Women's Lives in the Victorian Era

Women's Lives in the Victorian Era
Lucretia Garfield: Religion, Social Issues and Reform

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Two to three weeks


The life span of Lucretia Garfield (1832-1918) almost exactly matches what is called the Victorian Era (1837-1901).  Taking its name from the period during which Queen Victoria reigned in England (1837-1901), the Victorian Era was a time of strict standards for women, but it was also a time of change, with huge scientific discoveries and the flowering of the industrial revolution.  The lives of women were circumscribed by the class to which they belonged, and also by rules of behavior that crossed class lines.  For Lucretia Garfield, however, Victorian “rules” for women did not completely apply.  She was college-educated, she had a mind of her own, and in many ways she did not quite “fit” the Victorian mold.


Students who participate in this lesson will research the life of a middle class Victoran woman and compare it to the life of Lucretia Garfield, also a middle class woman, looking for similarities and differences. Students will produce a PowerPoint presentation demonstrating the lives of women in the Victorian era in general, and the life of Lucretia Garfield in particular.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to print materials about the Victorian Era and about Lucretia Garfield; PowerPoint presentation program.


Introduce the lesson by having students read the short essay on the Victorian era contained in the first website below.  Direct students to note important aspects of the era (e.g., that it was a time of scientific “progress”), as well as emphasizing the importance of social class in women’s lives.
Then, divide the class into as many groups as possible.  Each group should spend some time exploring the site, “The Life of a Victorian Woman,” noting both the tabs at the right hand side of the site and the “rooms” at the bottom of the site.  Each group should select one or two of the aspects of Victorian life available to research in detail, preparing a “storyboard” for their section of the final PowerPoint presentation that includes both text and drawings or pictures.
When the storyboards are completed, all students should read biographies of Lucretia Garfield.  There are three books listed below that should be available at public libraries ir they are not available in the school library.  There are also relatively brief biographies of Garfield online. 
While students are researching the life of Lucretia Garfield, they should take notes on ways in which her life mirrored Victorian ideals and ways in which it did not.  These notes can be thematic or chronological.  It would be well to have several planned discussions with all the students about what they are finding, to make sure that they are on the right track in their comparisons.
After students have researched Lucretia’s biography, have them go back into their smaller groups and decide how to integrate her life into the larger picture of the lives of Victorian women as laid out in their storyboards.
Students should then prepare their group PowerPoints (using the same background, previously agreed upon) and present their findings.
When all groups have presented, ask the class if anything has been left out.  If it has, add to the PowerPoint presentations in the appropriate places and put the group presentations together.
As a culminating activity, show the completed presentation, perhaps in the context of an invited audience, and a tea party.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by having students write individual papers comparing the lives of Victorian women with their own lives and with the lives of women they know well.  What has changed?  Is the change for the better?  What might we all learn from Victorian ideals?

Sources & Resources:

Heinrichs, Ann. Lucretia Randolph Garfield (1832-1918).  (Encyclopedia of First Ladies).  Children’s Press, 1998.
Shaw, John.  Crete and James: Personal Letters of Lucretia and James Garfield. Michigan State University Press, 1994.
Shaw, John. Lucretia.  A Volume in the Presidential Wives Series. Nova History Publication, 2004.
      The Victorian Era 

      The Life of the Victorian Woman 

      Lucretia Randolf Garfield Biography
      Lucretia Garfield 

      Lucretia Garfield on Wikipedia 

      History of Hiram College 

     Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.