A Girl’s Right to Have Fun

Susan Pedersen

  • Young Women, Work and Family in England 1918-50 by Selina Todd
    Oxford, 272 pp, £50.00, September 2005, ISBN 0 19 928275 7

When I was an undergraduate in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, social history was a much admired discipline. We trudged across campus lawns with sacred texts in our rucksacks (The Making of the English Working Class, Work and Revolution in France), convinced that we were acquiring the tools to explain – and, we naturally assumed, alter – relations of power and domination.

I’m not sure when we noticed that if social history was a glamorous discipline, it was also a rather masculine one: the study, it sometimes seemed, of fustian-clad men, by denim and leather-clad men with longish hair. Women weren’t absent from this history, either as subjects or as practitioners, but they weren’t central either. Small wonder that we spent so much time ‘finding the women’ left out of the master narrative, and then – as in Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall’s Family Fortunes or Anna Clark’s The Struggle for the Breeches – attempting to rewrite it with gender at its heart.

That project succeeded. But by the time ‘gendered’ social history had arrived, social history as a discipline was in full retreat. By the 1990s the worldwide shock to social democracy that Britain experienced as Thatcherism, and a new scepticism in the academy about structuralist approaches, had swept a considerable number of social historians and a rising generation of graduate students into the new field of cultural history. Master narratives of all sorts – ‘secularisation’, ‘the rise of the middle class’ – came under attack: indeed, no sooner had gender history’s notion of ‘the rise of separate spheres’ emerged than Amanda Vickery, in a landmark article in Historical Journal, saw it off. Doorstop social histories vanished from students’ bags, and were replaced by the more depressing works of Michel Foucault.

But social history never went away, and the destruction of its master narratives has probably done the field nothing but good. The framework of class or gender formation was too constraining: freed from it, social historians looked at their world with a more curious and less instrumental eye. The study of labour history faltered, but religious belief, leisure pursuits, sexual practices and a host of other topics came under intense scrutiny: a new, less deterministic, history came into view.

Indeterminacy brought troubles of its own, however. The proper subject of social history is social change, and the field possesses some well-tried methods – quantitative analysis, oral history – for capturing change at the aggregate and the individual level. The real trick of social history is to grasp the link between the whole and the part, the public and the private: to understand the connection between statistics on the decline in fertility and Mrs W’s puzzling ability to limit her children to three when her mother, too, had wanted three children but in the end had six. Social history’s master narratives grew from the attempt to understand just such connections, to show how seismic social change and millions of tiny individual tremors linked up. Without such frameworks, history can become purely descriptive. Can social historians offer meaningful explanations in their absence?

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