Poor Women's Lives: Gender, Work, and Poverty in Late-Victorian London

Poor Women's Lives: Gender, Work, and Poverty in Late-Victorian London

Poor Women's Lives: Gender, Work, and Poverty in Late-Victorian London

Poor Women's Lives: Gender, Work, and Poverty in Late-Victorian London

Synopsis

"This volume examines the challenges poor women confronted in communities, labor markets, and at home. It analyzes these women's experiences within the households, neighborhoods, local labor markets, and gender definitions that shaped their lives. The study uses a variety of sources, including local newspapers, Parliamentary reports, materials from local history collections, Charles Booth's notebooks, and working-class autobiographies. The richest new source employed in the study is the manuscript census of 1881 for three London neighborhoods, Somers Town, Lisson Grove, and Globe Town. The work addresses current issues in women's history and women's studies, such as the relationship between women's paid employment and male power and the multifaceted causes of women's subordination in working-class families." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

On a late spring evening in 1879, Mary Lawrence used a fire poker to smash two panes of glass, windows belonging to the owner of a local beer shop. The police arrested Lawrence, who lived in the Globe Town area of Bethnal Green, a poor neighborhood in the heart of working-class London. The image of a woman smashing shopwindows calls to mind those more famous glass-breakers, the militant suffrage activists, who embarked upon a widespread campaign of breaking shopwindows in London some three decades later. But Mary Lawrence did not break her local beer shop's windows to make a point about national politics or even to take a stand against restrictions on women. She took this dramatic action to warn the proprietor against encouraging her husband, who, she thought, spent far too much of his wages in the shop.

Mary Lawrence and women like her in late-Victorian poor neighborhoods had little in common with the middle-class suffrage activists of the West End. When London suffrage militants stepped into the streets to press their claims, they invaded [male space,] broke down barriers, and entered [contested terrain.] Mary Lawrence and her neighbors spent much of their time in the streets; public spaces in their neighborhoods belonged as much to them as to their husbands. Poor women asserted their interests aggressively and publicly, whether bargaining with street sellers or shopkeepers, arguing with their husbands, or battling the police. They also participated in the [public] realm of paid work, earning wages through most of their lives. Breaking a shopwindow represented an extraordinary step for a middle-class woman—moving into forbidden space, adopting the unladylike attitude of a militant protester, and defying the code of behavior appropriate to her class and gender. For Mary Lawrence, smashing the fire poker through the panes of glass was unusual only in its destruction of property and resultant arrest. Acting assertively in the streets of their neighborhoods was business as usual for poor women in late-Victorian London.

The middle-class house reflected and reinforced the gender conventions influencing suffrage workers. Suburban homes created realms of privacy, associated with female space and with domesticity. Working-class . . .

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