I Write About Dead Victorian Women

“Who cares about all these dead Victorian women?” This question is an often uninvited guest in any conversation about my research, along with its relatives, “How does that help anybody?” and “Why do we need to know about all these horrible things that happened?” And although these questions are most commonly verbalized by my mother, I see their unspoken counterparts in the eyes of my doctor, the guy in line beside me at the pub, and the middle-aged woman at the bus stop as they all try to work out whether I have a “real job” and what exactly “Victorianist scholar” means. I don’t blame them; they’re genuinely curious and their questions stem from the perspective which has more than once been offered to me– the one which literally argues, “We’re good on women’s rights now; why do we care how bad it used to be?”

And because I’m tired of trying to condense two dissertations’ worth of research into a palatable elevator pitch, here is the explanation that I can never quite manage to get out fast enough. I write about the dark side of Victorian femininity. Not the fledgling empowerment efforts of early suffragettes or Jane Austen’s pleasing attempts at reforming literary gender roles. I write about women who were forcibly sterilized without anaesthetic because they fought for the right to pursue an education. I write about women who were lobotomized because they argued with their husbands. I write about teenage girls who suffered non-consensual clitoridectomies because a doctor promised it would “make them more controllable.” I write about women who suffered years of gaslighting on levels both personal and legal, who lost their entire lives to “lunatic asylums” and medical experimentation because a man said they were crazy and the law just went with that. 

I write about hysteria and the infantilization of femininity and the long, dark history of men legislating female bodies. (Google “the rest cure” and “Silas Weir Mitchell” if you’d like the sudden urge to punch a hole in your phone screen). Because for every Charlotte Perkins Gilman who lived through misogynistic medical experiments and turned her trauma into empowerment, there were fifty others for whom life worked out very differently. These were the legions of writers and thinkers and inventors whose stories were never told, whose ambitions were forcibly smothered by diagnoses of madness and terminal domesticity. These are the women who would rather kill themselves than spend the rest of their days pretending they possessed little more than the intelligence of a child, the ones who couldn’t suck it up and endure a lifetime of “little-ladying” and objectification. These are the women who snapped under the weight of a lifetime’s suppressed ambitions and suffered genuine mental breakdowns which lead them to hurt themselves or others. 

So, I write for them. I write as what Susanne C. Knittel calls “a vicarious witness,” one whose task is “not to appropriate the experience or the trauma of another or to speak for the other but rather to create a space in which the silenced other may speak.” I write because the trauma of these lost Victorian women is not mine– but it could have been. I write because, as much as I joke that my life goal is to live in such a way that I would have been burned as a witch or diagnosed with hysteria in the 19th century, I know I really would have been. 

Because my mind is everything to me, because I have always known that pursuing knowledge is all I was ever meant to do, I wouldn’t have been able to live like that either. And I wouldn’t have been able to hide my intelligence beneath a veneer of performative childlike femininity any more than I would have been capable of tolerating institutionalized misogyny. So, because I know that I would have been the first to be diagnosed with hysteria or lobotomized, or else, the first to go mad in response to a world insane, I write about what could have been. And I use my voice to honor those who sacrificed theirs so that years of slow-grinding feminist efforts could give me the freedom I have today. 

So, that’s why all my dead Victorian women matter. 


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