This dissertation looks at Protestant individualism and the degree to which it was potentially empowering to Victorian women. By Protestant individualism, I mean a way of thinking about and speaking about the self that arises from and is closely associated with Protestant theology. As I argue, this newfound emphasis on Protestant individualism placed Victorian women in a promising position. Unlike philosophy and political theory, which have traditionally based a person's claim to be an individual on his or her reason---something that women have often been believed to lack, Protestantism has generally made a person's individual status the product of a far more universal condition: each person's ultimate accountability to God. People are all primarily individuals, Protestant individualism asserts, because each of them---whether male or female---must stand individually before God on Judgment Day. Since Western political thought has generally predicated a person's claim to rights on his status as an individual, Victorian women's improved claims to individual status gave them, in turn, improved cases for arguing for their personal and political rights. Included among these rights would have been their right to consent (to marriage, sex, etc.) and their right to follow their own consciences (in moral, religious, and political matters).
The first two chapters of this dissertation focus on Protestant individualism as it appears in Evangelical Anglican and Broad Church Anglican religious writings, chapter one examining the individualistic and anti-individualistic currents within such theological texts and chapter two exploring the degree to which such works make Protestant available to women. Chapters three and four turn to Victorian women novelists Charlotte Bronte and Mary Augusta Ward and how their novels dramatize the promises and perils of female Protestant individualism. Bronte, who, as I argue, depicts a fairly religiously orthodox Protestant individualism, presents such orthodox Protestant individualism as generally available and empowering to women. In contrast, Ward, who portrays a much less orthodox Protestant individualism, presents such heterodox Protestant individualism as difficult, if not impossible, for women to realize.