White, Male & Middle Class: Explorations in Feminism & History // Review

Article excerpt

Reviewed by Wendy Stocker Project Ploughshares Conrad Grebel College Waterloo, Ontario

Catherine Hall is Reader in Cultural Studies at the Polytechnic of East London. She is also a self - declared feminist, a British Marxist historian in the tradition of the Co mmunist Party Historians' Group that includes Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson, a middle - class, white woman married to a non - white man, and the mother of mixed - race children. In the first of ten essays which make up this book, she provides a critique of her work as an hi storian, finding significant connections between her early training in materialist, socialist his tory, her position as a working woman professional, and her family life, on the one hand, and the f ocus of her academic interest on the other. After reading her opening essay, it is easy to understand why she would be drawn to such topics as "The History of the Housewife," "The Butche r, the Baker, the Candlestick - maker: The Shop and the Family in the Industrial Revolution," and "Missionary Stories: Gender and Ethnicity in England in the 1830s and 1840s." From her own development as a woman and a professional, from her position in contemporary Bri tish society, she has developed a desire to understand the connections between gender and cult ure, gender and class, gender and work. These topics are the concern of the middle six essa ys in the book. Finally, the last two essays look at "the shifting and contingent relations of g ender, class, race and ethnicity between the 1830s and the 1860s."

The essays focus on the period between 1780 and 1850 in England -- a period when, as Hall describes it, the middle - class male became a dominant figure in British politi cs, business and industry. The period brought great change in the role of the woman in the famil y structure and in society. From an active participant in a family - run and home - centred bus iness, the working - class and middle - class woman became, by the end of the period, an id ealized figure designed by God to keep the hearth and home a sacred refuge for her husband from the wickedness of the outside world. Hall shows, however, that as she gained in mor al stature, the middle - class woman lost ground as a contributor to the family resources, so th at by the end of the period under examination, "respectable" women who needed to support thems elves had few opportunities to earn a living and little training for existing jobs. This p redicament of nineteenth - century women is brought to life in "Strains of the 'Firm of Wife, Children and Friends': Middle - class Women and Employment in Early Nineteenth - century Eng land." As well, women were further marginalized from public life as middle - class men bec ame more and more involved in an active political life -- a life for which women were conside red totally unsuitable.

We see that to be "middle - class" meant something radically different for men and women. We see a move to the suburbs, but the men still left in the morning to work in t he city, while the women remained behind, separated from the source of their livelihood. …