Yorkshire Lasses and Their Lads: Sexuality, Sexual Customs, and Gender Antagonisms in Anglo-American Working-Class Culture

By Blewett, Mary | Journal of Social History, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Yorkshire Lasses and Their Lads: Sexuality, Sexual Customs, and Gender Antagonisms in Anglo-American Working-Class Culture


Blewett, Mary, Journal of Social History


Industrialization, especially nineteenth-century factory work, challenged the patterns of working-class family life and the moral role of women, which varied widely from region to region and from industry to industry. (1) Patrick Joyce defined class and gender relations in the factory culture of Lancashire and of Yorkshire's West Riding in the late nineteenth-century as deferential, harmonious, and paternalistic ties, largely between employers and working men. (2) In this essay, examples of female agency and voice from industrial Yorkshire reveal far greater gender conflict within this factory culture than Joyce recognized. These conflicts included sexually charged customs and behaviors, such as the ritual humiliation of men by working women, and new meanings for female agency in premarital sexual activities. A textual and contextual appraisal of ethnic fiction about Yorkshire immigrant life in New England set in the early twentieth century can deepen an understanding of gender and class by providing glimpses of the elusive world of female working-class sexuality. (3) The same appraisal reveals significant continuity between Yorkshire and the New England immigrants, despite assumptions of rapid assimilation.

Yorkshire immigrant Hedley Smith (1909-1992) wrote novellas and published short stories to preserve the West Riding dialect and homeland customs in the early twentieth-century mill village of Greystone in the town of North Providence, Rhode Island. (4) As a lad of fourteen, Hedley Smith arrived in Rhode Island with his family in 1923, twenty years after the rebuilding of Greystone by a Yorkshire-based worsted firm. Without classes to attend, the teen-aged Hedley with his brother Sam, who was not allowed to enter the local mills, listened to "front porch stories" about the bitter regrets and experiences of parents, friends, and neighbors forced to relocate to New England from an economically declining Yorkshire. (5) Smith, a naturalized American citizen, lived and worked in a bi-cultural society, but his fiction focused on the stubborn resilience of homeland culture. (6) His stories, which are based both in the region around Bradford, Yorkshire and in the exclusive ethnic enclave of fictional "Briardale" set in Greystone and four surrounding mill villages, yield vignettes of the historic experience of female heterosexuality among Yorkshire working- class people. Smith acquired his knowledge of women weavers, courtship customs, and working--class sexuality from village gossip and from his connections among men at the Greystone Social Club. His stories also drew upon close ties to his mother and grandmother, both weavers, and their friends and neighbors in Yorkshire and Rhode Island. (7) Smith's uses of village gossip overheard as a lad and cultivated as an adult encouraged him to depict episodes of female sexuality through his fictional fantasies and his descriptions of homeland sexual customs.

Historians Charlotte Erickson and Rowland T. Berthoff, have represented nineteenth-century English immigrants to the United States as easily acculturated into American society and thus socially "invisible." (8) In contrast, Hedley Smith's fictional world of Briardale reflects an early twentieth-century cultural and labor diaspora driven by specific late nineteenth-century economic circumstances. (9) Forcibly dispersed by economic crisis in the worsted industry, Yorkshire migrants in Hedley Smith's "Briardale" stories did not seek assimilation or a new life. Rather, they maintained close connections with their culture in the West Riding and returned when possible. According to sociologist Robin Cohen, the "old country" for such migrants becomes a "notion often buried deep in language, religion, custom or folklore" in ethnic culture and literature. (10)

Analysis of working-class female European immigrants to the United States at the turn of the century based on ethnic fiction set in that era offers some glimpses of female sexuality.

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