The legal rights enjoyed by Godgifu were greater than any of her female descendants until the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. By Tennyson's time, cultural assumptions about the nature, role and status of women, were so firmly embedded that they shape the story.
The Lawes Resolution of 1632 allowed a man to: “beat an outlaw, a traitor, a pagan, his villain, or his wife because by the law Common these persons can have no action.”
Legally, a married woman was a non-person. As Sir William Blackstone put it in the 1760s.
By Marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law French a 'feme covert'.( Qtd Ingham, Patricia :The Brontes. Authors in Context Oup 2006 p 51)
The implications of this assumption, were that once married, a woman could not litigate except through the medium of a male person. She had no control over money that was previously hers or which she had earned, if she could earn money, during her marriage unless a special legal settlement had been made before the marriage. It wasn’t until 1853 that the assaults act could convict violent husbands, and not until 1857 a new matrimonial court came into existence recognizing women’s rights to release from abusive marriage.
It’s not surprising that Tennyson reads the power imbalance between Godiva and her husband the way he does. At the same time Godiva’s story was taking on a new attraction as there was a perceptible slide towards prudishness in middle class society, making her gesture seem even more daring.
The 19th century was probably the first time in English History that a large part of the population could be assured of privacy at home. “It was especially significant to married couples who could afford houses with the architectural separation of rooms to sleep, bathe and dress in without fear of intrusions.” Donoghue. True, the working class were living crammed together in industrial slums, but they weren't Tennyson's audience.
Which lead to a new and famous prudishness (THink "white meat", think "drumstick) and nervousness about the body and to increased Gender divisions in society:
• There is an increasing sense of social respectability and individual sensibility.
• There was an increasing idealization of the domestic/private world for women and the business/public world for men.
John Ruskin: Sesame and Lillies (qtd by Donahue, 82)
Now the man’s work for his own home is, as has been said, to secure its maintenance, progress, and defense; the woman’s to secure its order, comfort and loveliness. Expand both these functions . The man’s duty, as a member of the commonwealth, is to assist in the maintenance, in the advance, in the defense of the state. The woman’s duty, as member of a the commonwealth, is to assist in the ordering , in the comforting, and in the beautiful adornment of the state.
It’s also worth noting that women promoted this belief as well. There are handbooks for young women, written by women, which make the same point:
”What is your position in society? As women, the first thing of importance is to be content to be inferior to men-inferior in mental power, in the same proportion that you are inferior in strength” Ellis Sarah, The Daughters of England: their Position in Society, Character and Responsibilities (London.. Fisher 1845) 11-12
This assumption that biology was destiny and women were thick carried on into the twentieth century.
In a lecture given as late as 1931, Emma Jung could state, discussing “the real thinking of women”:
It is well known that a really creative faculty of mind is a rare thing in woman. There are many women who have developed their powers of thinking, discrimination, and criticism to a high degree, but there are very few who are mentally creative in the way a man is. It is maliciously said that woman is so lacking in the gift of invention, that if the kitchen spoon had not been invented by a man , we would still be stirring the soup with a stick!
The creativity of woman finds its expression in the sphere of living, not only in her biological functions as mother but in the shaping of life generally, be it in her activity as educator, in role as companion to man, as mother in the home, or in some other form. 21
Jung Emma Animus and Anima Spring publications Zurich )1957_ quotes from fourth printing 1972
These assumptions about female/male private/public appropriate/inappropriate were not simply “cultural assumptions” that floated freely in poems and polemics. They were grounded, negatively, in the law, in absence and silence. They were also grounded in the science of the day. It wasn’t simply a question of “opinions”, and we miss the full importance of these binaries if we dismiss them as “outdated opinions”. As Thomas Lagueur has argued in Making Sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. (Harvard paperback 1992) Culture always precedes sex. He doesn’t mean you visit art galleries and have coffee or wine first, he means assumptions about gender shape the way biology is read and understood. Today we might acknowledge that there are people who think women should play an exclusively domestic role and shrug our shoulders, if we’re being generous, and say “that’s their opinion” or dismiss them as outdated and lunatic. But in the nineteenth century it was much more difficult. Once belief and expectations about behavior are grounded in science, then someone who doesn’t act in the expected way is not “rebellious” or “different” or “an individual” but “sick”. And “therapeutic surgery” or “medical treatment” or “institutionalization” were used to remedy the “problem” as though they suffered from a damaged limb.
All this does lead back to Tennyson. More later.