Thursday, 24 January 2008

Re-presenting Women:3

Middle class anxieties about working class sexuality

The Registrar General reported that in 1842, 6.7 per cent of births were illegitimate and that during the century as a whole the figure was around 6.0 per cent[1]. Albert Leffingwell wrote of the “annual harvest of sorrow and shame” shown by the tables of illegitimate births produced by the Registrar General in the 1880s[2]. The fallen woman, clasping an infant, the badge of her shame, was a commanding icon in Victorian art and literature[3]. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853) and E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (1910), Ruth Hilton’s son Leonard and Forster’s Leonard Bast (literally as Bastard) sought to hide the stain of their illegitimacy. The critical question is whether the rhetoric corresponded to actual experience.

Reay[4] concludes that the “experience of rural Kent suggests that bearing children outside marriage should be seen not as a form of deviancy but rather as part of normal sexual culture.” Half the brides in Reay’s three-parish sample were pregnant when they married or had actually given birth before their marriage. This paralleled the experience in villages and small towns in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Leicestershire and Devon. There is little evidence that pre-nuptial pregnancy was regarded as shameful or that social pressure was used to force a pregnant bride to marry quickly. Though there is some evidence of teenage promiscuity – Reay finds that about a third of pregnant brides were between 16 and 19 – it appears that most women were sexually active around the time they married rather than when they reached sexual maturity. Reay’s conclusions call into question the contemporary middle class views of Leffingwell and others that women who had illegitimate children were either deviant or powerless.

Evidence from urban Britain suggests levels of illegitimacy lower than in the countryside with London having the lowest national levels around mid-century. There was, however, considerable diversity in the urban experience. Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Portsmouth and Sheffield had low rates. Nottingham, Preston and Bolton rates were almost twice as high, though none as high as Norwich. The reasons for this are difficult to identify with certainty though there may be a link between high urban illegitimacy and levels in its rural hinterland. Both Norwich and Nottingham were in counties with high levels of illegitimacy. Of the eight counties with the highest rates in 1842, five predominantly rural counties remained in this group sixty years later: Cumberland, Norfolk, North Riding, Nottinghamshire and Shropshire. This indicates a regional dimension to sexuality that lasted through the century. However, elsewhere in urban Britain, non-marital fertility was low enough in 1851 for marriage still to be regarded as having particular importance as a regulator of sexuality. By 1911, only 4 per cent of all births were illegitimate in England and Wales. The social stigma of illegitimacy was not as pronounced as contemporary middle class commentators would have historians believe. Social attitudes to sexuality were much more complex and varied.

Pre-nuptial pregnancies were class specific. Women from higher social groups were less likely to be pregnant. Middle class observers regarded their own class as sufficiently rooted in home, work and family to prevent or at least limit pre-nuptial sex. Below this, however, pre-nuptial pregnancy and intercourse were widespread phenomena. This was seen as a challenge to established order and consequently something that needed, especially with regard to women, to be controlled. Contemporaries often looked at the working classes through the medium of illicit sexual behaviour. Engels spoke of their “unbridled search for pleasure”[5], their shared sleeping arrangements and the ways work was organised. “The moral consequences of the employment of women in factories are even worse…A witness in Leicester said that he would rather let his daughter beg than go into a factory; that they are perfect gates of hell; that most of the prostitutes of the town had their employment in the mills to than for their present situation.” Another, in Manchester, “did not hesitate to assert that three-fourths of the young factory employees, from fourteen to twenty years of age, were unchaste… If the [factory] master is mean enough…his mill is also his harem; and the fact that not all manufacturers use their power, does not in the least change the position of the girls.” [6]

The problem for writers like Engels and for reformers like James Kay and Peter Gaskell, writing in the 1830s and 1840s was that there was little evidence to support their assertions about illicit urban sexual behaviour. In addition, most of the evidence used in the debate about working class sexual behaviour comes from areas of textile production. Kay noted that though crime can be “statistically classed”, “the moral leprosy of vice cannot be exhibited with mathematical precision. Sensuality has no record…”[7]. Gaskell maintained that statistics on illegitimacy were “worse than useless” and showed higher levels of illegitimacy in rural than urban areas[8]. There is little here to support the assertions of Edward Shorter that urbanisation led to a ‘sexual revolution’[9]. Middle class anxieties were grounded in concerns about working class female sexuality and their economic autonomy. Because of their view of the proper role of women in the family, many middle class commentators focussed their criticism less on the conditions under which women laboured than on the moral and spiritual degradation said to follow from female employment. For them the dangers posed by class and changed sexual attitudes were closely linked. For evangelicals like Lord Ashley sexual freedom inevitably led to social dangers especially the loss of middle class control. Consequently, they exaggerated the situation and misread the evidence to support bourgeois, male ideological assumptions. There was a lack of concrete evidence to support the case for working class immorality or early marriages. Despite this, the sexual perspectives of Gaskell and Kay tumbled into their fears about the sexual consequences social mobility. It became “licentiousness capable of corrupting the whole body of society, like an insidious disease…”[10] Sexual freedom posed a threat to the stability of society to such an extent that[11] “Morality is worthy of the attention of the economist.”

The problem historians face is one of continuity and change. Traditional essentially pre-industrial sexual attitudes among the working class remained important throughout the nineteenth century. These can be seen particularly in rural Britain where sexual relationships could begin at betrothal and where evidence of a woman’s fertility might be economically necessary. This was gradually weakened by the transformation of working class sexual experience caused less by urbanisation than by the effects of developing industrial capitalism on society as a whole. Weeks argues, [12] “The key factor seems to have been proletarianisation rather than urbanisation, that is the generalisation of the wage-labour relationship”. There was a fall in the age of marriage from around 28 years in the 1750s to 24 by the 1820s. This increased the years of potential childbearing and he suggests these changes were motivated in part by economic factors: “children could be a positive asset, as sources of domestic labour and increased income”. He also shows the weakening of customary control over sexual relations in the context of growing social mobility where illegitimacy was often the result not of rampant promiscuity but “Marriage Frustrated”[13]. The effect of this was to diminish female control and sexual autonomy. In the second half of the nineteenth century illegitimacy and irregular marriages declined, as working class women became more conservative in their sexual behaviour. This was less the result of the diffusion of middle class values than a pragmatic response to the loss of control over the consequences of pre-nuptial relations.

In what respects did the working class adopt middle class values in the last third of the nineteenth century? Social factors such as the availability of marriage partners in areas of high emigration or persistent out-migration (throughout rural England) limited marriage levels and affected births. Limitations on marriage in certain occupational groups, for example, living-in domestic servants and farm labourers, also affected local fertility patterns. The general increase in the mean age of marriage to about 25.8 years for women and some two years higher for men by 1850, and further increases from the 1870s, reflected changing economic circumstances and the desire for more spending power and independence. There were considerable differences between industrial areas (where there were more and earlier marriages), rural areas (where marriages tended to be later). There were also differences between social classes (urban labourers and miners married young; white-collar workers, shopkeepers and working-class artisans postponed marriage until they felt able to afford it). How far these changes were the result of middle class attitudes or of the emergence of a distinctive working-class culture impervious to middle class guidance is a matter of considerable debate. The problem for historians lies in the gulf within the working class between skilled workers and, what middle class moralists called ‘the residuum’. There is evidence of the transmission of middle class moral values and the pursuit of ‘respectability’ among skilled workers. However, there is little doubt that this ideology of respectability was grounded in their general experience and growing sense of class identity. The demands of skilled workers to take an active role in local institutions were a source of social tension with the middle class. The assimilation of middle class sexual mores was not as straightforward as contemporaries believed. By 1900, it had become clear that middle class ‘civilising’ evangelism had not created a working class in its own image. Most workers were not chaste or temperate by middle class standards but by their own. The changed sexualities of the working class cannot be seen as evidence of the success of middle class social control but was produced from deeply felt experiences of the class itself.

Middle class respectability and sexual control

The question of respectability is arguably a question of desires. In 1850, The Westminster Review stated that[14]: “In men, in general, the sexual desire is inherent and spontaneous, and belongs to the condition of puberty. In the other sex, the desire is dormant, if not non-existent, till excited; always till excited by intercourse…If the passions of women were ready, strong and spontaneous, in a degree even approaching the form they assume in the coarser sex, there can be little doubt that sexual irregularities would reach a height, of which, at present, we have happily no conception.” W. R. Greg had exposed the fear felt by middle class society by the thought of unregulated female sexuality. He distinguished between active male sexuality and passive female sexuality. It had its social expression in the notion of the ‘double standard’. Sexual activity was regarded as a sign of ‘masculinity’ while in women it was represented as deviant or pathological behaviour. The concept of double standards was based on the division between madonna and whore, between the ‘respectable’ or the ‘fallen’. Women were seen as either controlling or heightening male sexual behaviour and their sexual identity determined whether they were seen as respectable members of society. This definition of female sexuality was class specific. The notion of the middle class woman’s sexual respectability was contrasted not only with the prostitute but also with all working class women especially the unrespectable poor. Working class women, like prostitutes were regarded as potential health hazards and as a general public danger because of their uncontrolled and uncontrollable breeding.

William Acton argued that sexual desire was unknown to the virtuous woman. He said that[15] “a perfect ideal of an English wife and mother…so pure-hearted as to be utterly ignorant of and averse to any sensual indulgence, but so unselfishly attached to the man she loves, as to be willing to give up her own wishes and feelings for his sake.” This image of the passionless respectable woman was, however, one aspect of a more complex view of female sexualities in the nineteenth century. Other doctors argued that respectable women did experience sexual desire and that, far from being deviant was extremely healthy. George Drysdale, an active campaigner for family limitation and a supporter of the mid-century women’s movement attacked the values of respectable morality[16]: “To have strong sexual emotions is held to be rather a disgrace for a woman, and they are looked down upon as animal, sensual, coarse and deserving reprobation. The moral emotions of love are indeed beautiful in her; but the physical ones are rather held unwomanly and debasing; this is a great error… If chastity must continue to be regarded as the highest female virtue; it is impossible to give women real liberty.” Drysdale’s view did not fit with the dominant discourse of woman’s mission. This was based on the relationship between woman’s nature and woman’s duty. Because of the ambiguity of woman’s nature, control and regulation were justified to enable women to fulfil their domestic duty. Sexual control was part of the far wider dependency of women. The issue of dependency was not one of repressive male power over women. Dependency was regarded as a natural part of respectable femininity. Male protection of women was not represented as control but as a shield to protect them against the harshness of public life. Contemporary doctors supported this view. The major features of respectable femininity were believed to develop naturally during puberty and were part of women’s biological development. Edward Tilt wrote in 1852[17] “That what makes men more bold, will generally awaken greater timidity in women. Puberty, which gives man the knowledge of greater power, gives to woman the conviction of her dependence.”

The notion of female respectability was accepted by many, though not all middle class women. Adultery was regarded as the extreme form of sexual deviancy. Female unchastity was a betrayal: betrayal of father, husband, home and family. It violated women’s femininity and its effects were both permanent and irrevocable. For women, a fall from virtue was final. Men’s natural urges and sexual lapses were seen as regrettable but unavoidable. Acton believed that male sexual impulses could be controlled but not repressed. Male adultery was accommodated within the dominant codes of morality. Male sexuality rested on the twin contradictions of motherhood and prostitution. Maternity and sexuality were separated by the representation of prostitution as existing exclusively to gratify male sexual lusts. Many Victorians believed that it was the prostitute who kept middle class women pure by satisfying the sexual needs of middle class men[18]: “Herself the supreme type of vice, she is ultimately the most efficient guardian of virtue. But for her, the unchallenged purity of countless happy homes would be polluted… On that degraded and ignoble form are concentrated the passions that might have filled the world with shame.” Prostitution acted as a sexual safety valve and did not corrupt the home in the ways in which female adultery did. This meant that adultery must be committed with a woman who was either without a family or who did not belong to the respectable classes and whose family was therefore considered to be of little account.

The view that historians until recently had of nineteenth century middle class sexuality was a caricature. Prudery, as repugnance of sexual contact and the cold, highly functional asexuality within the privacy of marriage was complemented by male permissiveness within the public arena. This is not to suggest that these attitudes were untrue but asks to what extent they were typical and representative of the experience of the middle class as a whole. The dominant attitudes to male and female sexuality were both a means of female sexual control and of male sexual license. There was, Jeffrey Weeks[19] argues “no Golden Age of sexual propriety, and the search for it in the mythologised past tells us more about present confusions than past glories.”

Sex education, family limitation and sexuality

Sex education was as contentious then as it is today. Sex education for young girls was usually assigned to their mothers. However, this was increasingly felt to be an unsatisfactory approach and by the 1890s, there was considerable support for girls being taught ‘some of the necessary physical facts’. The content of that education remained a difficult question. The Reverend Edward Lyttleton was quite clear in 1900 that more sex education was needed but that girls required less information than boys. He argued, “for most girls it would be enough for the parent to advise that the seed of life is entrusted by God to the father in a very wonderful way, and that after marriage he is allowed to give it to his wife.” The problem was that sex education was inextricably linked to different views about female sexual character and the religious emphasis on moral restraint.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century writings on birth control provide a revealing source for attitudes towards female sexuality and social roles. Supporters of birth control were seen as supporters of atheism, depravity and social unrest especially by organised religion and the medical profession. Effective birth control shattered the link between sexuality and reproduction and created the real possibility of greater sexual freedom and control for women as well as helping to reduce family size. Michael Ryan, an evangelical physician argued in 1837,[20] “None can deny that, if young women in general were absolved from the fear of consequences, the great majority of them…would rarely preserve their chastity.” Chastity according to Ryan was a consequence of fear of pregnancy. Birth control brought the possibility of unrestrained female sexuality and with it the breakdown of sexual control and social order. Medical opposition to birth control was expressed in a mixture of warnings about the injurious results for health and the associated moral decline. The Lancet, virulent in its condemnation of contraception commented in 1869[21] “A woman on whom her husband practises what is euphemistically called ‘preventative copulation’, is, in the first place necessarily brought into the condition of mind of a prostitute…” There was, however, an unresolved problem in medical thinking grounded in class. Self-denial was recommended as fertility control. However, the working class could not be expected to show restraint such was[22] “the natural predominance of the animal life in the illiterate.” Doctors were generally unwilling to recommend contraception but also assumed that there was little restraint in working class sexuality. This reinforced the widespread anxiety in the assumed sexual depravity and unrestrained breeding of the poor. Medical conservatism was illustrated when H.A. Allbutt was struck off the medical register for publicising birth-control methods in his popular The Wife’s Handbook in 1887. There were, however, strong public advocates of birth control and of the right of women to choose whether and when to have children. Francis Place and Richard Carlisle popularised methods of contraception in the 1820s. The publicity surrounding the Bradlaugh-Besant trial in 1876 was a major boost to the birth-control cause and opponents in the middle and upper classes felt increasingly pressure from what they called 'the evil in our midst'.

Religious and cultural beliefs delayed the adoption of family limitation in some sectors of society but increasing secularisation caused barriers to be broken down. The argument that family limitation represented the diffusion of birth control from the professional and upper middle classes -- the maid learning from her mistress -- to the lower classes does not stand up to close examination. Among the first to limit family size were ‘skilled’ non-manual and commercial workers (shopkeepers and clerks) who were also prominent among cautious late-marriers. There were considerable differences in marital fertility between different types of area by the late nineteenth century. Birth rates were relatively low in textile districts and residential towns, with large numbers of single women in domestic service and middle class households. This contrasts with earlier and more universal marriages with larger families among iron and steel-making and coal-mining communities. In these areas the abundant use of high-paid boys and young men in the mines reduced incentives to limit families, while fewer opportunities for female employment meant that girls married earlier.

Economic incentives limiting the number and spacing of births were strong where women were prominent in the workforce. In the mills of Lancashire or West Yorkshire or in the Potteries women might delay having children, or have a smaller family and return to work as soon as possible. Increasing numbers of women involved in shop and, from the 1890s, office work might also have deferred marriage and limited their families. Among the middle class, the increasing expense of raising children with rising costs for domestic servants and school fees, as well as a growing desire for greater freedom and more money to spend on luxuries and entertainment, were obvious incentives to having fewer children. Even within geographical areas there were often significant differences in rates of marriage. In London, there was a very close relationship between the proportion of women married and the percentage of women employed in domestic service. In middle class Hampstead, the proportion of married women was 27.4 while in Poplar, in the East End, it was 63.8 per cent in 1861 and little changed by 1891. As child mortality declined, more children survived to adult life and there was less need for large families and more incentive to put space between births to avoid excessive pressure on mothers and households. The average family size fell from 6.2 children in the 1860s, to 4.1 for those marrying in the 1890s and to 2.8 by 1911. The rapid decline in the average age at which the mother’s last child was born -- from age 41 to 34 over this period -- is a clear reflection of deliberate spacing and limitation of births within marriage.


Historians are accustomed to the ideas of the prudish, sexually repressed Victorians cautiously guarding themselves against any temptation, no matter how slight. This notion of sexuality has been successfully challenged and shown to be both inaccurate and misleading. Sex and sexuality were unavoidable issues for the Victorians. It was not until the early 1900s that scientists connected sex chromosomes to sex-linked characteristics or discovered the workings of hormones. This helps to explain why during the nineteenth century the exact nature of sex-differentiation was a subject of intense, though inconclusive debate. What exactly differentiated men from women and why the species evolved into the two sexes confounded Victorian theorists such as Herbert Spencer and Patrick Geddes. As a result, they and other specialists constructed a stereotypical dual model. Other than the different sex organs and physical differences, men were considered active agents, who expended energy while women were sedentary, storing and conserving energy. Victorian theories of evolution maintained that these feminine and masculine attributes could be traced back to the lowest forms of life. Such beliefs laid the groundwork for the separation of spheres for men and women. According to the model, since men only concerned themselves with fertilisation, they could also spend energies in other public arenas, allowing as Spencer says “the male capacity for abstract reason... along with an attachment to the idea of abstract justice... [which] was a sign of highly-evolved life.” On the other hand, woman's heavy role in pregnancy, menstruation (considered a time of illness, debilitation, and temporary insanity), and child-rearing left very little energy left for other pursuits. As a result, women's position in society came from biological evolution -- she had to stay at home in order to conserve her energy, while the man could and needed to go out and hunt or forage. This evolutionary reasoning was used to justify the emotional and mental differences between men and women. Conway shows how the logic led Geddes to believe that “Male intelligence was greater than female, men had greater independence and courage than women, and men were able to expend energy in sustained bursts of physical or cerebral activity... Women on the other hand... were superior to men in constancy of affection and sympathetic imagination... [They had] greater patience, more open-mindedness, greater appreciation of subtle details, and consequently what we call more rapid intuition.” The Victorians still, however, had to deal with the actual sexual act. Women were considered the weaker, more innocent sex in the early nineteenth century. They had little or no sexual appetite, often capturing all the sympathy and none of the blame over indiscretions. Men represented the fallen, sinful, and lustful creatures, wrongfully taking advantage of the fragility of women. However, this situation switched in the later half of the period. Women had to be held accountable, while the men, slaves to their sexual appetites, could not really be blamed. Therefore, women were portrayed either passionless or else insatiable. A young lady was only worth as much as her chastity and appearance of complete innocence. Once led astray, she was the fallen woman, and nothing could reconcile that until she died. However, in their lived experience and in contemporary fiction, Victorians recognised the complexities and contradictions in their view of their sexualities.

[1] E.A. Wrigley, R. S. Davies, J.E. Oeppen and R.S. Schofield English Population History from Family Reconstitution 1580-1837, Cambridge, 1997, pages 219-224 deals with the problems of determining levels of illegitimacy.

[2] A. Leffingwell Illegitimacy and the Influence of the Seasons upon Conduct, London, 1892.

[3] Lynda Nead Myths of Sexuality: representations of women in Victorian Britain, Oxford, 1988, especially plates 48-50.

[4] Reay Microhistories, page 180.

[5] F. Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England, Leipzig, 1845, London, 1969, page 158.

[6] Engels The Condition of the Working Class, pages 176-177.

[7] James Kay The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester, 1832, page 62.

[8] Peter Gaskell Artisans and Machinery: The Moral and Physical Conditions of the Manufacturing Population, 1836, page 100.

[9] Edward Shorter The Making of the Modern Family, London, 1976, pages 86-124.

[10] Kay The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes, pages 81-82.

[11] Kay The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes, page 82.

[12] Jeffrey Weeks Sex, Politics and Society. The regulation of sexuality since 1800, London, 1981, page 62-64.

[13] David Levine Family Formation in an Age of Nascent Capitalism, London, 1977.

[14] W.R. Greg ‘Prostitution’, The Westminster Review, volume 53, (1850), pages 456-7, quoted in Nead Myths of Sexuality, page 6.

[15] William Action The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, 4th ed., London, 1865 page114 quoted in Nead Myths of Sexuality, page 19.

[16] George Dysdale Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion: by a Student of Medicine, London, 1855, pages 172-173.

[17] Edward Tilt The Elements of Health and Principles of Female Hygiene, London, 1852, page 173.

[18] William Lecky The History of European Morals, London, 1869, volume 2, page 299.

[19] Weeks Sex, Politics and Society, pages 22-3.

[20] Michael Ryan The Philosophy of Marriage, London, 1837, page 12.

[21] ‘Checks on Population’, The Lancet, 10th April 1869, page 500.

[22] ‘Checks on Population’, page 500.

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