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Author : Martha Vicinus
University of Chicago Press, 1988, reprint edition. Softcover, ISBN 0226855686.


If there is a canon for Western feminist history, Martha Vicinus's Independent Women... should be a part of it. Independent Women... is about the struggle of nineteenth century, single, middle to upper-class, primarily urban, English women for respectability in the public sphere.

Vicinus examines how single women were broadening the definition of the "women's sphere," which was the realm of domesticity, while only men interacted in the public sphere. Married middle and upper class women had few opportunities outside the home. Unmarried women had even fewer opportunities. They were "condemned" to being the celibate spinster. Victorian women existed to embellish the existence of others - "the others" being mainly men. There were three roles for women in Victorian society: 1) The Ideal Mother and Wife; 2) the Prostitute; 3) the Single, Celibate Spinster. Only the first two were useful to society. Middle and upper class single women could not be mothers or prostitutes. They were redundant.

The bulk of Independent Women... is an examination of different all-female institutions that furthered or tried to further women's natural, maternal instincts into some sort of respectable public service role and to create a surrogate family for women who's own families were not supportive. Women wanted to find meaning in their lives, fill their days, and increase the presence of women in public spaces but in an acceptable fashion. Single women were encouraged to nurture their "maternal instincts" by doing good works for their local town or parish.

Vicinus discusses the professionalization of nursing and Florence Nightingale as a role model for young women. Vicinus, who has also authored a biography of Nightingale, devotes quite a bit of space to the famed nurse of the Crimean War. Nightingale, who helped revolutionize hospital care, was one of the most important role models for mid-nineteenth century single women because she had a successful career while still remaining a proper Victorian lady.

Vicinus also analyses female higher education, which was key to feminists' plans for better opportunities. However, Vicinus concentrates on the emotional growth of women in college more than academics. College was a place for a young woman to experience life, be herself and explore new ideas independent of the controls of family. Many students formed extremely close friendships with other women and would refer to their relationships as a "marriage," exchanging rings, and even pledging ever-lasting fidelity.

Charity and community service also offered a professional vocation for middle and upper class single women. Philanthropy in the mid-nineteenth century grew tremendously and attitudes about working with the poor changed. Previously, the common attitude was the "rich were busy and the poor could wait." However, by the end-nineteenth century, an upper class woman who did not do some sort of charity work was an anomaly. The nineteenth century charity work was organized, disciplined and carried out by women who saw themselves as professionals with a distinct identity because of their community service. Their attitude was the "poor are busy and the rich can wait."

Vicinus ends her study with the last major social reform movement of this era, the Suffrage Movement. In the mid-nineteenth century boredom, religious commitment, access to higher education and desire for self-education encouraged women to widen their sphere of influence by professionalizing public service. However, by the twentieth century, the separate public (male) and private (female) spheres model was no longer viable. The previous generation was content to work from within and reinterpret social constructs, but the private sphere shifted as much as it could. A new generation of feminist reformers entered the public sphere and turned their attentions to political and economic equality. The lack of the vote was the greatest symbol of women's secondary status in society. Suffrage drew women who had been active in various reforms, and it also attracted many converts who had previously been apolitical.

Vicinus's Independent Women... brings to light the so-called redundant women, who were not an unknown fact of Victorian life, but were so common that that their history almost went unnoticed.