Women were not freely offered the opportunity to study subjects of an extended, classical, and commercial nature. This made it difficult for a woman to break free from the societal constraints to achieve independent economic status. Education was specialized by gender. Women were provided with the opportunity to study refined subjects such as history, geography and general literature which would provide them with interesting but noncontroversial topics for discussion. Despite the restrictions and stigmatization, some women did excel in "male" subjects such as law, physics, engineering, science and art. These women pioneered the path for the much improved gender equality in modern education in the UK. Women were rarely given the opportunity to attend university.
Working-class women often had occupations to make ends meet, and to ensure family income in the event that a husband became sick, injured, or died. There was no workers' compensation until late in the Victorian era, and a husband too ill or injured to work often meant an inability to pay the rent and a stay at the dreaded Victorian workhouse.
Throughout the Victorian era, some women were employed in heavy industry such as coal mines and the steel industry. A monument to women steel workers in Bilston, England. Although they were employed in fewer numbers as the Victorian era continued and employment laws changed, they could still be found in certain roles. Before the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, women worked underground as "hurriers" who carted tubs of coal up through the narrow mine shafts.
By the late 1860s, agricultural work was not paying well, and women turned to industrial employment. In areas with industrial factories, women could find employment on assembly lines for items ranging from locks to canned food. Industrial laundry services employed many women (including inmates of Magdalene asylums who did not receive wages for their work). Women were also commonly employed in the textile mills that sprang up during the industrial revolution in such cities as Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham. Working for a wage was often done from the home in London, although many women worked as "hawkers" or street vendors, who sold such things as watercress, lavender, flowers or herbs that they would collect at the Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market.
Many working-class women worked as washerwomen, taking in laundry for a fee. Animal-breeding in slum flats was common, such as dogs, geese, rabbits and birds, to be sold at animal and bird markets. Housing inspectors often found livestock in slum cellars, including cows and donkeys. Spinning and winding wool, silk, and other types of piecework were a common way of earning income by working from home, but wages were very low, and hours were long; often 14 hours per day were needed to earn enough to survive. Furniture-assembling and finishing were common piecework jobs in working-class households in London that paid relatively well. Women in particular were known as skillful "French polishers" who completed the finish on furniture.
Victorian politics is about the way in which Britain’s political system, which had evolved over centuries and was dominated by a landowning elite, found itself under pressure to adjust to the economic, social and demographic changes unleashed by the industrial revolution, and the new trends in economic, political and scientific thinking that ran alongside it. The successful student will understand what changed and why, while not losing sight of aspects of the political system that did not change.
Though Queen Victoria reined in 1837-1901 the real starting date for the study of Victorian politics is 1832 as it saw the passing of the Reform Act, the first major breech with the eighteenth century constitution. By extending the right to vote to the expanding middle class it ensured that the Victorian political system remained dominated by the interests of property owners. Though subsequent reforms admitted other social groups to the electoral process the basic characteristics of the post-1832 system, including the social background of MPs and conceptions of the economic role of the State, remained entrenched till the end of Victoria’s reign.
In the shifting political landscape after the Reform Act, the old party loyalties of Whig and Tory take on new colors. Because of pushing through the new legislation, the Whigs are now seen as the party of reform; and during the 1830s they begin to acquire a new name as Liberals. At the same period the Tories begin to call themselves Conservatives, making the most of their recent opposition to reform by suggesting that their policy is to conserve all that is best in the traditional British way of life.
In practice the two parties are rarely predictable in their attitudes to the great issues of the century. In broad terms the Liberals are more inclined to pass measures of social welfare yet the greatest campaigner on these issues is a Conservative MP, Lord Shaftesbury, and his party is responsible for the Mines Act of 1842. Similar uncertainty surrounds the great issue of the 1840s, the repeal of the Corn Laws. Forced through parliament in 1846 by a Conservative prime minister, Robert Peel, the issue splits the party. Eventually Peel's own minority faction merges, after his death, with the Liberals.