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The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class.

In Anna Clark's hands E. P. Thompson's romantic and triumphalist story of the making of the English working class becomes a tragic tale of a plebeian culture riven with sexual crisis in which "misogyny and patriarchy ultimately muted the radicalism of the British working class." (p. 271) It is an important revisionist statement, albeit one that in many respects remains faithful to Thompson's broader social historical project. It is tempting to suggest that, with the publication of Thompson's book over thirty years ago now, it has taken a long time for social historians to provide a gendered reading of their founding narrative.

Clark's book is thick, solid and immensely scholarly, with no less than a hundred pages of endnotes. The research is based predominantly upon the lives and labors of artisans and textile workers in London, Glasgow and Lancashire. Given the focus on these people in these places, the traditional loci of the "industrial revolution," one has a strong sense of deja vu, of knowing the genre and anticipating a familiar story retold - even the structure of the book, which predictably moves broadly from economy, family, religion, popular culture and politics, suggests that the old totalizing ambitions of social history are alive and well. And yet it is to Clark's credit that she breathes new life into this old formula, developing an argument that is original and full of elegant prose, albeit one that ultimately revolves around a rather caricatured portrayal of artisan culture.

While many will no doubt applaud Clark's diligent reclaiming of the "experience" of plebeian women, it is the masculinity of plebeian, and especially artisan culture, which lies at the heart of this book. Clark paints a grim picture of men behaving badly; drinking the fruits of their labor with little regard for their wives and children who were frequently beaten for their pains, and mocking those men who sought to improve or distance themselves from such macho pursuits. While she rejects the argument that industrialization caused such behavior - the family had always been a site of male violence and sexual conflict - she acknowledges that given the centrality of skilled labor to ideas of masculinity the increased use of cheap female and child labor in workshops and factories greatly exacerbated it. The story of the making of the British working class was one of masculinity in crisis.

Indeed, Clark is at her best when portraying responses to this crisis from the 1820s and 1830s when dissenting congregations, Owenite socialists, textile workers, trade unionists and radical politicians busily endeavored to redefine and reconstitute the meanings of working-class masculinity. This was not a simple task, and Clark is always at pains to stress that roughness and respectability were not fixed categories that neatly divided plebeian men, but were instead fluid, performative poles of behavior between which many men frequently oscillated - libertine drunk on Saturday, dutiful husband at prayer on Sunday. Nevertheless, however hazily defined, the momentum was with self-improvement as plebeian men sought to claim the moral high-ground not by embracing the Owenite creed of sexual equality but by presenting themselves as the thwarted guardians of their wives and children. At the center of such claims was the demand for a breadwinner's wage which would enable these new chivalrous men to protect their spouses from the moral pollution and economic exploitation of the workplace by allowing them to stay in the domestic sphere. It also, significantly, ensured the protection of men's jobs.

Yet, for Clark the real rhetorical significance of the demands for a masculine breadwinner's wage was its political uses by radicals and Chartists. Increasingly the Chartists' campaign for manhood suffrage was predicated upon the subordination of women to the domestic sphere; it was working men's properties as skilled workers and as responsible husbands which made them fit and proper subjects for the vote. This, she argues, inevitably limited the grounds upon which future generations claimed their political rights and tragically cast the masculine shape of modern British politics.

The book is also a defiant defense of the category of class and its centrality to British social and political history. For Clark, as for Thompson, the real formation of the working class occurs in the 1830s as a consequence of both the state's legislative construction of it with the Reform Act and the New Poor Law as well as the Chartists' mobilization of it in the campaign for the vote. Despite the echoes of Stedman Jones here, this book is firmly situated within a Thomsponian theoretical framework. In fact there is conspicuous lack of any serious or sustained theoretical reflection, as is evident from the introduction's rather confused claim that by "combining the study of working people's experience with the analysis of radical rhetoric, this book goes beyond the sterile debate about whether it is economics or language that determines class consciousness." (p. 4) No doubt many will be reassured by this reassertion of the primacy of experience and human agency but I found it less convincing, particularly as much of the book is precisely about how the category of the working class was defined largely by the state and middle-class employers and social reformers. Indeed, given the important relational quality of class identities, it was surprising that so little attention was paid to the making of the middle class, especially given the recent work of Hall, Davidoff and Wahrman.

There were inevitably other absences. One wondered how far the sexual crisis and reconstitution of masculinity and femininity spread to the countryside, and how they were variously mediated by different ethnic groups. I was not convinced that the inclusion of Glasgow and other occasional Scottish material really enabled the story to be broadened to that of the making of the British working class. That story would make no sense unless it involved a far more detailed treatment of the question of the different national identities in Britian and their various narratives of class. Perhaps we will have to wait another thirty years for that story to be told.

James Vernon University of Manchester
COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Vernon, James
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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