The Victorian Age was a period of incredible growth and change in North America and most of Europe. Arriving on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian era was marked by rapid advancements in science, technology, and medicine. Queen Victoria’s reign brought not only the proliferation of steam-driven transportation (trains and boats), but also culture-altering inventions such as photography, the telephone, and electric light.
But another important revolution of the Victorian era was a social one. During the 19th century, women began playing integral roles in almost every part of society – science, medicine, education reform, literature, social reform, etc. As you may have heard by now, March is Women’s History Month, and we’re happy to celebrate by taking a closer look at some of the exceptional, influential women who contributed most to their culture and their world. These women were the trailblazers and pioneers of their time, and they all made the world a better place.
Nurse and Social Reformer
Florence Nightingale rose to prominence through her work during the Crimean War of 1853-56. Nightingale cared for wounded British soldiers at Constantinople, earning the name “The Lady with the Lamp” by making rounds overnight to check in on sick and wounded soldiers. Her work was instrumental in professionalizing nursing as an occupation, and she continued to elevate the reputation of women in medicine throughout the rest of her life. Nightingale founded a nursing school at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London and wrote prodigiously about health care in a way that made important medical information accessible to the working class.
Mathematician and Writer
The only daughter of British Romantic poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace chose not to follow her father’s literary lead. Instead, with her mother’s encouragement, Ada pursued science and mathematics. Describing her approach as “poetical science,” Lovelace was especially interested in how mathematics could be applied to technological advancements. At just 17 years old, she developed a long friendship with British mathematician Charles Babbage, who had developed something called an “Analytical Engine” – an early version of the digital computer. While Babbage eventually became known as the “father of computers,” it was Lovelace who wrote and published what’s considered to be the first algorithm, or computer program. Lovelace recognized that Babbage’s creation had potential functions that transcended simple calculation, and as a result she is considered to be one of the world’s first computer programmers.
Prison Reformer and Humanitarian
Quaker and Christian philanthropist Elizabeth Fry dedicated her life to British prison and social reform. Compelled by her deep faith to go out into the world and actively do good works, Fry began researching poverty and imprisonment in England. In 1813, she visited Newgate Prison in London and discovered abysmal conditions there, including women and children crammed into small cells doing their own cooking and cleaning and sleeping on straw. Horrified by the conditions she found there, Fry determined to make the prison system more humane. Her work led to widespread reforms in the British prison system, and she also established an overnight shelter in London to help the homeless.
A social theorist who penned influential books and essays about a wide range of social, political, and religious subjects, Harriet Martineau is often considered the first female sociologist. The early 19th century was a time when most “serious” social subjects – economics, politics, religion – were generally seen as the province of men. Refusing to be constrained by traditional gender roles, Martineau freely ventured into all of these fields and wrote influential works with an intellectual clarity that transcended contemporary expectations. Martineau was so significant that she was invited to Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838. She even wrote her own autobiography in 1877, which was unusual for women at the time.
Suffragette and Social Reformer
In 1888, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Franchise League to advocate for the right of both married and unmarried women to vote in Great Britain. Women’s suffrage had been restricted since the Reform Act of 1832, and Pankhurst spent most of her adult life trying to reverse that policy. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Pankhurst partnered with several suffragist organizations – some of which used violent methods and hunger strikes to bring greater awareness and urgency to their cause. She died in 1928, only months before the Representation of the People Act passed, extending the right to vote to all British women over 18 years old. Two years later, Pankhurst was honored with a statue in Victoria Tower Gardens near the Houses of Parliament.
Born in 1867, Marie Curie was instrumental in developing the first X-ray machines and pioneering the studies of using radium and radioactivity in medicine. Her work in the field of radiation led to the production of mobile radiation labs, which were used on the battlefield during World War I. Known as “Little Curies,” these mobile radiography units were used to diagnose and treat over a million wounded soldiers. Curie was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize (and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice), and she was the first woman to be buried in the French Parthenon based solely upon her life’s work (not based on her role as a wife or queen).
The Brontë Sisters
Novelists and Poets
Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848), and Anne (1820-1849)
The Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily, and Anne – grew up the daughters of an Anglican clergyman in the village of Haworth, on the Yorkshire moors. Their mother died just a year after Anne was born, and the sisters were often left at home together for long stretches of time. To keep themselves company and entertain each other, the sisters wrote stories and poetry from the time they were very young. In just two years, the girls published a series of novels that cemented their literary legacies: Anne’s Agnes Grey and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre in 1847, and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Emily’s Wuthering Heights in 1848.
Tragically, Emily and Anne both died of tuberculosis within a year of their publishing flurry. Charlotte lived another six years before she died of the same disease that took her sisters. But the sisters’ works – especially Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre – have stood the test of time and inspired the imaginations of generations of readers and writers.
Born in Southampton, England, Emily Davies spent most of her life advocating for education and women’s right to university access. Davies moved to London in 1862 to edit the English Women’s Journal, and she soon developed a strong network of feminist and social reformer friends. Many of these women founded a women’s discussion group called the Kensington Society, who began working toward British women’s suffrage. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but in 1869 Davies co-founded Girton College, Cambridge – the first English university college that educated women.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
Physician and Surgeon
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson began her medical career as a nurse. But when feminist trailblazers Emily Davies and Elizabeth Blackwell (America’s first female physician) recognized her talent and potential, they encouraged her to try to become a doctor. Anderson’s efforts to enroll in medical school were denied at first, but she persevered and eventually became the first woman in Britain to qualify as a physician and surgeon. Anderson opened her own private practice before co-founding the New Hospital for Women – a hospital staffed entirely by women – in London in 1872. Never quite done paving new paths for women, Anderson also served as the first dean of a medical school in England and the first female mayor in Great Britain (in Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk Coast).
Queen (It’s right there in her name!)
No list of prominent Victorian women would be complete without acknowledging the woman who gave the era its name. A resolute, indomitable woman who fundamentally reformed the British monarchy during her 64-year reign, Queen Victoria expanded the British Empire to encompass 400 million subjects across a quarter of the globe. Her reign also saw extraordinary advancements in science, medicine, technology, and engineering.
The family life Victoria built with her beloved Prince Albert served as a much-admired model of a loving family unit, while her insistence on separating the royal crown from the internal and external political machinations of Great Britain changed the essence of the British monarchy for the next hundred-plus years. Perhaps most importantly, though, Victoria stood as a paragon of moral and social stability in an age defined by rapid expansion and change.