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Norah Carlin

A changing picture

(July 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 78, July/August 1985, p. 31.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Women in England, 1870–1950 Sexual Divisions and Social Change
Jane Lewis
Wheatsheaf Books, £6.95

SO MANY feminist interpretations of the past depend on a superficial and highly selective reading of history. So it is a great pleasure to come across a book like Jane Lewis’s, which packs into a reasonably priced paperback a vast amount of knowledge and discussion, based on a thorough survey of both primary and secondary sources.

The materials Jane Lewis uses include statistics, government reports, social surveys, autobiographies and oral history, as well as all the major contributions to feminist debates on this period. These are all put together to produce a fascinating and thought-provoking picture of women’s lives from the maturing of industrial capitalism in England to the close of the Second World War.

The picture is valuable partly because the framework is good. The first part, on the family, is divided into sections on working class women and middle class women, so that the usual lumping together of quite different class experiences as ‘the Victorian family’ is avoided.

The vexed question of the working class family wage is discussed in the context of the evidence for actual working class incomes and standards of living, showing that married women’s absence from paid employment did not depend on the assurance of a reasonable living wage being paid to their husbands. Women’s contribution to family earnings by outwork, laundering and all kinds of casual work is also well documented.

The second part of the book, on women’s employment, suffers from a certain obsession with the sexual division of labour. The author seems to be convinced that we need to discover a coherent, underlying reason why some jobs were regarded as women’s work and some as men’s. But she provides a wealth of information on the work women did, and on the major change from domestic service as the biggest category of women’s employment to the much greater variety of service and manufacturing jobs in the twentieth century.

This book provides no dogmatic answers to the political questions that socialists and feminists argue about: do working class men benefit from women’s oppression, does the unity of women as a group override class considerations, and so on. But it contains plenty of ammunition for these arguments, and should be essential reading for anyone who intends to participate in them.

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