Women and children first

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Wet Nursing: A History from Antiquity to the Present by Valerie Fildes
    Blackwell, 300 pp, £19.50, September 1988, ISBN 0 631 15831 6
  • Women and Marriage in 19th-Century England by Joan Perkin
    Routledge, 342 pp, £30.00, December 1988, ISBN 0 415 00771 2
  • Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain 1660-1760 by Lorna Weatherill
    Routledge, 252 pp, £30.00, July 1988, ISBN 0 415 00723 2
  • Childhood in 19th-Century France: Work, Health and Education among the ‘Classes Populaires’ by Colin Heywood
    Cambridge, 350 pp, £30.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 521 35038 7

Geography is about maps and history is about chaps – someone must have been very pleased with himself for producing this snappy definition. But traditionally history wasn’t simply about chaps: it was about chaps in power, the men who ran politics, the Church, the banks, and any other institution considered important. Women, and even children, might be allowed onto the scene for dynastic reasons. Women might also, if celibate, make it to sainthood. In the late 19th century it was recognised that there was also labour history, almost entirely male, and a kind of social history based on the households and concerns of noble families. Only recently has the greater part of the human race, women and children, made it into history, and even now there are historians and politicians striving to keep them out.

The change is not just one of topic. It also embodies a philosophy of the mainspring of events. For those who hold that social and economic development wait on either political decision-making or the formulation of theology, men in authority are the material on which to concentrate study. Once it is accepted that there may be other springs of action – two obvious candidates are demographic and technological change – it becomes sense to widen the field. Even the most old-fashioned historian has to admit that men alone can’t breed.

The change allows new topics to be considered as part of the garment of history. Family structure, sex, the management of the major dates of human existence – birth, marriage, death – are all subjects which cannot be studied without going beyond noticing powerful men. The labour force inside as well as outwith the home, the care of the old or ill, the upbringing of the young, are all subjects which involve recognising the role of women.

There can be few activities more exclusively female than wet nursing, yet even here the authoritative male has had his say. In the many cases where such nursing was not dictated by medical needs, historically the main part of the activity, it was fathers rather than mothers who decided on it. Men of substance might wish their wives to be more readily available for social or public life than they could be if tied to an infant: possibly also men might wish the higher rate of breeding made possible by not continuing lactation. In Italy, for instance, the contracts and arrangements between parents and nurses were all made by the fathers. Men also found in the topic a splendid opportunity for criticising women: mothers for abandoning their children to members of the lower orders, or for not choosing and supervising the nurses carefully enough, the nurses themselves for sinful deviations such as eating garlic, which was medically considered, well into the 20th century, to be bad for nursing. Typically it was Rousseau – whose own family behaviour reached a special low – whose remarks on the upbringing of young children were particularly influential.

At one extreme, nursing could be a financial racket at the expense of child life. This was what the arrangements of the big French foundling hospitals led to. On the other hand, it could set up close personal ties across social divisions. Clarendon objected to Charles II’s nurse for ‘great rudeness and country pride’: he would not have known her if she had not remained in touch with the Court. Most fascinating of all the aspects of the relationship shown here are the rules in Islam which treated the relationship of a man to his ‘milk-mother’ and other foster links as bars to marriage similar to kinship. So a man might not marry his milk-mother’s descendants, nor the milk kin of his own children or other near relatives.

Fildes concentrates on her topic to the exclusion of outside influences. She does not give much attention to the interesting question of why wet nursing ceased to be fashionable in Britain yet remained in wide use in France. The change in Britain seems to belong to the early 19th century, and may have been a result of the glorification of the role of women as home-makers and family goddesses. Nor does she give much attention to the current trend of mothers away from breast-feeding, a matter of medical concern. I suspect that this is part of female reaction against the barbaric treatment of women in modern hospital parturition.

Joan Perkin’s study of marriage is written with refreshing vigour. Her material is divided by class lines. The aristocratic woman had a privileged position, for her family would have used the available legal devices to ensure that she had control of her own money. As a result, women could, and not a few did, enjoy a life of freelance sexual experience, constrained only by upper-class conventions about publicity. Middle-class women, not so protected, had to retain a reputation for respectability and make the best of monogamy and legal subordination to a husband, even if treated abominably, and so had women in the respectable working class. Eventually, for some, divorce or legal separation became available, but financial rights came only much later. Joan Perkin gives close attention to the unrespectable working class, who often did not bother about marriage but whose liaisons were sustained by complementarity of roles. She makes excellent use of the available memoirs of working-class life, and of the more penetrating comments of advisers and observers, and brings out from these sources the burden of insecurity, hard work and inadequate food on most of these women. Her tone is sympathetic but not patronising. Her material fully explains the development of the movement for reform of the laws on property.

Consumer behaviour may not seem a specifically feminine activity, but it is one where women played a part in decision-making, and where they experienced benefits. The social history of consumerism has mostly been concerned with goods demanded by the rich: silver, porcelain, fabrics and wallpaper have all produced learned studies. Lorna Weatherill’s book goes lower down the social scale. It is based on computer analysis of inventories, and though it does not penetrate into the level of unskilled labour, it covers the rest of the social spectrum. The purchasing of household objects moves across the country from the South-East, but mainly spreads out from towns, particularly with the proliferation of small shops from the 1720s. It confirms the generally held view of a sharp increase in prosperity after 1750, but Dr Weatherill is able to show an earlier increase. She states definitively that every item looked at had found a wider market in 1715 than it had had in 1705. Even so, only 2 per cent of households in Cumbria could by 1715 have a cup of tea, whereas 57 per cent could in London. Moralists today, taking for granted this facility, complain of the consumer ethic, and so they did in the 18th century. Many people in the middling ranks of society held to a concept of the appropriate sumptuary level for their station, but there were two particular areas of life where expansion was accepted. Meals, however plain in content, were a focus of social life, and this encouraged new expenditure on their setting, on tables of new types of timber, on dishes which did not have to be of pewter. Hospitality was a frequent activity: Pepys could remember a time when nobody entering a house would be expected to leave without having eaten or drunk there, so expenditure on equipment for meals was an important aspect of identity. There was also a strongly held belief that at least the master and mistress of a household should sleep in comfort, so bedding became an area of luxury.

The problem about evidence from inventories is that they suffer from the unconscious process of selection. No more than a household today would include copies of magazines in a valuation for probate would an 18th-century commissary clerk put in chapbooks or old boots. More puzzling is the omission of objects still of intrinsic value. Only 5 per cent of these inventories mention a Bible. Was this seen as the possession of a lineage, not of an individual, or were only a twentieth of our ancestors in direct touch with what was held to be God’s word? In how many families were the wife’s clothes listed as part of her husband’s possessions? By contrast, how much of the household linen was regarded as the property of the wife? Does a housewife today think of the saucepans as belonging to the family or to herself? Because she has to concentrate on items about which there are unlikely to be such puzzles, Dr Weatherill cannot give us the whole picture of daily life, but she gives much more than we have had before.

Consumer behaviour has been an area of argument about the mainsprings of economic growth. The slow rise in living standards at the lower end of the craftsmen suggests an even more minimal improvement for the 40 per cent or so of the population living a much more hand-to-mouth existence. The very real expansion in possessions higher up the income scale is still not enough to justify, at least in rural society, the claim of a consumer boom. It would be truer to say that many people had the chance to live slightly more comfortably. The possessions which were eventually to make life easier for most women – water supplies, mangles, cheap cottons, better-quality soap – all lie far in the future. The purchase by a household of new commodities such as a teapot, a clock, a looking-glass or window curtains was certainly a claim to a particular life-style. These possessions illustrate women’s concerns as well as those of men, if only because it was the women who would look after the goods.

Dr Weatherill shows the impulse at many levels of prosperity towards the development of the ‘front area’ of the house – the part presented to the outside world. Behind this lay the ‘back area’ where wives and servants worked at cleanliness and cooking. In every detail the practical standard of living depended on hard female effort, but the expansion of the ‘front area’ gave the women some compensating leisure and sense of prestige. Before consumerism is sneered at by people who themselves do not expect to have to work 13 hours a day, its benefits to many women should be recognised.

With Colin Heywood’s book we are in more traditional historical country. He draws on some memoirs of childhood, particularly from those who grew up in agriculture or domestic industry, and also uses reports of inspectors to show the physical risks experienced by children from infectious disease or industrial accident. The time-lag between the industrial revolutions in Britain and in France means that 19th-century sources of information are available for France for aspects of pre-industrial life not fully expounded for Britain. Much of what we surmise was happening in Britain in the later 18th century can be seen happening in France, though here in a somewhat time-shortened fashion. Colin Heywood produces comments on the life of the petit domestique on a French farm without recognising that these could have been applied to farm service in Britain over the previous two centuries.

The second half of his book is a study of the efforts to bring in and enforce a code of practice for juvenile labour in industry. The problem was that however undesirable the burdening of children with long hours of factory work, their families needed the wages for support. Child labour as an important part of family resource was not new, but it had become more obviously exploited. Yet only with the slow rise in adult wages could the centre of child activity be shifted from the factory to the school. Do-gooders in France as in Britain shocked by particular features of the treatment of children wished to reduce their economic role without appreciating its importance to working-class households. The sympathy of the reader is brought to the side of the do-gooder by providing little on the home settings of the children and the patterns of family expenditure. Much of this part of the book is about the administrative problems of the new legislation. Ultimately this concerned the children, but it is hardly a manifestation of the ‘childhood’ of the title, since the active participants were all adults. We are back in the history of politics and government. Chaps are again making history and an opportunity for deeper understanding has been missed.