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Golden age to separate spheres? A review of the categories and chronology of English women's history*

  • Amanda Vickery (a1)

Two very powerful stories structure the history of the changing roles of English women. The tale of the nineteenth-century separation of the spheres of public power and private domesticity relates principally to the experience of middle-class women. The other story, emerging from early modern scholarship, recounts the social and economic marginalization of propertied women and the degradation of working women as a consequence of capitalism. Both narratives echo each other in important ways, although strangely the capacity of women's history to repeat itself is rarely openly discussed. This paper critically reviews the two historiographies in order to open debate on the basic categories and chronologies we employ in discussing the experience, power and identity of women in past time.

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1 Welter, B., ‘The cult of true womanhood, 1820–60’, American Quarterly, XVIII (1966), 151–74.

2 See especially Lerner, G., ‘The lady and the mill girl: changes in the status of women in the age of Jackson’, Midcontinent American Studies Journal, X (1969), 515.

3 Cott, N. F., The bonds of womanhood: woman's sphere in New England, 1780–1835 (New Haven, 1977). Pp. 19100.

4 Ryan, M., Cradle of the middle class: the family in Oneida County, New York, 1790–1865 (Cambridge, 1981), p. 15.

5 Ibid. p. 239.

6 In this vein, consider Smith, D. Scott, ‘Family limitation, sexual control and domestic feminism in Victorian America’, in Hartman, M. and Banner, L. (eds), Clio's consciousness raised: new perspectives on the history of women (New York, 1974), pp. 119–36; and Cott, N. F., ‘Passionlessness: an interpretation of Victorian sexual ideology’, Signs, IV (1978), 219–36.

7 For the quotation, see Cott, , Bonds, p. 1. But consider also pp. 100 and 197.

8 Smith-Rosenberg, C., ‘The female world of love and ritual: relations between women in nineteenth-century America’, Signs, I (1975), 129. For the quotation, see 9–10.

9 Cott, Read, Bonds, pp. 160206.

10 Hewitt, N. A., ‘Beyond the search for sisterhood: American women's history in the 1980s’, Social History, X (1985), 301. Hewitt's extensive bibliography is testimony to the remarkably wide currency of these concepts and categories and the extent of uncritical acceptance and repetition. Her analysis of the development of the field is astute and convincing. Consequently, it is all the more surprising that Hewitt herself takes it as read that the interpretation fits the experience of most wealthy, white women, while rejecting this framework for the study of black and non-bourgeois women. The orthodox picture of bourgeois shackles is necessary to Hewitt's conception of working-class resistance. Working women refused to be taken in by domestic ideology as peddled by middle-class women.

11 Wrightson, K., English society 1580–1680 (1982), p. 92. See also Larminie, V., ‘Marriage and the family: the example of the seventeenth-century Newdigates’, Midland History, IX (1984), 122, and Wall, A., ‘Elizabethan precept and feminine practice: The Thynne family of Longleat’, in History, LXXV (1990), 2338.

12 Degler, C. N., ‘What ought to be and what was: women's sexuality in the nineteenth century’, American Historical Review, LXXIX (1974), 1490. Another widely cited, but apparently unheeded, article has stressed the possible difference between what a woman was told to do, what she thought she was doing and what she actually did: Mechling, J., ‘Advice to historians on advice to mothers’, Journal of Social History, IX (1979), 4463.

13 Cott, , Bonds, p. 197.

14 Kerber, L., ‘Separate sphere, female worlds, woman's place: the rhetoric of women's history’, Journal of American History, LXXV (1988), 939. The implications for future research were raised by Kerber, L., Cott, N., Gross, R., Hunt, L., Smith-Rosenberg, C., Stansell, C. M., ‘Forum. Beyond roles, beyond spheres: thinking about gender in the early republic’, William and Mary Quarterly, XLVI (1989), 565–85. The burden of Kerber's argument is that we should regard ‘separate spheres’ primarily as a rhetorical device, which people called upon to express power relations for which they had no other words. However, she thinks we should not regard ‘separate spheres’ as a satisfactory explanatory framework, since it obscures a great deal more than it illumines and its continued use prevents us from moving on to more satisfying analyses. ‘To continue to use the language of separate spheres is to deny the reciprocity between gender and society and to impose a static model on dynamic relationships’ (pp. 37–9). My argument endorses Kerber's at certain key points, although Kerber is primarily concerned with language and discursive strategies, while I have a greater interest in social and economic history and want to retain a focus on female behaviour. Obviously, my piece also differs from hers in its focus on England and in its preoccupation with chronologies of change from 1700 to 1900.

15 The argument has its analogue for working-class women in the debates around the rise of the male breadwinner and the family wage, however for reasons of space this material has not been discussed. A summary of the debate can be found in Roberts, E., Women's work, 1840–1940 (Basingstoke, 1988).

16 Houghton, W. E., The Victorian frame of mind, 1830–1870 (New Haven, 1957), pp. 341–93; Jaeger, Muriel, Before Victoria: changing standards and behaviour, 1787–1837 (London, 1956), pp. 113–30; Quinlan, Maurice, Victorian prelude: a history of English manners, 1700–1830 (New York, 1941), pp. 139–59.

17 The classic work on vulnerable and cloistered femininity is Vicinus, M. (ed.), Suffer and be still: women in the Victorian age (Bloomington, Indiana, 1972). The socialization of trainee domesticates is the theme of Gorham, D., The Victorian girl and the feminine ideal (Bloomington, Indiana, 1983) and Hunt, F. (ed.), Lessons for life: the schooling of girls and women, 1850–1950 (Oxford, 1987). On the inhibition of female sexuality and physical activity, read Trudgill, E., Madonnas and magdalens: the origins and development of Victorian sexual attitudes (1976), pp. 6578, Duffin, L., ‘The conspicuous consumptive: woman as invalid’, in Delamont, S. and Duffin, L. (eds), The nineteenth-century woman: her cultural and physical world (1978), pp. 2656, and Roberts, H. E., ‘The exquisite slave: the role of clothes in the making of the Victorian woman’, Signs, II (1977), 554—69. On the rigid demarcation of public and private physical space, see Clark, A., Women's silence, men's violence: sexual assault in England, 1770–1845 (1987).

18 Hall, C., ‘Gender divisions and class formation in the Birmingham middle class, 1780–1850’, in Samuel, R. (ed.), People's history and socialist theory (1981), p. 174. See also idem, ‘The early formation of Victorian domestic ideology’, in S. Burman (ed.), Fit work for women (1977), pp. 15–32. These and other notable articles have been republished in Hall, C. (ed.), White, male and middle class: explorations in feminism and history (Oxford, 1992). Together these articles constitute one of the most undiluted statements on capitalism, class formation and female marginalization hitherto published.

19 See Vicinus, M., ‘One life to stand beside me: emotional conflicts in first generation college women in England’, Feminist Studies, VIII (1982), 603–28, and idem, ‘Distance and desire: English boarding school friendships’, Signs, IX (1984), 600–22.

20 Vicinus, M., Independent women: work and community for single women, 1850–1920 (1985), p. 3; Shanley, M., Feminism, marriage and the law in Victorian England (1989), pp. 67; Horowitz, J., Strongminded women: and other lost voices from nineteenth-century England (Harmondsworth, 1984), p. 5.

21 Strachey, R., The cause: a short history of the women's movement in Great Britain (1978).

22 For a brief, but suggestive, discussion of the vocabulary of feminist autobiography, see Dyhouse, C., Feminism and the family in England, 1880–1939 (Oxford, 1989), pp. 1416.

23 The problems such portraits present to historians are glimpsed in a telling comparison by Carol Dyhouse. She observes that Vera Brittain's retrospective autobiography written in 1933 attributes much more pent-up frustration to her younger self growing up in Edwardian Buxton, than was ever expressed in the diary written at the time, which in fact conveys ‘an image of a thoughtful but very exuberant young girl, much involved in dancing parties and pretty clothes’: Dyhouse, C., ‘Mothers and daughters in the middle-class home, c. 1870–1914’, in Lewis, J. (ed.), Labour and love: women's experiences of home and family, 1850–1940 (Oxford, 1986), p. 42. For a cautionary note about over-reliance on those writings shaped by the fashion for looking back in anger, see Tosh, J., ‘Domesticity and manliness in the Victorian middle-class’, in Roper, M. and Tosh, J. (eds), Manful assertions: masculinities in Britain since 1800 (1991), pp. 60–1.

24 Particularly striking in this vein is work of the so-called ‘new’ art historians. On the nineteenth-century ideology of domesticity, read Cherry, D., ‘Picturing the private sphere’, Feminist Art News, V (1982), 511, Nead, L., Myths of sexuality: representations of women in Victorian Britain (Oxford, 1988), especially pp. 1247, and Parker, R., The subversive stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine (1984). For a wholesale acceptance of the separate spheres framework, consider Wolff, J., ‘The culture of separate spheres: the role of culture in nineteenth-century public and private life’, in Wolff, J., and Seed, J. (eds), The culture of capital: art, power and the nineteenth-century middle class (Manchester, 1988), pp. 117–34.

25 See Branca, P., ‘Image and reality: the myth of the idle Victorian woman’, in Hartman, and Banner, (eds), Clio's consciousness raised, 179–91 and idem, Silent sisterhood: middle-class women and the Victorian home (1975).

26 Peterson, M. J., ‘No angels in the house: the Victorian myth and the Paget women’, American Historical Review, LXXXIX (1984), 693.

27 The earnest enterprise and managerial skill of which Victorian women were capable is amply demonstrated by Prochaska, F. K., Women and philanthropy in nineteenth-century England (Oxford, 1980) and Summers, A., ‘A home from home: women's philanthropic work in the nineteenth century’ in Burman, S. (ed.), Fit work for women (1977), pp. 3363. Ladies who displayed gumption, if not ‘political correctness’, are the subject of Birkett, D., Spinsters abroad: Victorian lady explorers (Oxford, 1989) and Hammerton, A. J., Emigrant gentlewomen (1979).

28 Thane, P., ‘Late Victorian women’, in Gourvish, T. R. and O'Day, A. (eds), Later Victorian Britain, 1867–1900 (Basingstoke, 1988), pp. 175208.

29 See Jalland, P., Women, marriage and politics, 1860–1914 (Oxford, 1986); Caine, B., Destined to be wives: the sisters of Beatrice Webb (Oxford, 1988); Peterson, , Family, love and work in the lives of Victorian gentlewomen (Bloomington, Indiana, 1989). And despite the authors' assumptions, the following contain copious evidence of female diversity Rose, P., Parallel lives: five Victorian marriages (New York, 1983), and Horowitz, Strong-minded women.

30 Tosh, , ‘Domesticity and manliness’, pp. 50–1.

31 Pugh, M., The tories and the people, 1880–1935 (Oxford, 1985), p. 48. He concludes that ‘the stereotyped view of men who go boldly out into the world and women who love to stay at home disintegrates upon close examination of several late Victorian marriages’.

32 Trollope, A., The Belton estate (1865; Oxford, 1991), p. 132.

33 This conclusion is expressed most forcibly by Larminie, , ‘Marriage and the family’, p. 18.

34 Consider, Smith, F. B., ‘Sexuality in Britain, 1800–1900: some suggested revisions’, in Vicinus, M. (ed.), A widening sphere: changing roles of Victorian women (Bloomington, Indiana, 1977), pp. 182–98.

35 Vicinus, M., ‘Introduction’, in Vicinus, M. (ed.), A widening sphere, p. xix.

36 Peterson, , ‘No angels’, p. 708.

37 Pugh, , Tories and the people, p. 47.

38 See Guest, R. and John, A., Lady Charlotte: a biography of the nineteenth century (1989). This study reproduces some of the very few instances I have ever seen of a woman actually debating with herself over domestic duty. Charlotte Guest sometimes claimed to be ‘quite careless of all but matters of domestic solicitude’ or recorded that ‘to remain in quiet and undisturbed pursuance of my duties is now my only wish’ (p. 33). However, as the authors shrewdly point out, these pious statements ‘almost invariably followed a particularly active period of literary or business activity and were at the same time one way of adjusting to the fact that she was about to produce yet another child.’ Perhaps, therefore, it will be focused studies like this which will help us assess the interaction of conventional lip-service and ‘unconventional’ behaviour in the future.

39 See Florence Nightingale, Cassandra, republished in Ray Strachey, The cause.

40 Rendall, J., ‘Friendship and politics: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827–91) and Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829–1925)’, in Mendus, S. and Rendall, J. (eds), Sexuality and subordination: interdisciplinary studies of gender in the nineteenth century (1989), pp. 136–70. See also the response by Rendall, and Mendus, to Peterson's, ‘No angels’, pp. 131–5.

41 The importance of the radical political heritage in the world view of Parkes and Leigh Smith is elaborated in Rendall, J., ‘A moral engine? feminism, liberalism and the English woman's journal’, in Rendall, J. (ed.), Equal or different: women's politics, 1800–1914 (Oxford, 1987), pp. 112–38. The argument that radical reform constituted the cradle of mid-Victorian liberal feminism is made most forcibly by Harrison, B., ‘A genealogy of reform in modern Britain’, in Bolt, C. & Drescher, S. (eds), Anti-slavery, religion and reform: essays in honour of Roger Anstey (Connecticut, 1980). But the contribution of a radical family background is also raised by Banks, O., Becoming a feminist: the social origins of the first wave of feminism (1986), p. 33, and discussed with some sensitivity in Levine, P., Feminist lives in Victorian England: private roles and public commitment (Oxford, 1990), pp. 1541.

42 In a similar vein, Sally Alexander has reflected that ‘the emergence of mass female politics is often attributed to the effects of the industrial revolution and the ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie. The former by separating work and home, the latter by instilling ideas of domesticity among the working classes, allocated women to the private and public domains respectively. But we come closer to the terrain of feminist grievance and capture a decisive moment in its political temporality if we examine the forms of working-class politics themselves in the 1830s and 40s, and their language of demand and aspiration.’ See Alexander, S., ‘Women, class and sexual differences in the 1830s and 40s: some reflections on the writing of a feminist history’, History Workshop Journal, XVIII (1984), 130.

43 Lewis, J., ‘Reconstructing women's experience’, in , Lewis (ed.), Labour and love, p. 20.

44 The locus classicus is Brewer, J., Party, ideology and popular politics at the accession of George III (Cambridge, 1976). For more on the theory of the public sphere of politics, see Habermas, J., ‘The public sphere’, New German Critique, III (1974), 4555 and Eley, G., ‘Rethinking the political: social history and political culture in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain’, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte, XXI (1981), 427–57. For an enlightening review of the burgeoning literature, see Goodman, D., ‘Public sphere and private life: towards a synthesis of current historiographical approaches to the old regime’, History and Theory, XXXI (1992), 120.

45 Davidoff, L. and Hall, C., Family fortunes: men and women of the English middle class, 1780–1850 (1987).

46 Ibid. p. 29.

47 Ibid. p. 28.

48 The modern historical vision of class making through the interaction of radical politics and economic transformation was set forth by Thompson, E. P., The making of the English working class, (1963), and held sway for almost 20 years. However, many historians have been doubtful about the relationship between the sociology of class and the language of politics: a scepticism which has been particularly pronounced since the publication of G. Stedman Jones, ‘Rethinking chartism’; in idem, Languages of class: studies in English working class history, 1832–1982 (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 90–178. Attempts to defend the conventional class project include, Kirk, N., ‘In defence of class: a critique of recent writing on the nineteenth-century English working class’, International Review of Social History, XXXII (1987), 247 and Gray, R., ‘The languages of factory reform in Britain, c. 1830–60’, in Joyce, P. (ed.), The historical meanings of work (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 143–79.

49 For a readable synthesis of recent scholarship, consult Thompson, F. M. L., The rise of respectable society: a social history of Britain, 1830–1900 (1988).

50 A wealth of data on the early modern middling sort is in Earle, P., The making of the English middle class: business, society and family life in London, 1660–1730 (1989). On the domestic preoccupations and associational lives of commercial families before 1800, see especially Hunt, M., ‘English urban families in trade, 1600–1800: the social relations of early modern capitalism’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, New York University, 1986). While Hunt's thesis was conceived within the framework bequeathed by nineteenth-century historians – an emergent middle class is linked to a novel separation of the public and private spheres, c. 1600–1800, Hunt marshalls much evidence which undermines the claim that nineteenth-century middle-class culture was the result of evangelicalism, the French revolution and the factory. Moreover, Hunt has since modified her earlier view of increasing female marginalization over the eighteenth century, see Hunt, ‘Women and trade in eighteenth-century England (unpublished conference paper, Eighth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, June 1990). Despite the authors’ assumptions about separating spheres, further useful information on commercial families before Victoria can be found in D'Cruz, S., The middling sort in provincial England: politics and social relations in Colchester, 1730–1800’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Essex, 1990) and Smail, J., ‘From the middling to the middle: class formation in Halifax, Yorkshire in the century before the industrial revolution’ (unpublished D.Phil, Stanford University, 1988).

51 Davidoff and Hall drew heavily on the then unpublished work of R. J. Morris. This has since appeared as Morris, R. J., Class, sect and party: the making of the British middle class, Leeds 1820–50 (Manchester, 1990), which stresses the role of voluntary associations, while underestimating their significance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

52 Cannon, J., Aristocratic century: the peerage of eighteenth-century England (Cambridge, 1984), p. 15.

53 In ignoring the gentry, Davidoff and Hall are not alone. One of the only historians to address the ambivalent position of the gentry is E. P. Thompson on the ‘agrarian bourgeoisie’, see idem, ‘Eighteenth-century England society: class struggle without class?’, Social History, III (1978), 162.

54 Vickery, A.J., ‘Women of the local elite in Lancashire, 1750–1825’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 1991).

55 Wilson, R.G., ‘Towards an economic history of country house building in the eighteenth century’ (unpublished seminar paper, Eighteenth Century Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London University, 10, 1988); Wilson, R.G., Gentlemen merchants: the merchant community in Leeds, 1700–1830 (Manchester, 1971), pp. 194237; Fiske, J. (ed.), The Oakes diaries: business, politics and the family in Bury St Edmunds, 1778–1800 (Woodbridge, 1990), pp. 191200.

56 Perhaps manufacturers became progressively frozen out of land-based polite society. Indeed, it is Wilson's contention that while the Yorkshire elite could easily absorb greater merchants in the eighteenth century, it drew the line at manufacturers in the nineteenth. Certainly, a literary distinction between genteel merchants and vulgar manufacturers had popular currency throughout the period. The commentator and cleric Josiah Tucker, for example, distinguished in 1757 between ‘farmers, freeholders, tradesmen and manufacturers in middling life and… wholesale dealers, merchants and all persons of landed estates…in genteel life’, Tucker, , Instructions for travellers (1757), p. 26. Meanwhile, novelists sympathetic to trade made heroes of merchants at the expense of new manufacturers: Raven, J., ‘English popular literature and the image of business, 1760–90’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1985). See especially the case study of Mrs Gomershull of Leeds, pp. 281–317. Nevertheless, the experience of the Preston cotton manufacturers John and Samuel Horrocks, whose children married into clerical and Domesday families, suggests the continued inclusiveness of Lancashire high society, a feature which has been remarked by other studies of the county: Joyce, P., Work, society and politics: the culture of the factory in later Victorian England (1980), pp. 150.

57 Rostow, W. W., ‘The take-off into self-sustained growth’, Economic Journal, LXVI (1956), 2548.

58 A prime example is Perkin, H., The origins of modern English society: 1780–1880 (1969).

59 Fores, Read M., ‘The myth of a British industrial revolution’, History, LXVI (1981), 181–98 and Cannadine, D., ‘The present and the past in the English industrial revolution, 1880–1980’, Past and Present, CIII (1985), 131–72. Recently, however, there has been an attempt to resurrect the idea of economic transformation, see Berg, M. and Hudson, P., ‘Rehabilitating the industrial revolution’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., XLV (1992), 2450.

60 For Davidoff and Hall's account of the construction of the independent economic man, see Family fortunes, pp. 198–271. A swift introduction to some of the structures and processes of the early modern economy, can be gained via Dickson, P. G. M., The financial revolution in England: a study in the development of public credit (1967); Pressnell, L., English country banking in the industrial revolution (1956); , H & Mui, L., Shops and shopkeeping in eighteenth-century England (1989); Chartres, J. A., Internal trade in England, 1500–1700 (1971); and Hunt, M., ‘Time-management, writing and accounting in the eighteenth-century English trading family: a bourgeois enlightenment’, in Business and Economic History, 2nd ser., XVIII (1989), 150–9.

61 For example, Dod, and Cleaver's, Household government (1614) made it clear that while a husband was to ‘Travel, seek a living… get money and provisions… deal with many men… dispatch all things outdoor’, a wife's duties were to ‘keep the house…talk with few… boast of silence… be a saver… oversee and give order within.’ (I am indebted to Susan Lippit for this reference). The notion of women as guardian of the family's heart and virtue was also well-established. In 1697, Mary Astell cited the mother's crucial influence over men in childhood as reason enough to support any scheme to improve female education: Astell, M., A serious proposal to the ladies, for the advancement of their true and greatest interest by a lover of her sex (1697), p. 97. Addison, Steele and many other writers of courtesy literature glamorized the pure domestic woman in the early decades of the eighteenth century. At mid-century Thomas Marriott praised women for their superior purity, their crucial role as mothers and their smiling guardianship of the sanctuary of the home. Women's virtue, he asserted, was vital to the preservation of the state and the British race. This exemplary virtue justified female efforts to reform society's morals: Marriott, T., Female conduct, being an essay on the art of pleasing practised by the fair sex (1759).

62 British Library, HHMS (1804), Letter from Emily Duchess of Leinster to Hon. Caroline Fox. (I am indebted to Stella Tillyard for this reference.)

63 Quoted in Quinlan, , Victorian prelude, p. 255. For further instances see ibid. pp. 254–80.

64 Quoted in Jaeger, , Before Victoria, p. 37.

65 Colley, L., Britons: forging the nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven, 1992), pp. 237–81.

66 Davidoff, , ‘The separation of home and work? Landladies and lodgers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’, in Burman, (ed.), Fit work, pp. 6497. This study serves as a reminder ‘that there is no natural or fixed separation between a private and public sphere’ (at p. 93).

67 Davidoff, and Hall, , Family fortunes, pp. 107–48.

68 Ibid. p. 119.

69 Colley, , Britons, p. 281.

70 Ruskin, J., ‘Of Queens' Gardens’, in Sesame and lilies (1907), pp. 71, 60.

71 Gissing, G., The odd women (1893; 1980), p. 135.

72 Consider the contemporary arguments relayed in Lewis, J. (ed.), Before the vote was won: arguments for and against women's suffrage (1987) and Harrison, B., Separate spheres: the opposition to women's suffrage in Britain (1978).

73 See Engels, F., Origin of the family, private property and the state (1972), passim, and the introduction by M. Chaytor and J. Lewis to the 1982 Routledge edition of Clark, A., Working life of women in the seventeenth century, pp. ix–xliii.

74 For a summary of orthodox views on this topic, see Hill, B., Women, work and sexual politics in the eighteenth century (Oxford, 1990), pp. 2468. The saga of decline and fall in the corn belt has been most recently articulated by Snell, K., Annals of the labouring poor: social change and agrarian England, 1660–1900 (New York, 1978), especially in idem, ‘Agricultural seasonal unemployment, the standard of living, and women's work in the South and East, 1690–1860’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., XXXIV (1981), 407–37. Consider also Roberts, M., ‘Sickles and scythes: women's work and men's work at harvest time’, History Workshop Journal, VII (1979), 328. The authority on the impact of new technology on women's industrial work remains Pinchbeck, , Women workers, pp. 111239.

75 Hufton, O., ‘Women in history: early modern Europe’, Past and Present, CI (1983), 126; Bennett, J., ‘History that stands still: women's work in the European past’, Feminist Studies, XIV (1988), 269–83. Others have since followed suit in discussion pieces and reviews. See Thomas, J., ‘Women and capitalism: oppression or emancipation? a review article’, Comparative Studies in Social History, XXX (1990), 534–49; Rendall, J., ‘Women's history beyond the cage’, History, LXXV (1990), 6372; Vickery, A. J., ‘The neglected century: writing the history of eighteenth-century women’, Gender and history, III (1991), 211–19; Thane, P., ‘The history of the gender division of labour in Britain: reflections on ‘herstory’ in accounting: the first eight years’, Accounting, Organizations and Society, XVII (1992), 299312; Honeyman, K. and Goodman, J., ‘Women's work, gender conflict and labour markets in Europe, 1500–1900’, Economic History Review, XLIV (1991), 608–28.

76 The different economic experiences of families headed by specialist and non-specialist rural labourers is suggested by the excellent, Smith, A. Hassell, ‘Labourers in late sixteenth-century England: a case study from north Norfolk, parts one and two’, Continuity and Change, IV (1989), 1152, 367–94. Much less work has been done on pastoral regions, which is ironic since these were traditional areas of high female employment. Nevertheless, even at this stage of research it seems unlikely that female predominance in the dairy was seriously threatened until therise of big commercial dairies in the later nineteenth century. See Valenze, D., ‘The art of women and the business of men: women's work and the dairy industry, c. 1740–1840’, Past and Present, CXXX (1991), 142–69. In addition, research on agricultural work also has a profound bias towards the south and east. Yet it is clear that the north and west has a very different history. Roughly speaking, this part of the country was more often characterized by a rugged terrain, higher rainfall, poorer soils, coal deposits, successful proto-industry and later the classic factories, and startling urban growth. A chronology for women's work based on enclosure, the decline of handicraft manufacturing, and the exacerbation of rural poverty therefore seems most unhelpful.

77 Smith, Hassell, ‘Labourers’, p. 377. See also Bennett, , Women in the medieval English countryside: gender and household in Brigstock before the plague (Oxford, 1987).

78 The vast majority of the worsted handspinners of Yorkshire and the lacemakers of Devon were not married to men in textile-related trades. For the Devon findings, see Sharpe, P., ‘Literally spinsters: a new interpretation of local economy and demography in Colyton in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., XXXXIV (1991), 4665. The Yorkshire findings are those of John Styles based on an examination of Yorkshire convictions for the false reeling of worsted, see W.Y.R.O. QE15/1–13 (1777–81), QE 15/39 (1795) and QE 15/40 (1797). For the vast majority of married spinners who were convicted, husbands' occupations are also given. From this information it was calculated that well over two-thirds of convicted wives were married to men outside the textile trades. Since there is no reason to believe that convicts were not broadly representative of worsted spinners as a whole, this data must cast doubt on the automatic assumption of widespread family production units before the factory. (Personal communication.)

79 Cautions against reading hard work as a simple index of power and status are in Faragher, J. M., ‘History from the insight out: writing the history of women in rural America’, American Quarterly, XXXIII (1981), 548, and Bennett, J., ‘Medieval women, modern women: across the great divide’, in Aers, D., Culture and History, 1350–1600: essays on English communities, identities and writing (1992), p. 169.

80 Berg, M., ‘Women's work, mechanisation and the early phase of industrialisation in England’, in Joyce, P. (ed.), The historical meanings of work (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 6498.

81 Earle, P., ‘The female labour market in London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., XLII (1989), 328–52.

82 Nor should the particular marginalization of the late eighteenth century be seen as a unique cataclysm, the moment when capitalism tossed labouring women aside. Rather, there were several moments in the last millenium when women were drawn into the formal economy in enormous numbers only to be dispensed with when demographic conditions or technological innovations rendered their contribution less vital. A fluctuating pattern of mass female engagement in different areas of the formal economy is suggested by the work of Shelaigh Ogilvie on early modern Germany and Jeremy Goldberg on later medieval England: Ogilvie, S. C., ‘Women and proto-industrialisation in a corporate society: Wurtenberg woollen weaving, 1590–1760’, in Hudson, P. and Lee, W. R. (eds), Women's work and the family economy in historical perspective (Manchester, 1990), pp. 76103, and Goldberg, J., ‘‘For fairer or laither’: marriage and economic opportunity for women in later medieval Yorkshire’ (unpublished seminar paper, Women's History Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London University, 11, 1991).

83 See , Clark, ‘Working life’, pp. 14, 41, 296. Interestingly, Clark included the aristocracy and nouveau riche businessmen in her category of ‘capitalists’ since the two groups approximated to each other in manners, see pp. 14–41.

84 Consider Amussen, S., An ordered society: gender and class in early modem England (Oxford, 1988), 187; C. Hall, ‘The history of the housewife’, in idem, White, male and middle class, pp. 43–71; George, M., Women in the first capitalist society: experiences in seventeenth-century England (Brighton, 1988), pp. 110; , Hill, Women, work and sexual politics, pp. 4952, 78–80, 126–9, 245–9. On ‘the restriction of women's professional and business activities at the end of the eighteenth century’, see , Pinchbeck, Women's work, pp. 303–5. And on the ambition of the wealthier farmer's wife to achieve ‘gentility’ by having ‘nothing to do’, see pp. 33–40.

85 Stone, L., The family, sex and marriage in England, 1500–1800 (1977), p. 396.

86 George, M., ‘From goodwife to mistress: the transformation of the female in bourgeois culture’, Science and Society, XXXVII (1973), 6.

87 Shevelow, K., Women and print culture: the construction of femininity in the early periodical (1989), pp. 5 and 1.

88 N. Armstrong, ‘The rise of the domestic woman’, in idem, Desire and domestic fiction: a political history of the novel (Oxford, 1987), pp. 59–95; Jones, V. (ed.), Women in the eighteenth century: constructions of femininity (1990), pp. 1011; R. Ballaster, M. Beetham, E. Frazer and S. Hebron, ‘Eighteenth-century women's magazines’, in idem, Women's worlds: ideology, femininity and the women's magazine (Basingstoke, 1991), pp. 43–74; , Shevelow, Women and print culture, pp. 53–7.

89 , Clark, ‘Working life’, pp. 3541.

90 On English traditions, consult Amy Erickson, ‘Common law versus common practice: the use of marriage settlements in early modern England’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., XLIII (1990), 2139. For a thoughtful analysis of the different considerations which could be at work when a male testator drew up a will, read Main, Gloria, ‘Widows in rural Massachusetts on the eve of therevolution’, in Hoffman, R. and Albert, P. J. (eds), Women in the age of American revolution (Charlottesville, Virginia, 1989), pp. 6790.

91 Defoe, D., The complete English tradesman (1726), p. 348. On the ‘displeasing spectacle of idle womanhood’, see also Earle, P., The world of Defoe (1976), pp. 244–5, and , George, ‘Good wife to mistress’, pp. 157–9. Much useful material is in Nussbaum, F., The brink of all we hate: satires on women, 1660–1750 (Lexington, Kentucky, 1984).

92 For an introduction to the debate on Luxury, see Sekora, J., Luxury: the concept in western thought, Eden to Smollett (Baltimore, 1977).

93 Childs, F., ‘Prescriptions for manners in English courtesy literature, 1690–1760, and their social implications’ (unpublished D.Phil, thesis, Oxford University, 1984), pp. 285–7. Margaret Hunt also argues that interest in women's moral influence was increasing over the eighteenth century, Hunt, M., ‘Thesis’, pp. 240–55, but sees in this the triumph of Puritan-bourgeois expectations.

94 Legates, M., ‘The cult of womanhood in eighteenth-century thought’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, I (1976), 2139.

95 A salutary development in this context is the attempt to recover the history of thereader herself. Two essays which contest the conventional image of the leisured reader passively ingesting eighteenth-century texts in private are N. Tadmor, ‘Household reading and eighteenth-century novels’, and J. Brewer, ‘Anna Larpent: representing thereader’, both in J. Raven, N. Tadmor and H. Small (eds), The practice and representation of reading in Britain: essays in history and literature (forthcoming). An important study of the modern reader is Radway, J. A., ‘Women read theromance: the interaction of text and context’, Feminist Studies, LX (1983), 5378.

96 Coleman, D. C., ‘Proto-industrialization: a concept too many’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., XXXVI (1983), 435–48. See also Samuel, R., ‘Workshop of the world: steam power and hand technology in mid-Victorian Britain’, History Workshop Journal, III (1977), 672.

97 See Earle, ‘Female labour market’ and Goldberg, ‘Marriage and economic opportunity’. Earle, however, assumes that there was a time when women were numerous in masculine trades. He also takes the ‘no smoke without fire’ attitude to the plethora of pamphlets complaining about wealthy, unemployed womanhood. Dubious circumstantial evidence is found in the growth of the silk industry; but a woman need not be idle all day to wear a silk dress all evening.

98 on the generation of income, see Earle, P., The making of the English middle class: business, society and family life in London, 1660–1730 (1989), pp. 158–74, and Holderness, B. A., ‘Credit in a rural community, 1660–1800’, Midland History, III (1975), 94115. The difficulties faced by active businesswomen are richly elaborated in Hunt, ‘Women in trade’.

99 Vickery, , ‘Thesis’, pp. 175219. In fact, the female contribution is remarkably similar to those female activities described by Davidoff, and Hall, as the ‘hidden investment’ in nineteenth-century enterprises: Family fortunes, pp. 272320.

100 on women's work as housekeepers and consumers, see Vickery, , ‘Thesis’, pp. 175219, and idem, ‘Women and the world of goods: a Lancashire consumer and her possessions, 1751–81’, in Brewer, J. and Porter, R. (eds), Consumption and the world of goods: consumption and society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (London, 1993), pp. 274301.

101 See , Vickery, Thesis, pp. 131–74, 278–331.

102 Lancashire Record Office, DDB/72/175 (26.2.1763), W. Ramsden, Charterhouse to E. Parker, Alkincoats. For a gloss on this letter and others like it, see Vickery, , ‘Thesis’, pp. 110–13, 172–3.

103 L.R.O., DDB/72/23 6 (1770), B. Ramsden, Charterhouse to E. Shackleton, Alkincoats.

104 L.R.O., DDB/72/75 (30.7.n.y.), B. Ramsden, Charterhouse to E. Shackleton, Alkincoats.

105 L.R.O., DDB/72/224, 242, 265, (1769–73), W. Ramsden, Charterhouse to E. Shackleton, Alkincoats.

106 Witness a summary of the woman's day in an exalted professional family, from the pen of a London diarist: Huntington Library, HM 31201, Diary of Anna Margaretta Larpent, vol. 1, 1790–5, unfoliated. See entry for 1 Jan. 1790:’ In the course of this day I read about two hours… I spent about an hour in the morning in household arrangements and family accounts. About two more in teaching my two boys… I walked for an hour. In the evening I worked part of a neck cloth for Mr Larpent, and play'd two rubbers at whist. I saw no company today.’ H.L., HM 31201, vol. 1, 1790–5, entry for 13 Jan. 1790: ‘I pray'd morning and evening. I heard Seymour read for about an hour in Voltaire's Histoire de Pierre Le Grand. I was employed an hour in settling ye weeks bills: and busy therest of the morning in looking over my linen and clothes, selecting the bad, giving some to mend & c. I walked out for an hour – the evening I worked at the chair; & play'd a rubber at whist. I saw no company.’ (I am grateful to John Brewer who first drew my attention to the existence of this source.)

107 Goodwill, Jasper, The Ladies Magazine or Universal Entertainer (London, 1750), no. 1 for Saturday 18 Nov. 1749, vol. 1, preface.

108 Huntington Library, HM 31207, Methodized Journal of Anna Margaretta Larpent, unfoliated. See entries for 1773.

109 Here I am indebted to Tim Wales, who first pointed out this discrepancy to me.

110 See Rosaldo, M. Z., ‘The use and abuse of anthropology: reflections on feminism and cross-cultural understanding’, Signs, V (1980), 389417; and Kerber, , ‘Rhetoric of women's history’, pp. 1819.

111 It goes without saying that we can only try to assess the ‘realities’ of women's lives through texts. No one would deny that a manuscript diary, deposition, account book or will is as ‘constructed’ a document as is a published conduct book or novel. Nevertheless, in my opinion, it is crucial for women's historians to retain a sense of the important differences between texts; not least because some are more useful than others for particular projects. For instance, an unpublished account book kept by a woman in eighteenth-century Lancashire surely tells us more about the language, preoccupations and activities of Lancashire women than does a published diatribe written by a male author living in London. Indeed it is particularly vital for feminists to cast their nets wider than the over-used didactic sources if they are to approach a history of women's lives, not simply to reproduce a catalogue of male anxieties. Ideally, a historian would use as many different sources as possible, for it is often in the discrepancies between different accounts that interesting conclusions are drawn. Of course, some scholars informed by the new literary criticism may read this statement as proof of my naive belief in a phantom of ‘real’ history living in the Lancashire Record Office, yet even those who assert that nothing exists outside language usually have non-linguistic phenomena and convenient supporting ‘facts’ lurking in their footnotes – most popular in my experience being capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, the consumer society, international trade, the rising middle class, the companionate marriage, rural poverty and ruling class hegemony.

* The arguments herein were first raised at a workshop on consumption and culture at the Clark Library, U.C.L.A. in May 1991. A version was also presented to the Social History Seminar, King's College, Cambridge and Eighteenth-Century Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London University. I would like to thank the organizers and participants at all events for many useful comments. For additional criticisms, references and suggestions, I am grateful to Sophie Badham, Kelly Boyd, Leonore Davidoff, David Feldman, Anne Goldgar, Margaret Hunt, Joanna Innes, Ludmilla Jordanova, Lawrence Klein, Susan Lippitt, Peter Mandler, Alastair Reid, Lyndal Roper, John Styles, Stella Tillyard, Naomi Tadmor, Tim Wales and Keith Wrightson. I am particularly indebted to Penelope Corfield and Pat Thane for their criticisms and moral support.

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