Our analysis of the PBS television sensation Downton Abbey will continue as we look at how gender is portrayed in Downton Abbey. The early twentieth century was a period of flux in the mores and values of the West, and this is eminently clear when we see the changing attitudes regarding gender in the characters of the show. When the show begins in 1912, attitudes on gender had in principle remained unchanged since European society had adopted Christianity as her official religion and worldview. During the nineteenth century, the encroaching liberalism and egalitarianism of the age took aim on gender. As ideological egalitarianism replaced the idea of Christian order, differences in gender roles and responsibilities became more difficult to defend. In the early twentieth century, these ideological changes took shape in the form of a political paradigm shift towards an expansion of suffrage and participation in government. Let’s discuss how these issues are addressed in Downton Abbey.
The Portrayal of Gender in Early-Twentieth-Century Britain
Downton Abbey takes place during the transition from traditional gender roles, which remained intact during the early twentieth century, to modern ideas of gender egalitarianism. Women’s suffrage is one such example. Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (portrayed marvelously by Maggie Smith), voices her opposition to the involvement of women in politics. When Lady Mary defends her suffragette sister Sybil to their grandmother by stating, “I was only going to say that Sibyl is entitled to her opinions,” Violet cleverly and humorously responds: “No, she isn’t until she is married–then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.”1 Lord Grantham and the house’s longtime butler Mr. Carson are also vocally opposed to women’s suffrage. Unfortunately though predictably, Downton Abbey depicts the political struggle for women’s suffrage as an obviously positive and desirable cause. Sybil, the youngest Crawley daughter, is particularly devoted to the suffragette cause and is portrayed as the kindest and most sympathetic of the three Crawley girls. Sybil seems to rise above the petty jealousies and rivalries of her two elder sisters and is genuinely kind towards those with whom she comes into contact. She helps a housemaid named Gwen successfully find a job as a secretary so that she doesn’t have to spend her whole life in service.
There are many times throughout the course of the show that Sybil comes into conflict with some of the traditional views of her father and grandmother. Though Violet and Lord Grantham are consistently represented positively, we are made to sympathize with Sybil in her liberal causes against their reservations. Sybil’s stubbornness is not without its problems, however, as she naively places herself in danger, covertly attending violent political rallies against her father’s wishes. Even her socialist love interest, Tom Branson, has the good sense to discourage Sybil from placing herself in dangerous situations. Ultimately, women do win the “right” to vote, as the conclusion of the First World War brings with it sweeping social changes.
Among the changes is a greater presence of women in certain aspects of society. An example of this is Lady Edith’s employment by a local newspaper editor to write a regular editorial in his publication. Consistent with their disapproval of women’s suffrage, Lord Grantham and the traditionalist Mr. Carson voice their disapproval of Edith’s outspokenness. During this period of transition, Matthew Crawley’s mother Isobel remains a constant champion of “progress” for women, which makes her a consistent (though mostly friendly) antagonist to cousin Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess. At one point, she voices her disapproval at Lord Grantham’s lack of enthusiasm for women’s equality and for Edith’s new employment by replying sarcastically: “Yes, let’s hear how a woman’s place is in the home.”2
It is true that distinct gender roles have largely disappeared with the passage of time. Women are equal to men regarding the right to vote, and now often vote more frequently than men. Women have also entered politics and frequently hold public office. The popularity of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin testify to the role that women play in the contemporary political environment. Women today have moved far beyond the wildest dreams of Edith and Sybil and are now leaders in business, education, politics, churches, and even the home. The all-important question that this current state of affairs raises is this: Has the lot of women actually improved? It is my contention that the lot of women actually has worsened due to the various changes in gender relations.
There was substantial resistance to women’s suffrage and gender equality during and prior to this time. Hilaire Belloc warned, “I am opposed to women’s voting as men vote. I call it immoral, because I think the bringing of one’s women, one’s mothers and sisters into the political arena, disturbs the relations between the sexes.”3 Likewise Pope Pius X, who was pope in 1912 when the Downton Abbey timeline begins, denounced the participation of women in politics: “Woman can never be man’s equal and cannot therefore enjoy equal rights. Few women would ever desire to legislate, and those who did would only be classed as eccentrics.”4 People had agitated for women’s suffrage in Britain and in the United States for decades prior to the twentieth century. President Grover Cleveland strongly denounced the movement towards women’s suffrage, arguing that the question had been settled by God and that humanity had no right to interfere with His design for the roles of men and women in society. His comments came after his political career had ended, but the question of women’s suffrage was at the forefront of political discourse. In a 1905 article in The Ladies Home Journal, he stated that “sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by men and women in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence.”5
Perhaps the most convincing arguments against women’s suffrage came from women themselves. An American anti-suffragette named Madeline Dahlgren offered a comprehensive treatment of the issue. Dahlgren stated that the question of women’s suffrage cuts to the heart of the differences for which men and women were ordained. Proponents of women’s suffrage took an essentially egalitarian position that, Dahlgren argued, would ultimately displace femininity and womanhood itself. She wrote:
We acknowledge no inferiority to men. We claim to have no less ability to perform the duty God has imposed upon us, than they [men] have to perform those imposed upon them. We believe that God has wisely and well adapted each sex to the proper performance of the duties of each. We believe our trusts to be as important and sacred as any that exist.
It is our fathers, brothers, husbands and sons who represent us at the ballot-box. Our fathers and husbands love us. Our sons are what we make them. We are content that they represent us in the corn-field, the battle-field and the ballot-box, and we them in the school-room, at the fireside, and at the cradle; believing our representation, even at the ballot-box, to be thus more full and impartial that it could possibly be were all women allowed to vote.
Dahlgren acknowledged that the physical and psychological differences between the sexes do not exist by accident. They exist because God ordained them as such and designed them for differing roles and duties. It therefore stands to reason that in the order of the family, one gender will represent the other in different situations. The tasks given to the man are providing for his family (1 Timothy 5:8); defending his wife, children, and people6; and exercising civil and political dominion (Deuteronomy 1:13-16; 17:15; Isaiah 3:12; 1 Timothy 2:12-13). Women are tasked as helpers to their husbands (Genesis 2:18-24), bearing (1 Timothy 2:15) and bringing up children (1 Timothy 5:10) and keeping the house and home (Titus 2:5). Those who expressed concerns over women’s participation in politics have been vindicated. The participation of women in political matters has corresponded with the emergence of the welfare and “nanny” state. This is because women began to replace the role that their fathers and husbands once played in their lives with the support of the state.7
Dahlgren had the prescience to realize that feminism, which postulated political equality between men and women, would result in the eradication of femininity by inevitably distorting the natural relationship between men and women. She contended, “We hold that the new status will prove to be the worst kind of communism. The relations between the sexes, so carefully guarded by religion and by parents, by law and by society, will become common and therefore corrupt. The family, the foundation of the State, will disappear. The mothers, sisters and daughters of our glorious past will exist no more and the female gender will vanish into epicene.”8
To many people today, this seems like an overstatement, as it did to many of Dahlgren’s contemporaries when she wrote these words. However, the reality is that Dahlgren has been vindicated. Femininity has been severely undercut by the progress of feminism. No longer are women encouraged to dress modestly and in a discreet or feminine manner. Instead, women often wear risqué clothing designed to display overt sexuality that would have utterly mortified the feminists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Women no longer dress or act the way that they did in the time period of Downton Abbey. Dahlgren is absolutely correct about the corrosive effects of feminism on the family itself. Family life has experienced a steady decline with the ascendancy of feminism as women no longer embrace their roles as wives and mothers.
The Christian family is predicated upon the principle that wives and mothers have separate roles from husbands and fathers. In today’s anti-Christian and post-modern world, these roles have been obscured or reversed. The covenantal headship of the husband over the household, though firmly entrenched in biblical teaching (1 Corinthians 11:3-12; Ephesians 5:22-32; Colossians 3:18-21; 1 Timothy 2:11-15; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Peter 3:1-7), is considered outmoded or, even worse, “sexist.” The genteel men and women of the period of Downton Abbey are largely a thing of the past as propriety, modesty, chivalry, and manners have been swept away with the tender mothers of ages past.
Conclusion to Part 2
Downton Abbey’s portrayal of gender issues demonstrates how this program provides an early-twenty-first-century depiction of the events at that time. Most viewers of the Downton Abbey series are bound to sympathize with the nascent women’s rights movement that they see dramatically portrayed for them. It is no accident that Sibyl is the most likable of the Crawley sisters and is also the most political and the most defiant of social conventions. Likewise, the portrayal of Isobel Crawley as a tireless crusader for the downtrodden of society corresponds with her progressive views on the role of women in society. An astute viewer might see the grand irony in the history of women’s progress since the time depicted in Downton Abbey. It is obvious that instead of real progress in society, women have suffered a horrible regress. Women are no longer respected or revered the way that men like Robert or Matthew Crawley once esteemed them. In their quest for political and social equality, women have allowed themselves to become degraded in exchange for token representation in politics and corporate boardrooms. Egalitarianism has tarnished both masculinity and femininity, and everyone is more miserable because of it. If women want to be respected for their unique role in society brought by their femininity, then they should yearn for the “sexist” days that Downton Abbey recounts for us.
In the next article, we’ll be addressing the way that Downton Abbey addresses class distinctions. Stay tuned!
Read Part 3
- Season 1, Episode 6 ↩
- Season 3, Episode 7 ↩
- I found this quote on several websites. An example can be found here. ↩
- This comment by Pius X can be found here. ↩
- Ladies Home Journal 22, (October 1905), 7–8 ↩
- There are numerous references to “men of war” or “mighty men of valor” in the Bible. It is evident that men are the ones tasked with the defense of their nation. It is also assumed that men would naturally defend a woman from rape (Deuteronomy 22:23-27). ↩
- For more information on the impact of women upon government taxation and spending, see “Did Women’s Suffrage Change the Size and Scope of Government?” by John R. Lott and Lawrence W. Kenny. Journal of Political Economy, 1999, vol. 107, no. 6, pt. 1. available here. ↩
- Quotes are from “Thoughts on Female Suffrage: And in Vindication of Women’s True Rights” by Madeline Dahlgren, Washington D.C., Blanchard & Mohun, 1871. The text can be found here and here. More information on this issue from an anti-suffragette perspective can be found here in “Female Suffrage: A Letter to the Christian Women of America” by Susan Fenimore Cooper, Harper’s New Weekly Magazine, Vol. XLI (June-November, 1870), pp. 438-446, 594-600. She was the daughter of James Fenimore Cooper. ↩