White, Male and Middle Class: Explorations in Feminism and History.
These last two essays do indeed focus on persons white (like virtually all persons born or resident in Victorian Britain), male, and (in some sense) middle class. In defiance of the title of the book, however, the remainder are primarily concerned with subtly altering definitions of English womanhood between the 1780s and the 1850s. (The very first essay, "The History of the Housewife," seeks schematically to encompass six centuries of Western European history in fewer than thirty pages; it did not merit republication.)
The six essays that focus on the 1780-1850 era are based on recent books and articles by numerous other scholars as well on the author's own researches in often obscure printed primary sources. They provide a helpful summary of modem scholarship on how femininity (and at times masculinity) were both defined and experienced during that era: (1) In reaction against French revolutionary thought, rapid economic change, and aristocratic corruption, English evangelicals sought to transform the home into a fortress in the battle against sin and to enhance the role of women as the moral regenerators of the kingdom. Women at the same time were expected to be "relative creatures" who served others. "Nature decreed that all women were first and foremost wives and mothers". (2) Although women had often been active in eighteenth-century business enterprises, homes and business came to be separated and, to an increasing degree, women came to be "marginalized" in trusts and partnerships, in local government, and in voluntary associations. "The separation of spheres was one of the fundamental organizing characteristics of middle-class society in late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century England". (3) Members of the working classes were influenced more by the teachings of William Cobbett than those of Mary Wollstonecraft and accepted a comparable separation of spheres. (4) As middle-class men increasingly sought independence from aristocratic control in the form of political clubs and other voluntary associations as well as the parliamentary vote, they expected women to play a supportive but subordinate role. Only the anti-slavery movement and local philanthropies provided partial exceptions. (5) Despite the hopes of many Victorians, as of 1851 at least one wife in four and two single women (or widows) in three remained part of the workforce--as milliners, dressmakers, shopkeepers, innkeepers, governesses, and teachers. by the 1850s middle-class feminist reformers increasingly sought both to legitimate and to expand the number of occupations open to women as well as to alter their legal status. In the meantime, for many middle-class women "marriage was a partnership, a partnership without legal guarantees but nevertheless the basis of most successful family enterprises".
In what ways has Catherine Hall advanced the cause of feminist scholarship? She is certainly right to suggest that three or four decades ago most mainstream historians were less preoccupied than is the case today with the precise roles played by women of different social classes in public and private life. and yet, would readers of Wanda Neff's Victorian Working Women (1929), Ivy Pinchbeck's Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 (1930), and Maurice Quinlan's Victorian Prelude (1941) have been surprised by any of her conclusions? Recent scholarship has filled in much illustrative detail without significantly altering the outline of the story. Analogously, in her final two essays, ought Catherine Hall herself have been surprised to learn that upholders of national identity "can only recognize themselves in relation to others" or that even the most humble of missionaries must, by definition, see themselves as superior (at least in insight and religious awareness) to those whom they seek to convert?
What modern feminist scholarship appears to require, however, is to have both truisms and eminently sensible conclusions wrapped up in fashionable jargon. E.g. during the mid-Victorian years, "English identity was constructed through the active silencing of the disruptive relations of ethnicity, of gender and of class". What it also appears to require is an ever present awareness of the changing theoretical assumptions that have affected it since it emerged from the Marxist New Left of the 1960s. In "Feminism and Feminist History," the engaging, ingenuous, and frustrating apologia that introduces this collection, the author touches on successive stages: (1) transforming a political movement into an academic subject; (2) collectively "putting women back into the historical picture"; (3) encountering unresolved conflicts--between equality and distinctiveness--in modern feminism; (4) addressing "the psychological dimension"; (5) coming to terms with Foucault; (6) dealing with the challenge of the black feminists; (7) coping with the assumptions of post-structuralism.
Catherine Hall is ecumenically eager to take all approaches into account without acknowledging that several may be mutually exclusive. Indeed at no time does she ever publicly take issue with another historian, male or female; nor does she wield irony as a rhetorical weapon. As she concedes, almost with embarrassment, in footnote 8 of her final essay, at heart she remains an old-fashioned empirical historian. She knows that, however elusive ultimate truth may be, historians who carefully weigh the available evidence may still emerge with valuable generalizations. Catherine Hall has done much to illuminate early nineteenth-century societal assumptions and practices in Britain, but in her future writings she would be well advised to play to her strengths and to leave to others most of the jargon and all of the theorizing.
Walter L. Arnstein University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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|Author:||Arnstein, Walter L.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1994|
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