Jessica Cox, The Nineteenth-Century Motherhood Trap: Working Mothers in the Victorian Literary Marketplace

Jessica Cox, Brunel University.

Jessica Cox read Wuthering Heights at the age of sixteen, resulting in a developing obsession with all things Victorian. This eventually led to her completing a PhD (on sensation writer Wilkie Collins) at Swansea University in 2007. She is currently a lecturer in English at Brunel University, London.

Jessica has research interests in Victorian popular fiction (particularly sensation fiction), the Brontёs, first-wave feminism, and neo-Victorianism. She is the author of a short biography of Charlotte Brontё, editor of a collection of essays on Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and co-editor of a special issue of Neo-Victorian Studies and a major anthology set on Women and Belief, 1852-1928. She is currently writing a book on the neo-sensation novel.

When not immersed in Victorian literature and culture, she can often be found on the beach with her children. You can follow her on Twitter @jessjcox and email her at

Illustration by David McAndrews (with apologies to David Young)


In July 2015, the cover of The New Statesmen featured a drawing by David Young of four high-profile female politicians, standing over a cradle containing a ballot box.  The accompanying headline ran: ‘The motherhood trap: Why are so many successful women childless?’ The article, by Helen Lewis, noted the prevalence of childless women amongst successful female politicians, in contrast to their male counterparts.  Nicola Sturgeon, one of the politicians featured in the cover illustration, expressed frustration at the piece, suggesting the cover was ‘crass’ and reinforced those prejudices the article sought to challenge.  While the media’s tendency to focus on the maternal status of high-profile women is lamentable (men are rarely subject to the same attention), the article nonetheless highlights a trend dating back to at least the nineteenth century, and one which points to the ongoing difficulties faced by women attempting to combine motherhood and a professional career.  While women were largely excluded from the Victorian political system, the experience of the women operating in the nineteenth-century literary marketplace suggests an interesting parallel with today’s female politicians: amongst a significant number of successful women writers, relatively few were also mothers, juggling both a maternal and professional role.

High-profile nineteenth-century professional women who remained childless include Jane Austen, the Brontё sisters, George Eliot, Charlotte Younge, Marie Correlli, Eliza Lynn Linton, and Harriet Martineau.  Others, such as Olive Schreiner and Sarah Grand, had only one child – unusual for Victorian families.  Some, including Margaret Oliphant and Mrs Henry Wood, wrote out of financial necessity and/or before or after the years in which they were pregnant and raising young children.  Very few, then, chose both motherhood and a career as a professional writer, and performed both roles simultaneously.  Amongst those who did were Florence Marryat, who produced eight children and some seventy novels; Elizabeth Gaskell, mother of six children and author of six novels, as well as numerous novellas and short stories; and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who produced in excess of eighty novels, in addition to numerous short stories, edited the Belgravia for several years, and was mother to six children and stepmother to a further five.  For both Gaskell and Marryat, writing began as a form of escapism: Gaskell wrote Mary Barton following the death of one of her children as a distraction from her grief, while Marryat began writing when her children were suffering from scarlet fever to divert herself from ‘sad thoughts’.  For both, then, writing was intrinsically associated with the maternal role, even as it served as a form of escape from it.

Given the continued difficulties faced by women attempting to juggle motherhood and a career, it is hardly surprising that Victorian women also succumbed to the ‘motherhood trap’.  In the nineteenth-century, social convention demanded that middle-class women’s focus should be centred squarely on home and family.  In a now infamous letter to Charlotte Brontё, written in 1837, Poet Laureate Robert Southey asserted:

Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation

Southey alludes to widespread cultural expectations that women’s primary duty was to marry and bear children, and that this would inevitably detract from any professional aspirations.  This sentiment is echoed elsewhere in Victorian literature.  A poem published in 1845 entitled ‘Woman’s Place’ promotes a similar message:

Nay, tempt not my breast with a prospect of fame –

‘Tis a shadow, a meteor, a find-sounding name:

Its joys, like all others, but live for a time,

Besides, Home is the place for a woman to shine.

The poem highlights the dominant Victorian construction of the middle-class woman as the ‘angel of the hearth’, whose energies should be focused solely on wifely, maternal and domestic duties, even as many of those duties were performed by servants – governesses, cooks, housemaids, and (wet) nurses.  The middle-class mother was effectively barred from work by reason of both her class and maternal status – it was, after all, acceptable (because necessary) for the middle-class spinster to carry out paid work (within certain prescribed areas), and for mothers from the poorer classes to do so, though this was to be regretted, as a the plethora of nineteenth-century articles lamenting the lot of poor working mothers illustrates.

An article published in The Spectator in 1844 refers to

The most horrible cruelty which is practised [..] upon mothers who give suck to children, and who are dragged from the cradle of their babes to spend the day in the factory, with their breasts boiling over with milk, and their babes crying at home for that nutrient.[1]

In a piece entitled ‘Poor People’s Children’, which appeared in Chambers’s Journal in 1855, the author discusses the possibility of establishing public nurseries to assist in the care of children of

mothers whom nothing can exempt from the daily duty of earning daily bread […] Mothers who have to toil in factories; to stand all day at washing tubs; to go out charing, or nursing, or slop-working, or any of the nameless out-door avocations by which women in great towns contrive to keep their families a degree above starvation.[2]

Reflecting on the need for a public childcare system, the author writes, ‘I fear at least for many years to come – that the separation of the working mother and her child is absolutely inevitable’.[3]  The article evidences the nineteenth-century history of the (public) childcare debate, which continues today,[4] but also further indicates the Victorian cultural expectation that only mothers who had to work out of financial necessity would do so.

'Family of Queen Victoria' (1846) by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

The figure of the Victorian working mother, then, is associated almost exclusively with the poorer classes of society, though the most famous ‘public’/working woman of the age, Queen Victoria, was mother to nine children.  Of course, while commentators lamented the inevitable separation between working mother and child, in the case of the serving classes, such a separation often occurred in order to enable the middle classes to discharge childcare and domestic duties onto paid employers, while those they employed may have been forced to use unscrupulous baby farmers.  The relatively widespread practice amongst the middle classes of employing wet nurses to breastfeed their children raises further ethical questions about the domestic practices of the middle and upper classes in Victorian society.

For Victorian women, then, the ‘motherhood trap’ operated on two, somewhat paradoxical, levels: poorer women were forced out of the home and away from their children by financial need – in many cases, working in domestic roles supporting middle- and upper-class family life.  Meanwhile, wealthier women were expected to resign any professional ambitions and focus their energies exclusively on home and family.  Both groups of women were denied – by dint of social and financial pressures – a choice in the extent to which they engaged with family and/or work.  Social and cultural pressures and practices may have changed in the twenty-first century, but the origins of contemporary debates around women, maternity, and work are evident in the nineteenth-century history of the ‘motherhood trap’.




[1]Anon., ‘The Provinces’, The Spectator, Vol. 17, p.341.

[2]‘Poor People’s Children’, Chambers’s Journal, No. 68, (April 21 1855), p.241.

[3]Ibid, p.242.

[4]The 2015 Queen’s Speech included proposals for doubling the free childcare provision from 15 to 30 hours per week.

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