In the Victorian ideal, a woman was the repository of family morality – the one who would not only nurture the bodies of her children and husband, but also their minds. The educational experiment Gradgrind undertakes is to our eyes quite progressive – teaching his girls and boys the same things and removing the burden of ideal femininity from his daughter. Unfortunately, this leaves her unprepared for entering the world outside her own progressive family. She is unable to fulfill the idealized roles of wife and mother, and has no other options for adulthood outside of these.
Questions About Women and Femininity
The novel seems to give women some power over the emotional well being of the men in their lives. However, in practice, this power is weak and/or non-existent – Sissy's father abandons her, Louisa's brother robs a bank, and Mrs. Gradgrind is never able to tell Gradgrind about the "not an Ology at all" that is missing from the kids' education. Which is it – are women powerful in the novel or not?
What are the socio-economic roles of women in the novel? What is appropriate and inappropriate female behavior?
How do different men view women in the novel? Take one woman and study the way several men view her. What does this reveal about her? About them?
How do women in the novel relate to one another? Are there any true friendships between them? Why or why not?
Chew on This
In rejecting the kind of education Louisa receives, and in advocating for the kind of contented submission Rachael sinks into after Stephen's death, the novel is deeply conservative in its conception of women.
Statistics are a lot less crucial to – or powerful over – the lives of women than of men.