Friday, 25 January 2008

Middle class women

The emergence of the middle classes has been treated as male and the account of middle class consciousness structured round public events in which women have generally been seen as playing little part[1]. The place of women in conventional historiography lay at the heart of middle class notions of family and home; their role was essentially domestic, dependent and private while the male role was one of having dependants and public. Was ‘the separation of spheres’ and the division between the public and private a given or was it constructed as an integral part of middle class culture and self-identity? Catherine Hall maintains that[2] ‘But one of the ways in which the middle class was held together, despite many divisive factors, was their ideas about masculinity and femininity. Men came to share a sense of what constituted masculinity and women a sense of what constituted femininity.... masculinity meant having dependants, femininity meant being dependent ... the idea of a universal womanhood is weak in comparison with the idea of certain types of sexual differentiation being a necessary part of class identity.’ She argues, from the experience of Birmingham between 1780 and 1850, that women were increasingly defined as economically dependent. This dependence was an important influence for the ways in which industrial capitalism developed, though she does not suggest that it would not have developed without these growing sexual divisions.

Dependence and ‘marginalisation’

The centrality of the notion of dependence in marriage had been given a legal basis. Married women’s property passed automatically to their husbands unless a settlement had been made in the courts of equity. Married women had no right to sue or be sued or to make contracts. Until the Infants’ Custody Act 1839 women could even be denied access to their children. There was no middle class equivalent to the working class idea of the ‘family wages’ that encapsulated the notion of economic dependence. The middle classes took on the aristocratic notion of patrilineal rights to property even though they broke with them at many other points.

The Birmingham Trade Directories demonstrate clearly the growing dependence of women after 1780 and their increasingly marginal economic role. In the 1790s there were women brass founders; in 103 a bedscrew-maker and coach-maker; in 1812 several women were involved in different aspects of the gun trade; in 1821 there was a female iron and steel merchant; and women plumbers and painters can be identified in the 1830s. By the 1840s, however, dressmaking, millinery, school teaching and the retail trades were the focus of women’s work. They were no longer engaged as employers in the central productive trades and had been marginalised to the service sector. Women were increasingly seen as without the necessary forms of knowledge and expertise to enter into business: jobs were being redefined as managerial and skilled and therefore masculine. Women could manage the home and the family but not the workshop or the factory.

A new ‘public’ world

By the mid-nineteenth century a whole new public world had been created in which women had little part. As organisations became more formal women could be successfully marginalised. They had either no role or a severely limited one in the formation of political organisations. The Birmingham Political Union, the Complete Suffrage League, dissenting organisations fighting the established church and the Anti-Corn Law League were predominantly male bodies. Middle class women were not defined as ‘political’. Their role was largely supportive.

Middle class women were, however, involved in several political campaigns in the first half of the century. They participated in the Anti-Slavery movement but their activities appear to have been restricted to fund-raising. As late as 1853 the Bristol and Clifton Ladies Anti-Slavery Society appealed for gentlemen to organise their public meetings since this was not considered as a suitable activity for a lady. Middle class women were also involved in the Anti-Corn Law League but their activities went beyond fund-raising. The female secretary of the National Bazaar Committee wrote to working men urging them to ‘stand forth and denounce as unholy, unjust and cruel all restrictions on the price of food’ and assured them that ‘the ladies are resolved to perform their arduous part’. Other women campaigned for legal changes in child custody, divorce and with regards to married women’s property. This activity took place throughout the 1850s and 1860s but it was not until the 1870s that a clear link emerged between the political activity of middle class women and feminism emerged. This fusion can first be seen in Josephine Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Their membership of new social organisations and institutions was also limited. They could not be full members of the libraries or reading rooms, or of the literary and philosophical societies. Women were used by philanthropic societies as visitors, subscribers, tract distributors or collectors of money, but they were given no formal powers of decision making. Jabez Bunting, a leading Wesleyan Methodist, told the ladies at a meeting of the Methodist Missionary Society in Leeds in 1813 that women subscribers were preferable to women speakers. Men held all the positions of power and women were often excluded from meetings. The Protestant Dissenting Charity School in Birmingham had a ladies’ committee responsible for the daily running of the school, but membership could only be achieved through recommendation of the men’s managing committee to which all important decisions were referred.

Women and philanthropy

The contribution of women to institutional charity -- whether under male control or not -- increased markedly after 1830[3]. The reason lies partly in the piety and need for ‘good work’s’ implicit in evangelicalism but also in the decline of middle class female occupations. Throughout this period much of their work was paternalistic and conservative in character, concerned with the perennial problems and vices -- disease, lying-in and old age, drink and immorality. But some areas of female concern, like anti-slavery and the cause of the ‘climbing boys’ diminished in importance, while other problems in which women did not have a role became more prominent. In addition the increase in government inspectors after the 1830s provided formal institutionalisation of problems and resulted in a marginalisation of women’s roles. For example, in the 1820s women like Elizabeth Fry turned their attention to prison visiting but their influence waned with the emergence of the prison Inspectorate in the 1830s.

What was distinctive about women’s philanthropic enterprise was the degree to which they applied their domestic experience and education, their concerns about family and relations to the world outside the home. It was a short step from the love of family to the love of the family of man, a step reinforced by the stress on charitable conduct by all religious denominations. The Evangelical concern with the importance of a proper home and family life can be seen as a move towards the more formal subordination of women that took place even in the more radical sects like the Quakers. Service and duty were implicit in both philanthropy and family life.

‘Separate spheres’

Definitions of masculinity and femininity certainly played an important part in marking off the middle classes from other social groups. The separation of the sexes existed at every level within society: in manufacturing, the professions and the retail trade, in the churches and chapels, in public life of all kinds and in the home. Nonconformists, Anglicans, conservatives and radicals and the different strata of the bourgeoisie could agree on the subordinate position of women if nothing else and created a homogeneous ideology between the disparate groups within the middle classes.

How were women represented in Victorian and Edwardian England? The concept of ‘respectability’ was a complex combination of moral, religious, economic and cultural systems. It was a concept of the public world of the middle classes that helped defined the individual’s proper relationship with their worlds. Ethics and aesthetics were part of the definition of respectable values and of the categorisation of acceptable and unacceptable social codes[4]. The notion of respectability was defined for women in terms of dependency, delicacy and fragility. Independence was unnatural, it signified boldness and sexual deviancy. Female dependency was secured through economic, legal, medical and cultural discourses. Dependency should not be seen in terms of a repressive exercise of power but as a natural and gratifying part of respectable femininity. Male veneration, it was argued, upheld the delicacy and purity of women and, far from oppressing them elevated them to a superior position. Baptist Noel, an evangelical writer stated that[5] ‘Women deserve all tenderness; and, made of a more delicate organisation, and of less strength, they need respect and courtesy, protection in danger, the supply of their wants, and above all affection to repay affection.’

The characteristics of ideal femininity were a part of a woman’s normal biological development. This representation of the fragility of middle class femininity was set up in opposition to an image of working class women who were defined as inherently healthy, hardy and robust. This myth served the interests of the medical profession and of many middle class men.

The definition of female respectability was part of the wider formation of the domestic ideology[6] and the development of home and family values. A cult of domesticity developed with the separation of the home and the workplace during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Rather than the home being above the business in the two centre with the women of the household involved in both commercial and domestic activities, businessmen began to move out of cities, investing in suburban housing and travelling daily into the city to the place of work. This had important implications for how the middle classes perceived the city. It was defined as a dangerous and threatening place into which a population of working class and casual poor could easily turn into a riotous mob and, by definition, not the place where middle class women should go.

The separation of work and home led to a reconstruction of gender identities. Women were defined ‘naturally’ as domestic beings, suited to the duties of the home and children. Men were associated with a public sphere, the world of work and politics. The home, for the middle classes, was emptied of its association with work and became defined around notions of recreation, leisure, privacy and shelter. The home became a shelter or haven from the speculation, competition and conflicts of business and public life. It was ‘domesticated’. It was, however, much more than that[7] ‘The Home is the crystal of society -- the very nucleus of national character; and from that source, be it pure or tainted, issue the habits, principles and maxims, which govern public as well as private life. The nation comes from the nursery; public opinion itself is for the most part the outgrowth of the home.’ Regulation, control and peace in the home ensured national security and prosperity. The breakdown of domestic order was understood in terms of a total social disintegration.

The power of the dominant stereotype can be measured by its hold in areas totally inappropriate to the objective conditions. Economic and social conditions made it impossible for the working class woman to attain the ideal of the Perfect Lady and there was rarely a separation between work and home. Yet many members of the working class admired the ideal. Young girls could not be as innocent and as ignorant as a middle class girl. But the better off embraced premarital chastity and the family even more ardently than their social superiors in the middle classes. Middle class writers who were popular among the working class wrote about the moral purity of the reputable working class and the deserving poor. Dickens, Mrs Gaskell and George Eliot portrayed the sanctity of the working class home in the face of the moral carelessness of upper class men who thought they could freely dally with women beneath them.

In summing up the Perfect Lady, it must be restated that in many respects she represented only a very small minority. But there is little doubting the influence of the ideal. The idea of the wife at home to look after the house and family became increasingly desirable. This copy of the Perfect Lady could not afford servants or idleness but she could be respectable, chaste and virtuous. Women who did not live up to these standards would be cast off by affronted husbands and be socially ostracised.

The really important point is that the Perfect Lady stereotype was gradually rejected by women -- by women who felt themselves suffocated by its cloying image. Middle class women launched the attack on the inactivity and economic dependence that was expected of them. They demanded control over property, economic independence, and admission to education and to the professions, wider employment opportunities and the franchise[8]. There were several economic and social reasons why feminism emerged and why it often focused on the Sex Question. Some historians suggest that feminism emerged because of the break up of the old productive family unit, consequent on industrialisation that left single women redundant. Others pursue the sex ratio theory, showing that a ‘surplus’ female population existed in this period [in 1851 there were 1042 women to every 1000 men and by 1901 this had risen to 1068] and stating that these surplus, unsupported spinsters broke down the barriers to entry into the professions. The emergence of a distinct middle class effectively closed many of what would previously have been middle class female occupations. It was this group of middle class women, dissatisfied with their lot as defined for the Perfect Lady sought to redefine women’s social position. They provided the overwhelming majority of feminists or New Women. It was these bourgeois women whom John Stuart Mill had in mind when he pleaded for equality of the sexes in The Subjection of Women in 1869 and it was they who took up the challenge. The rising standards of living in the lower middle class and the labour aristocracy after 1870 that resulted in rising social aspirations.

The new women were in part the product of changed socio-economic conditions and in part the result of the efforts of individual women who suffered social ostracism for their beliefs. The suffrage movement, educational reform, the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts and the fight to distribute birth control information all contributed to the decline of hypocrisy and rigidity. By the 1880s the Perfect Lady could no longer hold her own unchallenged. Women increasingly demanded and gained constructive and useful roles in society. Job opportunities were opening to every class and the typewriter and telephone had a profound impact of work for women. Social attitudes were beginning to change: in the 1880s and 1890s W.S. Gilbert was far softer in his satire of middle aged spinsters than his predecessors in the music halls and in popular literature independent women became heroines for the first time. But this was a slow process. The pages of Punch, a journal renowned for its anti-feminism, provide historians with the popular caricature of the New Woman. Her aspirations to education were derided in its pages throughout the 1890s. The entry of women to the professions was similarly a great joke. The New Woman was lampooned and shown in a variety of unladylike postures such as playing golf and riding bicycles. On the women’s campaign for the vote, Punch was equally biting: Suffragettes were uniformly old, ugly, butch and bespectacled. Despite the more sensitive nature of serious literature, the warnings were still there. In Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure [1896] there can be no happiness for Sue Bridehead: she recoiled from marriage to a good man, Jude; her children die horribly and she finally breaks down. George Gissing’s portrayal of spinsters in The Odd Women [1892] showed the unhappiness to which their course had led them.

The images that are most frequently presented of the New Woman were cruel, mocking and hostile. In 1914 women were still largely excluded from circles of power, authority and prestige; marriage was still held out as the prime goal of every young woman. The ideal of the Perfect Lady was in the process of being replaced by the middle class notion of the New Woman, an ideal that condemned women to a less than equal position in society. It was the First World War and its immediate aftermath that, for a time, provided women with a significant degree of emancipation but by the mid-1920s feminism was in retreat.

It is difficult now to evaluate how satisfied women were with their lot. A woman who was discontented would seek an individual rather than a group solution to her predicament. Clearly the limited choice of employment, especially before the 1890s, and low pay for all classes of women meant that marriage was the most attractive option. But the very fluidity of Victorian England meant that women could not remain within a static role of domesticity. Even the most contented could not help but be affected by the intense debate on the position of women that swirled about them. By the 1860s middle class women in particular were taking on an increasingly large number of tasks that required public agitation. A small number of activists hoped to broaden the definition of women’s ‘proper sphere’. This expansion proceeded unevenly and was based on assumptions that could not always be reconciled. Respectability was the goal of outsiders, from actresses to shopkeepers, and its possession the prize of even the most militant feminist.


[1] On the emergence of the middle classes L. Davidoff and C. Hall Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English middle class 1780-1850, Hutchinson, 1987 is a major contribution to women’s history.

[2] C. Hall Gender ‘Divisions and Class Formation in the Birmingham Middle Class 1780-1850’, in R. Samuel (ed.) People’s History and Socialist Theory, Routledge, 1981, page 165.

[3] F.K. Prochaska Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century England, OUP, 1980 is an interesting study of a major area of female concern.

[4] Lynda Nead Myths of Sexuality, Blackwell, 1988 examines the issues that surround the representation of femininity in Victorian art. High culture in the form of publicly exhibited paintings carried very high stakes in Victorian England. It was the arena in which class and national identities were proposed and where definitions of normality and deviance were shaped.

[5] Baptist Noel The Fallen and their Associates, 1860, pp. 7-8.

[6] Catherine Hall ‘The Early Formation of Victorian Domestic Ideology’, in her White, Male and Middle Class, Polity, 1994, pp. 75-93 provides a valuable discussion of the development of this central concept between the 1790s and 1840s. It provides a fundamental context for later developments.

[7] Samuel Smiles Self-Help, 1859, p. 274

[8] Philippa Levine Victorian Feminism 1850-1900, Hutchinson, 1987 looks at feminist protest before the Suffragettes and provides a valuable examination of the emergence of the ‘New Woman’.

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