An Ideal Husband Essay, Research Paper
At the Height of the Women’s Movement
Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband takes place in Great Britain in 1895. The women of the play perform a large role in the society. They have major contributions to the political and home life.
The time period is at the height of the women’s suffrage movement. It began in Britain in 1820 in response to James Mill’s claim that there was no need to extend suffrage to women because their fathers and husbands would protect their interests.
There were three phases to the women’s movement. The first, Pioneering, lasted from 1866 to 1870. It focused on the Reform Act of 1867. In 1869 the Municipal Corporations Act was passed during this period as well. This granted women the right to vote in local elections as men. This set a precedent for many reforms to follow. The first was the 1870 Education Act, which gave women the right to vote in the local school board elections.
The second phase lasted from 1870 to 1905. It was called the period of “doldrums” because the movement quieted down. This is the time period in which the play takes place. In 1870, at the very beginning of the era, the first women’s suffrage bill proposed in Congress was passed in the second reading. However the Prime Minister defeated it because he needed to consent with his party line. Still, by 1892 the movement had made considerable progressions. Approximately 503,000 women were eligible to vote in the local elections. Had they been able to vote on the national level, women would have made up over ten percent of the parliamentary college. In 1883 the Corrupt Practices Law incorporated women into the mainstream political world. This law prohibited political parties from paying workers to help in their campaigning. They had to begin recruiting unpaid volunteers. Women became their main supporters. From this, formed many female auxiliary organizations and allowed women to become increasingly active in politics.
The final period began in 1905 and was probably the most effective. The dedication was much greater and votes for women took on an intensity of purpose marked by an almost religious zeal. It concluded with women receiving their suffrage on all levels.
Women also needed to maintain a certain social status. They had a great responsibility as hostess. These social gatherings were important platforms for one’s party line and overall reputation. This was essential to their husband’s careers and public life. The women began to act more as a confidant to their husbands and participants in the political world.
Women in this time period were expected to make contributions to the political world. Be it by actually going out and voting, or hosting a gathering. They had responsibilities. Although it was their husbands’ reputations they were required to uphold, they were expected to nonetheless. Slowly, but surely female activity in the public life began to increase.
My first reaction to the role of the women in An Ideal Husband was that of disbelief. In my mind, at the turn of the twentieth century, there was no way that women could have such a great influence over the political world. The main reason for this most likely is because I was comparing it to the United States. Women did not receive suffrage until the middle of the twentieth century there. However, after researching, I found that Great Britain was far ahead of the U.S. in terms of women’s suffrage. The play, therefore, presents a fine reflection of the historical aspects at that time.
Lady Chiltern is very involved in the political life. The opening scene shows her at her house where she is the hostess. She is also very occupied with the women’s movement. In Act Two, she is conversing with Lord Goring over here recent Woman’s Liberal Association meeting. Her influence also is shown in the way in which she speaks to her husband. On two separate occasions she seems to boss him around. At the conclusion of Act One she instructs him to write to Miss Chevely immediately to tell her that he will not alter his statement regarding the Argentine speculation. She pressures him and gives him boosts to his ego during this scene. She reinforces to him what a great powerful man he is. In addition, she convinces him to decline a seat in the Cabinet in Act Four. I found this to be a bit extreme. A man of such high power as Sir Chiltern should not be so easy swayed on his values. Her character reminded me of the women suffragist, Mrs. Banks, from Mary Poppins. Other than that, Lady Chiltern resembled quite well how an English wife should act in 1895.
Miss Cheveley, also is very active in the public life. Her character, however seemed unrealistic in relation to the time period. I found it hard to believe that a woman would even have the courage to attempt to blackmail a man of such great prominence and standing as Sir Robert. She seemed very intelligent and forward. She is very cocky. This is obvious in her behavior and interaction with the other characters. In the opening Act when she deals with Sir Robert she is quite direct. She knows what she wants and goes for the kill. The nasty side of her character is revealed when she exposes Sir Robert’s secret to Lady Chiltern. Her confidence is shown in the way she deals with Lord Goring and her forward approach.
Miss Mabel Chiltern takes an active role in the public life as well. Though, it is not as large as the previous two characters described. In the second Act she is going off to rehearsal. I found this to be a bit odd, because I assumed that in this time period women were still not accepted as actors. Given that her character is an actress, it shows how confident she is. This ties in nicely with the relation to the women’s movement, without directly dealing with politics. She still has a strong role in society as a woman.
In relation to the history I am familiar with, An Ideal Husband seemed to contrast it. However, my naivet? was revealed. Oscar Wilde did a fine job of portraying the attitude toward women and politics in this era, at the height of the women’s movement. He subtly incorporated the major issues of the day (namely, the women’s movement) without creating a distraction from the plot.