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The Nineteenth-Century Campaign to Control Working Women’s Leisure


Since antiquity, authorities and men have been alternately fascinated and horrified by women’s supposed bacchanalian inner tendencies ever ready to unrepress themselves in riots of sexual abandon. In Greece there were the maenads, orgiastic followers of Dionysus; in nineteenth-century England there was something quite different but similarly appalling to middle- and upper-class sensibilities: working-class women uninhibitedly enjoying their off-hours. The ways they did so, and the ways that their social betters tried to prevent them from doing so, are the subjects of Catriona Parratt’s stimulating book “More Than Mere Amusement”: Working-Class Women’s Leisure in England, 1750-1914 (2001).


One way to read this work is as a study in what the pioneering social historian E. P. Thompson might call the disciplining of the “instincts,” or of humans’ essentially ludic nature, for the sake (indirectly) of a smoothly functioning industrial capitalism. It is one part of the story of how English peasants’ and ex-peasants’ obstreperous life-celebrating culture was disciplined out of existence from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, helping make possible first a repressive Victorian society and later our own sexually unrepressed but communally fragmented society.


The world that is gone was indeed a “communal” one, as is evident from Parratt’s first paragraph:


Throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, women were visible and vital participants in popular recreational culture. In their cottages and workshops, in urban streets and on village greens, in alehouses and on farms, they worked and socialized alongside men. In the daily ebb and flow of labor and release from labor, and in the seasonal and annual round of celebrations, feasts, and holidays…they shared in an array of amusements that were gregarious and open. They gossiped and gambled…got drunk and got rowdy at private parties and public assemblies…and trekked out into open fields and onto moors to listen to ranting preachers…


It was a culture of hard physical labor and hard partying, alcohol flowing abundantly at popular festivals where fights broke out frequently (women participating), “lads and lasses [meeting] at the public-house” where they drank, smoked, and danced, and women battling one another in prizefights, sword fights, footraces, cricket, handball, and “folk” football.


As the eighteenth century progressed, such unrestrained merry-making became more offensive to many among the aristocracy and middle classes, who from the 1780s or so started trying to tame it or eliminate it. Before, the governing classes had treated the “almost Rabelaisian” popular recreational culture with good-humored tolerance, as befit the “benign paternalism” that they thought characterized their relations with the lower orders. But the long era of relative tolerance came to a convulsive end with the Industrial Revolution. The founding of the Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1802 marks this new stage of culture, although it was far from the only such organization. “Magistrates, justices of the peace, and the new police force vigorously licensed, prosecuted, and jailed in an attempt to promote the moral elevation of the nation… Alehouses were closed, fairs were suppressed, wakes and other customary holidays were ‘tamed.’” Employers, reformers, evangelicals, and politicians all had their own interests and goals in the transformation of popular culture they oversaw.


It’s an old story that Parratt tells, but unlike other scholars she focuses on the mutations in women’s, not men’s, leisure during the nineteenth century. What fascinates her is the laborious, and only partly successful, domestication of working-class women. One of the catalysts of this domestication, not surprisingly, was religion, which has so often proved invaluable to “domesticators” of whatever sort. The evangelical movements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did much to popularize conservative notions of femininity and masculinity, a patriarchal order of subservient females. Upper-class evangelicals such as Hannah More, author of Cheap Repository for Moral and Religious Tracts (published between 1795 and 1798), did moral missionary work among the benighted poor, particularly women, to prepare them “to be good wives and good mothers, as well as good Christians.” These well-intentioned bringers of the truth were precursors, as Parratt remarks, of upper- and middle-class Victorian purveyors of “rational recreation” schemes to fill young women’s idle hours.


We should always keep in mind, however, that people are not merely passive receptacles for indoctrination. “The working class made itself as much as it was made,” E. P. Thompson said. Accordingly, Parratt devotes much space to analyses of working-class men’s and women’s self-education and self-disciplining. Chartism, for instance, a mid-nineteenth-century workers’ movement, “played a major role in inscribing…restrictive gender ideologies deep within popular and working-class culture.” Married women were expected not to work outside the home; working people’s leisure was not to be consumed with drinking and dissipation; the working-class wife’s purpose in life was to give comfort and happiness to her husband and raise his children to virtue and knowledge. Earlier, the Owenite movement had urged similar practices among the laboring classes in preparation for socialism—i.e., had similarly emphasized order, decency, sobriety, frugality, and familial responsibilities (although its understanding of the relations between the sexes was more egalitarian than that of Chartism). Later in the century, trade unionists continued this tradition of exalting women’s domestic role, their function of providing men with a “haven in a heartless world,” and often protested as much as middle-class reformers the existence of female wage-labor, which supposedly corrupted women and rendered them deficient in housewifely skills.


A working-class married woman’s leisure was thus severely constrained, so that she could devote herself to satisfying her husband during his hours of leisure. But in addition to these cultural constraints, Parratt has a chapter on the material constraints that tended to deprive working-class women of their former leisured pastimes. She notes that as unionized male workers were getting the nine-hour- and then the eight-hour-day in the late nineteenth century, many women still had to work ten hours a day or more because their industries were not unionized. Female domestic servants often had it even worse: “In the 1890s, many could expect to have only two or three hours of free time a week, taken on a Sunday.” Women’s wages were of course much lower than men’s, which further restricted their leisure activities. And wives and mothers had the unending housework to take care of.


All this adds up to a pretty bleak picture, perhaps misleadingly bleak. Throughout the nineteenth century, millions of working-class women found ways to spend their leisure time as they wanted. Even the ones who barely earned enough to live on somehow found the means to go on shopping sprees. “One week they have been on the verge of starvation,” a contemporary said, “another they have shared in a ‘blowout.’” They were inveterate hedonists who had “learnt to hate monotony, to love drink, to use bad language as their mother tongue.” And the street culture in which they cavorted was a world of infinite stimulation. Chrisp Street in London, for example, was a universe of entertainment: “the barrel organ playing outside the public house, the man playing the violin with his eyes closed, the Indian man with his head and legs all bound round with cloth…the noise, the smell, the music and, oh, the life!” Upper-class observers noted that “people laughed easily, whistled, sang on high days and jigged in the street—that great recreation room.” Working-class women were thus not necessarily doomed to lives of uninterrupted drudgery and monotony. Quite the contrary.


Parratt devotes the last part of her book to the late-nineteenth-century phenomenon of “rational recreation” organized by middle- and upper-class women who wanted to guide their less privileged sisters into the light, to prepare them for the woman’s proper roles in life. Working girls’ clubs offered classes, lectures, space to indulge young women’s love of dancing—men were even allowed on such occasions (though subject to strict supervision)—and simply opportunities to socialize with friends. Some employers even organized classes and recreational programs at the workplace and offered such amenities as dining rooms, sports fields, and rose gardens to exert a “healthful” influence on the young female employees. The efforts that were taken to control or influence young women’s leisured pursuits are astounding—and yet despite everything they were only partly successful. Working-class women, as a group, had a magnificent willfulness and pride.


That, indeed, may be the central theme of Parratt’s book. Nineteenth-century English women among the lower orders would not let upper-class reformers destroy their independence or their raw passion for life. Their “bacchanalian” spirit remained subversive right up to the time of World War I and beyond.

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