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Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 Paperback – 1 Aug 2002
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'Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall fascinatingly retell the familiar story of the rising middle class This book convincingly demonstrates that the makers of the English bourgeoisie were women as well as men.' - The Observer; 'Deeply Interesting, superbly researched excellent source material documented, analysed and integrated in this monumental book as never before.' - The Times Literary Supplement; 'Intense, richly informative and suggestive descriptions of both familiar and forgotten worlds. In its combination of fresh discovery and compelling reiteration of the familiar this is a rare book.' - New Society; 'Weighty, meticulous, satisfying' - Women's Review; 'This book will certainly be widely read and is destined to become a standard source.' - Network; 'Property read, this is a subversive book which challenges received notions of both the personal and the political.' - The Guardian
About the Author
Lenore Davidoff is senior lecturer in social history in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. Catherine Hall is senior lecturer in cultural history at the Polytechnic of East London. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Whilst the geographical areas of focus in the book is limited to Birmingham, Essex and Sussex, and the book is consciously structured so as not to discuss 'the relation between the middle class and other strata', the problems with Family Fortunes lie not so much in the quality of the research, but with their underlying assumptions concerning the nature of research, which does not question that 'separate spheres' might have been as much normative as descriptive. Their principle argument rests on the assumption that gender and class always operate together. However this does not necessitate a 'traditional' neo-Marxist narrative, that assumes rapid social and economic change and the emergence of a class society in this period, be coupled with a gender analysis. This inevitably raises more questions than it answers.
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Religion played an important role in shaping the culture of the emerging middle class. Even though attitudes towards masculinity, femininity, and the family varied among the different Christian denominations, all accepted that the home had to act as the basis of moral order in the immoral world of the market. The family therefore stood at the center of attempts to construct a moral order for capitalism. Indeed the concept of the Christian family was a metaphor for the organization of society. The Birmingham Independent minister, John Angell James, stated that the family: "when directed as it should be, has a sacred character, inasmuch as the head of it acts the part of both the prophet and the priest of his household, by instructing them in the knowledge, and leading them in worship, of God; and, at the same time he discharges the duty of King by supporting a system of order, subordination and discipline." By extension, a congregation of believers gathered in a church was regarded as a family. The concept was also applied, through the language of paternalism, to social structures where the servants and laborers of the middle class man were seen "as the dependants and children of their father, their master, their guardian." Similarly business partners "were in some senses brothers who represented each other." (p.109, p.89, p.21, & W. Holdsworth, A History of English Law, cited ibid., p.200.)
For middle class men the church also provided an opportunity to display their worthiness for public office by acting as church officials and engaging in public works. Davidoff and Hall note that by "the early nineteenth century the traditional concept of stewardship associated with aristocratic patronage and the devolution of obligations from the lord to his agent was transposed into religious discourse." (pp.73-74)
The position the church assigned to women was filled with tension. In an eulogy of a pious Christian woman, James wrote that "the same blessed page which proclaims your dishonour in the sin of your first mother, displays the glorious part you are to bear in the instrumentality of saving a lost world." Because of Eve's transgression, women had to suffer. Through childbirth woman suffered and came to understand the nature of sin. At the same time, childbirth opened a road to personal salvation through the link between maternity and salvation established by Mary the mother of Jesus. The need for women to contain their sexuality, through service to the family, justified women's social subordination even if men and women were spiritually equal. Subordination did not imply inferiority but separate spheres of activity. The home and children were women's sphere. Because of the pressures of business men left the moral education of children to women. This situation led to a contradictory position for many women personified in the life and attitudes of Hannah More. In her writings, More confined women to the domestic sphere but argued for the central importance of woman's influence in nurturing morality in an immoral world. She played a leading part in public moral crusades arguing that the home was the only sure basis for a moral nation. More's terrain was the contested ground that Davidoff and Hall see "between the recognition of influence [within the home and on children] and the marking out of the female sphere." Women often had to enter the male sphere to provide for themselves and/or their families. But this was an action open to condemnation unless presented in terms of maternal necessity or along religious lines as in the activities of More. (p.115, p.114, p.171, & p.117)
Davidoff and Hall comment that religion was the key "that could give meaning to women's experience and express some of their aspirations." While this was no doubt true, the authors here come up against the issue of oppressed/oppressor relations. Woman may well have used religion to give their life meaning, and to give voice to some of their aspirations, but the parameters of the discourse of religion ultimately were set by men for men. Women's experience within these parameters may have been rich and fruitful, but their experience was still within a male discourse. Hall and Davidoff are sensitive to this issue, but they offer nothing to move us beyond the impasse of a hegemonic oppressor discourse. For instance in discussing women's philanthropic work they argue: "Women may not have been exerting real social power and engineering major social change through their associations, but nor were they simply taking as given the boundaries of female social action." (my emphasis.) What, we may ask, would it have taken for women to exercise real social power? Davidoff and Hall regard the period as one when there may well have been more cooperation between middle class men and women because they were involved in shaping the basis of their identity in middle class families. It was only when this identity was established that the isolated and trivialized nature of the domestic sphere became apparent. In other words women played a part in shaping a middle class identity that debased women's place in society. The authors show how the male discourse was able to override attempts by women to create a position for themselves that engendered respect but the reader is left to ponder whether the situation could have been, or ever could be, different. If the aim of Family Fortunes was only to recount the rise of the middle class this lack of analysis would not be such a serious shortcoming, but given that the authors specifically link themselves to "the Women's Liberation Movement and the questions which feminist history has raised" the reader is justified in expecting some discussion of the difficulties in moving beyond a hegemonic discourse. (p.148, p.430, p.454, & p.11.)
In some ways this criticism is unfair because, in general, historians who deal with the social relations that stand behind an analytical term like hegemony have not confronted the issue of how to move beyond one set of relations to another. The greater the degree of dominance the more likely this statement is to be true. For instance E.P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class displays some hope for alternative social relations in the nineteenth century whereas David Montgomery's The Fall of the House of Labor is ultimately a grim reminder of the ability of capitalism to gain compliance from American workers. Few historians are as successful as Davidoff and Hall in showing how a shared ideology, and its practice in everyday life, produces hegemonic relations. With the understanding they provide it is possible to ask how real power can be exercised by women and other groups whose interests are marginalized by hegemonic discourses.