considered redundant because, in the words of a contemporary commentator, “they fulfill both essentials of woman’s being; they are supported by, and they minister to, men.” With these and other points, I intend to argue that the 1851 census created a cultural map by which the boundaries of Englishness were redefined for single women. Thus, the census can be seen as both a facilitator and the creator of a renegotiated identity for all English women, which eventually led to monumental changes in both their lives and the lives of colonial women.