Eric V. Snow

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How the Separate Spheres' View on Sex Roles Influenced the 1867-68 Report

In the 1867-68 Report on Employment in Agriculture, the potential negative effects of field labor on women's roles as wives and mothers is a major issue. Many involved with preparing the Report saw the world of work for women and proper sex roles through the lens of the separate spheres. One of the four main questions the Report investigated concerned whether or not women should work and its possible damage to their morals or their performance of domestic duties. The Commissioners even considered the policy proposal of making the employment of girls under the age of sixteen illegal. In Yorkshire, a special school was created to train girls in household duties such as laundering, cooking, and washing. It was said to be good for drawing the tastes of young girls "away from the license of field work" to domestic service and "future duties in life." Female field labor was said often to cause women laborers to keep their cottages less tidily and to neglect their families. They also, it was said, gave opiates to their children at home to quiet them [shades of Engels' depiction of Manchester!], and even hired "an old woman" to care for them. A working wife’s messy cottage was even blamed for helping drive her husband to the local public house and into its noxious influences. By contrast, single women held in "bondage" (i.e., under contract) in northern Northumberland received a much more positive portrayal. Their heavy field labor was simply noted not to be harmful morally, meaning, injurious to performing what was deemed the proper sex roles when they married later. From Nottingham and Lincolnshire came a similar report about female field work's non-effects on their roles as wives and mothers. The moral problem seen here concerned the women and older girls corrupting the younger ones--presumably through bawdy talk and so forth--which meant the solution was age, not sexual, segregation. The rector of Stilton charged that gang work made girls "rude, rough and lawless," thus making them unfit for "domestic duties and [which] consequently disqualifie[d] them for their future position of wives and mothers." Others lodged similar complaints, adding that field work developed a "love for unhealthy liberty" in these girls, who said they liked its freedom compared to domestic service’s. With different counties of England being investigated for the negative effects field work had on the sex roles of women who performed it, the Report's consideration of whether and how much to restrict the employment of girls depended not merely on the generic issue of how much child labor exploited children and kept them out of school, but also on its perception of the specific negative effects on girls' future roles as wives and mothers.356

Why Did Laboring Women Increasingly Fall Out of the Field Work Force?
Did women themselves initiate the changes in the sexual division of labor? Or did middle class mores on the subject of femininity seep down to the laborers, whether from men or women, such as through laborers' daughters being hired as domestic servants? The desires of many farmers and/or their wives to move upscale relate to this issue. Many pursued middle class cultural attainments, and sought to separate themselves more clearly from the laborers both in status and in physical proximity, such as by exchanging live-in servants for day laborers. Somerville noted through his travels and conversations that he had that:
The farm-houses and farmers' families are much finer than twenty, and thirty, and forty years ago; so much more refined, with richer furniture, and "accomplished" manners, that the unmarried labourers are no longer permitted to live within the farm-house, nor eat at the farmer's table, nor step within the farmer's door.
Cobbett complained about farmers putting on gentlemanly airs and having (in a particular case) "worst of all . . . a parlour! Aye, and a carpet and bell-pull too!" To the extent women believed in expressing their femininity by learning French, playing the piano, reading literature, etc., in farmhouse parlors, and by abandoning dirty, backbreaking work to hired men, the ideas behind the attempts of farmers' wives to embourgoisify themselves trickled down to the laborers through the domestic servants they hired. On this general theme, Jeffries asks:
Has not some of the old stubborn spirit of earnest work and careful prudence gone with the advent of the piano and the oil painting? While wearing the dress of a lady, the wife cannot tuck up her sleeves and see to the butter, or even feed the poultry, which are down at the pen across 'a nasty dirty field.'357
After the servants got married themselves, they often tried to emulate some of what their former master and mistress did, to the extent their pocketbooks may have allowed. Simply put, did women began to withdraw themselves from field work before the ideology of the separate spheres held strong sway, or were Victorian middle class ideas about the sex roles the main cause for the change? Which drove the changes in sex roles more at this time, the superstructure of society or the forces and relations of production?
As described both below and above, the rising male unemployment rate in many local rural labor markets in the south of England in the late eighteenth century was a major reason for women leaving the fields. This development took place before the middle class sensibilities of the Victorian era had a chance to operate on the laborers or even many of the farmers. The Victorian period merely saw this change completed, which had begun due to economic rationalization in southeastern arable districts. As Snell plausibly argues:
But insofar as they [moral sentiments antagonistic to women working] cannot readily be dated from before 1800, at the very earliest, their significance seems heavily undercut by the evidence that the major sexual division of labour began at least fifty years before such 'middle-class' attitudes towards the roles of women can have had influence.358
The dairywomen of Cheshire, unwilling to give up their work, rejected the ideas of J. Chalmers Morton (c. 1870) on the subject. They denied their work was "drudgery," saying that the quality that could come from home-made cheese was worth their continued efforts as against his advocacy of applying factory methods. Their declining control over the dairy industry was obviously not their notion. On the other hand, the ideas of a woman's "proper place" may have encouraged at least some women to withdraw from the labor force and be relegated increasingly to doing housework or domestic service only. The 1867 Report on Employment in Agriculture found in Lincolnshire and Nottingham that the girls were less inclined to do field work themselves. In these two counties, above age twelve or thirteen, they were not found in the fields in some areas. On the other hand, although Jeffries believed that the number of women field workers had greatly declined (in the general area of Wiltshire in the 1870s), still "there does not appear to be any repugnance on their part to field-work."359 The weight of the evidence points towards late eighteenth/early nineteenth century changes inspired by the economics of enclosure, poor relief, and population growth in pushing women out of the labor force because of a rising male unemployment rate instead of women actively accepting the Victorian idea of femininity and voluntarily withdrawing themselves from the paid labor force, or passively going along with their husbands' or employers' ideas that women ideally should be supported by their husbands and mainly do housework.
Allotments Partially Restore the Family Economy
The spread of allotments during the nineteenth century, in a small way, brought or kept women in the agricultural labor force. Enclosure and many families' heavy dependence on the father's wages for support had largely destroyed in southern arable areas the family economy. But it was partially restored through husbands, wives, and children all working on their small plots of land as a family, though not necessarily all at the same time of the day. Perhaps the father tended the plot on Sundays or some day he was off from work; the mother and her children might till it during spare time on regular weekdays, not just Sundays. Sometimes even three generations of a family worked together. Often women and children, who would have been idle otherwise, cultivated the plots, while the men worked full time for farmers. But in Bedfordshire even late in the century (1893), the women did not work on the allotments because they had been used to earning significantly more money through such domestic industries as straw-plaiting and lace-making. Since these industries had largely collapsed by then, the women clearly had failed to adjust fully to the new conditions.360 More importantly, the family economy had persisted because family members harvested grain together, as mentioned above, as different members took on different tasks. Nevertheless, allotments played a role in keeping women in the agricultural work force, albeit not for wages.
Quality of Life Issues and the Sexual Division of Labor
Towards the end of Annals of the Labouring Poor, Snell explores the downside of the increased sexual division of labor and the decline of the family economy in favor of centralized production in factories and workshops. With the father taken from home to work elsewhere, and the mother confined increasingly to non-wage-paid housework and childrearing, the home became less important economically. Increasingly, the family became "a unit of primary socialisation and recreative convenience." His analysis of Thomas Hardy's novels focuses on how a sharp sexual division of labor creates emotional distance between a husband and wife, thus causing them to share no work together, but only pleasures. As a result, a couple fail to learn well each other's real character. Although the upper and middle classes largely had had a distinct sexual division of labor for centuries, this relationship now spread among the working and laboring classes, in such occupations as artisans, farmworkers, and unskilled city workers, during the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.361
Snell's analysis about the pitfalls of a sharp division of labor in undermining the working class family’s cohesion strongly differs from others saying a weak division of labor produced the family ills prevailing among the American slaves. The legacy of slavery in this regard decades later became especially controversial because of the Moynihan report's discussion of the social problems caused by matriarchy and illegitimacy in the 1960's black family. In particular, enslavement sometimes nearly reduced slave father to a mere stud, because of the way the master stood between the slaves and the means of production as the slave’s provider, instead of slave families independently and directly supporting themselves. Through the practice of "marrying abroad," the slave husband and wife deliberately chose to work apart from one another in order to avoid (especially) the terrible scenes where one had to watch or even help to inflict a whipping or punishment on the other. Since the slave husband often came to visit his wife just on weekends, this arrangement was an extreme case of married couples coming together only to share pleasures in life, and not the work that supported them and their children. The slaveholders did destroy the family economy among the slaves, excepting those in task system areas who assiduously tended their animals and plots of land, since the family members did not work together as an economic unit of production. But in addition, slave families did not even directly support themselves because the slaveowners issued standard rations to all the human chattels on their plantations and farms. Even if the husband and wife did live on the same plantation, they were often separated during the day by working in different gangs segregated by sex and/or cultivating function (such as plowing versus hoeing). Furthermore, unlike a couple or family working together in domestic industry in their own home, they could not set their own work hours or have flexibility in taking breaks that would allow them to freely interact together. Of course, some of the differences between what Snell sees among the English farmworkers or artisans and others observe in the slave family come from the special features of slavery that made the master's authority the ultimate and controlling force in the slaves’ physical lives, not the sexual division of labor itself. Nevertheless, while Snell argues that a sharp sexual division of labor produces alienation between the sexes because the husband and wife do not spend enough "quantity time" during work hours with one another, others have blamed a weak sexual division of labor in part for weakening the slave family because the father's role is made largely superfluous relative to the mother’s.
The Division of Labor: Blessing or Curse?
Snell's critique of the Victorian sexual division of labor is a subset of attacks made (such as by Marx) against the alienation that centralized factory production created through the specialization of jobs and the impersonal cash nexus between employer and employee. Thompson's discussion of the concept of time and work, and the switch over from a task-orientation to a time-orientation, is really an attack on the division of labor:
Mature industrial societies of all varieties are marked by time-thrift and by a clear demarcation between "work" and "life". . . .  But if the purposive notation of time-use becomes less compulsive, then men might have to re-learn some of the arts of living lost in the industrial revolution: how to fill the interstices of their days with enriched, more leisurely, personal and social relations; how to break down once more the barriers between work and life.
The "clear demarcation" appears because one goes to a separate workplace from home, works there for so many hours, and then returns home to "enjoy life," i.e., leisure time with one’s family which is largely under one's own control. The division of labor, which originally was part of the foundation for early civilization’s development, presents a basic trade-off to society as a whole: Workers benefit from the increased productivity and shorter workdays an intricate division of labor yields, but may suffer mind-stultifying, narrow tasks tending machinery or pushing paperwork in a bureaucracy, thus causing increased alienation. Of course, much of the manual labor in artisans' workshops or the fields was hardly exciting or self-fulfilling either! As M. Dorothy George comments: “It seems unlikely that the average weaver, toiling hour after hour throwing the shuttle backwards and forwards on work which was monotonous and exhausting, had the reactions which would satisfy a modern enthusiast for peasant arts.”362 (Some people also may personally prefer work to be at a different location from home: It allows them to escape from it!) To send the father of the family out to work, to earn or to seek to earn the "family wage" English labor unionists desired, while exclusively relegating the mother to housework and child care during his absence, increased productivity, but also weakened the feelings of affection or family ties between the couple in question. To have their children go to school (or daycare) further broke up the family economy, for they gained knowledge and possibly alien values that neither the mother nor father agreed with, while spending many hours out of either parent’s care. Snell and Thompson properly see the problems with an increased division of labor, whether sexual or among those at a central place of production such as a factory, but its advantages need consideration also. Eventually, at least, increased specialization led to higher productivity, higher wages, and shorter hours. The workweek has fallen from (say) 75 hours to 40 over a period of 150 years while real wages have sharply risen. Today most people in Western nations enjoy a high standard of living so far above the subsistence level that even their lowest stratum are more overweight than those of the middle or upper classes above them. Would these people voluntarily give up such great material advantages for the perceived improvements in family relationships (or allegedly less work place alienation)that would be brought by a return to subsistence farming, literal cottage industries, and mass education’s abolition? Although many do have the financial resources to buy land and engage in individual experiments of simplifying their lives in a Thoreauian manner, few choose to do it. (Not everyone could choose this option. Because subsistence farming and domestic industry have such a low productivity, probably about 80 percent of the Western world's present population would become superfluous, and--ahem--require elimination). Snell's analysis also takes for granted the high quality of the lower classes’ family relationships in western Europe in the pre-industrial past, a claim which Weber and Gillis seriously question. So although an increased division of labor has its drawbacks, its benefits must be added to the balances before idealizing the advantages of domestic industry and subsistence farming for family and marriage relationships.
The issue of the sharpening sexual division of labor during industrialization needs some examination in this context. Even the likes of Dill could see its benefits, at least for middle class women whose time and energies were freed for charitable, religious, and political activities. Kemble obviously concurred. Viewing American slavery from the vantage point of a Victorian middle class Englishwoman, she found simply intolerable the thought of enduring daily some ten or more hours of field work on top of caring for young children and housework. Of course, the separate spheres’ chief drawback as an organizing principle for society stemmed from its theoretically pigeonholing narrowly the talents of half of the human race into a specific set of tasks (housework, child care, etc.) when their individual abilities and talents often could have been more fully developed outside the home in various careers. By placing serious limits on individual women's choices in life, especially for those who could not or would not marry, this ideology constrained their personal autonomy by social custom, private discrimination, and laws against entry into specific professions and jobs. But for those women more attuned to the life of a homemaker, the separate spheres presented some advantages, since they (theoretically) forced men to be more stable in their work habits and protective of their wives. For these reasons, many saw the principal problem with the slave family's relationships as the man’s lack of a real function besides siring offspring, thus enabling him to be more irresponsible about his duties towards his wife and children. The slave father's dereliction of duty directly resulted from the slaveholder’s furnishing automatically rations of food, clothing, and shelter to an enslaved wife and children without any real regard for his (or her) level of work effort. Nowadays, contemporary Western society has been dissolving the separate spheres since its (semi-)capitalist economy tends towards labor shortage during booms and war, thus encouraging women to work outside the home. Women then farm out many of the child care and housework responsibilities to others (assuming they do not come home to face the infamous "second shift" while their husbands lounge about, doing almost nothing).363 This change means contemporary society has sharply moved away from the Victorian model on sex roles, and towards those once found on Southern plantations. Excepting mainly those presently dependent on governmental transfer payments, because each family still has to support itself directly by its own efforts, the negative effects from more androgenous sex roles on the quality of family life today are much lower they were on the slaves, although the results from having less "quantity time" together still remain. After all, to have both men and women working outside the home does not solve the problem Snell describes, unless they happen to work together for the same employer or in a family business as a partnership.
Who Was Better Off Depends on the Values One Has
Clearly the plantation slave and mid-Victorian laborer pitched their camps at spots near the opposite extremes of the division of labor’s general continuum. The best position for societal well-being lies somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. Enough differentiation between the sexes should remain for people to benefit from the complementary roles possible and to give individuals through society some basic guidance to their identity, which reduces the amount of confusion, alienation, and anomie they may feel otherwise. But enough similarity (or social tolerance for similarity) should exist to allow individual men and women to make freely their own choices based on individual talents and interests. The slaves themselves simply had no ability to make such choices before emancipation. But soon after freedom came, they chose to emulate the free white society's division of labor as influenced by the ideology of the separate spheres. Using Snell's basic approach, under which the poor’s judgment of what values matter to them most trumps what (say) a modern-day professional economist thinks they should have valued, this outcome shows they evaluated negatively the sexual division of labor imposed on them by their owners. Although not as artificially imposed, English female laborers were increasingly pushed out of the labor force in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As applied to the farmworkers, the Victorian model of the separate spheres takes on the feel of a male make-work program. The local parishes conveniently could just assumed women would find something to do at home, while seeking some way to keep men out of the beerhouses and hunting (re: poaching) grounds. But illustrating how different its values are, contemporary Western society has freely chosen a sexual division of labor that resembles a Southern plantation’s more than Victorian England’s. To determine which model provides a higher quality of life depends in turn upon hotly contested values and how intrinsically different is the biological (and psychological) nature of men and women. The Sears-EEOC case illustrates how old-fashioned patriarchalists can use to their own advantage the in-house debates between "equality" and "difference" feminists.364 To the extent outsiders force a way of life upon some group--here, masters imposing a certain sexual division of labor among American slaves--its quality of life is lower than where it was freely chosen. Otherwise, as this terrain is so controversial presently, each person after examining the evidence--historical, scientific, and anthropological–-naturally ends up choosing, based on his or her values, the model or mid-point between the two extremes that would supposedly make for the best society. Who was better off between the slaves and farmworkers concerning the sexual division of labor depends on what values historians and others apply when judging a people’s past way of life.
The Central Reality of Work and the Elite's Needs for Controlling Its Workers
Today and in the past, the central reality of most adults' lives is the set of tasks and activities that make up the means by which they earn a living. Especially in the pre-industrial and early industrial past, people back then compared to today in the developed world lived shorter lives, worked more hours daily and weekly, and worked more years before retiring, assuming that was even possible before they died. In the case of the African-American slaves and English agricultural workers, their daily tasks were fairly similar although they normally tended different crops. Both groups benefited from any and all the reputed intrinsic advantages of doing farm work instead of factory or shop work, such as from laboring in fresh air outside at tasks that were meaningful and understandable in the context of the overall production process. This section does not deal with the specific techniques or tasks of the slaves or farmworkers in fields or homes, but with "management's" attempts to control them. After covering two basic aspects of working conditions, concerning the number of work hours and days off from the job, how the elites controlled their subordinate classes is described below. The former needed the labor power of the latter, but (usually) wanted it on the best possible terms, compensating it as little as possible without sparking revolts, strikes, or uprisings that would be expensive to quell. How the slaves and farmworkers resisted their respective dominant classes may be occasionally touched upon in this section, but that is mainly dealt with in the next.
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