We know this. You know this. I know this. Women don’t need a man to live life, right? Yeah, of course I’m right. There are plenty of women living it up on their own making decisions and doing things their way. They don’t need a man. Having a man is nice, but not necessary. Let’s roll back the clock about a hundred and twenty years though. A woman needed a man. That was beginning to change, but a woman needed a man. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, we see some women doing some awfully independent things and it’s refreshing.
I find that the Sherlock Holmes have an interesting view on women. In many aspects women are key players in many of the Sherlock stories and they’re doing things a woman might not do in the day and age.
I would like to start with a few examples. In the story The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, a woman rides a bicycle to and from the train station by herself. In A Scandal in Bohemia, Irene Adler not only travels by herself, but runs and entire household and will sometimes dress as a man. In several others stories women have independent wealth, that suitors are trying to steal, including Violet from The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist. Another point we can look at is that several of the women Holmes deals with have jobs. They’re working women. They’re not women of wealth who sit around all day doing nothing.
Why is a woman riding a bicycle to and from a train station in the late 1800s and early 1900s a big deal? It’s a big deal for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that she’s alone. She doesn’t have a chaperone. I cannot stress what a big deal this is. Even if you were a poor women, most likely, someone tagged along with you when you went somewhere. You did not go to a place by yourself. The second reason this is such a big deal is because it’s a bicycle.
Here’s what Susan B. Anthony said about bicycles:
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
Susan B. Anthony was a women’s rights activist if you didn’t know. She even had her own dollar for a while, but I haven’t seen one in years. Why did Susan say this about bicycles? Susan said this about bicycles because bicycles allowed a woman to go a place on her own. She could get on a bicycle, under the pretext of getting some fresh air and/or exercise and ride off alone without a chaperone. It’s a big deal. Women now had the means to get on a bike and ride to see their friends, or boyfriends. A woman could go to the store by herself. She could ride out in the country, by herself.
I know we as woman may not appreciate a lot of the solitary time we have, especially if we’re single women living alone, but appreciate it. You need to appreciate it. Before a certain point in history a woman was hardly ever alone. You lived with your parents. You dated the man you married with your parents watching. Your friends came to visit you at your house and you visited them at their house. You went out of the house with a chaperone. You had a waiting maid if you were from a wealthier family. When you did get married, someone was always there. There was a maid. There was your husband. There was your passel of children. If you were of any standing in society you participated in little groups and church outings. You were never alone. Thanks to women’s rights movements, you can be alone. You can go places by yourself as a woman.
With the bicycle and other things going on, it became more acceptable for women to be out on their own. Violet could ride her bicycle in peace. She could go to and from her job on her bicycle. It was still a bit dangerous as we found out, but that bicycle gave her the independence to be alone and make up her own schedule.
We’re going to talk about Irene Adler again. Irene is really amazing. She travels alone, she does have a maid, but she travels without a male chaperone. She goes all over Europe it seems. She has her own household. What is significant about Irene and her own household is that she isn’t married. She does get married, but she’s not married when we first meet her. She ran this household by herself. That was uncommon. Women usually lived at home or with relatives until they were married, unless they had to work, of course. Irene was of a station that she probably didn’t have to work and could have lived at home. Irene’s smart of course, which I’ve already explained is really neat. The last thing about Irene is that she dressed like a man to follow Sherlock Holmes to Baker Street.
Women did not dress like men, ever, seriously. Men more often dressed as women than women dressed as men. If you know anything about theater you’ll know that men have played women’s role for a heck of a long time, consider especially early Shakespearean and Roman theater. Women did not wear pants. Going back to the bicycle thing, women started to wear bloomers, basically really long panties, with the advent of bicycles. Women couldn’t ride a bicycle with a bunch of petticoats they got caught in the wheels. Women switched the bloomers. Let me tell you, it was quite the scandal. People were like, “Don’t hang your bloomers on the clothesline. People are going to think you’re an immoral slut.”
Bloomers were a huge deal to people. They were outraged. They were outraged at one piece of clothing that you’re generally not going to see. Let me repeat that again. A whole bunch of people were losing their minds over the fact that a woman changed what kind of underwear she wore. If people were that upset about a woman changing her underwear, imagine how upset they would be if a woman just walked in the place dressed like a man. Think about it. Irene dressing like a man is quite progressive.
Moving onto money, we’re going to talk about two facets of women and money. There were several women who had their own wealth in the Sherlock Holmes stories. This is a big deal because women had not been previously allowed to actually have their own money. You could say, “Hey, I’m leaving this money to my daughter,” but almost always that money was entrusted to another male member of the family or husband. The women didn’t just get her hands on her own money to buy the things she wanted. There are several women, including Irene Adler, who have their own darn money in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Men are always trying to marry them for it. Dude, marry her, she has money.
There were also women in the Sherlock Holmes stories that worked. They’re mostly governesses, but they had their own jobs. Being a governess was really one of the only acceptable professions for women at the time and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stuck with the societal tradition here. He doesn’t write about a woman who is a banker or whatever. The women who work are governesses, which is basically a private teacher. Still though, the general consensus was that women shouldn’t be working. People hired governesses seemingly as a necessary evil. The fact that Sherlock runs into several women who are governesses and manage their own money is impressive. The fact that these women appeal to a private detective on their own is even more impressive.
Going back to that chaperone thing, women didn’t call upon men by themselves, usually. These governesses we run into show up at Sherlock’s house by themselves. They don’t bring a man. They don’t bring a maid. They show up and express their concerns on their own. They hire a private detective on their own. Lots of women do that today, but this was also highly unusual during the time period.
The women of the Sherlock Holmes stories are more independent than other women written by other male authors at the time in many aspects. I’m not saying Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a straight-up feminist because he just wasn’t and we’ll get into that in later posts, but he wrote women to be more independent than the time period seemed to allow.
Deduction: Women can be Independent, feminism, independent women in the sherlock holmes stories, irene adler, sherlock holmes, sir arthur conan doyle, susan b anthony, women and bicycles, women with their own households, women without chaperones
Essays, Sherlock Holmes